Religions (Nov 2021)

Encountering the Goddess in the Indian Himalaya: On the Contribution of Ethnographic Film to the Study of Religion

  • Arik Moran

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12, no. 11
p. 1021


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This paper examines the benefits of ethnographic film for the study of religion. It argues that the exploration of gaps between colloquial descriptions of divinities and their practical manifestation in ritual is instructive of the way religious categories are conceptualized. The argument is developed through an analysis of selected scenes from the documentary AVATARA, a meditation on goddess worship (Śaktism) among the Khas ethnic majority of the Hindu Himalaya (Himachal Pradesh, India). Centering on embodiments of the goddess in spirit possession séances, it points to a fundamental difference between the popular depiction of the deity as a virgin-child (kanyā) who visits followers in their dreams and her actual manifestation as a menacing mother (mātā) during ritual activities. These ostensibly incongruent images are ultimately bridged by the anthropologically informed edition of the material caught on camera, illustrating the added advantage of documentary filmmaking for approximating religious experiences.