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Leela Prasad: Interpreter of moralities

By Arthur J Pais in New York
Last updated on: February 21, 2008 21:39 IST
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For many years Leela Prasad, associate professor of ethics at Duke University, had known Sringeri only as visitors know it: As the home of a 1,200-year-old Shankara Math and Sharada Temple.

But in this pilgrimage town in Karnataka, she also discovered the importance of orally transmitted stories in shaping ethics and daily life. She learned from stories about cats and monkeys not found in lofty classics; she found moral lessons from kitchen tales, and she came from her sojourns with a few of her academic bones firmly rattled.

"For centuries, the Sringeri Matha has been an important interpreter of the complex and varied Sanskrit Dharmashastras, the pre-eminent codes of conduct for Hindus," Prasad said, discussing the creation of her latest book, Poetics of Conduct: Oral Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town, published by Columbia University Press. It recently received The Best First Book in the History of Religions Award, established by the American Council of Learned Societies in 1891.

Prasad's book has been widely praised by academics across America. 'This is perhaps the only book that moves our attention from the texts of the Dharmashastras to the practice of dharma in the actual lives of Hindu families,' notes Velcheru Narayana Rao, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

'Prasad radically revises our concept of Shastra by presenting a dialectical relationship between texts and lives. Her book is beautifully written with deep erudition coupled with genuine understanding,' Rao adds.

Prasad admitted she would have been surprised if anyone had told her in her childhood that Sringeri will play the key role in her book.

"When we were children, my parents used to take my brothers and me to Sringeri for pujas and darshan," she said. "But as I began to live in Sringeri and hang out with people, listening to stories, sharing experiences, observing practices, 'being there' through ordinary times and extraordinary moments, it slowly but powerfully became clear to me that even in such an ambience, dharmashastric recommendations for conduct were but one way in which Sringeri residents imagined, constructed and expressed their ethics -- how one ought to live."

She was amazed by how people learned from stories that one seldom found in books. In one Sringeri story, for instance, when a priest unintentionally scorches a Shivalinga while cleaning it, the reparation that is suggested by a guru draws on dharmashastric ritual procedures, on local knowledge about that particular Shivalinga, and commonsensical understanding of what substances are cooling to the body, she says.

"Ultimately, imagination plays a vital and vibrant role in any conceptualisation of an ethics-in-practice," she added. "Indian culture and literature are characterised by oral, written, and performed texts, but I find that there is yet another class of texts that are accountable to self, community and to a sense of propriety.

"These are 'imagined' texts that we routinely put together as we draw on and negotiate one or more sources appropriate to the context -- family traditions, regional mores, personal convictions, religious scriptures and so on."

Prasad is one of the best known academics dealing with Indian religions, ethics, and folk life. In 1999, she guest-curated and conducted ethnographic research for the first-ever exhibition on Indian-American life in Philadelphia, editing and contributing to its catalog of essays, Live Like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian-American Experience.

She also co-directed with Uma Magal a video documentary called Back and Forth: Two Generations of Indian Americans at Home.

She began gravitating towards Sringeri in a way some 15 years ago. She was browsing through the library at Kansas State University when a collection of Indian folktales published 130 years ago caught her attention. Mary Frere, the young daughter of Bartle Frere, the British governor of Bombay in the 1860s, had compiled stories narrated by her Goan-Calicut ayah, Anna Liberata de Souza.

"Old Deccan Days, or Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India was a remarkable book for its time," Prasad remembered. "Sparkling with voices, it connected two very different storytellers -- Mary and Anna -- through a moral relationship that was rare in colonial India.

"But I was puzzled in some ways: Why was Mary Frere amazed that the oral stories she had heard in Marathi or Konkani were also to be found in Sanskrit written literatures? How do traditions get labeled as 'classical' or 'folk', and do these labels make sense in our everyday practices?"

She wanted to explore the questions, not through archives, but through contemporary life in India. "So for my doctoral research in folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to Sringeri in the lush Malnad Ghats of Karnataka," she continued.

"The town is known not only for its rich Sanskrit traditions but also for its culture of hospitality, domestic architecture, food, and performance traditions."

Her sojourn in Sringeri began with her unlearning a few things, she confessed.

"Like many in the academic world, I had assumed that institutions like the matha were simply 'orthodox' centers of dominant brahmanical ideology," she said. "This perception came apart as I began to see the matha as a peopled place, with historically specific relationships to individuals and families -- not all of whom were Hindus and certainly not all of whom were Brahmin.

"There is considerable room for dissent within its several structures of authority. When townspeople refer to the matha, they refer to it not generically, but as a geopolitical entity, a cultural or educational institution, a specific voice of authority, or as the residence of their spiritual teacher.

"Hindu ethics conventionally has been understood from the perspective of the Dharmashastras, the Bhagavad Gita, or the epics, for instance," she mused. "These texts are important sources for ethical reflection for many individuals, but stories shared in conversations show that life-experiences of course do not revolve only around those texts."

In her book, she says, 'People tell stories about cats, about cuisine, about miracles, about dress habits, about exemplars, worship, errors, or dreams -- stories that reveal that the ethical self is formed through a reflective process that weaves together memories, experiences, implicit learning, or explicit exposure to ethical teaching.'

Prasad, who is also the director for the South Asia Studies Center at Duke University and serves on the faculty boards of the Center for Documentary Studies and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, said her recent book is one of several projects she has been involved in India.

She has recently been awarded a grant by DukeEngage to set up a civic learning project for Duke students in Hyderabad, working with volunteer organisations on child literacy projects.

She hopes to learn more about ethics and traditions from oral stories during her upcoming Indian sojourns.

Asked to recall one of the more arresting stories in her book, she talked about one in which a young daughter-in-law inadvertently ruins the family's annual pickling, but the mother-in-law makes no issue of it, simply saying, 'I should have told you. How were you to know?'

"The important thing is that the daughter-in-law, who is now in her seventies, recounted this experience to me 50 years after the episode," Prasad noted, "and this was the first time she had ever told that story. She remembers this episode even if in a diffuse way when she relates to her own daughters-in-law."

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