The sacred unbound: Insufficient rituals, excess life, and divine agency in rural Tamil Nadu

Indira Arumugam


Dissonances between human expectations and actual experiences of sacred presence and actions—as materialized in unexplained deaths, diseases, deadly possessions, and repudiated rituals—are sites where insubstantial sacralities are not only made real but also agentic. Refusing human attempts to relate to it through choreographed rituals and voluntary offerings, this sacred asserts its own agenda. To make inscrutable sacralities ethnographically accessible, I propose the twin pivots of (1) insatiability and (2) excess—attributes of presence, appetite, and attitude—which embody a repudiation of anthropocentric signification. Decentering human intentions and actions allows for the excavation of an uncanniness intrinsic to the sacred. This forces a confrontation with the limits of anthropological epistemologies, language, and authority. Privileging instances when the sacred eludes epistemological capture to assert its own irrepressible and enigmatic vitality, this article strives to—not explain away radical ontological differences but—make room for an uncanny metaphysics amid ethnographic theorizing.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/725206