Poetry As Prayer in the Sanskrit Hymns of Kashmir

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Hamsa Stainton
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2019.
     352 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190889814.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Poetry as Prayer in the Sanskrit Hymns of Kashmir, Hamsa Stainton develops an ambitious history of the stotra  (i.e., hymn of praise)  genre in Kashmir, covering over a thousand years of Sanskritic literary production. Thus, it has an impressive encyclopedic breadth, while delivering a detailed study of an almost unknown material dedicated to the god Śiva: Jagaddhara’s 14th century Stutikusumāñjali, translated as the “flower-offering of praise.” For just this reason, this book will surely become a vital resource for students of Indic religions and South Asian literature. It will foster transdisciplinary conversations into the nature, theory, and limits of both poetry and prayer broadly conceived.

This groundbreaking monograph sheds light, first, on stotras as popular devotional literature and as an underappreciated literary genre. Second, it highlights how Kashmiri Śaiva poets made use of poetics, theology, and devotion in their Sanskrit hymns—giving shape to a unique form of Hindu bhakti (i.e., devotion) in medieval Kashmir, long before the Vaiṣṇavas of Bengal formulated in the 16th  century what is probably the most extensively studied form of Hindu devotionalism. In clarifying the uniqueness of the bhakti manifested in these hymns, Stainton shows how flexible and diverse bhakti was as a pan-Indian and multifarious tradition. And while the tantric and non-dual Śaiva and Śākta traditions of Kashmir have been studied and translated in the last decades, nonetheless very little has been said about their appetite for devotional hymns, leaving the question open: are stotras kāvya (i.e., Sanskrit poetry) or ritual prayer? These Kashmiri hymns were also an exegetical complement to a very fine philosophical system that has been known under the misnomer of “Kashmir Shaivism.” Are then stotras theology?

Thus, Stainton complicates several histories: the history of bhakti is presented as intertwined with the history of stotras, poetics, as well as with Indic theories on rasa (that is, the aesthetic emotion triggered by a work of art). While Kashmiri theorists downplayed the role of bhakti in their aesthetics (most notoriously, Abhinavagupta did not include bhakti among the rasas), many Śaiva poets, on the contrary, utilized aesthetic language when composing stotras. At the same time, non-dual mystical expressions coexisted here with a high degree of intellectual achievement; they are not simply spontaneous raptures of automatic writing, as they have often been portrayed. While some stotras may be used as supports for contemplative practices, they can also be the arena for literary experimentation.

Chapter six, for instance, illuminates the Sanskritic innovation that stotras helped to facilitate. Here, Stainton’s intellectual history complicates the narrative of the “death of Sanskrit” that Sheldon Pollock famously put forward. Pollock’s controversial claim that at a certain point the diversity of Sanskrit literature was reduced to stotras—after the 12th century in Kashmir—and that this reduction should be interpreted as a cultural decline is questionable, to say the least. Though not rejecting his thesis in full, Stainton challenges Pollock’s claim by showinghow complex some of these stotras really were in the 14th  century and beyond. And while it is true that certain forms of literary production simply ended, stotras flourished not at the expense of creativity but as a sign of it.

The last chapter should be especially interesting for students and scholars of religion, due to its fresh reflection on “tradition” as a process, and its hermeneutic implications for the study of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature, in particular. Stainton’s discussion of “interpretive communities” is very useful for the study of any religious tradition, particularly for the way it emphasizes the active role of audiences in shaping a given collective past. In the case of stotras, devotional hymns are not mechanically repeated, passed down for generations in an unchanged form, but rather they are part of a dynamic public memory by which a community imagines and creates itself through “an ongoing process of revision and debate” (266).

To be sure, with this book Stainton fills an important lacuna in the scholarship of South Asian literature and Hindu studies. In spite of their ubiquitous presence, scholarly attention to stotras has been marginal until now. One reason for this neglect may have been the stereotype that they were a frozen form of meaningless ritualism. Another common trope was that they were spontaneous expressions of the devotee’s heart. One of Stainton’s central arguments is that stotras cannot be reduced to either of these extremes; stotras can actually be highly sophisticated pieces of literature reflecting on mystical experience, aesthetic theory, profound theological teachings, or on their poetic form itself, to the point of challenging—if not dissolving at times—the boundaries between genres and disciplines. Therefore, stotras should be taken seriously as both poetic and religious expressions, prayer expressed as poetry and vice versa.  

Published in the AAR “Religion in Translation” series, this is also a pioneer work of Sanskrit translation, in which poems that have been lost to the night of history come to light for the first time in beautiful and yet sober English. The selection of Jagaddhara’s poems is also magisterial in that it encapsulates the broad possibilities and limitations of the stotra genre at large and its entanglement with bhakti spirituality, for “Jagaddhara championed stotra literature as the best form of kāvya, specifically because of its bhakti” (264) and envisioned a “Śaiva devotionalism fully integrated with Sanskrit poetics” (192).

Given the wide scope of the book, there may be a minor potential drawback of such an ambitious project, in that it may be difficult at times to keep track of so many texts and authors throughout the centuries. It might have been useful to provide a chart at the end with names, titles, and dates to make it easier for non-specialists to orient themselves within this immense forest of South Asian literature. Despite of this, the book accomplishes its task of introducing the reader to a vast and unexplored religious literature, which undoubtedly deserves much better recognition and more scholarly attention. Poetry as Prayer provides a unique window into the stotra genre while offering a significant platform for a larger and insightful discussion on the intricate relationship between religion and literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Monteserin Narayana is a doctoral student in religious studies at Stanford University

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hamsa Stainton is assistant professor in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He studied South Asian religions at Columbia University (PhD, 2013), Harvard Divinity School (MTS, 2007), and Cornell University (BA, 2004). His co-edited volume (with Bettina Sharada Bäumer), Tantrapuspañjali: Tantric Traditions and Philosophy of Kashmir; Studies in Memory of Pandit H.N. Chakravarty, was published in 2018 by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Keywords: 

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