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Abstract

Making use of fieldwork and interviews with two generations of Bengali Hindus in Kolkata and the New York area, and through making use of literature in developmental and cognitive psychology, this study attempts to address, engage with, and unite two persistent problems in theoretical discourse. First, originating in psychological anthropology, is the problem of how to account for what onlookers might perceive as “irrationality” among those they observe. Second, originating in ritual studies, is the issue of the thought/action (or behavior) divide, which also engages the problem of an observer and which preemptively bifurcates thought from action. These two problems are significantly interwoven: observed irrationality is observed as such through witnessing the execution of demonstrable behavior. Addressing both of these problems necessitates the complicated task of taking thought and action as merged and iterative from the beginning and holistically examining the process by which they are often separated and, consequently, examined separately. Using psychological literature on how humans make sense of the world around them and on anthropomorphism, I argue that Bengali Hindus possess underlying understandings of reality as relational with respect to a physical god, and that part and parcel of this relationality are the ways in which one should engage with the deity both in thought and demonstrative behavior. In other words, an early developmental internalization of this particular relationality-based schema supports and leads to an understanding of reality as a place wherein god can be physical. It is under circumstances when the relational purview— which can exist in multiple and varied forms— fails to be internalized to any motivating extent that differences between groups and individuals become evident. Moreover, partial and/or unacknowledged internalization leads to themes of questioning and perceived contradiction with regard to how people behave with a material god and whether they understand that material god to be a person. The first half of this dissertation addresses the establishment of a cognitive relational schema, while the second half discusses circumstances under which that schema fails to be established and on what grounds and to what effect.

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