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Hierarchy and food in Nepalese healing rituals

By Linda Stone


An analysis of food transactions in a Nepalese village provides an interpretation of the cultural place of illness within high caste Hindu traditions. In several realms of village social life, rules of food transfer simultaneously mark hierarchical relationships between people and symbolize an interdependency among them. In these contexts, food transactions stress the importance of preserving hierarchy, reinforcing interdependence, and thereby maintaining a social framework within which exchanges of goods and services can harmoniously take place. But in the realm of illness, food use and references to food suggest conflicts or breakdowns in these kinds of interdependent relationships and ordered exchanges. I suggest that there is a fundamental conflict in village society since the local concern with human interdependency is set in a milieu of a sharply perceived scarcity of valued resources. This conception that human beings are interdependent for access to scarce goods introduces an element of danger into the system of exchange and opens a potential for disharmony in social relations. A cultural recognition of this danger is again reflected in the use of food, specifically in illness ideology and curing rituals. In this examination, illness emerges as the culturally apprehended outcome of some inevitable conflicts in the village social order.

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