In a milieu of scarcity and inequality, what forms does moral, spiritual and material aspiration take? How do these aspirations express both antagonism and forms of relatedness between potentially hostile neighboring groups? How do religious ideals, such as the self-limitations of asceticism, inflect worldly aspirations for a better quality of life? Drawing on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork in the sub-district of Shahbad (Rajasthan, India), focusing on the Sahariyas, a community of former bonded laborers enmeshed in varying spiritual and material relations and conflicts with neighboring higher status castes and tribes, I ask what aspiration, advancement and a 'higher' quality of life might mean in both religious and secular terms for a lower status group in an unequal, resource-scarce environment.
I locate aspiration along two trajectories, power and ethics. Combining an analysis of government documents with participant observation, interviews, household surveys, life histories, ritual data, and narratives of spirit possession, I examine modes of power, which I conceptualize as force, contract and agonistics, and forms of ethical relatedness between the Sahariyas and their neighbors in religious, economic, erotic and dietary terms. I reinterpret 'quality of life' as the relationship between different 'thresholds of life': human, spiritual (the ancestral dead, deities, gods) and non-human (grains, water, animals). Drawing out varied movements between these spiritual and material thresholds of life, I argue that these relations of power and ethics may be understood through concepts of 'political theologies'.
I show how aspiration may have very conflicting trajectories, creating both new threats and possibilities in a milieu of scarcity. I clarify how my concepts of power and ethics, of material and spiritual relatedness and conflict, differ both from domination/resistance and postcolonial/identity politics models of competition, and from communitarian 'social capital' frameworks of trust and associational cooperation. Along with the specificities of the ethnographic milieu, I suggest that the concepts of political theology that I draw out gesture towards certain 'global' moral questions to which different religions and secular thought offers diverse responses.