Much ethnography is premised on the assumption that belief only tells one half of the story, but practice will reveal more facets to what we typically identify as “religion.” While this remains an ideal, it is not so clearly demarcated in the world we live in, riddled with beliefs about practices and acting without thinking. The story of Andal, which I recently heard in my fieldwork here in South India, provoked me to think further about the relationship between these two analytic dimensions.
Andal is famously known for her devotional poetry dedicated to Lord Vishnu. When she was a young girl, she was completely in love with the Lord even over her own life. Mythology and scriptures revere Andal for her devotion and in many local stories she is also venerated as a wife of Vishnu. However, the point of this story is simpler – true devotion combines belief and practice. According to some, Andal lived in the areas surrounding the Seven Hills of Tirupati, now residence to Sri Balaji, one of the largest and prominent Vishnu temples of Southern India. Orphaned as a young girl, she was dedicated to the temple where she lived with an adopted father, a celibate older Brahmin priest for Sri Balaji. Among the many tasks assigned to her, Andal loved to choose and make garlands for Sri Balaji. Her special skills were exhibited in her selection and weaving together of a Tulsi (holy basil) garland. Every morning and evening it was Andal’s freshly picked and woven Tulsi garland that her father adorned upon Sri Balaji. One afternoon, Andal was so impressed with her Tulsi garland she wanted to try it on and rushed to the mirror and adorned herself. This was unthinkable to the Brahmin priest who happens to catch her in the act. An offering, according to him, becomes impure if adorned by a human before Sri Balaji. He chides Andal and commands her to make another garland. However, the new garland, once adorned on Sri Balaji that evening, refused to stay put around his neck; it slipped off no matter how many times the priest tried to place it upon the divine image. Annoyed and disgruntled, the priest went to bed very disturbed that night. In his dreams, Sri Balaji appeared to him. The Lord called out to him and said, “oh foolish Brahmana! Every evening that young girl Andal tries on my garland before you bring it to adorn me. Only today you happened to catch her doing so.” Sri Balaji continued, “ I love only that garland. I do not wish your purified offerings when what pleases me is Andal’s garland, especially one she has worn.”
From some deeply Protestantized perspectives, correct belief may itself be construed as correct practice. From such points of view, faith must be assimilated and accepted before ritual practices are shared among the community. In these cases belief precedes practice. Much of Islam too expects a degree of acceptance in the oneness of Allah and the non-idolatrous nature of worship practices to ascertain patronage to its’ faith. However, this frame doesn’t apply easily or well to Hindus or particularly to Andal’s devotional practice. If we only looked at those doctrines and texts prescribed by tradition (Dharmashastras), the actual data we would gather would be deficient in many respects. But the invariance cannot make us conclude Hindus don’t care for belief but do encourage correct practice. The relationship between belief and practice is more nuanced than that. While correct practice and doctrine in Hinduism does echo the reprimands of the Brahmin priest, the stories surrounding Andal’s devotion tell of another facet of worship intermingled with belief and practice.
Andal’s devotion to Sri Balaji makes her offering pure, but why? As we saw, the story characterizes the Brahmin priest as foolish and incapable of understanding “true”purity. Andal’s offering was pure as her devotion emblematized the intertwining of belief and practice in an organic way. Firstly, her devotion in selecting and weaving the choicest Tulsi leaves for her garland was devotion expressed as/through practice. Commonly in India it is said that the more work (hard and skilled) that one puts into a simple task, the more important and sacred that product becomes. So, a lackadaisical effort at making your father’s favorite dish implies your lack of respect for your father. Similarly Andal’s effort in her practice of weaving the garland is indicative of her strong devotion. Secondly, her devotion was expressed in her belief – a childlike innocence with which she adorned herself and felt close to the same thing that would adorn her one true love Sri Balaji. Young children in India are considered innocent for their unabashed expression of strong emotions like love and fear. Andal’s wearing of her Tulsi garland implies her vulnerable state of mind – completely cherishing her love for Balaji over her sense of correct decorum. One being an action and another being her belief but both are expressed as devotion. Correct practice was in a belief that ritually impure garlands were unfit for offering to Sri Balaji but Andal’s special two-fold devotion allowed her Tulsi garland to be the most pure, arguing against the Shastric priest’s knowledge. Moreover devotion to Krishna is often expressed in this two-fold manner as well – women’s minds and bodies tremble upon his appearance emphasizing the physical and mental expressions of devotional acts, suggesting that belief can hardly be separated from practice.