Beware of charitable souls: contagion, roguish ghosts and the poison(s) of Hindu alms

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Abstract

Bhats are a caste of low-status performers from the Indian state of Rajasthan. Bhat patrons, following deaths in their families, distribute ‘alms’ (dan) to Bhats who work as their genealogists and praise-singers. Though their patrons are generous on these occasions, Bhats typically must be coerced into taking these offerings, which they consider dangerous and even lethal. The ‘poison’ of Hindu transactions such as these is usually attributed to a fear of impure or inauspicious substances passed between persons during exchange. Bhat explanations, however, reveal a danger linked to ambiguities created by death related to property rights and exchange obligations. These ambiguities, according to Bhats, precipitate disputes between patrons, ritual intermediaries, and spirits. Such conflict translates into a perception of danger to one’s person. Based on Bhat accounts, I suggest there may be a variety of distinctive ‘poisons’ associated with Hindu alms. I further argue that the Bhat sense of danger, which emerges from the fluid give and take of social relations rather than a fear of contagion, is heightened by this community’s position as marginalized bards.

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