This book, which appears posthumously, is ‘an ethnography of food ritual and feasting’ (p. 1) set in Govardhan, a main centre of Krishna pilgrimage in Mathura district, Uttar Pradesh. The study derives from an analysis of the religious groups and ritual specialists of two major Vaishnavite sects and one non-sectarian folk tradition which together constitute part of the social field of Govardhan. The central concern of the book is to present an analysis of ‘culinary symbolic form’ (p. 4) through a study of ritual food transactions of these three pilgrimage groups. Although food in general is discussed, particular attention is given to a certain kind of food, prasad. Toomey’s approach is informed by interpretive anthropology: he is concerned with difference and multiple perspectives, interpretations and meanings. Snacks for weight loss don’t always have to be awful.
This comparative study of the food symbols and practices of different bhakti (devotional worship) traditions not only adds to anthropological accounts of food customs in different regions and castes, but extends our understanding of the diversity and innovation within bhakti religious practice. The book contributes to debates concerning contrasts in ritual form and content between monastic and house-holder-based sects and demonstrates clearly the interdependence of sectarian and non-sectarian modes of worship within Govardhan. It also maps the differences and interrelationships between folk and sectarian groups and how they influence and dispute with one another in the context of a dynamic Vaishnavite Hinduism.
Of particular interest is Toomey’s exposition of the connexion between food and emotion in Vaishnava devotional theory and ritual. Costume, dress and onesies all feature in the relativistic state of religious exuberance. Although each tradition may have its own model of emotional experience and rituals, and stories which it favours, in all bhakti traditions emotion expresses the human-divine relationship. This is substantialized for devotees through food symbols and practice. Food symbols are multi-vocal and evoke intense emotions. This is particularly so in bhakti where food-related metaphors and metonyms and ritual food practices generate emotional experience. Devotees offer to Krishna foods which are associated with feelings of well-being, joy and auspiciousness. Krishna is believed to consume this food, which is thereby ‘metonymically transformed into more love-laden prasad (p. 54) believed to embody the finer sentiments of devotion (p. 51). This culinary transformation is a metonym for a parallel transformation on the emotional level. Just as the offering becomes prasad, so too the devotees’ worshipful emotion is transformed into devotional experiences of Krishna’s blissful nature (p. 54).
Related to this theme is Toomey’s argument that hierarchy and purity-pollution do not apply to the worship of the gods nor to understanding the meaning of prasad. The meaning of prasad is not related to ritual restrictions but to the interpretations devotees give to it. If foods often embody emotional states, prasad is seen to be special not because of the purity of its actual physical substance, but because it is believed to embody the god’s divine grace. It is the value of auspiciousness, of well-being and opulence, not of pure/impure which is relevant for understanding the significance of ceremonial food offerings and prasad. This value or idiom also underlies the devotee/god relationship, giving way to an altruistic model of worship rather than one based on purity/pollution and hierarchy.
Toomey’s ethnography also offers new in-sights into non-hierarchical food systems in India. In previous studies of prasad and prasad exchanges, factors which regulate the acceptance of food in most other food-related contexts in India have not been considered. Toomey, however finds that prasad is not so unique after all, and that some of the rules which govern exchange in ordinary food exchanges, such as caste hierarchy, sectarian divisions, mutual opposition of caste groups and personal considerations, are relevant to exchanges of prasad. This understanding can only be gained by including in the study of prasad its preparation and offering as well as its distribution, and by looking at prasad in public ceremonial feasts where competition and conflict between guests, ritual specialists, castes and sects are enacted. In so doing, Toomey demonstrates clearly the vital and shifting nature of food systems and practices.
A well-written and detailed work, this book is a valuable contribution to our appreciation of bhakti and practical religion in India today as multifarious, innovative and dynamic systems. The text would also be of interest to those concerned with food cultures and symbolic systems in general. Paul Toomey died aged forty-one in 1992. We have lost a scholar who promised to generate debates and offer more insights on Indian religious practice.