Home Sociology Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Religious virtuosos and the promise of salvation
In an analysis on a universal level, one possibility would be to test how well the information I collected fit within the category of “religious virtuoso” presented by Martin Riesebrodt.  In his book The Promise of Salvation, he proposes a theory of religion which “offers not a functional but rather an interpretive explanation of religion.” Riesebrodt defines religion as “a system of practises with relations to superhuman powers,” and claims that religion exists as a means for “[averting] misfortune, overcoming crises, and providing salvation.” These functions are, therefore, “not latent functions of religion but [they] represent the claims of religion.”
Most people, whom Riesebrodt has called the laity, will use religion as a means to avoid misfortune and suffering. However, religious virtuosos are people who live with and even seek more misfortune and suffering. They accept worldly, temporary suffering because of an idea that distancing themselves from the profane they may approach the holy and reach an eternal state of salvation. Riesebrodt is especially concerned with asceticism, explaining that
because a religious virtuoso has braved misfortune and suffering and overcome it, he or she becomes a bearer of charisma, of superhuman power. Virtuosos are often thought to be capable of performing miracle cures, awakening the dead, or being present at several places at once. They are deemed able to read people’s thoughts, to prophesy, to determine the moment that will bring victory in battles, to resolve social conflicts, and to avert dangers. Virtuosos are powerful as dispensers and mediators of salvation, and they serve as mediums through whom the gods communicate with humans.
We have seen that several of the interviewees told that they had many of these functions, for instance as curers, diviners and performers of rituals to avert dangers and for other purposes. If we were to include the findings of others, such as Hart or Tedlock, other functions might be included as well. But we have also seen that a majority of the interviewees in my study became ajq’ijab as a means to avoid suffering. Instead of illness or even death, they chose the “lesser evil” of becoming ajq’ijab. Many also explained that one of the reasons to keep working as ajq’ijab is because stopping will mean more suffering. One may argue that this still fits with Riesebrodts idea, as they have “braved misfortune and suffering and overcome it,” but then one might question why not all practitioners of Maya spirituality who suffer become ajq’ijab or why some ajq’ijab never have to suffer at all.
From these initial thoughts, it seems that the ajq’ijab sometimes act as religious virtuosos, by performing similar functions, and sometimes as the laity, by avoiding suffering. Thus, it may be that my findings might help in refining Riese- brodt’s ideas on religious virtuosos, although further analysis would be needed to reach a conclusion.
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