Friday, July 13, 2007

Sin Eating

I had heard about rudaalis (thanks to the eponymous movie by Kalpana Lajmi) and celebrants before. Today I found out about sin-eaters.

Sin eaters and the custom of sin eating seem to come from Wales. Early descriptions of the ritual all mention the bread eaten over the corpse, as well as the payment of sixpence to the person assuming the sins of the dead. Below are two 19th century accounts of sin eaters.

Apparently, a "good" Brahmin is also supposed to function as a sin-eater. I did not know this either.

Not only does the 'good' Brahman model himself on the world-renouncer, but the status of the priest is irremediably compromised by his calling. So far from being a paragon of purity he is an absorber of the sins of his patrons, which are transmitted through their gifts. The perfect Brahman could theoretically 'digest' these sins without jeopardy to himself; but the paradox is that he is precisely the one who spurns the priesthood.

There are more references to sin-eating in this essay about Varanasi and Bhairava

Bhairava has the truly bizarre function in Kâshî of taking upon himself or devouring the sins of the pilgrims so much so that one of his titles is ‘Sin-Eater’ (Pâpa-bhakshana). “Here in Kâshî the place called Kapâlamocana comes to symbolize the power to make sins fall away, for here ‘Where the Skull Fell’ the worst of sins was shed” (Eck p.119).

The temple of Kâla Bhairava itself was, according to the Kâshî-Khanda (31.138), located on the banks of the Kapâlamocana Tîrtha, in the Omkârezvara area north of Maidâgin. “Bhairava stands right there,” says the text, “facing Kapâlamocana Tîrtha, devouring the accumulated sins of devotees” (cited from Eck, p.193).

Bhairava is the ‘sin-eater’ par excellence not because of his newly found office of policeman but by virtue of having himself been the worst of criminals, for Kapâlamocana is the very place where the skull of the murdered Brahmâ fell from him along with the sin of brahmanicide that had been relentlessly pursuing him in his wanderings. “The one freed from the worst sin now devours the sins of others” (Eck, p.192).

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