Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory

Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court

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Valerie Stoker
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     2016.
     212 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520291836.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory, penned by an established historian of South Asia, is a piece of unquestioned expertise. It brings a fresh picture of the statecraft of the Vijayanagara empire—a most puzzling, cosmopolitan South Asian polity—at the peak of its career in the early 16th century. But not only that.

Valerie Stoker’s book shows that a new concept of a unified Hinduism not only articulated itself in the 16th century South India through conceptual frames by leading religious thinkers, but made itself visible through new institutional forms of temple ritual, economic exchange, and administrative patterns. The most influential institution was maṭha, a monastery-like educational and religious center, typically a seat of a pontiff embodying a succession of ascetic teachers of a religious doctrine. Maṭhas, however, served wider socio-political functions. The book explains the process of formalization of the sectarian divisions through imperial patronage and shows how Vijayanagara rulers relied on maṭhas “to implement key features of its statecraft" (7). Although Vijayanagara supported ecumenism, its patronizing of several religious communities created “competitive environment” for sectarianism to take more pronounced forms. The mutual interdependence between the royal power and the maṭhas was truly complex: while improving their own social standing, maṭhas “integrated newly conquered territories more firmly into the empire" (45). Stoker’s book explores the ways in which royal patronage practices influenced sectarian identities.

The author introduces several concepts to efficiently portray the emergence of sectarian Hinduism: “intersectarian competition” (8); “multiple temple constituencies” (11); “honorific exchanges in shared temple environments” (11); “intersectarian collaboration in the . . . implementation of imperial gifts” (11); and “sectarian competition over courtly resources” (11).  One unquestionable value of Stoker’s book is a new understanding of maṭha in its religious, economic, and social role. What seemed a mysterious historical appearance of sectarian Hinduism can now be better seen as a gradual emergence stimulated by mutual interrelation between the imperial patronage policy, the maṭhas, their spiritual leaders, and their constituencies.

The book effectively combines socio-political with biographic perspective in an attempt to bring back individual agency into the historiography of 16th century South India. Its specific focus remains the person of the leading Mādhva polemist Vyāsatīrtha and his “creative use of new argumentation techniques" (162).

Stoker proposes a “historically informed reading of Vyāsatīrtha polemics" (16) with exponents of other religious and philosophical traditions of the time. She shows how these polemics made him an institutional leader of an expanding network of monasteries and an “agent of the Vijayanagara state" (17). The author’s focus on the way the larger scale polities exercised their authority emphasizes “exploiting the social capital of locally authoritative institutions and networks" (23). Some conclusions Stoker draws deserve highlighting as holding broader explicative potential: “increasing interdependence” of the empire and the sectarian monastery reflected in proliferation of the digvijaya narratives; successful maṭhas as institutions of power, alternative to those of the king whose authority they would support and extend but also locally eclipse. Stoker also indicates how a “socio-politically significant doctrine" (69) of jīvanmukti (liberation while still alive) - crucial in the rivalry for royal patronage - had been argued away and taken over from the Śṛṅgeri-based Advaitins by Vyāsatīrtha in order to be used for his own sect’s advantage.

Stoker’s focus on Vyāsatīrtha culminates in showing how he transcended his sectarian identity and became a “generic” and highly venerated figure of Hindu monasticism whose “appeal cut across sectarian lines" (71). She suggests a probability that it is actually not the  Advaita teacher Vidyāraṇya, but Vyāsatīrtha that features on the famous procession image on the raṅgamandapa pavilion of the royal Virūpākṣa temple in Hampi.

A fine-grained and self-reflective study allows Stoker to identify Vyāsatīrtha’s specific target of forging strategic alliance with the then popular and strongly present Śrīvaiṣṇavism. Besides a nuanced sociopolitical analysis of the 16th century power-knowledge relationship, the book offers a close reading of important textual sources for the Hindu inter-sectarian scholarly polemics of the time, especially the Nyāyāmṛta of Vyāsatīrtha, its sophisticated rhetoric and exegetical strategies, including a “distinctive approach” to reading the foundational śruti texts. The latter one draws from  Mādhva’s interpretive practices of using smṛti texts to counterargue some śruti instances or quoting untraceable śruti passages in support of one’s positions.  Elements of this exegetical tactic, Stoker argues, form Vyāsatīrtha’s (and his Mādhva school’s) peculiar doctrinal position vis-à-vis his philosophical rivals, the Viśiṣṭādvaitins.

Stoker’s book shows how profound social and civilizational changes triggered by constant war campaigns, new warfare technologies, and economic order were sustained by the cosmopolitan Vijayanagara’s capital with its transregional and transcontinental networks of trade that provided “new opportunities for status acquisition and the assertion of influence (95).” Stoker contends that many of these socio-economic changes were actually managed by influential sectarian leaders like Vyāsatīrtha. These realities arguably framed the way that Vyāsatīrtha’s polemics against Viśiṣṭādvaita made it possible for the two sects of Mādhvas and Śrīvaiṣṇavas to collaborate for attracting royal patronage.

The book highlights the integrative function of the sectarian maṭhas in extending the royal power (symbolic and real) while reproducing essential elements of Vijayanagara statecraft. Stoker shows how a selective patronage policy deployed an empire’s core multiethnic zones, promoted the “big tent Vaiṣṇavism,” and exhibited the empire’s generous temple patronage to various publics. The religious pluralism of Hindu mega-temples was no accident, but one orchestrated by Vijayanagara patronage.

Stoker’s book shows how through mutually highlighting religious doctrine and the sociopolitical realities, “we do learn something significant about how religion, as a complex social and intellectual system, operated both within and upon its milieu" (135). The parallel between the Deccan’s sultanate use of Sufi shrines and the Vijayanagara’s patronage to Hindu maṭhas reveals larger processes of change across the Indian peninsula culminating in the 16th century opening towards the early modern era.

This not only historically but also theoretically informed book is a must-read for those interested in Vijayanagara history or polemics between Dvaita and Advaita schools. It is also an important read for all those sensitive to the problem of finding an appealing language to effectively represent the mutual interdependence of sociopolitical realities, intellectual production and historical thinking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cezary Galewicz is Professor of Indian Civilization at the Center for Comparative Studies of Civilisations, Jagiellonian University, Krakow.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Valerie Stoker is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions and Director of the Master of Humanities Program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

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