Bare Feet and Sacred Ground: "Visnu was here"

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Abstract

Abstract: The meaning of a symbol is not intrinsic and should best be seen in relation to the symbolic order underlying it. In this article we explore the ritual complexities pertaining to the body’s most lowly and dirty part: the feet. On entering sacred ground persons are admonished to take off their footwear. In many parts of Asia pointing one’s feet in the direction of an altar, one’s teacher or one’s elders is considered disrespectful. Divine feet, however, are in many ways focal points of devotion. By reverently bowing down and touching the feet of a deity’s statue, the believer acts out a specific type of expressive performance. The core of this article consists of a closer look at ritualized behavior in front of a particular type of divine feet: the natural ‘footprint’ (viṣṇupāda) at Gayā, in the state of Bihar, India. By studying its ‘storied’ meaning we aspire to a deepened understanding of the ‘divine footprint’ in both its embodiedness and embeddedness. Through a combination of approaches—textual studies, ritual studies, ethnography—we emplace the ritual object in a setting in which regional, pan-Indian, and even cosmogonic myths are interlocked. We conclude that by an exclusive focus on a single ritual object—as encountered in a particular location—an object lesson about feet, footsteps, foot-soles, and footprints opens up a particular ‘grammar of devotion’ in terms of both absence and presence.
Keywords: Hinduism; India; material culture; ritual; Viṣṇu’s footprint; place of pilgrimage; sacred geography; imaginative embodiment
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalReligions
Volume2018.9 (7) 224
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2018

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