Paper $25.00 ISBN: 9780226475622 Published October 2017 Not for sale in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldive Islands, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and Sri Lanka
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Living without the Dead

Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos

Piers Vitebsky

Living without the Dead
See the online bibliographic essay

Piers Vitebsky

380 pages | 62 halftones, 20 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2017
Paper $25.00 ISBN: 9780226475622 Published October 2017 Not for sale in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldive Islands, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and Sri Lanka
Cloth $75.00 ISBN: 9780226857770 Published October 2017 Not for sale in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldive Islands, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and Sri Lanka
E-book $10.00 to $25.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226407876 Published October 2017 Not for sale in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldive Islands, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and Sri Lanka
Just one generation ago, the Sora tribe in India lived in a world populated by the spirits of their dead, who spoke to them through shamans in trance. Every day, they negotiated their wellbeing  in heated arguments or in quiet reflections on their feelings of love, anger, and guilt.
Today, young Sora are rejecting the worldview of their ancestors and switching their allegiance to warring sects of fundamentalist Christianity or Hinduism. Communion with ancestors is banned as sacred sites are demolished, female shamans are replaced by male priests, and debate with the dead gives way to prayer to gods. For some, this shift means liberation from jungle spirits through literacy, employment, and democratic politics; others despair for fear of being forgotten after death.
How can a society abandon one understanding of reality so suddenly and see the world in a totally different way? Over forty years, anthropologist Piers Vitebsky has shared the lives of shamans, pastors, ancestors, gods, policemen, missionaries, and alphabet worshippers, seeking explanations from social theory, psychoanalysis, and theology. Living without the Dead lays bare today’s crisis of indigenous religions and shows how historical reform can bring new fulfillments—but also new torments and uncertainties.
Vitebsky explores the loss of the Sora tradition as one for greater humanity: just as we have been losing our wildernesses, so we have been losing a diverse range of cultural and spiritual possibilities, tribe by tribe. From the award-winning author of The Reindeer People, this is a heartbreaking story of cultural change and the extinction of an irreplaceable world, even while new religious forms come into being to take its place.
List of Maps, Diagrams, and Figures
Dramatis Personae
1          To the Underworld with Ononti the Shamaness
2          Leopard Power and Police Power, the Jungle and the State
3          What the Living and the Dead Have to Say to Each Other
4          Memories without Rememberers
5          Young Monosi Changes His World Forever
6          Doloso Complicates the Future of His Mountaintop Village
7          Shocked by Baptists
8          Christians Die Mute
9          Redeemers Human and Divine
10        Youth Economics: Life after Sonums
11        Dancing with Alphabet Worshippers: Once and Future Hindus?
 Interlude: Government Kitsch and the Old Prophet’s New Message
12        Six Remarkable Women and Their Destinies
Epilogue: Spiritual Ecosystems and Loss of Theo-diversity
Glossary of Ethnic Groups and Communities
Review Quotes
"This truly magnificent text is a living monument to the strength and elegance of true ethnographic work. Vitebsky’s forty years documenting the transition and changes of the Sora people in the hills of central India is a lesson in the proper presentation and investigation of native peoples. His study, beginning in the 1970s, of an elaborate and daily shamanistic communication between the living and dead shows how the culture changed. As the years passed, the children of the original subjects turned increasingly to Baptist Christianity and fundamentalist Hinduism. The older Sora now fear dying as the younger Sora deny them the funerals they hoped for and, even worse, shamanic communication when dead. The study changed to investigate why the younger Sora completely rejected their culture and religion. Vitebsky then takes this as a methodological model for change in culture, with an epilogue on the loss of theodiversity. Students of culture, history of religions, India, and, frankly, of any discipline will learn much from this sensitive and powerful approach to inquiry. Essential."
American Ethnologist
"This is an extraordinary book in two senses: it is an outstanding work of scholarship, and it is a highly original, unconventional piece of writing...  Living without the Dead is a monument to a unique way of being in the world whose death Vitebsky has witnessed… Analysis is pursued not through argument but through a narrative of personal bafflements followed by moments of insight. The effect is novelistic. And as in a skillfully designed novel, the story and its characters grow in complexity… Another analytic highlight comes when Vitebsky shifts his perspective on conversion, recasting it from a movement toward something new to an escape from something all too familiar… the book features an extensive cast of Sora characters, and through Vitebsky’s sensitive literary technique many of them take shape as memorable—and often conflicted—personalities… the effect on the reader is devastating.  It moved me as much as anything I have read in a literary work of recent years.  Living without the Dead is a masterly feat of writing and of the ethnographic imagination. I am hard put to think of anything else quite like it, but it might be shelved next to Tristes Tropiques."
International Journal of Hindu Studies
"When anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano accused Clifford Geertz’s “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” of “stylistic virtuosity,” it was a compliment of the backhanded variety... Geertz’s literary abilities obscured the hierarchical nature of his method... and then formulated an interpretation of the cockfight that constructed his western readers as privileged knowers... Piers Vitebsky’s Living without the Dead could also be accused of “stylistic virtuosity,” but in this case it would be a more sincere and straightforward compliment... Vitebsky remains very much present in the narrative, a character like any other, one who struggles... to come to terms with their rapid Christianization... With Vitebsky and his Sora characters all present, speaking with and at each other (sometimes even from the underworld), Living without the Dead creates its knowledge in the way that knowledge is created in the shaman-mediated conversations the Sora have with their ancestors: dialogically...  Living without the Dead remains a monumental, impressive, and insightful work of ethnography, one that could only be produced by an ethnographer of Vitebsky’s evident skill, self-awareness, and endurance."
Social Anthropology
"Twenty-four years after the publication of Dialogues with the Dead, Piers Vitebsky presents his second book on the Sora… What both books have in common is that they are jewels in the anthropology of tribal India…  while many anthropologists have devoted themselves to the study of cultural change, few are able to document it as it happens.  We participate in the unfolding process of his ethnographic quest; we observe how research questions come to be formulated and how they change; we take part in discoveries and failures…. This remarkable book is great reading and will be highly relevant to those who have an interest in ethnography, religion, cultural change, Indian religions and/or indigenous religions. It is a book that offers deep reflections on and insights into fundamental questions about the predicament of human beings in times of change; beings who shape these processes as much as they are shaped by forces outside their control. Using a combination of vignettes, reflections and dense ethnography, Vitebsky skilfully navigates between the personal and the social, the micro and macro domains of social life."
James C. Scott, Yale University
“Incomparable. Fortunate are the Sora to have an ethnographer of such surpassing, immersive understanding. Fortunate are the students of history and religion to be shown how animism, shamanism, and conversion to monotheisms are actually experienced and understood. Fortunate beyond words are we all to have Vitebsky’s summum for generations of scholars.”
Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge
“This is a magnificent contribution to anthropology at once in time and over time—keeping faith with people’s continuing lives while traversing the epochs that have transformed them forever.  Unswerving in his commitment to the task, Vitebsky brings together compassion, analytical insight and blunt speaking.  And the magic of this account is not least in the way his subjects give the world a fresh view on world religions.”
Nandini Sundar, Delhi University
"This fabulous, empathetic and deeply moving account of Sora loss and longing is among the best that anthropology has ever offered. Vitebsky’s beautiful prose introduces us to the meaning of conversion not just for faith but for landscapes, old conversations which are silenced and new ones which are beginning. He takes us to a world most people don’t know existed, and whose defeat readers will mourn deeply."
Dilip Menon, University of Witwatersrand
"A haunting and elegiac exploration of attitudes to dying, death and grieving among the Sora of Odisha. Combining deep ethnography with masterful storytelling, Vitebsky has produced a classic of South Asian anthropology that at the same time speaks to the human condition everywhere."

Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Society for Humanistic Anthropology: Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing
Honorable Mention
Second place.

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