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Culinairy Morality

Dr Peter Berger on his surprising findings in Odisha
13 March 2015

‘The crux of ethnographic research is to be open to what other people consider important.’

Peter Berger is Associate Professor of Indian Religions and the Anthropology of Religion and co-editor of such publications as The Modern Anthropology of India (2013). His book Feeding, Sharing, and Devouring: Ritual and Society in Highland Odisha, India was published in January 2015. It is the translation of his 2004 PhD thesis and was funded by a translation award. He is glad that his international colleagues can now read his book, ‘Because German is exotic academic language nowadays, including in India, of course...’

Peter Berger

Real global religions?

He is also pleased because it means that the ‘tribal’ indigenous populations in India will receive more of the attention they deserve. ‘Together, what are known as the adivasi communities comprise more than a hundred million people, but they are a minority in India and are marginalized – culturally, politically and linguistically. The mainstream culture sees them as “backwards” and the Hindu Nationalists consider them as “lost Hindus” who need to be “reconverted”. Their way of life and environment are not respected and are even under threat. What is more, if you take such religions seriously, you also question the academic and political dominance of so-called global religions. You find these “tribal” religions all over the world for the greater part of human history. They truly are a global phenomenon.’

A culinary vision of good and bad

A good illustration of Berger’s point above is there has always been plenty of attention for the cultural relevance of food in Hinduism, but no one found the food practices of Indian tribes worth researching. Apart from Peter Berger that is: he researched the food habits of the Gadaba community in the highlands of Odisha, in the east of India. ‘The academic indifference actually reflects the attitude of the Hindus and Muslims from the lowlands, as well as of the Indian state, who find the tribal food habits primitive, limited, unhealthy and morally debatable. In my book I show that this attitude is unjustified. The Gadabas have a very detailed food system: you could even call it a culinary-moral system, a culinary view of good and bad.’

Living dead

Berger was surprised by what he discovered during his fieldwork: everything in the Gadaba community proved to revolve around food. ‘My initial conclusion was that the many rituals of the Gadabas could be divided into three areas. There are rituals that relate to the life cycle, to matters such as birth, death or marriage. Then there are rituals that relate to the annual cycle of the fields, the forest and the village, and third are the rituals that relate to healing. There is much to say about these different rituals. For instance, there is a spectacular ritual in which the recent deceased are, if you will, brought back to life and transposed into the bodies of living water buffalos. These “living dead” are then looked after for a while before they are killed and replaced with stone slabs that represent the ancestors.’

Everything revolves around food

‘But what was most interesting was that I discovered something very different from what I was expecting. And that is the whole point of ethnographic research: it is about being open to what other people consider important. I was able to confirm that the rituals form a system that includes various areas of life, but I also discovered that the entire Gadaba system of rituals is essentially about food: about feeding and being fed, about eating or being eaten. We see for example that in healing rituals, disease is viewed as a devourer that needs to be attacked and even devoured itself. Or that alternative victims must be offered to “the devourer”. And when people die, they are seen as having being eaten by a spirit or demon; there is, quite simply, no such thing as a “natural” death.’

Understanding from differences

Peter Berger concludes by explaining his ‘credo’ as an anthropologist: ‘I believe that it is possible to understand other cultures and religions by actually looking at the differences: in short, understanding from differences. With ethnographic fieldwork, you dive into another world and really try to “inhabit” it. It is a deep, long-term commitment into which you as a researcher put your heart and soul. And an aspect of this is that you question the truths that you hold dear.’

More information

See Peter Berger: 'Feeding, Sharing, and Devouring. Ritual and Society in Highland Odisha, India' on the website of de Gruyter.

Last modified:25 July 2023 1.04 p.m.
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