Refractions of the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries



December, 1985: A man squats on a bed of nails. Head turned sideways, he grins out of the smudged greys and blacks of the newspaper page. His matted hair is wound like a turban above his bearded face, and his bare limbs are smeared with ash. “Some people could care less about the cushioning in the 735,” proclaims a caption above his head. Beside him, positioned at the same angle as his bare feet, is a running shoe identified as the New Balance 735.

This is a page from The New York Times. It has been spread out on the kitchen floor for an incontinent collie by the friends with whom I am staying when, after a second bout of fieldwork with a Hindu holy man in western India, I return to Berkeley to reconstitute my American academic life. Looking down at the newspaper, I find it disorienting and wickedly entertaining to see a fragment of India—a shard of my fieldwork interests—repositioned in such an inglorious fashion. The same general figure I have just encountered as a site of sacredness is here used to market running shoes and by implication, beautiful bodies; the same figure I have seen worshiped in altars is implicated in canine toiletry. I stare at the holy man in the advertisement, noticing that he has not been identified in any way. It appears that the allegedly endemic Hindu ascetic practice of lounging on a bed of nails is so familiar to the American public that there is no need for an explanatory note.