Unforgetting Chatanya

Vaishnavism and Cultures of Devotion in Colonial Bengal

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Varuni Bhatia
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     312 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190686246.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Unforgetting Chaitanya is a book about projects of fashioning an authentic Bengali self in the colonial encounter through narratives of loss, forgetfulness, and anamnesis—a recovery of something of great value that has been lost—in which the principal character is the great cultural hero of Bengal, Shri Caitanya (1486-1533). Varuni Bhatia argues in her book that various groups and individuals of 19th century Bengal indulged in such narratives of forgetfulness and anamnesis, to be distinguished from a similar discourse of decline in Bengali Vaishnavism, with several purposes, the principal of which were the cultural-nationalist and the religion-reformist. She further argues that these projects were essentially different than those of much-studied movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission, in that they were not about creating universal Hinduism or effecting social change, but about fashioning a characteristically Bengali self and representing Vaishnavism in the colonial age. 

Bhatia focuses on the character of Caitanya and argues that what made him an ideal medium for such projects was his “middleness” or malleability, consisting in his being a Brahmin and a Sanskrit scholar who did not care much for caste and was, therefore, open for appropriation by all kinds of agents and groups. Several areas in which she pursues the theme of unforgetting include the discourse of authentic Bengali language and literature around the medieval Vaishnava corpus, the formation of this corpus through projects of recovering and publishing Vaishnava literature, and a discourse of recovery of an authentic Vaishnava self that was, in fact, a process of discipline that aimed to define who a real Vaishnava was. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is its fifth chapter, which narrates the story of the rediscovery of Sri Caitanya’s birthplace by one of the most intriguing figures of the colonial encounter, Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda (1838-1914). The chapter focuses on the theme of unforgetting through Bhaktivinoda’s struggle to rediscover Caitanya’s birthplace in Nabadwip, a town that had lost its former glory as a seat of Sanskrit learning and devotional fervor and the capital of the Sena dynasty. Bhatia tells a fascinating story of negotiating religious authority that may be taken as the quintessential illustration of the colonial encounter. Bhaktivinoda relied on all kinds of objective evidence such as maps, archeological reconstructions, topographical surveys, and so forth, to prove that the real birthplace of Caitanya was a spot that was initially revealed to him in a vision. However, the real twist in the story of rediscovery turns out to be a yearning for home—a yearning which becomes an Eliadean construction of sacred space—on Bhaktivinoda’s part: that is, an attempt not only to restore order from the chaos brought about by colonialism through constructing “sacred topography,” but also, and perhaps more significantly, to recreate the childhood home of pure happiness and absence of worry where he could finally rest from the long years of “subjugation and alienation,” the “homelessness, tiredness, and constant travel” of civil service (174). 

In her argument for unforgetting as a conceptual frame through which the narrative of loss and recovery can be appreciated as an organic project of fashioning an authentic Bengali subject out of the colonized self, Bhatia depends on the idea of viraha or love in separation, generally associated with Krishna and his female lovers the gopis, but also common in references to Caitanya. Viraha essentially expresses remembrance of and longing for former happy times, and a hope for their return. That the spirit of viraha had an important role in the 19thcentury Bengal narratives of loss and recovery strikes me as the most valuable contribution of the book. 

It would have been worthwhile, perhaps, if Bhatia had also focused on Caitanya’s hagiographies, which commonly depict a dire state of loss of religion and devotion in society prior to Caitanya’s birth, one which he himself is to rectify, and see how much the 19th century discourse of loss and recovery might have been an extension of these narratives. 

Be that as it may, Unforgetting Chaitanya is a worthwhile reading for anyone interested in religion and the colonial encounter, rich in information and insight and gracefully written. Unfortunately, it requires at least another round of proofreading, as it is chock-full of inconsistencies in how Bengali names are transliterated, not to mention typos and occasional formatting blunders. Oxford University Press should know better even without the hefty price tag of $99.00.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksander Uskokov is a doctoral candidate in South Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Varuni Bhatia is assistant professor of Hindu and South Asian studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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