The Quotidian Revolution

Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India

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Christian Lee Novetzke
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     2016.
     432 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231175807.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Quotidian Revolution presents a provocative argument for why the earliest Marathi literature paid close attention to the everyday world of people dwelling beyond the courtly, intellectual cultures of Indian authors of that time. This volume builds on the author’s Religion and Public Memory (Columbia University Press, 2008), which showed how Hindu devotional performance traditions combined orality and literacy to create new bhakti “publics.” The Quotidian Revolution investigates the earliest stages of this public-making in 13th-century Maharashtra, which Novetzke suggests may illuminate the process of linguistic and cultural vernacularization in South Asia more broadly.

The book is laid out clearly and engagingly written. Novetzke lucidly introduces his overall arguments and proceeds in three parts. Part 1 examines Marathi’s emergence as a literary language, by correlating inscriptions of the Seuna Yadava court, the exclusive use of Marathi for a vulgar donkey-curse on donation records, and the sudden appearance of two extraordinary figures (Chakdradhar and Jnandev) who came from and then challenged the Brahminic ecumene. Novetzke thus addresses an anomaly in Sheldon Pollock’s influential argument that Indic vernacular languages developed mainly through courtly use and patronage, not religious traditions. The “benign ambivalence” of Yadava rulers toward Marathi (not patronage) left space open for Marathi literature to develop on a more popular level, through Brahmin spiritual entrepreneurs’ efforts to reach out to all people. The resulting concern for everyday life and “self-aware critique of culture” (286), evident also in some earlier Sanskrit texts, is at the heart of vernacularization.

Parts 2 and 3 examine two very different 13th-century Marathi texts that exemplify this vernacularization. The Lilacharitra contains stories about the founder of the Mahanubhav tradition, Chakradhar, who was considered to be Krishna incarnate. Composed in a striking “historical realist” mode, the text portrays Chakradhar routinely dismissing caste and gender restrictions in order to build an inclusive community of followers. Jnandev in his Jnaneshvari self-consciously uses Marathi to bring the Bhagavad Gita’s salvific message to everyone, particularly “women, Shudras, and the like” (strishudradika). Novetzke highlights the ambivalent appearance of caste in the Jnaneshvari. The first nine chapters explicitly transcend caste hierarchy through evocatively inclusive images like an open feast at a town’s crossroads. Yet passages in the latter nine chapters endorse the observance of caste duties and casually use Marathi words for Dalit groups as negative descriptors. This ambiguity, Novetzke argues, is endemic to the “glacial pace” of the revolution toward social equality that vernacularization represents. To bring his message to the people, Jnandev had to resort to quotidian terms that came preloaded with caste baggage.

There is much to admire in this book. It pushes back skillfully against the marginalization of religion in prevailing literary histories of South Asia by discussing Marathi counter-examples. Novetzke’s arguments about quotidian life in premodern literature are provocative, especially for envisioning how elite authors reposition themselves before audiences that included non-elites. He presents a sophisticated view of literary representation that holds together an understanding of authorship from above and engagement with life from below. The discussion of the Lilacharitra’s extraordinary narrative voice and stories of social transgression are delightful and will surely inspire greater interest in this under-studied text. And Novetzke’s fresh approach to the Jnaneshvari, focusing on social ethics and caste, is quite thought-provoking and will move the conversation forward.

Any theory of this scale will raise questions. Can “vernacularization” meaningfully capture the infinite array of tactical localizations and “maneuvers of everyday life” (15) across South Asian literatures, or does it elide different and even competing political agendas? Novetzke argues that the Lilacharitra and Jnaneshvari, while promoting equality on a spiritual level, do not advocate social change yet subtly point people toward that long revolutionary path. Novetzke cites Raymond Williams (286) and Christoph Jaffrelot (306) as precedents for this sense of revolution, both cyclic re-turning and gradual transformation. There is a tension in this imagery, between a cycle that revolves and linear movement forward. How does teleology fit in this dual image? In many places, such as the book’s conclusion (307), Novetzke suggests that the revolution is ultimately destined toward social equality. Equality is a reasonable goal of an agenda-driven movement, but can it be applied to a social process?

When discussing the Jnaneshvari, Novetzke explores Jnandev’s nondual perception of people, which he translates as equality. Whereas Novetzke helpfully notes how his use of “public sphere” was inspired by Jürgen Habermas but is heuristically applied to illuminate South Asian materials (27-31). There is no similar discussion of equality. Marathi and Sanskrit words that Novetzke takes as signifying “equality” could also (perhaps better?) be translated as sameness. Further close reading and is needed to clarify whether “equality” truly fits the 13th-century Marathi textual world.

Novetzke completely separates Jnandev the author, who possessed an egalitarian view of salvific capacity, from the caste-inflected medium of colloquial Marathi that Jnandev used to promote his vision (262-65). This feels a bit too neat. Novetzke emphasizes that his presentation of Jnandev should not offend Jnandev’s followers, and one can certainly appreciate this sensitivity, especially in the cultural political climate of India today. But one could view Jnandev in other ways, accounting for things like logical inconsistency or the weight of the Bhagavad Gita’s authority which Jnandev tries to transmit, thereby presenting Jnandev on more human terms. Critical scholarship should allow for this possibility, even while acknowledging the role of the “sant-function” (120-125) by which memories of Jnandev developed.

It must not be overlooked that the evidential record that Novetzke relies on in this book is very fragmentary: there will always be wide gap between these scant 13th-century sources and attempts to theoretical reconstruct their social worlds. The Quotidian Revolution is an admirably bold attempt to connect dots that are few and far between to create a picture of 13th-century western India. In doing so, Novetzke has made another significant contribution to scholarship on religion and vernacular literature in South Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Keune is Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions at Michigan State University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Lee Novetzke is Professor of religious studies, South Asia studies, and global studies at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India (Columbia, 2008) and coauthor, with William Elison and Andy Rotman, of Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation (2016).

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