Chapter

The Economics of Ecstasy

Hugh B. Urban

in The Economics of Ecstasy

Published in print December 2001 | ISBN: 9780195139020
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199834778 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/019513902X.003.0008
 The Economics of Ecstasy

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Discusses the more problematic aspects of Kartābhajā secrecy as a potential strategy of elitism and economic exploitation. The central ambivalence over religion and economics at the very heart of the Kartābhajā sect tradition – its simultaneously liberating and exploitative character – is nowhere more apparent than in the infamous festival (melā) held each spring in Ghoshpara. As the most public and popular side of this tradition – what might be called the exoteric side of an esoteric tradition – the melā was widely discussed throughout nineteenth‐century Bengal, and was notorious both because of the unusual degree of freedom from ordinary social constraints that it allowed and because of the seeming crass commercialism and vulgar profiteering that went on among its organizers. As an alternative social space, the melā is a temporary event in which normal social boundaries and religious laws do not apply, a time when those who normally have little symbolic capital can suddenly rise to new status and social power, and normal social relations are turned topsy‐turvy; at the same time, the melā also has a very pronounced economic dimension, and the primary beneficiaries are not the poor lower classes but, rather the Kartās (boss or head men) and Mahāśays (regional gurus). It is noted finally that the Kartābhajā tradition also opens up a number of illuminating insights into the heterogeneous world of colonial Bengal, and perhaps into some broader questions of colonial studies as a whole.

Keywords: Bengal; commercialism; cults; economic exploitation; elitism; India; Kartābhajās; secrecy; sects; social constraints; social relations

Chapter.  11195 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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