The Hungry God: Hindu Tales of Filicide and Devotion

by Paula Richman
The Hungry God: Hindu Tales of Filicide and Devotion
Paula Richman
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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 Reviewed work(s): The Hungry God: Hindu Tales of Filicide and Devotion by David Shulman David Shulman has written a disturbing, yet surprisingly lyrical, book about a haunting narrative motif: the father who sacrifices his son in response to a seemingly inscrutable divine command. Although the book begins with Shulman's translation of Abraham's binding of Isaac in Genesis (the aqedah) and circles back to it, most of his discussion centers on Hindu tales from Tamil, Sanskrit, and Telugu texts. An exploration of a theme whose variations resonate with each other in increasingly nuanced ways, his analysis takes on issues of immense theological, literary, and psychological complexity. Essentially Shulman has composed an extended essay about the relationship between an extreme demand originating in the divine sphere and the human emotions that arise in response to that demand. Shulman devotes a good deal of his attention to the Tamil story of Ciruttontar from Cekkilar's Periva Puranam (mid-12th century C.E.), where Siva takes on the guise of an extreme ascetic and asks a father to cook a meal from his only, son's flesh as alms. Father and mother joyfully fulfill the difficult request, serving the ascetic a curry made from the child's head. Perversely, the disguised god refuses to eat unless the very son who has been killed joins them in eating the curry. The deity directs the baffled mother to go outside and call her son, who miraculously reappears. At that moment, the whole family melts into union with Siva. Next Shulman examines the way the Telugu tradition transforms the story in several tellings. For example, one Telugu Viragaiva text, Basavapuranamu, recounts the same story, but subtly critiques it by juxtaposing the story of Nimmavva. When Siva and Ciruttontar come to her house as ascetics, she cooks for them. While the food is cooling, Nimmavva's son begins to eat it, thereby polluting it. Although the mother kills the boy as punishment, when Siva insists that her son must eat with them, she refuses to let Siva revive him, because he committed a wrong action. Furthermore, she informs him, "I don't think of you as separate from me, and there is nothing to be afraid of ... So stop these tricks! I am wise to all of them. Take whatever form you like, but I am going to feed you" (p. 59).  In the Sanskrit tradition, Shulman examines a story from the Aitareya Brahmana and one from the Mahabharata. The former, the Vedic tale of Sunahsepa, concerns a cruel father who offers his son as a sacrificial victim to another father in replacement for the life of that man's son, for the price of one hundred cows. The other Sanskrit story, a particularly poignant one, recounts the plight of Suka's father, who teaches his son the esoteric knowledge edge needed to gain religious liberation and then grieves deeply as his son abandons him to merge with the Absolute. This "gnostic loss of a son contrasts in intriguing ways with the more literal sacrifices of the other fathers examined in Shulman's book. From the horrible grisliness of the tasty head curry to the evocative sadness of the father whose transmission of metaphysical knowledge separates him from his son forever, the reader is drawn into Shulman's perspective on this material. The writing imparts a rare immediacy to these ancient stories, while at the same time highlighting a striking narrative pattern unnoticed by earlier scholars. Parts of the book seem as if one is overhearing a conversation between writer and deity, in which a human being reproaches him for his cruelty, while simultaneously trying to make sense of his demands. The Hungry God brings together things that have often been studied separately in the past. Although scholars have dealt individually with topics such as the religious implications of feeding ascetics, the violence of father-son tensions, the fruits of radical religious devotion, and isolation created by the mastery of salvific knowledge in South Asian religious texts, Shulman explores the way these themes connect. His perceptive choice of stories and his persuasive analysis create in the reader an ever-increasing appreciation for the significance of the themes that he brings together. Furthermore, his mastery of Tamil, Sanskrit, and Telugu texts brings insights from one literary tradition to bear on the other two. In addition to exploring his specific project, Shulman provides readers with all sorts of keen insights along the way: about the modes of devotion in Saiva Siddhanta, the rebellious rhetoric of Virasaivism, and the tensions inherent in the teacher-pupil relationship. He demonstrates the rhetorical effects of framed narrative, proves that asceticism and ritual sacrifice are not the dichotomous practices that they are often taken to be, and forces us to see the pattems that unite texts widely diverse in provenance, language, and historical period. Short, yet packed with thoughtful observations, written in a style that eschews pedantry or jargon, this book makes compelling reading. In addition to a natural audience among South Asianists and historians of religion, it would be appreciated by those interested in the aqedah theme, as well as scholars exploring literary representations of family dynamics. COPYRIGHT 1994 American Oriental Society 

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