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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
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."
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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