Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cooking the World

"Cooking the World" by Charles Malamoud – is a collection of essays by the French scholar on Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. The book is part of a series titled French Studies in South Asian Culture published by the Oxford University Press, New Delhi. David White has translated from the original French.

At about 350 off pages (including extensive notes) it is not a big fat tome even though it has 15 essays. But each essay is packed with researches with startlingly original viewpoints, and explicated with detailed references to both original Vedic texts and interpretations of other scholars. Most importantly, Malamoud's researches are detailed and factual. He is not a starry eyed Indologist dazzled by the exotic mysticism of Indian religions nor is he a Victorian prude whose only aim in studying scripture of other religions is to belittle and disparage them. Nor is he an ideologue of science scoffing at all that is outside the purview of inducto-deductive investigation (a coinage I am resorting to because of the baggage associated with the term 'scientific method').

The title Malamoud has chosen for the work - "Cooking the World" itself indicates his desire to probe beyond the conventional 'meanings' of Sanskrit words. This is a specific problem for interpreting Sanskrit words because their etymological descendants in modern Indian languages have often coalesced around a one or few out of a range of meanings ascribed to the Sanskrit original. This can at times misguide the Indologist (Indian as well as foreigner) who does not take the pains to refer back to the numerous original Vedic scriptures where the word is used to deduce the closest meaning(s) through an appreciative interpretation of their contexts.

The term in question here is Lokapakti - which is stated in the Śatapatha Brāhmana as one of the duties enjoined on the Brahmin. Both the words in the above compound lend to different meanings. The first term Lok, which can mean ‘world’ as well as its denizens i.e. ‘people’, is the less problematic of the two. The second term pakti (a verbal noun) deriving from the root pak has cooking or ‘to cook’ as its primary (and literal meaning). But the term is also used to mean maturation, ripening or perfecting – and the modern Hindi pakka more often employed in the later senses. And most if not all translators seem to prefer the later. Malamoud however expounds on the role of Brahmins as officiators in sacrifice (yajña) which, he explains with numerous references, involves offering of cooked oblations, and is in itself a ‘cooking’ process since the oblations are offered into the sacrificial fire. Thus a literal interpretation of the term Lokapakti defines and describes the role and function of a Brahmin as a cooker of the world through sacrifice (yajña). And since the sacrifice was the sum, substance and structure of almost all Vedic thought and ritual, this becomes an apt and enlightening title for the book.

The book is a rich and learned work and, along with being a useful sourcebook, its detailed bibliography is an excellent pointer for further detailed readings.

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