Consider the following description from the 1930s of a particular festival (still quite common in India) that entails the worshiping of machinery by workers : “In some of the jute mills near Calcutta the mechanics often sacrifice goats at this time [autumn]. A separate alter is erected by the mechanics… . Various tools and other emblems are placed upon it… . Incense is burnt… . Towards evening a male goat is thoroughly washed … and prepared for a … final sacrifice… . The animal is decapitated at one stroke … [and] the head is deposited in the … sacred Ganges.” This particular festival is celebrated in many parts of north India as a public holiday for the working class, on a day named after the engineer god Vishvakarma. How do we read it ? To the extent that this day has now become a public holiday in India, it has obviously been subjected to a process of bargaining between employers, workers, and the state. One could also argue that insofar as the ideas of recreation and leisure belong to a discourse of what makes labor efficient and productive, this “religious” holiday itself belongs to the process through which labor is managed and disciplined, and is hence a part of the history of emergence of abstract labor in commodity form. The very public nature of the holiday shows that it has been written into an emergent national, secular calendar of production. We could thus produce a secular narrative that would apply to any working-class religious holiday anywhere. Christmas or the Muslim festival Id could be seen in the same light. The difference between Vishvakarma puja (worship) and Christmas or Id would then be explained anthropologically, that is, by holding another master code—“culture” or “religion”—constant and universal. The differences between religions are by definition incapable of bringing the master category “culture” or “religion” into any kind of crisis. We know that these categories are problematic, that not all people have what is called “culture” or “religion” in the English senses of these words, but we have to operate as though this limitation was not of any great moment. This was exactly how I treated this episode in my own book. The eruption of Vishvakarma puja interrupting the rhythm of production, was no threat to my Marxism or secularism. Like many of my colleagues in labor history, I interpreted worshiping machinery—an everyday fact of life in India, from taxis to scooter-rickshaws, minibuses and lathe machines—as “insurance policy” against accidents and contingencies. That in the so-called religious imagination (as in language), redundancy—the huge and, from a strictly functionalist point of view, unnecessarily elaborate panoply of iconography and rituals—proved the poverty of a purely functionalist approach never deterred my secular narrative. The question of whether or not the workers had a conscious or doctrinal belief in gods and spirits was also wide of the mark ; after all, gods are as real as ideology is—that is to say, they are embedded in practices. More often than not, their presence is collectively invoked by rituals rather than by conscious belief.
Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial thought and historical difference
Princeton University Press 2000