A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India

A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

by Ron Barrett of Macalester College

Taken from the American Ethnologist May 2010, vol. 37/2, pp. 380-81.

Recent years have seen an emerging literature on the sociopolitical dynamics of human tissue exchange. Most of these studies are of a critical nature, focusing on the exploitative aspects of organ trade and other high-profile controversies. Yet few studies have closely examined the apparently mundane forms of biological exchange and the remarkable contexts in which these everyday activities can occur. Jacob Copeman addresses this important gap with Veins of Devotion, a well-researched ethnography about the contributions of several North Indian devotional movements to voluntary blood donation campaigns. Critical in the classical sense, this volume traces the flows of blood, spirit, and power through expanding domains of kinship, asceticism, nationalism, purification, and gift exchange in the urban heart of neoliberal India.

Veins of Devotion begins with a poignant example of bioavailability: a spiritual leader promising to recruit his devotees for blood donation. The promise comes in the form of a traditional Indian blessing (prasad), a combination of spiritually laden substances that, in this case, includes a piece of paper with the words “Every month, one camp.” The “camp” refers to a large-scale health camp in which hundreds or thousands of devotees donate their blood, ostensibly as offerings to the guru and to Indian society at large. Not surprisingly, these stated purposes are segues into more complex dynamics with multiple agendas and rich opportunities for ethnographic analysis.

Copeman formulates the concept of “virtuous utility” as an organizing theme for this volume. Challenging the conventional dichotomy of utilitarian versus symbolic reasoning, virtuous utility describes interoperable relationships between these two modes while leaving plenty of space for conflict and criticism. Virtuous utility is aptly illustrated with populist religious movements who tout blood donation as a sign of enlightened modernity and moral superiority over their traditional counterparts, while claiming that their devotions would otherwise be wasted on idol worship.With similar claims to moral superiority, blood donation campaigns serve all manner of status contests, social protests, and nationalist agendas—especially when linked to historical events and memorials to charismatic leaders. One of the most famous of these campaigns is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for the most blood collected in a single day. A gold standard in popular Indian imagination, the Guinness Book states that the 12,000 units collected that day were “equivalent to 67 bathtubs of blood!” (in Copeman, p. 105). The author notes that these kinds of popular statistics serve to validate the mobilizing abilities of religious and political leaders.

Copeman also examines the interoperability between biomedical technologies and ever-expanding meanings of blood and kin. Blood has long been an index of kinship in India; yet with voluntary blood donation, both the sanguine and consanguineal are centrifuged to communities beyond the horizons of extended family. Until recently, people commonly donated blood to close kin through family replacement schemes. But with the rise of volunteer schemes, increasing numbers are allowing their blood to flow outside the traditional boundaries of kin to a much larger social body. Kinship also extends with the reproductive notion that donated blood will save, not just patient lives, but also the lives of patients’ families and their future offspring. This reproductive potential is further enhanced by laboratory centrifugation, in which whole blood is separated into multiple components, creating the possibility that a single donation will benefit as many as four patients, four families, future generations, and so forth. With these imagined reproductions, utility is framed as maximum beneficence to a maximally extended Indian family.

Utility meets virtue when the reproductive capacity of donated blood entails a similar capacity for spiritual merit. But merit is problematic on many levels. Copeman observes that anonymous blood donation may entail more merit than family donation because the anonymity of recipients fits better with classical notions of ritual gift-giving, or dan. However, dan is often given to priests and pandits in situations when the recipients are known but their worthiness is undetermined (Gold 2000; Parry 1986).

With rakt dan—a modern form of blood sacrifice—the recipients are unknown but nevertheless imagined to be worthy of the gift, at least in the sense of being maximally needful.

There is also the dilemma of poison in the gift: a common belief that offerings serve as media for the transmission of sin from donor to recipient (Raheja 1988).Within this belief, spiritual attainment is often a matter of transportive purification, the shedding away of bad deeds at the expense of recipients rather than the acquisition of merit for helping them (Barrett 2008). In a similar vein, one can easily give blood across caste lines, but receiving blood from lesser castes can be highly problematic. It is therefore notable that, although many of Copeman’s informants claim their donations as proof of caste transcendence, the real test is whether they would receive blood by the same methods.

In addition to issues of ritual pollution and caste, the author points to a more concrete dilemma posed by the promise of spiritual merit for blood donation. Blood banks have shifted from paid to voluntary donation largely because of concerns that remuneration would add incentives for overdonation or for unqualified donations from people with HIV or other blood-borne infections. Yet spiritual merit can be as powerful an incentive as money, therefore presenting the same kinds of medical risks as paid donation. Some devotional movements have guarded against this with personal health pledges to maintain the purity of their blood. These pledges, however, may also have the unintended consequence of linking medical qualification to spiritual worthiness. In all these cases, it is far better to give than to receive.

In summary, Veins of Devotion is a fascinating ethnography of everyday tissue exchange in urban India. For medical anthropologists, Copeman expands the dimensions of ideology, structure, and agency in bodily donation. For scholars of religion and South Asia, he provides a new venue for analyzing the shifting domains of sacred and secular in contemporary urban India. Accessibly written, this volume is eminently teachable for a graduate or upper division undergraduate course. It is an excellent work of scholarship.

References Cited

Barrett, Ron
2008 Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gold, Ann G.
2000 Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parry, Jonathan P.
1986 “The Gift, the Indian Gift, and ‘The Indian Gift’,” Man 21:453-473.
Raheja, Gloria G.
1988 The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, Chicago: University of Chicago


Review of Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

By Herman Tull of Princeton University

Taken from the Journal of Asian Studies ?? pp 300-01

Jacob Copeman’s fascinating study, Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, begins with a brief introduction to the modern medical process of blood donation, a topic that for many sits at the far edge of daily experience. Throughout the world, the success of modern health care depends on donated blood; yet because shortages are an unfortunate and predominant fact, getting blood into the system represents a central concern.

There are three routes that move blood into the health care system: paid donation, replacement donation (whereby the family of the individual who uses the blood replaces it in the system), and voluntary donation. As Copeman reports, in recent years the World Health Organization has promoted voluntary donation as the safest and most stable route. Paid donors, often from society’s lowest socioeconomic rungs, tend to be disproportionately health compromised, while replacement donation lacks surety and tends to be a one-time only affair.

Critical to Copeman’s study is the notion that voluntary donation is undergirded by an element of ethicization; that is, through the action of donating blood, individuals come to express a sense of altruism and selfless service to their communities, and these connotations can be used to compel individuals to donate blood. (According to Copeman, the relationship of utility to ethical value is a contentious subject in anthropology [p. 4], a shockingly naive position to those grounded in the study of ethics.) With this basic framework, Copeman finds in India that the culturally attuned factors of service (seva) and gift (dan), intertwined with ideas of “virtue, service, kinship, and the nation” (p. 2), center the discourse of voluntary blood donation. Along the way, Copeman looks to the broader elements of giving and exchange (as expressed in anthropological theory) to fill out the edges of his study.

As Copeman notes, Indians have not unambiguously embraced voluntary blood donation. Blood in India has long been viewed as a source of strength, and, equally, the loss of blood is understood to result in a state of long-lasting (if not permanent) weakness. In an attempt to change this perception, Copeman cites the work of donor recruiters who have reconceptualized blood donation to create a sense that giving blood leads not to blood loss but to blood gain. This has been achieved by representing blood donation as an opportunity to shed older, weaker blood cells, thereby opening the way for the production of fresh, younger blood cells.

In addition to the physical gain here, Copeman looks at how efforts to boost voluntary donation in India have benefited from an imagined spiritual component. This aspect of blood donation can be seen in the idiom developed by a number of guru-based (or satguru) reformist religious groups that have involved themselves in blood collection (Copeman attends in particular to the activities of the Sant Nirankarai Mission and the Dera Sacha Sauda [chapters 4 and 5], based on his field participation in the greater Delhi area). This idiom makes use of such conceptualizations of blood donation as that of the spreading of “spiritualized liquid love” (p. 97), as well as that of god returning what is given as a selfless gift (p. 87). Here, winning the approval of the guru for the selfless service of donation augments the spiritual element of the gift. Of course, this conceptualization is not without problems.

Copeman describes how, in their quest for service, these organizations generate a near-frenetic attitude to the gaining of voluntary blood donors; donor camps (often with more than 10,000 participants) become competitive events in which “world record” blood collections take precedent over safety and quality (pp. 89, 107). Additionally, as Copeman points out, by emphasizing the spiritual aspects of blood donation, potential donors may lose sight of the fact that voluntary blood donation is ultimately controlled by specific physical parameters; accordingly, those who are rejected from donating blood because of compromised health (and these individuals are disproportionately from the lower rungs of society) have effectively had a message of diminished spirituality delivered to them. Hence, rather than building a sense of a common spiritual bond regardless of caste (a key component of the satguru traditions), blood donation may very well reinforce India’s traditional social demarcations.

This brief review hardly touches the surface of Copeman’s richly conceptualized study, in which he nimbly moves from his underlying frame of the Indian notions of gift and service to touch on a range of related topics, from national integration (“The Nehruvian Gift,” chapter 7) to Indian notions of asceticism, sacrifice, sin, and caste. A few points, however, may be mentioned that detract from the overall high quality of this work: Copeman’s discussion of Marriott’s substance-code theory (pp. 24–25) is far too cursory given its significance for the topic of blood donation; additionally, Copeman has a tendency to use highfalutin language that in the end obfuscates rather than clarifies (e.g., “efflorescent biospritual medical creativity,” p. 147). However, these are small quibbles, and they should not deter readers from delving into Copeman’s study, which lucidly connects a range of Indian spiritual idioms to the seemingly unlikely, mundane context of voluntary blood donation.

Princeton University

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