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Don Handelman & David Shulman

Śiva in the Forest of Pines

An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge

Don Handelman /
David Shulman:
Śiva in the Forest of Pines. An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge.
New Delhi:
Oxford University Press,
xii, 246 pages
ISBN 0-19-566550-3
book cover
Oxford University Press:
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The theme of this volume is the episode of the Dāruvana from the vast mythology about Śiva, and it provides scope for sustained interpretation for the authors. They translate the concerned section of the Tamil version of the myth recorded at three major temple sites – Kancipuram, Cidambaram, and Tirunelveli. Besides their translation, they write commentary on the texts. The story related to the pine forest itself is well known. Śiva's visit to Dāruvana accompanied by Viṣṇu as Mohinī, their erotic dancing to entice the sages and their wives give scope for the imagination of the writers and the commentators to elaborate it at length, even if the purpose of the myth is not clearly spelt out by these commentators. Why this episode among many others about Śiva is by and large popular and has thus drawn the attention of the Western scholarship could be subjective. Śiva is the Lord of contradiction and everything could be said about him, since he integrates all the humanly opposing attributes.

However it not clear what the authors want to achieve by the type of analysis they bring into the text. Is it to bring some coherence into the Śaiva theology by harmonizing the different versions of this episode or to heighten the awareness of Śiva's presence among the Śaiva followers? The type of language they use and the sophisticated epistemology they bring in to explain Śiva's visit to the pine forest would rather leave cold the followers of Siva, if not puzzled, as they tease out the meaning. The reader is told to dispense with the commentaries if s/he wants to read only the texts.

The authors are particular about analyzing Tamil and Sanskrit terms in the Śaivite context. However a few of their observations in this regard are worth highlighting. For instance, their analysis of the Tamil word aruḷ is curious. They find it unfortunate to translate this critical term as »grace«, with its heavy Christian connotations (41). It is not »grace«, but »emergent presence« (42), »god's coming into presence«, a »ritual effect« (62), »fullness of presence« (84). In the Judeo-Christian context »grace« emphasizes the »gift« aspect, what is freely given, gratuitous, not merited etc. But the Indian terms, even the Sanskrit prasāda (clarity, transparency), emphasize the consequence of receiving the »gift«, the gifted moment wherein one »sees clearly«. Both the traditions do not mean in an exclusive sense. Both these aspects are implied, even though they make thematic one of these aspects. So it would be also a Semitic bias to leave out this nuance of grace to the Tamil word aruḷ in the Śaivite context. The hymns of the Śaiva saints were born out of »grace« and the bhaktas are all longing for the grace of the Lord Śiva.

Another curious term used by the authors here in the Śaiva context is sorcery or black magic. They find a Sanskrit term abhicāra for it and the Kanta Purāṇa text refers to it as veḷvi (88). The use of the term »sorcery« with all its negative connotations in the context of the Daruvāna episode is rather misleading. The traditional understanding of the yogic powers which are creative and Śiva's creative power to transform all obstacles are not sorcery. It is not clear why the authors hesitate to call it »miraculous power«, a term known in the religious literature of the world. Sorcery, witchcraft and pillicūnyam (Tamil equivalent), terms which would sound very odd in the Judeo-Christian context, have their own logic and ontology, as the authors point out (90). But then what they describe after that is the creative process of phenomenal existence and the formation of the individual consciousness. But one wonders how this analysis fits into the visit of Śiva to the pine forest.

It may be true that the Śaiva Theologians' conceptual world is rigid, static, strangely idealistic. But then they are not used to interact with the process theologians. Perhaps an initiation into the process theism might bring in some fresh thinking in the Śaiva worldview. However the standard objections of the Christian theologians to this approach will hold good also for the Śaiva understanding of the divine. A statement like this, Śiva »though omniscient, there are many things he does not know – everything that has to do with non-sentient phenomena for example« (200), would also imply a limited understanding of God's transcendence.

The authors' effort to get at this Daruvāna episode from the process theism requires careful study and theological insight. I wish this publication invites the Śaivite thinkers to respond to this type of theological interpretation and look at their own tradition from a new angle even if they do not accept it fully. Such an intercultural exchange would be fruitful to both sides of the dialogue partners. Otherwise the Śiva episodes will remain mere stories in calendar art and repeated with usual cliché without enriching the tradition.

Anand Amaladass

polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/6/saahs-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
external linkSatya Nilayam: Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 7 (2005), 126-128.
Author: Anand Amaladass, Chennai (India)
© 2005 Author & polylog e.V.
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