A Genealogy of Devotion
Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga, and Sufism in North India
- ISBN: 9780231190329
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: May 2019
Patton Burchett’s A Genealogy of Devotion: Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga, and Sufism in North India is an ambitious expansion of his dissertation on the Rāmānandīs of Galta, who are an instructive test case to examine the development of Hindu bhakti identity in early modernity. Burchett contextualizes his research against a magisterial historical backdrop, offering many crucial interventions on early modern Indian religion, including the precolonial provenance of the divide between legitimate and illegitimate religion (bhakti vs. Tantra), the crucial role that Tantra played in the development of bhakti, and the “Sufi inflected” bhakti that has come to define modern Hinduism.
Part 1 (chapters 1 through 3) is a sweeping literature review that expertly contextualizes Burchett’s archive within cutting-edge research on the history of Indian religion. Chapter 1 overviews the development of Tantra and its supporting institutional structures in medieval South Asia, tracing the economics of power between maṭhas (the monasteries and religious centers that institutionalized religion) and kingdoms alongside the expansion of Hindu-Brahmanical culture into marginal areas, and the crucial role of Tantra in this process. The second chapter treats the Persianate culture brought by Turkic invasions, and how Sufis mingled with Nāths and yogīs to provide the matrix for the new “Sufi inflected” devotion of early modern bhakti. The third chapter covers Akbar and the Mughal Empire, showing how Mughal models shaped and cultivated modern Vaiṣṇavism as a client religion to buttress Mughal power.
Part 2 (chapters 4 through 6) introduces Burchett’s archive in earnest. Chapter 4 treats the Rāmānandī bhaktas and the new early modern “bhakti sensibility” they exemplify, with roots in yoga and Tantra but rhetorically distanced from the very same. Chapter 5 treats the rise of the Nāth yogīs and Haṭha yoga after the collapse of institutional Tantra. Burchett shows how Tantric practices were stripped down and democratized to be made available to a wider audience, presaging later bhakti developments. Chapter 6 focuses on the life and influence of the 16th century saint Agradās as an example of the development of a more exclusionary bhakti identity within the Rāmānandīs. The Rāmānandīs accomplish this largely by distancing themselves from their proximal others among the Nāths and yogīs to claim an orthodox pedigree.
Part 3 (chapters 7 and 8, and the conclusion) examines the typology between bhakti and tantra that emerged in early modern India. Chapter 7 treats the rhetoric in bhakti songs, in which the reciting the divine name of god is contrasted to the ineffective practices of yoga and tantra-mantra. Chapter 8 examines the “Sufi inflection” of early modern bhakti, arguing that this new form of bhakti owes itself to Sufi influence. Lastly, the conclusion recapitulates a main thesis of this monograph—that the typology between “legitimate” bhakti religion and “illegitimate” Tantric magic predated the arrival of Protestant Christian lenses by several centuries, even though the precise boundary between these two has never been found, with Tantra continuing to permeate Indian religion to this day.
Burchett’s work is particularly strong in its grasp of history and background. Chapters 1 through 3 are masterful and nuanced. The first chapter on Tantra alone would be useful reading for any introductory seminar on the subject, and chapters 2 and 3 provide a sweeping overview of early modern Indian history and its religious institutions. Furthermore, while many recent scholarly works on bhakti address in passing the possibility of Muslim devotionalism and influence on Indian bhakti, Burchett’s work attempts to address this lacuna head-on.
In the course of his many interventions, Burchett inevitably treads on a number of toes. While I found this refreshing, others may find it controversial. Bhakti scholars will notice that Burchett’s narrative hardly follows the standard beats of bhakti historiography; in particular, he attributes the early modern development of ecstatic devotionalism to Sufi influence, whereas Hindu-centric scholars prefer to treat it as a reflex of South Indian bhakti from almost a millennium prior. However, the latter claim begs the question as to why this form of ecstatic Indian devotionalism—with its “golden age” of Bhakti poetry and the growth of hegemonic Vaiṣṇavism—should proliferate during the Mughal era specifically.
In summary, Burchett’s book is an incisive and necessary contribution to the fields of Tantric and Bhakti studies. His work is thoroughly grounded in cutting-edge research and showcases a fearless mastery of Indian history. Although Burchett’s efforts at establishing a direct link between Sufism and bhakti aren’t entirely successful, they are nonetheless commendable and push the conversation forward considerably.
Jackson Stephenson is a PhD Candidate at University of California, Santa Barbara.Jackson StephensonDate Of Review:December 17, 2022