Jodi Shaw on Unfinished-ness: Ritual, Temple Structures, and the Sacred as Visceral Conversations

Photo: Jodi Shaw

Could affect theory help elucidate the touch and feel of the history of those who walked, sat, and climbed upon the stones of the Nataraja temple in Cidambaram? Could it help make sense of how we make our own imprints in these spaces?

The word sacred, seemingly understood by everyone due to its ubiquitous presence in religious studies, is of course a word rife with different meanings and an assortment of arguments about what it is, if it in fact is anything at all. When Crispin Branfoot writes of South Indian Hindu temples that “the site is sacred, not the architecture,” do he and I mean the same thing when we write, “sacred?” Do you and I infer the same bundles of meaning when we read the word “sacred?” When a site is categorized as sacred does it mean the site has been infused with value over the course of generations despite the change of practices and structures built upon it? The idea that society forges the sacred and the sacred forges society comes from a Durkheimian understanding of religion. In his definition of religion Durkheim describes the sacred as held separate and protected from the profane. It is something around which beliefs and practices develop, and where individuals come together under these shared beliefs and practices to believe in something more than themselves (they call it God, he sees it as society).

Conversely, could a site be sacred in the sense of Mircea Eliade’s hierophanies? Those places, oftentimes rocks, mountains, trees and bodies of water, where the divine manifests, and where through repeated ritual action humans step into eternity; into what Eliade contends is our true nature? Regardless of how the origins of sacred space is theorized, according to practitioners and scholars like Eliade, some places “feel” sacred, or more sacred than others, whether they be houses of worship or a particular clearing in the woods. But what does sacred feel like? Is this feeling transmitted from person to person? Or place to person? Or place to person to place? With these types of questions in mind, I contend affect theory offers a powerful addition to conceptions of sacred space.

Affect theory, with its, as Donovan Schaefer suggests, attention to the pre-verbal, to the sensed but not processed, supplies a means to talk about the extralinguistic undercurrents of things without them being a-historic, covertly Christian, and/or anthropocentric, all potential pitfalls in the discussion of religion and/or the sacred. The following is my initial foray into theorizing the sacred in the South Indian Hindu temple context. It, as my title suggests, is itself unfinished. Herein, I begin to cobble together affect theory with theories of Saiva temple ritual, mantra, and Tamil-ness. In order to flesh out the importance of unfinished-ness and the idea of the sacred as visceral conversations, I move from more personal ethnographic narratives of the Nataraja temple in Cidambaram to some of the current conversations about sacrality and South Indian temples and back again.