Siva's Saints

The Origins of Devotion in Kannada according to Harihara's Ragalegalu

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Gil Ben-Herut
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Typically enumerated among south India’s bhakti or devotional communities, Vīraśaivism or Liṅgāyatism has, until recently, largely escaped the attention of the Western academy. Nevertheless, the tradition generated a vast amount of narrative literature, scripture, and theology in multiple south Indian languages—most untranslated and unstudied—that remains inaccessible to scholarship. Current specialists in Hinduism generally know the tradition only through A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Śiva (1973), a work which, despite the eloquence of its translations, essentializes Vīraśaivism as a monochromatic carbon copy of the European Protestant Reformation. It is for this reason that Gil Ben-Herut’s Śiva’s Saints: The Origins of Devotion in Kannada according to Harihara's Ragalegalu, represents such a crucial contribution to the fields of Hinduism and religious studies, exponentially enhancing our understanding of the tradition’s early history.

Śiva’s Saints introduces non-Kannada speaking audiences to the textual world of Harihara’s Ragaḷegaḷu, a series of hagiographical portraits of the Śaiva saints of the nascent Vīraśaiva community. As a 13th century Kannada poet and court official of the Hoysaḷa Empire, Harihara preserves in the Ragaḷegaḷu what likely constitutes our earliest surviving evidence of the tradition in Kannada narrative literature. However, as Ben-Herut rightly contends, Harihara’s Ragaḷĕgaḷu speak from a curiously interstitial moment in textual history: their narrative vignettes persistently resist identifying the Śaiva devotional community of Karnataka under a single doctrinal name, whether Vīraśaivism or Liṅgāyatism—two contested labels that have sparked significant political controversy since the early 20th century. Ben-Herut represents the Ragaḷĕgaḷu as a glimpse into the pre-sectarian ethos of our earliest known Śaiva devotional community in Karnataka, with its historical participants referred to by Harihara as Śivabhaktas (“devotees of Śiva”) or Śaraṇas (“Seekers of refuge [in Śiva]”).

As a close-reading of a single textual anthology, Śiva’s Saints showcases the author’s sensitivity to the reader by bringing the text and its worldview to life. Ben-Herut unpacks key episodes in Harihara’s Ragaḷĕgaḷu through a pairing of vivid narrative summaries and meditations on their central themes, each replete with keen insight into its flavor of heartfelt yet fierce devotion. Readers eager for greater access to the original, however, will have to await Ben-Herut’s forthcoming translation of the Ragaḷĕgaḷu. Yet, in Śiva’s Saints, his thoughtfulness is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s thematic chapters, which highlight the marked divergence of Harihara’s proto-Vīraśaivism from our essentialized assumptions about the community. Thus, much of what we as readers discover will nuance our understanding of what Vīraśaivism or Liṅgāyatism is all about—including its purported anti-Brahminism, social egalitarianism, and strict aversion to temple worship.

Perhaps most notably, Vīraśaiva or Liṅgāyat traditions today are best known for their aversion to caste consciousness and gender discrimination. While Harihara does advocate what he calls “samaśīla,” or “equal conduct,” Ben-Herut cautiously observes that what Harihara intends by this term does not map perfectly onto post-Enlightenment, Western notions of individual equality. For example, Harihara recounts the life-story of a devotee named Bhōgaṇṇa, who becomes the object of public censure for inviting an untouchable to dine in his home, though Bhōgaṇṇa maintains in his defense that he would never deign to share food with a non-Śaiva. Succinctly, rules of commensality and social transgression do not map onto the boundaries of caste but of religious difference, as non-Śaivas—Vaiṣṇavas or Jains—take on the role of the untouchable. While Vaiṣṇavas, for the early Śaraṇa community, often remain what Ben-Herut refers to as the palatable “proximate other,” Jains in contrast are—to the reader’s discomfort—seemingly sanctioned as objects of violence, the “wholly other.”

To the extent that text-interior evidence permits, Ben-Herut grounds his analysis in the surviving remnants of Harihara’s historical context. As he was employed as financial minister to the Hoyasaḷa Empire, Harihara’s religious worldview is replete with allusions to tensions between the Śaiva institutional world and court culture, as the Bhaktas’ royal patrons are vociferously denounced whenever they interfere with devotion to Śiva. Although Vīraśaivism/Liṅgāyatism is typically classified as a religion of the people, some of Harihara’s courtly Śaraṇas are far from poverty; the wealthy Bhakta Jēḍara, for instance, is shamed not for his affluence but for his failure to act as a benefactor to the Śaiva community. No less striking is that Harihara locates the crucial conflict in the courtly employment of Basava (ostensive founder of Liṅgāyatism according to some) in the discovery of his embezzlement from the treasury to finance Śaiva devotees. Outside of financial matters, the court for Harihara also becomes a site of interreligious conflict, as the Vaiṣṇava Brahmins he depicts as endemic to courtly affairs often find themselves at odds with the staunchly unwavering Śaiva Bhaktas.

Perhaps the sole caution to readers is Ben-Herut’s selection—as historical interlocutors to the Śivabhakti world—of those contiguous religious traditions typically associated in the historiography of Hinduism with bhakti or devotional religion (primarily, Tamil Śaiva devotional literature). This is by no means a fault of the book or the author, as such dialogical moments evidently took place. However, readers who are not specialists in the field should be careful not to infer—a point that the author himself has not argued—that the religiosity of Harihara was exclusively generated as part of the “Bhakti movement,” a framework that John S. Hawley has recently problematized in his 2015 A Storm of Songs. In fact, Harihara’s worldview shares a number of striking similarities with the 13th century proto-Vīraśaiva textual sphere of Srisailam, which itself owes much to “pre-Bhakti” traditions of Āgamic and lay Śaivism in Sanskrit.

Ultimately, capturing the stories of Śiva’s saints in living color, Ben-Herut’s work is both accessible to a general readership and integral to the library of any scholar of Hinduism. Ben-Herut himself begins (5) by quoting R. Blake Michael: “Ramanujan’s little book [Speaking of Śiva] is, as always, the best place to start.” Although, I would much prefer interested readers to start right here with Śiva’s Saints.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elaine Fisher is Assistant Professor of Hinduism at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gil Ben-Herut is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department, University of South Florida. His research interests include pre-modern religious literature in the Kannada language, South-Asian devotional traditions, and the vernacularization of Sanskrit poetics and courtly literature.


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