Bhakti and Power
Debating India's Religion of the Heart
Series: Global South Asia
- ISBN: 9780295745503
- Published By: University of Washington Press
- Published: April 2019
Bhakti and Power: Debating India’s Religion of the Heart, edited by John Stratton Hawley, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Swapna Sharma, began as a conference titled “Exploring Bhakti: Is Bhakti a Language of Power or of Protest?” at Yale University in 2016. Consisting of an introduction and seventeen chapters, the work presents a diverse range of archives and traditions that illustrate, challenge, or reframe the central question of bhakti’s relationship to power (the term bhakti broadly refers to South Asian devotional traditions), and do much to move the conversation forward into future horizons.
The work’s central question is outlined in the introduction. Here the reader is presented with the standard celebratory narrative of bhakti religion as a protodemocratic movement preaching universality, equality among believers, and the rejection of empty formalism, all expressed through the paradigmatic medium of song (6). This narrative is problematized by the fact that throughout South Asian history whole swaths of the population have at times been excluded from bhakti communities, usually through the interrelated institutions of caste and gender (7). This volume’s chapters all touch on this enduring problematic from a variety of perspectives and archives, from contemporary ethnography, textual analysis, and reflections on classroom pedagogy.
The book is divided into three sections: “Situations,” “Mediations,” and “Solidarities.” In the first section the contributors present bhakti at work in particularly delimited settings, such as affect theory within the poems of Tamil female saint Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār, and the ways that the Virashaivas in Karnataka and Krishna Bhaktas in Braj may challenge power in narrow ways while reinforcing the very same on a structural level. The fifth chapter in particular addresses how the modern equation of the robber Valmiki and the author of the Ramayana was a conscious effort by the Arya Samaj to recruit Dalits into a Hindu voting bloc, confusing for the very Dalits who have been excluded from “Hinduism” for centuries.
In “Mediations” the reader is presented with more theoretical models of bhakti, along the lines of political theology, elite cultural practice, areas of Hindu-Muslim interchange, and as mediating principle within South Asian religion itself. The last section of the book examines further Hindu-Muslim relations and presents an insider’s view of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, as well as instances where Vaiṣṇava bhakti communities succumb to Brahmanical pressure and explicitly construct themselves in opposition to lower-caste communities. The volume ends with a reflection on teaching bhakti in a Western classroom.
One impressive strength of this volume is its wide purview, which provides a kaleidoscopic overview of the state of bhakti studies as well as potential future horizons and research directions. Its chapters examine power at work within a variety of archives and traditions, from bhakti practiced as personal religion and political action, to situations in which Vaiṣṇava bhakti, often positioned as paradigmatically Hindu, served as a “public, cosmopolitan Mughal religion” (184). Furthermore, if one of the central challenges in South Asian religious studies is to reexamine colonial constructions and pedagogically inert curricula, then this volume does an admirable job of challenging the problematic equation of bhakti with Hindu religion, starting with acknowledging the term’s first attestation in Buddhist sources (8) and devoting significant space to Jain and Muslim Sufi uses of bhakti. Expanding the bhakti archive to include non-Hindu traditions is an important step forward in addressing power dynamics within the field of bhakti studies itself and is desirable for decolonizing South Asian religious studies.
At the same time, however, this volume’s great breadth is also its weakness. The work fits seventeen chapters and an introduction within 224 pages (excluding the bibliography), which comes out to an average of just under eight and a half pages. This page length often critically limits the scope of the book’s chapters, such that come chapters cannot fully develop their arguments and conclusions. While not an issue with all of the volume’s chapters, some of them definitely suffer as a result and leave the reader in want of more explanation and explication. However, since many chapters are specific small pieces from scholars who have written more extensively on a given topic, this volume is something of a primer, from which interested readers can move on to more substantive work elsewhere.
All told, Bhakti and Power is a welcome intervention in the field of bhakti studies. The work capably challenges neat narratives, and while its chapters tend to be confined to individual archives that do not present a unified answer to the question of whether bhakti challenges or upholds power dynamics, they do illustrate just how complicated the question itself is. The volume is suitable for undergraduate and graduate-level courses.
Jackson Stephenson is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.Jackson StephensonDate Of Review:November 30, 2021