In the tale of the young and beautiful goddess ‘Bhakti’ she is depicted as the very essence of vitality, both in physical appearance and, it becomes clear, in religious life. In the Padma Purāṇa, we meet her as a young mother seeking an elixir of youth for her aged sons Knowledge and Renunciation, so that they can be rejuvenated to the same vigour that she herself enjoys. Interestingly, she is not a competitor to jñāna and vairāgya, but rather a caring mother eager to be returned to a vigorous relationship with them – but Narada tells her that only bhakti can dance: her sons have limbs that are as stiff as wood, and hair as white as a crane, and even the whispering of Upaniṣads and Gītā into their ears will not wake them. The only medicine that will work is the fruit of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which will flood them with the medicinal juice (rasa) of prema, divine adoration. Then, we are told, they too will dance.
For scholars, the notion of bhakti has long played the part of a missing piece in the puzzle of Indian religious historiography, explaining how the classical philosophical and ascetic heritage transformed into the forms of divinity, worship, arts, and institutional structure that are most characteristic of popular Hindu culture today. Yet we have become sensitive to the mysteries surrounding this word and the many ideas and phenomena with which it has come to be associated. Above all the mystery of bhakti has led scholars to question the very ontology of religious history – was it really a distinct ‘movement’ with discrete boundaries, or do we need a more nuanced understanding of the transformation of religious cultures in order to comprehend it? Is it a category of identity, an attitude to god, a cultural grammar of practice, or a particularly intense and vital tone of religious life? The definition, history, and even the very reification of ‘bhakti’ are all still in the process of being renegotiated.
Bhakti as concept and reality
In his attempt to write a coherent historical account of ‘bhakti’, Friedhelm Hardy reached beyond the range of both Indian religious literatures and western scholarship to cite E. M. Forster’s evocation of bhakti in which a rather mystified Englishman tries to decipher a song ‘like the song of an unknown bird’, which turns out to be a Kṛṣṇa-gītā (Hardy 1983, pp.1–2). Hardy’s use of this scene highlights the riddle that bhakti has posed to western scholarship. It was only after an initial fascination with philosophical literature, ascetic traditions, and Vedic text and ritual, which western research turned towards the rich world of devotional culture. That turn opened up a vast field of resources. The Sanskrit etymology of ‘bhakti’ admits of many applications, and many more have accreted to the term over its long history of use. This wide semantic range contributes to the scholarly detective work that has focused on the idea.
In its most literal connotation, the word ‘bhakti’ refers to the division of a whole into subsidiary portions. Understood as a sharing, a division, or the relation of a part or an attribute to something larger, it can evoke Vedāntic theological debates about difference and non-difference, or tantric notions of sharing one’s self w`ith another. Karen Pechilis has argued that on the basis of this meaning it also connotes ‘participation’, paving the way for theologies of embodiment and interaction (Pechilis 1999). Used in the sense of attachment, trust and devotion to something, in the literal sense, bhakti evokes the theologies of salvation by grace facilitated by worship of particular personal deities. More specifically, bhakti can also signify a cluster of states involving attraction that transcends the desire for obtainment; that is, affection, love, adoration – and also passion but of a special, deferred, and abstracted kind such as that found in ‘viraha-bhakti’. If we put together these different regions of significance, and we find what Lakoff and Johnson call a ‘cognitive metaphor’ (Lakoff and Johnson 2003) of sharing out portions of a whole, which has been put to specific uses to express the sharing of (divine) being, of selfhood, and participation in the world.
Thus like ‘dharma’ or ‘yoga’, ‘bhakti’ is a notion that encompasses a range of meanings. It has gathered enough currency to become passed around across different traditions and appropriated in a range of forms. David Lorenzen, for instance, lists the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, the Bhagavad Gītā, Devī Māhātmya, Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the Āḻvārs, Vīraśaivas, Vārkarīs, followers of Vallabha, Caitanya, Rāmānanda, Kābir, Raidāsa, Mīrābāī, and others as associated with bhakti (Lorenzen 2004). There are good reasons for speaking of Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, and even Mughal bhakti – a style of early-modern Indian religiosity explored in the Spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Hindu Studies. Like ripples spreading outward from a dense pebble, bhakti’s semantic richness has paved the way for continually new applications.
Bhakti as history, narrative, and ‘movement’
Currently, the understanding of bhakti as a ‘movement’ has become one of the most controversial implications of the term. This account, shared in some form by key Hindu texts and also by scholars such as Hardy, sees bhakti as having swelled over centuries, rolling across India, and submerging much of the renunciatory practice, dispassionate advaitic monism, and propitiatory ritual that preceded it. Given a female form and a voice of her own, ‘Bhakti-devī’s now well-known autobiographical accounts in the Purāṇas tell a ‘miracle history’ of a Southern youth, later decrepitude in the north, and a magical rejuvenation in the regions associated with Vaiṣṇava worship. These historicising accounts reveal a profound self-awareness among some of the groups that took on the religious trend. They use the idea with a sense of a volatile past (and future), of pride in the feeling of cultural ‘freshness’ and of tradition transformed, and a need to ‘carry along’ tradition, rather than to abandon it – however triumphal champions of the ‘new’ styles of practice, arts, and theory might feel. In their sectarian leanings, these stories also warn us that the notion of Bhakti had already become polemicised by the early centuries CE. While there is much here to say about the authors’ sense of standing at a crucial turning point in the history of the broad intellectual culture of the subcontinent, modern events have introduced pressing concerns about the implications of this narrative.
John Stratton Hawley writes of seeing a mural praising Rām amid the remnants of the Babri Mosque, inscribed with the motto ‘Rām kī bhakti rāṣṭra kī śakti hai’ (Hawley 2008). Much of his work since then has born the marks of that experience. The polemical power of the idea seems to have extended almost throughout the course of its use, from the Gītā’s defence of bhakti over renunciation and ritual onwards. This power has sometimes been used to empower marginalised groups, to some extent justifying its reputation as a form of ‘protest’ Hinduism that championed direct access to the presence and the gifts of the divine, an egalitarian individualism, and the democritisation of religious reflection through the medium of the arts and vernacular languages. But with the modern politically-motivated appropriation of bhakti as an intrinsically Hindu phenomenon, the power of the ‘bhakti’ idea has also been used to elide the influence of Buddhist, Jain, and Islamic culture, alienating other religions from their participation in the landscapes and identity of ‘India’. Opposing this rewriting of history, scholars have more recently sought to relate the historical narrative that bhakti tells about itself to the actual conditions of its flourishing.
A significant proportion of research on bhakti traditions in the past five years has been devoted to contextualising them against the backdrop of different regions and languages, social, sectarian, and religious divisions, relations of patronage or of competition, and very diverse cultural influences. This increasingly pluralistic approach has helped to counter its reification, while the ‘Hindu-isation’ of bhakti is also being challenged by work on Indian Islamic devotion to Sufi saints and pirs, the nirguṇa bhakti of syncretic thinkers such as Kabir, as well as the bhakti devoted to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Tīrthaṅkaras and other ‘not quite divine’ figures who stand outside the bounds of what is normally called ‘Hinduism’. Of particular interest have been the social conditions that polemicised bhakti into an exclusive term of identity. In the publications of the past five years alone, we have gained a significantly better picture of the ways in which the history and concept of bhakti were affected by inter-sectarian competition (Stewart 2010), the hagiographic imagining of generations of followers (Hawley 2012), changing conventions in arts, intellectual culture and the demands of patronage (Busch 2011), the reception of the bhakti ‘public’ both in the periods of composition (Novetzke 2007) and in subsequent generations (Manring 2005), and also the desire to develop an umbrella category that would unite the diverse philosophical perspectives, deity-affiliations, and regional communities of India (Nicholson 2010).
More broadly, work has been done to fill out our picture of the influence of courtly culture, administrative and mercantile changes in empire and kingdom, reactions to increased mobility and the in- and out-flux of immigrants and emigrants, the changing sense of territory and pilgrimage’s place in laying claim to it, new forms of social subversion and cultural exchange, developments in the social, political, and natural sciences, forms and styles of literary composition, and other structural features of the contemporary world, all of which provided social infrastructures that supported the complex yet strikingly coherent traditions of devotion, allowing them to flourish over time. Yet it is important to apply such historical insights with clarity: religious ideas and actions can rarely be explained solely by reference to political interests. The unravelling of bhakti into its constituent strands does not make it disappear; it merely reveals some of the intellectual and cultural threads that constitute it.
Bhakti as experience, yoga, and emotion
The Viraśaiva poet Basavanna writes of ‘bhakti’ as a kind of experience – one in which the quality of emotional intensity predominates, even to the point of pain:
Hardy’s study of bhakti begins by describing the distinctive character of ‘bhakti’ experience. Drawing largely on Vaiṣṇava contexts and particularly on the ecstatic Bengali figure of Caitanya, he paints a picture of Hindu devotion as ‘an all-absorbing religious passion’ (Hardy 1983, p.4) that takes place at the ‘personal, experiential, or the mystical, level’ (Hardy 1983, p.8), and is subsequently ‘transfigured’ into poetry and myth.
Don’t you take on
this thing called bhakti:
like a saw
it cuts when it goes
and it cuts again
when it comes. (trans. Ramanujan 1973, p.79)
Hardy’s analysis has been influential on later approaches; other scholars have worked at the coal-face of texts and practices to excavate the intense experiences at the core of the bhakti phenomenon. Norman Cutler’s Songs of Experience (1987), published the year after Edward Bruner’s The Anthropology of Experience pressed home the importance of looking to the experience behind the cultural form, interpreted Āḻvār poetry in terms of its effect on the devotee’s sense of identity. He or she experiences a ‘poet-god-audience triangle’ that allows ‘all devotees to become saints’ (Cutler 1987, p.47). David Haberman’s studies of both bhakti pilgrimages (1994) and bhakti narratives (1988) show that the scholar must be able to register the imaginal events and landscape of Krishna’s village home, invisible to the untrained eye, in order to understand the context that gives those practices their meaning; and elsewhere he points out that no ritual or scriptural practice is adequate unless they produce an independent inner attitude of desire (lobha) for greater encounter with Kṛṣṇa (Haberman 1994, p.66). Frederick Smith reminds us that possession often functioned as a way of charting the shifts of those inner states such as bhāva, and particularly of the extreme ecstatic experiences of saints such as Caitanya and later Ramakrishna – experiences that were also crucial in establishing their authority (Smith 2007). In later periods, the hagiographic narratives that still give shape to much of modern Hindu identity, have also functioned as biographical narratives of bhakti experience. The ecstasies of Caitanya, the rigours of a Swaminarayan, the visions of Antal or Karraikal all provide a touchstone that legitimates and guides the sampradāya forward through history.
This notion of bhakti as a phenomenon rooted in powerful subjective experience accords well with the Bhāgavata Mahātmya’s idea that it is a hidden source of health and vitality; the Bhāgavata Purāṇa tells us that without bhakti the world becomes so purposeless, unpoetic, and emotionally dead, that ‘ears that do not listen to the exploits of Viṣṇu are mere holes … A head … is a mere burden … Hands … are the hands of a corpse … A heart … is a heart of stone.’ (2.3.20–23). Frederick Smith has linked bhakti to the broader category of religious experience, defining it as ‘loving engagement with the object of one’s religious practice … a natural part of every religion and every deeply felt religious or spiritual act’ (Smith 1998, pp.17–19). Smith’s claim that the ‘devotional sentiment is found in Sanskrit texts of all ages’ suggests that bhakti – as the vivifying experiential substrate of practice – cannot confined to specific uses, or pinned to any specific periods, regions, or genres of practice.
The renunciatory, inward-facing, dispassionate practice of yoga is sometimes seen as a diametrically opposed state to the communal, sense-rich, passionate practice of popular bhakti, and that the former was forced into a marginal position in Hindu society by the emergence of the latter. Bhakti texts and thinkers sometimes depicted the limitations of merely ascetic, yogic, vedāntic, or logical approaches to the divine – an axis of comparison of which there are still signs in Brahmo-Samaj-influenced thinkers such as Tagore who, in his novel The Home and the World, depicted a nationalist bhakti that was in contrast to ‘dry logic’ (preferring, in this case, the latter).
But of course the dichotomisation of yogic dispassion and ascetic lifestyle from theistic devotion is ill-grounded; many contemporary Hindu renunciants are in fact Śiva bhaktas, and yoga as a discipline of controlling and harnessing the mental-physical self has come to be applied to all sorts of goals. In text too, the two traditions have a relationship of complementarity, and even of identity. If the yoga that we see in the Yoga Sūtra and Yoga Upaniṣads is above all the analysis, control, and harnessing of mental states, then certain traditions of bhakti are a continuation of that project, providing a theory of the emotional modifications of the mind (and heart) in the bhakti rasas, as well as a practical method for controlling and cultivating emotion through the use of devotional arts, sādhanā routines of an up-building character, and the inspiration of an exemplar present in the figure of the saint who lives constantly in the elevated state of absorption and one-pointed focus on the divine.
Thus, Bhakti appears not as a competitor to yoga, but as its heir. In the Bhagavad Gītā bhakti is the new yoga, and dispassionate social-embeddedness the new renunciation. In the Purāṇas, both Pārvatī and the Gopīs are envied by on-looking ascetics for the focus and fortitude that their love effortlessly imparts to them. The lovesick Rādhā is depicted by Rūpa Gosvāmī as a master ascetic, braving the fires of suffering and following Kṛṣṇa in samādhi on the ‘eye [i.e. possession]-path of the ascetics’ (yamināṃ netra-padivīm, in Haṃsadūta 87). The focus on subjectivity that we see in yoga’s inward turn, was instrumental in paving the way for the new sculpting of self in devotional theology, arts and practice.
If the monarchic protection of Rāma, the maternal protection of Durgā, the auspicious marriage of Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī, and the village relationships of Kṛṣṇa, seem to be a far cry from the lifestyles associated with yogic practice, then other varieties of devotional experience, such as guru bhakti help to bridge the gap. Indeed, the guru-śiṣya relationship may be one of the original templates for the intimate ‘sharing’ that takes place in bhakti. The reference to bhakti in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad could be seen as conflating devotion to god with that directed to the guru (Pechilis 2011, p.109), and the Netra Tantra tells us that the processes that the guru undertakes for benefit of the disciple are a catalogue of the effects that one might hope for from devotion to a deity – these include processes of transforming the body of the disciple into an immortal ‘subtle’ body, entering him through yogic possession, yoking him to himself, and liquefying the ‘inner organ’ (antaḥkaraṇa) of selfhood and drawing it into his own self, potentially for the purposes of ‘causing him to reach the most excellent abode’ (White 2009, p.72). As Brahman or Īśvara may be likened in Vedānta to the sun pervading the world with its rays, so too the yogi is a sun that reaches out its rays into his disciples, illustrating the kinds of ‘sharing’ and ‘participation’ that a bhakta can hope to experience.
Strikingly intense and intimate emotion forms the distinctive characteristic in Hardy’s account, and the prolific publication of bhakti literatures in the past thirty years has provided a rich context in which to explore the contours of that emotion. Nancy Martin defines bhakti in terms of a ‘complex and multi-dimensional relationship between human and divine, including adoration but also partaking of every form of love possible between human beings, from parental love to that of lovers’ (Martin 2003, p.183). Bhakti rarely prefers love in its most simple and unproblematic forms, and scholars of the Śakta and Śaiva bhakti traditions, such as June McDaniel and Karen Pechilis, have helped to extend our understanding of the palette of bhakti emotions. McDaniel has highlighted the emotion of comfort in maternal protection, and also fear at the power and authority of Kali as creatrix (McDaniel 2004). In the present issue, Karen Pechilis has helped to show how the emotion of love can be blended in a captivating mixture with awe-ful horror in worship of Śiva’s cremation-ground tantric form. Hanuman is the widely worshipped recipient of enthusiastically ‘heroic’ emotions, a deity who opens the heart and shows submission through courageous action (Lutgendorf 2007). Devotion to Murugan calls forth a bhakti of appreciating his martial vigour, while devotion to the Balakṛṣṇa form of Kṛṣṇa involves a bhakti of being irresistibly charmed in the face of naughtiness. Other gods call forth further emotions, positive and negative, dynamic and even serene; the Kashmiri scholar Abhinavagupta provides a characterisation of the yogic, renunciatory realisation of Śiva as an emotion of śanti or ‘peace’, provoking us to wonder whether even the subjective experience of dispassionate calm and lucidity can also be a form of bhakti experience.
Yet in the more impassioned forms of devotional emotion, we see the pronounced mark of bhakti’s tantric and siddha-yogic heritage. The emotion of kāma (love) in the Gītāgovinda, that a willing bhakta must allow to slip in to his or her mind through the ‘softening’ influence of Jayadeva’s poetry, is the same god Kāma who tries to invade (i.e. ‘possess’) Śiva in the Purāṇas, only to be yogically destroyed by that master of all spirits. The work of Frederick Smith and David Gordon White has helped to bring to light ways in which possession forms a pervasive part of the Hindu world-view, and June McDaniel has helped to apply those insights in the context of popular devotion, adding contemporary ethnographies that alert us to the special meeting of possession and passion in Bengal’s tantric-bhakti blends (McDaniel 1989). Emotion is frequently seen as a kind of possession, and like a tantric possession, it can transform and divinise us, elevating us into the subtle body through which we are able to interact more freely with God.
This tantric notion of the devotional passions may seem at odds with the elegant theorisation of bhakti in the aesthetic tradition. There we see a patient, gradual cultivation of persistent practice, building systematically on religious habitus, transitory emotions, permanent moods, and eventually mahābhāva, all of which seems to be a far cry from the volatile possessions of a medium. Indeed, one of the purposes of such meticulous texts as the Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu may have been to differentiate bhakti as a life-long state of living, from more capricious episodes of ecstasy, and McDaniel has shown that this remains a concern for modern Bengali bhaktas (McDaniel 2012). But the connections remain, and tantra has been ingeniously woven together with the dramaturgy of the classical aesthetic tradition; one cannot fail to notice that the outward signs of blushing, shaking, sweating, weeping, eyes darting about, etc. by which an actor signals emotion to an audience, are the same signs that signal possession – and also some of the same theatrical marks of emotion that make early Hindi cinema so melodramatic to foreign eyes! The inter-weaving of the two threads of devotion and possession has contributed to one of the bhakti tradition’s most interesting features: its extraordinarily detailed phenomenology of the types, stages and signs of emotion.
The exaltation of bhakti by thinkers like Rūpa Gosvāmī prompts us to reconsider the nature of emotion itself. Rūpa tells us that above the five main forms of mokṣa (co-residence in same world, equality in power, proximity, similarity in form, or even union), seva, equated with bhakti yoga, is said to be the highest, making all normal kinds of mokṣa appear ‘light’ in contrast (Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu 1.1.13 and 34). Seva here, is surely not only ritual service to the deity – rather it is a sort of yoga, a harnessing of oneself to a specific goal with complete focus and devotion. This is no mere affect; Lutjeharms has argued that bhakti was considered to be a pramāṇa, a direct encounter with the divine object. There are ontological issues at stake here, as in bhakti emotion we come into contact not with a contingent state of mind, but with a major force in the universe, a key ingredient of reality, that cannot otherwise be fully known than via the long, difficult, many-tiered ladder of emotion.
Bhakti as body, sense, world, and divinity
While the subjective dimension of bhakti is central to its self-understanding, it reverses the modern western template for ‘mystical’ or ‘ecstatic’ experiences. Emotion, in bhakti traditions, rarely stands alone as an isolated sudden and otherworldly experience of the kind that fascinated the William Jameses and Evelyn Underhills of the west. Bhakti experiences tend to be strongly embedded in a narrative context and are replete with sensory content. Most bhakti-based notions of mokṣa, unlike the pure consciousness of Sāṃkhya kaivalya, or the un-worldly consciousness sought in many forms of Advaita, aim for existence in a world of selves, forms, bodies, and relationships. This ‘world-affirming’ tendency is a topic of fascination in contemporary scholarship on bhakti, reflecting broader orientations in religious studies and phenomenology.
Many such traditions are well grounded in two millennia of philosophical debate about the status of the perceived world in relation to the divine. The Upaniṣads contain images of divine transformation (e.g. gold into ornaments in Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 6.2 or food into the different forms of those it nourishes in Taittirīya Upaniṣad 3.9), of divine partition (as of space into separate containers in Kāṭha Upaniṣad 2.10 and Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad 3.12), and of divine emanation (e.g. threads from a spider, plants from the earth, hair from a head in Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.7), Hindu debate about the implications of such passages questioned whether the world should be affirmed and in what way – as a transformation of divinity, or one manifestation of its capacities, or an intended creation of god with intrinsic value and purpose.
Theologians who were strongly associated with medieval and early modern bhakti take a philosophically informed stand on the issue: Rāmānuja, for instance, argues that the world is god’s body in the sense of being a medium of divine action (prakāra), while, for Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas, phenomenal reality is the very activity of the divine, a medium for generating the bliss that is the essence of Kṛṣṇa. This debate was also engaged in Śakta and Śaiva Tantric texts; at one end of the spectrum the Netra Tantra depicts an intimate and laudatory relationship between god and goddess or guru and pupil, while praising the great eye of Śiva as a source of the whole universe. At the other end of the spectrum, the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra notes that transcendence (paratva) cannot exist alongside colour, sound and form, and that the true nature of the divine is beyond the world. In many traditions bhakti took the form not of a single movement, but of a circuit of dynamic debates circling around questions of the divine nature, and the possibilities of a relationship with that nature, for centuries.
While relatively few Hindus have ever read the Upaniṣads, Tantras, or scholastic writings of Vedānta, bhakti served as the arena for such religious doctrines at the popular level, often expressing them through image and myth: the idea of a participatory or shared divinity, partially embodied in the universe, is illustrated in the image of Kṣṛṇa revealing his many-headed, many-mouthed ‘Viśva-rūpa’ form which contains all gods and beings, in the Bhagavad Gītā, or the image of the endless Śiva-liṅgaṃ transfixing the universe, illustrates for everyday people that subtle scholastic virtue of infinity that elevates bhakti gods over the broader pantheon of deities.
The very expression of bhakti genres in narrative and poetry added a new dimension, affirming the situatedness of sense-perception, relationship and plot. Bhakti experience became incarnate in a body of words, giving new life to literatures that became touchstones of emotion, sources of grace, and objects of devotion. Through the reading of many texts, as Vasudha Narayanan says of Āḻvār poetry, ‘devotion becomes manifest, tangible, the words become fragrant, like a garland.’ (Narayanan 2007, p.228). Bhakti literatures enact theology by shaping the experience of the devotee – thus, for instance Wulff describes the Gītāgovinda as a kind of temple, following a ‘rhythmic disposition’ towards a ‘point of intense concentration’ (Wulff 1984, p.13). Similarly, Norman Cutler describes Tamil bhakti literatures as a transformation of the devotee through ‘a series of identifications’ that lead to a form of divine union:
In such ways, Bhakti can function not only as a style, or a state, but as a process of creating participation, remaking the self into part of a shared whole.
… as the phalaśruti verses plainly affirm, the poems of the saints have direct consequences for their audience, consequences that are not confined to poetic effect … The poet identifies with the god he worships; the audience identifies with the poet, who is, above all, a model worshiper. And by following the saint’s example, the audience finally identifies with the god. (Cutler 1987, p.37)
The use of form and affirmation of the senses can employ concrete media as well as verbal ones. The smells, sounds, colours, textures, and tastes evoked in poetry, are can be reinforced at any time by a visit to the temple where the direct glance of the deity, the scent of incense, the colours of adornment in the temple and sensation of substances, as well as the sensitivity to landscape cultivated by pilgrimage. Dennis Hudson did much to show the ways in which temples served not only as manifestations of political power to devotees, but also as concrete theologies, ‘designed and painted to seize their six senses of touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell and thought, and then focus them on Deva or God, who is the subject of every spoken word and material form’ (Hudson 2008, p.6). These data-rich reconstructions of the sensory world are characteristic of bhakti genres, activating the imagination as a receptive organ of awareness.
Importantly, the ‘bhakti-body’ can as well be made of thought, as of flesh. It is with the thought-sense-agency body of the self (rather than the merely biological one) that the devotee takes the dark limbs of Kṛṣṇa and Kālī into his or her mind, or is ‘touched’ by the possession of a deity. Even in devotional ‘acting’ (Haberman 1988) the imagination’s virtual reality becomes as vital as the material one. The bhakti uses of the dūta-kāvya genre of literature drive this home: in Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Haṃsadūta the whole journey through landscapes marked by memories of Kṛṣṇa is an imagined one, but it is precisely at this level that we can see him in those the hills and forests, and it is also at this level that his estranged lover Rādhā will be able to welcome him at her side once again, even though he will never return. It is perhaps important to remember that the material body was but one, and perhaps the least, of many ‘bodies’ in Indian culture (Wujastyk 2009), and that imaginal, subtle, and action-bodies offered other forms of embodiment or – alternatively of ‘en-sensement’, ‘en-emotionment’, and ‘en-narrativement’.
Four perspectives on Bhakti
In the present issue, Karen Pechilis explores the writings of Karraikāl Ammaiyār, revealing devotional tropes with which those who have focused on the Vaiṣṇava purāṇas will be less familiar – cremation grounds instead of blossoming forests, a demon coven instead of village hotbed of gossip, and the wild dance of the ascetic Śiva instead of the erotic-play of the ornamented lover Kṛṣṇa. Pechilis explores the history behind the image of Śiva as dancer, tracing what we now know as the Naṭarāja image through from puranic textual accounts of Śiva’s cremation ground dance, to Karaikkāl Ammaiyār’s mid first millennium poetry, through tenth-century Chola images, to Ananda Coomaraswamy’s exhibition-catalogue essay ‘Dance of the Divine’. She shows how the liminal and challenging world of demons, cremation grounds, and the ‘edge’ of the universe provided a powerful setting for the bhakti imagination, and also for the devotional subject – as one who feels empowered to bring himself or herself into the divine story, and to do so in a more than merely visual way: Karaikkāl’s devotional subjectivity is fully embodied as a demon in the divine world of the cremation ground.
Jack Hawley’s article relocates bhakti firmly in its geographical, political, and historical setting, exemplifying the method of doing history from the ‘bottom-up’ by reconstructing the lived framework that informed Gaudiya thought. In this case, that framework is the reality of sectarian flourishing from Jaipur, through Brindavan, across to Puri, in organic ways that then had to be integrated into the neat categorial ‘four-sampradāya’ scheme, seeking to place current movements within the traditional lineages of Rāmānuja, Nimbārka, Madhva, or Viṣṇuswāmī. We are reminded that the geographical descriptions in Bhakti texts, which so often, as echoes of timeless and heavenly realities, hide their historicity in a veil of otherworldly interpretation, actually tell us about real people in real places. Hawley argues that Jaisingh inspired a Gauḍīya (and possibly pan-Vaiṣṇava) attempt to fit into the established categorisations that could give legitimacy.
Barbara Holdrege’s article provides an illuminating account of the integral combination of theology, metaphysics, practice, and poetics that is seen in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava tradition. Her analysis highlights the important conceptual differences that distinguish that school from other Bhāgavata Purāṇa-inspired Vedāntic sampradāyas, drawing away from the tendency to conflate the theologies of the Vṛndāvana thinkers. Holdrege’s article shows us an early modern theology in full flower, creatively at work defending key aspects of their ‘bhakti’ religiosity from competing Yogic and Advaitic values. The importance of the body to Gauḍīyas is a crucial feature of Holdrege’s exposition; polemically positioning their account in contrast to the body-soul dichotomies found in other contemporary schools, they invest different terms with new meaning, ultimately creating an innovative metaphysics of embodied form by which to superordinate the various shades of gross and material body with their own non-material devotional self.
Finally, Jessica Birkenholtz brings a ‘hidden’ deity to light, setting the Nepali goddess Svasthānī beside those ‘Sanskritic’ pan-Indian deities who receive the majority of scholarly attention. Her article offers an illuminating window onto the bhakti that takes place at the local level focusing on regional deities, she also shows us the difficulties that a goddess must face in ‘fitting in’ to the clan of pan-Indian gods through processes of assimilation or familial connections. Above all, Birkenholtz’s detailed investigation into the many places and ways in which Svasthānī appears, gives us a concrete case study for the profound complexity, fluidity, and context dependence that qualifies the significance of all Hindu deities, and particularly those whose somewhat marginal status means they must be adaptable.
These articles show us both canonical bhakti groups, and more unusual and under-represented cases. Importantly, they describe both the historical form that bhakti cultures took and also the doctrinal content that distinguished them. We see devotional subjectivity taking on different kinds of embodiment, and we also see the way in which devotional identities were martialled into the pre-formed shapes that tradition had arranged for them. Rather than a single ‘movement’, in these views we see bhakti as a creative point of transition through which the complex and elusive dimension of devotion took birth again and again in ever-new historical bodies, breathing new life into each even as the new form grew old and the next transformation began. Perhaps then it is not the historical sense of the word ‘movement’ that is needed here, but rather the literal one – whatever caution we employ in the use of such a weighted word, we can certainly say that bhakti was a ceaseless ‘movement’ of ideas through the many landscapes of Hindu history.