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Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Recent decades have witnessed a surge in academic publications focused on the body. This “somatic turn,” as it has come to be known, is the product of multiple philosophical, sociopolitical, and cultural trends, from the emergence of new forms of intellectual discourse, such as social constructionism, phenomenology, and feminist theory, to the increasing dominance of consumer culture and the ever-growing influence of technology on every aspect of human life. The Body in Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, by Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, offers a comparative and interdisciplinary introduction to theories and practices of the body in religion. Drawing on a plethora of textual, material, and visual sources from multiple religious traditions and examining them against the backdrop of contemporary sociological, anthropological, and feminist theories, this book aims to “highlight religion’s role in constructing and shaping our body” while investigating the ways “that our embodiments themselves contribute to our religious beliefs” (xxv).

The Body in Religion contains a short introduction, four parts comprised of three chapters each, and a list of referenced and suggested readings. The introduction presents the main themes discussed in the book, such as mind-body dualism, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between the individual and society. It also offers a note on its cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary methodology, as well as a brief overview of the religious traditions surveyed in the book. Part 1, “Representing the Divine and the Human Bodies,” begins with a discussion concerning the role of the body in Greek, Hindu, and Zoroastrian creation myths. It then turns its attention to the representation of divine and human bodies in sacred narratives and visual art, concluding with an analysis of the motif of erotic love and the use of sexual metaphors in representing the human experience of the divine. Part 2, “Celebrating and Sustaining the Body,” provides an overview of the role of the body in religious ritual, the laws and practices aimed at regulating the preparation and consumption of food, and the bio-spiritual techniques and regimens designed to sustain the body and cultivate its wellbeing. Part 3, “Disciplining the Body,” addresses such topics as purity and pollution, gender and sexuality, and marriage and reproduction. Finally, part 4, “Modifying, Liberating, and Honoring the Body,” begins with an exploration of body modification as practiced cross-culturally from ancient times until the present. This section covers topics such as marking the body conducted during rites of passage and the impact of recent innovations in biotechnologies on transhumanist pursuits. This section then discusses the rules, vows, and exercises followed by ascetics and renunciants in their quest for spiritual and physical liberation. It concludes with the ultimate fate of the body—its burial, posthumous veneration, and existence in the afterlife.