“Everything is a Gift, Bhole”: Custom and the Ethics of Care
We followed Karam for some distance from the river banks (ghats). By the first stop less than a mile away, I had pumped up the courage for the indiscretion to inquire if his journey was motivated by a wish. “Everything is a wish, bhole! Everything is a gift from Him!” he replied. Wishes are an important facet of Hardwar’s religious life as much as of the Kanwar. Situated atop a hill close to Har-ki-Pauri is the extremely popular temple of Mansa Devi, the Goddess of Wishes—where almost every visitor to Hardwar pays obeisance. In the temple compound is a Ficus tree around which pilgrims tie an ochre thread muttering their wish. Once the wish is fulfilled, they would make another visit to the temple to untie a thread. The trunk and branches of the tree are inundated by a mass of threads, although the temple administration must clear the tree from time to time. Even though Mansa Devi is the premier site of this practice, such wish-seeking threads and trees are quite common in other temples as well, including the important Śiva temple at Nilkantha above Rishikesh. The vow, usually centered on a wish, is often the organizing force behind the Kanwar.
There is a secretive, at some level, sacred dimension to wishes. Engaging the subject’s most pressing needs, desires, or fears—as would send one on an ordeal such as the Kanwar—they belong to a subjective order of temporality radically different from regular commerce. To mingle the objects of such anxious concerns—a sacred field—with the platitudes of normal conversation, and expose them to trivial social judgments is to jinx them. “Whatever you ask for, never tell anyone!” Amma had strictly advised me. The secretiveness, of course, can also serve pragmatic considerations of avoiding domestic conflicts. Since desires can indeed be scandalous, one person’s dearest wish may be an abomination to another. Thus, when this participant on his onerous mission evaded my query, it was a polite response to an intimate demand, unbecoming of a stranger.
And yet his response was quite authentic. Since a wish is only relatively discrete, it usually emanates from a broader field of concerns and obligations and involves, minimally, a note of thankfulness and a prayer for the continued well-being of one’s loved ones—as well as for a more general peace and goodwill. Having expressed their disinterest in material gain from devotional activity, or at times after describing specific wishes, my respondents would usually add, almost as an aside, either a supplement to more specific wishes or self-evident fact: “A request for the safety and well-being of your near ones of course goes without saying.”
Some would explicitly acknowledge an exchange dimension, but generally not without a second thought. Thus: “not for wishes . . . [after a moment] . . . yes . . . we are confident of Bhole Bābā’s generosity; after all, you may ask as much as you want of God, more you ask, the less.” The elder brother sitting next to him nods in agreement:
“Yes, Bhole Bābā! He is very generous. Actually, my younger brother had a chronic ear ailment in his childhood. And mother had prayed to Bhole Bābā, saying that her son would bring Bābā’s Kanwaṛ once his ear heals.”
Others are more circumspect, anxiously dissociating from connotations of profit to their pilgrimage. Of the seven times he has been there, Shailesh avers he has never asked Bholenath for a reward. “But for one exception,” he adds,
“I sought Bhole’s blessings for passing class X exams, promising that I will bring his Kanwaṛ the following year . . . I was going through a very hard time; I would work night shifts in the factory and take exams in the morning, without a wink of sleep. But I passed the exam, it was Bābā’s miracle.”
Another participant denies any motives to his pilgrimage: “No, I never went for the pilgrimage in pursuit of a wish.” Yet, others may quite matter-of-factly, and in the assurance of custom attribute their pilgrimage to a wish: “I brought kanwars imploring Bhole Bābā, first, to help me find a job and, later, since we had three daughters and no son, to gift us with a son.”
On the whole while an expectation of restitution seems an important aspect of the offering, there is a reluctance, a denial in identifying, or being identified with exchange rationality. A certain register of forgetting is involved, a distaste for “exchange with the deity.”1 Such hesitation needs to be considered in reference to the hegemonic insistence of market rationality, its over-determined quality, the free hermeneutic license it enjoys in our time. The element of remuneration in the pilgrim’s act—whether a silent expectation, a demurral or (rather ironically) even an assertive demand—guards against appropriation by the widespread order of economic reason. It recoils against such an allusion, insists on a difference, one that outside of the references of a particular, and in some ways closed, reserved discourse (custom, śraddhā, dharma and so on), it has difficulty finding words for; precisely, one may say, because of the power, the pervasiveness of this market rationality.2 Instead, it is possible to hear echoes of a similar insistence on difference in the departure from the laws of market exchange that Mauss described through the notion of the gift.3 The gift, Mauss found, much like the items of exchange, circulates often as an obligation, an imperative ─ though not counter-signed by positive law—but never without an excess, an exaggeration, immoderation, a certain operation of time that keeps it incommensurate with the economic system of measured exchange.4Moreno-Arcas notes, “the immediate repayment of a debt to the god is equally considered to be distasteful and ungrateful. A suitable period of time must pass.”5 And Mauss: the gift “by definition . . . cannot be reciprocated immediately. Time is needed to perform any counter-service”.6 And what is Time here but nothing, a pure difference, a departure that inserts into the form of this circulation a decisive indeterminacy, a foreign element that confounds this circle of exchange even if, as Mauss finds, it were the very reason, the originary force driving exchange.7 Before venturing into what the pilgrim “takes,” what he wants, however, we have to recollect what he has to “give,” since his desire to give is significant. After all, the frequent refrain, “Bhole Bābā, I will bring your Kanwaṛ,” addresses the deity’s desire. This complexity is perhaps best illustrated in the composition of the religious vow.