Homa Variations: shameless self-promotion

It is with no small degree of satisfaction that I announce the completion of a long-standing project, Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change across the Longue Durée, Richard K. Payne and Michael Witzel, eds. (Oxford, 2016)—and just in time for your Christmas shopping, too!

The homa, a votive ritual in which offerings are made into a fire, is a practice shared by all tantric traditions, and is found across the entire range of religious cultures where tantric traditions have spread. While this alone makes it worthy of study, the fact that it has its origins in the early medieval period, and is rooted even more deeply in Vedic and Zoroastrian ritual traditions add to the value that may be derived from its study.

More specifically from the perspective of ritual studies, in addition to these historical aspects, the homa serves as a case study for change over the longue durée. A received conception of ritual is that it is simply rigidly repeated because, having no real effects there is no information-bearing feedback leading to correction or modification, and that the inevitable failure of ritual to attain its performers’ goals would always be interpreted as a failure of performance. Once this conception of ritual was challenged, so also was the idea that ritual is unchanging. Beginning in about the last quarter of the twentieth century studies of ritual change became increasingly of interest. One notes in particular the work of Christiane Brosius and Ute Hüsken, eds., Ritual Matters: Dynamic Dimensions in Practice (Routledge, 2010).

Due to the material available, almost all such studies of ritual change have been restricted to examining change against the horizon of histoire événementielle. Perhaps the most important exception to this is Michael Stausberg, ed., Zoroastrian Rituals in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004). The close historical horizon of most studies constrains the possibility of discerning the difference between idiosyncratic characteristics of particular events of ritual change and those characteristics of ritual change that are more general in nature. This collection establishes a basis for such inquiries, which can only be accomplished by additional widely comparative studies of ritual change.

The other limiting factor for studies across the longue durée is the limited abilities of any one researcher, especially in a case such as the homa where the object of study extends across several different religious cultures and is recorded in several different languages. I am indebted therefore not only to my co-editor, Michael Witzel, but also to all of the contributors to the collection: Holly Grether, Tadeusz Skorupski, Musashi Tachikawa, Timothy Lubin, Tsunehiko Sugiki, David B. Gray, Georgios T. Halkias, Vesna A. Wallace, Charles D. Orzech, Todd Lewis and Naresh Bajracarya, and Nawaraj Chaulagain.


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