Hagiography and Religious Truth

Case Studies in the Abrahamic and Dharmic Traditions

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Rico G. Monge, Kerry P. C. San Chirico, Rachel J. Smith
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Hagiographical narratives have been an important element of many religious traditions because they highlight the lives of exemplar figures. The contents of these narratives to a person external to a religious tradition often sounds fanciful, fabricated, and untrue, although the believers within that religious tradition often find inspiration from the actions of the holy figure. The uniformly-fine scholarly and insightful essays in this anthology move the investigation of this interesting subject in a new way. The various authors of many of the essays utilize the insights of selected postmodern thinkers without falling into the radical skepticism typical of numerous postmodern thinkers.

Although these essays adopt selective postmodern influences as points of reference to throw new light on the subject hagiography, there is a general agreement among the authors that hagiographical literature represents different forms of truth to those available through empirical methods. Thus, scholars committed to verification and falsification as a means to deal with religious phenomena will have strong reservations with the content and approach of these essays. Those seeking to apply a scientific approach to religious phenomena will be uneasy with, for instance, Jeff Kripal’s story of the lightning bolt from a holy figure to an aspirant and they will be equally mystified by Frank Clooney’s wonderment about the actions of hagiography for comparative theology.

In general, the authors of these essays agree that hagiography represents a legitimate form of historical writing—a kind of sacred history. Hagiographical narratives articulate religious truths and concepts of sanctity. Following the work of Paul Ricoeur, the editors agree that hagiography represents the “truth of manifestation.” The genre is also more than simply stories of saints; hagiography is also associated with issues of iconographical phenomena, hymns, liturgy, and re-enacted ritual. As sacred as historiography, hagiography provides knowledge and interprets data not unlike an historian, although it does not represent an unbiased historical account of someone’s life.

The editors have divided the anthology into four parts: (1) theoretical issues; (2) case studies in Dharmic (eastern) traditions; (3) case studies in Abrahamic traditions; (4) and cases comparing Dharmic and Abrahamic traditions. This overall structure frames the book coherently for the  reader. Hagiography and Religious Truth begins with a foreword by Kripal and ends with an afterword by Frank X. Clooney, S. J. In the theoretical portion of the book, Rico G. Monge reflects on issues of truth, history, objectivity, and hermeneutics. Rachel J. Smith argues that a polarization is created by scholarly critique and popular devotion surrounding the lives of saints, tending to distort the richness of the texts and placing limits on readers. From Smith’s perspective, the text is more open, it reflects a particular time and place, and it changes as its is rewritten. Thus, instead of a static quality, Smith finds a more dynamic quality to the narratives about holy figures. The third essay in the theoretical part is co-authored by Patricia and Peter Bouteneff and together, they examine issues of sacred narrative and truth. A central question for them becomes: “How can we recapture the sense of an old narrative from another time and place?” This problem is overcome by using case studies from scripture and hagiography.

In the second part of the book on Dharmic traditions, the reader finds contributions by Ramdas Lamb, Mark McLauglim, and Joel S. Gruber. Lamb sets his focus on the north Indian area of Chhattisgarh, and the two holy men Guru Ghāsīdās of the Satnāmī Samāj and Parasurām of the Rāmnāmī Samāj. These two nineteenth-century figures take different biographical trajectories with Samāj not developing any hagiography, although their lives are equally inspiring and edifying. McLauglin discovers that the entombed body of Jñāneśvar, founding guru of the Vārkarī devotional movement, radiates outward the blessings and merit of the saint. His tomb functions as a temple, but his hagiography enhances the site and transforms it into sacred space inscribed in the architectural edifice and in the ritual action performed. Finally, Gruber compares the legend of the Indian figure Vimalamitra with his Tibetan emanations, showing how a process of ritual embodiment transforms an Indian figure into Tibetan emanations with the objective of legitimating the Nyingtik tradition.

The third part of the book on the Abrahamic traditions includes four essays by Vernon J. Schubel, Nicholas Denysenko, Bahar Davary, and Todd E. French. Schubel looks at the hagiography of a thirteenth-century Sufi pir Haei Bektaş of the Alevi tradition, whose narrative invites the reader to enter its mystical path. Denysenko focuses on St. John Maximovich, bishop of San Francisco, who wanted to restore the Russian Orthodox monarchy and was critical of the Communist revolution and government, giving his hagiography a political slant. Denysenko looks at how the saint’s hagiography gets communicated by liturgical services with its hymnography borrowing from the hagiographical narrative. Davary’s essay focuses on South Africa and its shrines for Muslim saints that function as protectors of city boundaries. Davary indicates that the hagiography of these Muslim figures makes events meaningful, expresses doctrine, and has political implications directed against colonization and apartheid. Finally, French concludes this section with an essay on St. John of Ephesus’s Lives of the Eastern Saints, a work used to promote an idealized ascetic community used to convert pagans and settle disputes.

The final part of the book is dedicated to comparative essays with Thomas Cattoi exploring the lives of Sylovan-the-Athonite and a famous Tibetan ascetic figure, whereas Kerry Sam Chirico discusses the Khrist Bhaktas’ “devotees of Christ” in the sacred Indian city of Banaras. Chirico’s ethnographic study illustrates how Catholic and Hindu hagiographies become intertwined in an Indian city. Cattoi argues that his marginal subjects represent experiences of transformation that legitimize doctrinal positions, sociopolitical developments, and institutional changes by serving as a bridge between the present and past.

In summary, this is a rich collection of essays that advances work on the topic of hagiography. Many of the essays indicate new ways of understanding a fascinating subject. The essays are very suggestive of new directions for hagiographical studies, and indicate new connections for the subject. It is reasonable to assert that these essays will advance the understanding of hagiography and should encourage other scholars to grasp this subject more seriously in the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carl Olson is professor of religious studies at Allegheny College.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rico G. Monge is assistant professor of theology and teligious ttudies, University of San Diego.

Kerry P. C. San Chirico is assistant professor of interfaith and interreligious studies, Villanova University.

Rachel Smith is assistant professor of theology and teligious studies, Villanova University.



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