Significance of Theoretical Approaches to Food for the Interpretation of the Data

My analysis of the Gadaba’s ideas and ritual practice in relation to food is guided by the theories of Levi-Strauss and Douglas, to the extent that foodstuffs are understood as structured and structure-building carriers of meaning with correlations to the social order and to temporal and spatial patterns, as can be discerned in the tsoru/lakka’* opposition, the apportionment of sacrificial animals, and the temporal sequence of eating. The food offerings made to the gods and their preference for specific sacrificial animals also lead to a classification in which the association between signifier and signified is essentially arbitrary, as in language. The correlation of the rau demon with white chickens and the soni demon with speckled ones serves to differentiate the two but does not permit us to deduce any substantial similarities between the linked entities. As I argue later, these oppositions and analogies do not give rise to rigid and fully coherent classification systems, but rather to context-bound and potentially multivalent patterns.

Appadurai (1981) has been especially concerned with the strategic use of alimentary patterns of meaning, but although I have occasionally observed similar situations and also describe them, “gastro-politics” do not dominate the sacrificial use of food among the Gadaba. While loud arguments often accompany the public distribution of meat, and the theft of meat is not uncommon in this context, I failed to observe any conflicts or ambivalent situations accompanying tsoru consumption. However, gastro-politics are endemic in the context of hospitality.

“Point collecting” through giving food and avoiding its receipt, in a kind of status game like that described by Marriott (1968), is also not to be found among the Gadaba in this form. The status of the different groups is undisputed, and mobility within the village hierarchy is not a matter of interest. Nevertheless, the close connection between food and status, noted by all authors in Hindu contexts, is also evident among the Gadaba, but is manifested in different ways.

Unlike the foods of the plains, the foods consumed by the Gadaba are not structured by the opposition between those cooked in water (kacca) and those cooked in ghi (pakka). Ideas about ritual purity do not dominate the alimentary code. Milk and other products of the cow seen as especially ritually pure by Hindus are not consumed, while beef is enthusiastically eaten by many Gadaba. Eating a Dombo’s food does make a Gadaba ritually polluted, but it is also, more significantly, considered a transgression (dos) and therefore has exclusion from the Gadaba community as its consequence. The consumption of leftovers (ointa, tori’lai*) is also dos and may lead to misfortunes (bipod), but within the Gadaba of one village, leftovers can certainly be consumed.

In the context of Gadaba rituals, the distinctions between vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings or between puja and bali are without significance. All gods eat meat, only from different animals, and for a Gadaba, puja fundamentally means a blood sacrifice. The Gadaba’s gods are not satisfied by coconuts, as one informant said. The differentiation between white (sukol) and bloody (rudi) sacrificial offerings, associated with the heaven/earth opposition, introduces a status distinction, but both categories refer to non-vegetarian offerings and therefore do not fully correspond to the Hindu ritual opposition, although the aspect of ritual purity is not entirely absent either. Finally, fundamental differences are also evident in the special food types of prasad and tsoru. Both meals acquire their significance from the context of worship or sacrifice, but while prasad is distributed outside the temple sanctuary and often taken by pilgrims back to their home villages, tsoru is supposed to be consumed only at the place of sacrifice in the immediate vicinity of the gods. The locality is of great significance in connection with tsoru commensality. Finally, I am not aware of a significance of prasad in Hindu life-cycle rituals that is comparable to that of tsoru.

In Gadaba rituals, and correspondingly in my analysis, the generative and transformative character of alimentary processes is especially prominent, alongside food’s semiotic aspects and the reflection of the social structure in the food order. Malamoud (1996) and Parry (1985) also concentrate in their analyses on ritual transformations and metamorphoses that are articulated through metaphors of cooking, eating, and digestion. For the Gadaba, however, as their ritual practice makes clear, eating is not merely a metaphor for transformation, but an instrument for shaping social relationships. Following in the footsteps of Robertson Smith (1997) and Meigs (1997), I consequently emphasize the analytical significance of the activity of eating (cf. also Gibson 1985), which permits the formation of social relationships and constitutes “kinship.” As Meigs emphasizes, the quality and efficacy of food - the sacrificial meal - as a locus of generative potential depends on the people who participate in the process of cooking and feeding. In the Gadaba case, it is perhaps possible to go still further with regard to food’s ontological status. For example, the food that a mother’s brother prepares and feeds to his sister’s son not only represents (cf. de Coppet 1981,198) an affinal tie, but “is” this relationship. The idea that a person could even become a member of another group through inadvertent participation in that group’s sacrificial meal and lose his or her previous status corresponds to this estimation of food’s efficacy. Furthermore, exchange is often understood and carried out, conceptually or in practice, as a relationship of feeding and eating, linking together distinct elements (a “between relation” according to Sahlins 1965, 141), while the commensal sharing of food, especially “eating from the same plate,” as one idiom has it, articulates and brings into being a relationship of identity among the partakers (a “within relation”).

Finally, the analytical dichotomy good to think / good to eat must be overcome if indigenous conceptions are not to be subordinated in advance to an artificial division.[1] Even Robertson Smith, who rightly emphasized the significance of ritual practice and the physical act of eating in a time when intellectualist interpretations were prominent, assumes an evolution from matter to spirit.

In primitive ritual this conception [of sacramental communion] is grasped in a merely physical and mechanical shape, as indeed, in primitive life, all spiritual and ethical ideas are

still wrapped up in the husk of a material embodiment. (1997, 418)

Christian communion is hence considered to be the spiritual - and therefore higher - version of the “primitive” sacrificial cult trapped in the physical (cf. De- tienne 1989). However, such an opposition between matter and spirit can only be defended when “spirit” is understood as an elaboration of explicit theories (Lukes 1985) or a theoretical knowledge (Bourdieu 1990) of the kind that priests,

Brahmans, or outside observers may be able to develop, but that in many societies - including the Gadaba - is not to be found. Instead, physical processes, significations, and “ethical ideas” are united in the practical logic or the implicit theories of ritual actions. Like no other material - perhaps with the exception of the body itself - food exemplifies the link between corporality and meaning. Precisely because of the correlation between sacrifice and food among the Gadaba, their symbolic, but also their instrumental potential is, as Mary Douglas (1977,1) suggests, inexhaustible.

  • [1] Cf. the distinction between physical and metaphysical reproduction in the interpretations ofthe life-cycle rituals.
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