Deconstructing Bhakti Movement

February 06, 2021 [books] #history #india #bhakti #reviews

Book: Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement
Author: John Stratton Hawley

Hawley, a professor of religion at Barnard College of Columbia University, contests the idea of a Bhakti “movement” . There was an outpouring of devotional literature in the late medieval - early modern India, but the narrative of a movement, a fire starting with the Alwars and Nayanmars in the south in the middle of the first millennium spreading to the north till it encompasses the whole country is just that, a narrative. The Bhakti movement idea meant - and means - many things to many people, based on their caste affiliation, their community, their region, language and faith. It cannot be a movement because there was no well considered goal, nor a people’s agenda. Hawley's thesis is that the idea of a movement to describe what happened originated during the independence movement at Tagore’s Shantiniketan. One reason for this is Hazaripradas Dvivedi’s and others reading of Nabhadas’ Bhatkamal, composed in the 16th century, and accepting it at face value. Bhatkamal proposes a sampradaya for each for different 800 different bhaktas it describes, and each of the sampradayas has a southern origin - Ramanuja, or Madhava, or Visnuswami. Hawley suggests this is the reason for the south-north journey of bhakti in common imagination. He finds no evidence for this southern origin, and contends that the popularity of the sampradaya model of northern Bhakti is itself of early modern origin, thanks to the attempts of a Sawai Jai Singh to homologize the public religious culture of 18th century Jaipur. Before that, Mughal rule, ironically, led to the explosion of distinct Hindu communities in the north around the 15th and 16th centuries, thanks to improvement in trade routes, guilds and road networks.

By now it should be evident that Bhakti movement described in this book is a purely northern (and eastern) affair, even though it claims a southern origin. There is no mention of any of the Virasaivas - Basavanna, Allama Prabhu - or any other southern expressions of Bhakti, including that of the Alvars and Annamayya in the anthologies and hagiographies produced in the North till the early twentieth century. If there’s no movement, how does one describe the explosion of the devotional literature that heralded the 15th and 16th and thence? Hawley prefers to call it a network, in part to displace the notion that the individual bhaktas - Surdas, Kabir, Tulsidas, Chaitanya - are the engines of history, and instead focus on the acts of collective authorship, a construction of collective memory. This makes sense in a way, since it seems like many people composed in the name of the historical Kabir and Surdas. When one speaks of Kabir's dohe, what one is speaking of is the community that ended up producing the songs in his name and in his style. So a network, not a movement, but plenty of movement within the network. Genres and tropes are shared. For example, the bhaktas meet in the hagiographies - Mira goes in search of Kabir and Ravidas, Ravidas in search of Kabir, Namdev is a friend of Cokhamela. In Tamil, there’s the story of how Alvars became Alvars in the first place: three of them took refuge from a torrential downpour in a hut. With three there was no place to sleep or rest, so they sing the night away. If there was a flow in a direction, it’s probably from north to south as the Marathas make court in Tanjavur. That has its documented effect on Carnatic music, for example. 

How curious that the South was an ideal in the northern mind in the 15th century. How curious that the Bhakti bhajans of the north are decisively Vaisnavite in character. How did Nabhadas get the idea of Ramanuja? And if he did, Ramanuja from the South as a signifier of prestige was already available for him. How did the idea of Ramanuja make that journey from Srirangam? While Hawley interrogates all the narratives available to us that answer some of these questions, he is unable to provide any convincing alternatives. His reframing of the bhakti movement as a bhakti network is also a tad pedantic - all I could think of during the denouement was, “so what?”. He also, like many other historians of Medieval India, has his eyes firmly on the current political landscape. While he spends a considerable amount of time on Vrindavan and the building of the Keshavadeva temple, he nimbly skips any mention of its eventual destruction. Reading this text one would assume that the original temple was still standing. At the same time he doesn’t show as much reticence when talking about current zeitgeist and the events in India over the past few decades. These quibbles aside, I enjoyed this exploration of the late medieval north, one that is not focused on king and empire.

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