Sorcerous Technologies and Religious Innovation in Sri Lanka

in Social Analysis
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This essay examines the importance of sorcery in the dynamics of religious innovation in contemporary Hindu and Buddhist Sri Lanka.1 My interest stems from two observations. First, in almost stark contrast to other Hindu ritual forms that emphasise unchanging text-based rites, the sorcery practices I describe display an almost modernist preoccupation with innovation. Second, much of this innovation originates, or is seen to originate, from outside the cosmic order both of the pantheon and of society. Consequently, sorcery practices manifest a dynamism that often results in the appearance of sorcery having sprung up from nowhere or of being on the sharp increase. However, such an appearance of growth is less of an increase by degree than a shift in visibility. Moreover, it is a characteristic Sri Lankan sorcery practices share with practices elsewhere. When social scientists whose gaze has been primed for spotting anomalies light upon these shifts in visibility, the reaction is usually one of alarm. Scholars whose basic orientation is to the problem of social order and stability tend to judge these apparent aberrations in terms of social breakdown and anomie. Instead of considering what sorcery reveals anthropologically, they instead analyse sorcery as a symptom of a social pathology. The restless dynamism of sorcery and its role in religious innovation remain unaddressed, and this contributes to a conservative view of both the phenomenon of sorcery and the study of religion in general.