Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organisation of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal,
by Robert I. Levy with the collaboration of Kedar Raj Rajopadhyaya
Reviewed by Mark Johnson

Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990, 829pp., NRs 720.

This massive tome represents the first volume of a projected two-volume study of the Newar City of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. Levy's work is a study of Bhaktapur as the mediating "mesocosm" between the microcosm of the individual inhabitant, his family and immediate relationships, and the macrocosm of the universe outside (p. 2). The book is based on fieldwork carried out in the early 1970s and describes Bhaktapur at a crucial time in its long history on the threshold of massive change to be expected with the arrival of modernity. It is Levy's impression that the ordering of the city on Hindu principles that has survived for hundreds of years will not be able to stand up to this latest of "invasions" but will be irretrievably lost.

The author asserts that "Bhaktapur represents a Hindu community in its full development, a 'climax community' of Hinduism" (ibid.). He discusses the potential criticism of his work as 'liable to appear regressive, ideological, Orientalist, and various other unpleasant things' (p. 9). He goes on to defend his approach as that of describing a normative order, an ideal order. The book is in part, he explains, a presentation of the order of the elite informants he interviewed. "For Bhaktapur, that conception is not just the wishful ideological thinking and propaganda of precarious elites but a powerful force that in itself helps to create order" (ibid.).

The author's basic questions are, "what is Bhaktapur that a Newar may know it and a Newar that he or she may know Bhaktapur" (p. 3)? Levy asserts that Bhaktapur is neither like a simple face-to-face community such as the one he had previously studied in Tahiti, nor like a modern city. He calls Bhaktapur an example of an 'archaic city'. By this he means a city that is not characterised by a modern, scientific worldview. Bhaktapur's highly integrated society is organised through the use of a complex series of 'marked symbolism' (p. 26).

There is so much in this book that makes the hard work rewarding. Here I will simply whet your appetite by outlining its main divisions and giving a sample or two of its content. The book is divided into 3 main parts: after an introductory chapter, Part 1 is concerned with 'Orientations and Contexts' in which the author describes in detail the history of the city and its basic economic and social categories. In his chapter on caste the author cannot bring himself to use the generally accepted term preferring the neologism 'macrostatus levels' (p. 70). My problem with this is that it makes comparisons with other South Asian societies difficult. Bhaktapur's social system is not unique. The term 'caste' may as well be used for all such systems. Levy rightly reports, however, that for the city 'the use of varna is mostly an intellectual game, with no implications for Bhaktapur's society' (p. 75). He then ranks the lineages of the city according to a ladder with a neat set of twenty distinct rungs, which doesn't convey properly the important fact that caste is always highly contentious and never so neat.

In Part 2, 'The Construction of the Mesocosm', Levy examines in great detail the symbolic organization of space, Bhaktapur's pantheon, Tantrism and the worship of the dangerous deities, priests, and the concept of purity and pollution. Levy calls Bhaktapur's pantheon a sort of museum, "a collection of divine South Asian flotsam that has drifted into the Valley" (p. 206). In chapter 9 there is an intriguing description and analysis of sacrifice "the sacrificial animal is in part a representative of and surrogate for humans, as a human sacrifice would have been a surrogate for other humans" (p. 332). The chapter on purity includes a fine discussion of pollution, ingestion and disgust (p. 382f.). "Pollution takes its meaning from the kind of contamination involved." While ground glass may be considered dangerous there is a difference between swallowing it and faeces, or contemplating food 'contaminated' by one or the other. Faeces is disgusting in a way that ground glass is not.

In Part 3, 'The Dance of Symbols', Levy investigates the multitude of festivals (he details 80 days of the year in which festivals are conducted!) In these festivals, the 'Civic Ballet', the symbolic order of Bhaktapur is brought to coordinated life (p. 401). He considers the relation of Bhaktapur's symbolic order to that of other communities in the region and concludes that "most of the elements of Newar symbolic life are taken from 'the inventions and developments of South Asian history" (Levy 1990: 407). Bhaktapur has taken from this and has added its own producing its own distinct flavour.

Levy's work has elicited a number of critiques from scholars of various philosophical persuasions. Significant questions arise out of these: Can symbolism construct an urban mesocosm? Is it a denial of human agency to suggest that the actors be compelled by the symbols to live in a certain way? What of the Bhaktapurian who puts his trust in Christ? To what extent is he compelled to continue his traditional participation in the urban order? Could he continue his participation at some level? What if he just refuses? Is he then treated as a madman or Untouchable? How much has modernity affected the values that Levy describes? Is the introduction of the gospel seen as just one of the many attacks of modernity on the traditional order?

Levy has attempted a monumental task and managed to document an incredible mass of ethnographic detail, all ordered and analysed to make it comprehensible to the outsider. Any serious student of Hinduism would benefit from reading this. With the price of the South Asian edition set at NRs 720 it is significantly cheaper here than it is in the US where you would have to pay $100!

Voice of Bhakti welcomes interaction with its readers. If you have a comment please email the editor at the address below. Mark Johnson, editor

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