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My Response to: God of Justice

Updated on March 19, 2015

God of Justice

In God of Justice, William Sax uses ethnographical anthropology to study low caste Harijans in India. This type of anthropology has advantages and disadvantages, but, nonetheless, it offers a view of India and Hinduism that is—at least in my experience—different than what one can typically read or learn about in popular culture or in most introductory courses on Hinduism. Ultimately, ethnographic writing is a noble but flawed form of anthropology, especially if relied on too heavily.

To be clear, ethnographic writing does have its advantages. For one, it is the closest the reader will get to a firsthand view of the culture being described. If written well, it is essentially like being there as the events are happening. At times, Sax even transcribes his audio recordings, so the reader is getting as close to directly listening to the speaker as he can get without actually going to India. A second advantage of ethnographic writing is that it is the closest the reader will get to reading a neutral perspective on the culture. The author will, of course, have biases, and a good ethnographic writer will make that clear. Sax discusses this when he says “[W]e can never produce an adequate or ‘objective’ description of social phenomena, because our descriptions and analyses are inevitably couched in language, so that we can never apprehend such phenomena directly” (4). In other words, langue is implicitly biased. However, in theory, the author will neither prefer nor condemn the culture, he will simply report it. Even with the bias, the hope is that there will be less bias than someone from the culture reporting on their own practices, which in that case, they would likely privilege their culture and promote it as good or normal simply because it is what they are accustomed to. Concerning ethnography’s benefits, Sax adds, “[I]t is empirically verifiable, because informants can always dispute what you write,” and “[I]t is of moral value, because through fieldwork you recognize the humanity … of the ‘Other’, even as he or she recognizes yours” (23). The first point is technically true—in theory the person could always go back to the ethnographer and correct them, although I am not convinced this always happens in practice. The second point he makes is more of an opinion, and the reader can do with it as he/she wishes.

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Story Continued

With all of this said, there are also significant disadvantages to ethnographic writing. One disadvantage is that it forces the reader to trust the author. Trusting the author is inherently bad; but, if for instance the author is lying, the reader has no way of knowing. Since ethnographic writing is basically the author telling his experiences, there is no way for the reader to fact check. Unless the reader goes to India and tries to find the same people Sax talked to and observes their same practices, they have no way of confirming the stories—and if the reader did do that, then they would have no reason to have read the book in the first place. A second disadvantage is that it makes it more likely that the author could have been lied to, deceived, or otherwise fooled. Not only might the people of the culture in question intentionally change their practices simply because there’s an outside observer, but some people may attempt to use this outsider observer to gain something, such as money, thus making the study nearly useless. Sax even references this when he says, “[I]f word got round that I was being exploited by the Harijans, or even worse, that they had made a fool of me by taking my money and not performing the ritual, then I would be a laughingstock” (9). His quote shows that he realizes there is a real risk that the Harijans may just use him for his money, and not actual care to demonstrate their real rituals. Another disadvantage of ethnography Sax expresses is that it implies an “other” by its very nature. Sax says describes a critique of ethnography, saying “Ethnographers ‘exoticize’ and thereby ‘objectify’ the people and cultures about whom they write, mostly because they focus on cultural difference,” and Sax goes on to say that “[W]e have confronted the problem of representing the Other since long before the word was written with a capital ‘O’ ” (19). Sax perhaps does not agree with this critique, but by acknowledging it, he implies that it at least has credibility.

With these advantages and disadvantages of ethnographic writing in mind, it begs the question as to what an anthropologist should do when trying to study another culture. In a case like this, Sax is writing about a “non-Western” culture for a “Western” audience, which is to say that the audience may not understand the practices, and may view them as “exotic”. Assuming the author uses ethnographic writing, is it a disservice to the group being covered if the writer tries to familiarize the practices for the audience? I say that it is. Again, it is a complex issue. On one hand, if the culture is not “familiarized,” there is a risk that the audience will simply not understand the practices, and that may make them more likely to be judgmental. On the other hand, by “familiarizing” the practices, the author will fundamentally change their description. Would a “Westerner” be pleased if an anthropologist “familiarized” their practices for an “Eastern” audience? Personally, I would want my practices described the way that they are, not the way that they would make sense to someone else. Of course I would want my practices to be understandable, but not at the cost of compromising their basic premise.

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Story Continued

With all this being said, Sax did present a view of Hinduism that is different than the way I previously viewed it. There are some things I knew from class, such as that Hindus worship local deities and that they perform animal sacrifice. However, I did not know about cursing and counter cursing, that Hindus believed in ghosts, the actual way that Hindus perform their animal sacrifice, or that Hinduism had such a performance aspect to it. One specific fact that seemed to fly in the face of what I have learned about Hinduism, is where Sax says that two men tell him they do an animal sacrifice ritual “very quickly; not … because of any danger, but rather so that the animal can quickly obtain moksha” (162). I had been under the impression that only humans could achieve moksha in Hinduism. There could be a number of reasons for these knowledge discrepancies. One is just that I am not a scholar in Hinduism. Perhaps if I studied Indian culture and Hinduism more in depth, I would have come across this. However, it is still telling that these things are not something which most people come across from a surface learning. The next possibility is that these things are actually very minor in Hinduism, and that Sax is overplaying their significance in the book, either because he felt it would make the book better, or because he was simply within the “Harijan bubble” where these things may be a common occurrence. The third possibility is that these are not actually practices in Hinduism, and that the people Sax talked to lied to him, or that Sax lied to us. These last possibilities are directly related to the inherent problems of ethnographic writing. However, based on the detail and abundance of Sax’s descriptions, I tend to believe the second option I presented, which is that these are real practices, they just are not very common except for in the Harijan community.
If Sax is to be trusted, then his ethnographic writing offers an interesting insight into the Harijan culture—but that is one of the problems with ethnographic writing, the reader must trust the author for it to work. However, Sax’s great detail invites the reader to trust him, as I do. Might some of the people have lied to him? Even Sax seems to think so when he says about one story he received, “I cannot confirm its veracity since Sacchu, like his father, was a notorious yarn-spinner, and moreover by the time he produced this document he knew exactly what kind of material I was looking for” (120). However, I think he mostly received truthful comments and observed honest practices, simply because he viewed the same practice multiple times and talked to many people. In other words, he appears to have done a good job of cross-referencing his facts if the reader trusts everything he says. The criticism I have of the book, is that it relies too heavily on ethnography. Because of all of ethnography’s flaws, it should be used alongside other methods of anthropology, such as inclusion of primary sources, surveys, questionnaires, etc. These methods are all flawed, but when working in concert, they provide a more complete picture. In other words, there should be other things the reader has the option to trust besides Sax. Whatever the truth about this situation may be, it appears Sax has provided a view of little discussed topic, which provides insights into Hinduism not easily found elsewhere.

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