A Vaiṣṇava Poet in Early Modern Bengal

Kavikarṇapūra’s Splendour of Speech

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Rembert Lutjeharms
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A Vaiṣṇava Poet in Early Modern Bengal: Kavikarṇapūra’s Splendour of Speech, Rembert Lutjeharms’s recent work on the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava poet, aesthetic theorist, and theologian Paramānandadāsa, presents an overview of the late medieval to early modern period (1400-1600) in north and eastern South Asia focusing on the devotional group that developed around the Bengali religious leader Caitanya. Lutjeharms elaborates on longstanding literary and religious strands of devotion explored by previous scholars of Caitanya, who renounced his previous life to spread the message of Krishna-bhakti (“devotion”). By incorporating his own deep interest in the poet’s literary work, Lutjeharms challenges Sukumar Sen’s critique of the poet as overusing certain stylistic features and therefore branding him a scholastic writer as opposed to a literary figure. Bestowed on him by Caitanya, Kavikarṇapūra’s title “The Ear-Ornament of Poets,” illustrated the way in which he uses poetic ornaments and style rather than explicit theological reasoning to bring his audience into the affective textures of his religious vision.

Lutjeharms argues for Kavikarṇapūra’s significance to a separate Bengali lineage of the Gauḍīya’s theology and aesthetics far removed from the practice and textual production of the Gosvāmins in Vraja—now in Braj—Uttar Pradesh in North India. The poet traces his path of interpretation from his teacher Śrīnātha Paṇḍita, and his commentary on the Sanskrit theological text Bhāgavata-purāṇa on devotion. In chapter , Lutjeharms’s manuscript explains developments in the school and individual lineages, as well as offering the origin of Karṇapūra’s name. Paramānandadāsa was the youngest son of Śivānanda Sena, a prominent devotee and organizer of pilgrimages to the leader’s dwelling in Orissa at the Jagannātha temple. Born in 1533 CE, approximately ten years before Caitanya’s death, Śivānanda introduced his son Paramānandadāsa to the leader who placed his toe in the baby’s mouth. This parable is repeated in the tradition to showcase how Kavikarṇapūra (“The Ear Ornament of Poets”) whose poetic skills were bodily transferred as the “grace” of Caitanya, who is also said to be the actual form of the supreme deity Krishna on earth. The Gauḍīyas relate how Caitanya placed his toe in the future poet’s mouth and years later could spontaneously improvise Sanskrit verse to the guru. Chapter two situates this theological worldview among other schools and texts, including Vedānta, Pañcarātra Vaiṣṇavas, and the Bhāgavata as the source of scriptural authority. Lutjeharms showcases the poet’s development of theology in his dramas, being the only Gauḍīya to write two hagiographies of Caitanya. The parallels with his teacher’s interpretation—of Krishna’s activity as “non-worldly worldly play” (alaukika-laukika-līlā) and of the Gosvāmins’s doctrine of the school as “inconceivable difference and non-difference” (acintya-bheda-abheda)—demonstrates how the same theological sources gave rise to two variations on theological matters of interest.

Chapter 3 develops more of Karṇapūra’s work on aesthetics in his Alaṇkāra-kaustubha. Originally, rasa (literally “taste, essence”) was the main principle for understanding aesethetic experiences in drama beginning in the early common era with the work of Bharata (Nāṭya-śāstra) and moving through poetic analysis of tropes (alaṅkāra), analysis of modes of language—including Ānandavardhana’s novel theory of “resonance” (dhvani)—and culminating in the formalist works of Bhoja. In a radical departure from this tradition for understanding the emotive force of characters in a text, a novel hermeneutic school developed in Kashmir in the 9th century which claimed the aesthetic force of a text should be located in its audience. The great Śaiva theologian Abhinavagupta and aestheticians Mammaṭa and Viśvanātha fall into this hermeneutic approach. Lutjeharms traces this entire canon of thinking and showcases Karṇapūra’s unique synthesis over multiple chapters to different schools in these competing lineages.

Chapter 4 extends this analysis as Karṇapūra anachronistically presents a strong argument in the early modern period for the role of the poet (kavi) in composing literature. His unique interpretation of the earlier school of tropes and “styles” (rītis), alongside literary “virtues” (guṇas) from the 9th century critic Vāmana, indicates his vast erudition in the canon of aesthetics. Chapter five continues this close examination of the poet’s central role in creating the aesthetic experience, both through investing the characters and words of the work with rasaand by facilitating its development in the audience members. Lutjeharms asserts that Karṇapūra’s status in the community of Gauḍīyas allowed him to deviate from aesthetic conventions due to the authority of Caitanya’s grace. This resonates with parallels among audiences to rāsa-līlā plays still staged today in the Braj area and, as David Mason argues, devotional audiences contribute to the creation of the aesthetic mood in ways that the skill of child actors alone can’t convey (Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Lutjeharms’s final two chapters turn to a specific literary text, the Ānanda-vṛndāvana-campū, to showcase his own theological and poetic skills. Karṇapūra’s elaborate discussion of aesthetics is utilized in the figures of “doubling” (yamaka), which create elaborate paronomasias and witty double-entendres with apophatic resonance. The last chapter highlights the “non-worldly” characters and their affective dispositions as being central to the theological project of devotees, who enjoy the stories not only aesthetically but in a divine foretaste of Gauḍīya soteriology—by joining in the play of Krishna’s love (preman). Additionally, a small appendix offers a sample of Śrīnātha’s interpretation of a key passage from the Bhāgavata-purāṇa (1.2.11).

Ultimately, Lutjeharms has assembled a powerful argument for Karṇapūra’s status among Vaiṣṇavas as a theologian and poet to rival the main authorities in the tradition. The range of Sanskrit literary connections in the poet’s work, along with the nuanced translations of the multiple meanings of the literary language using Karṇapūra’s own framework, is an impressive instance of utilizing emic perspectives in understanding the texts. Additional discussions on how the dramas and poems are performed today would supplement this skilled textual analysis and is hopefully forthcoming. Lutjeharm’s work is an important resource for anyone interested in a deep exploration of the Gauḍīya tradition in Bengal and to graduate and upper level undergraduate discussions of art, performance, aesthetics, and theology in South Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeremy Hanes is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rembert Lutjeharms is Librarian and Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and Tutor in Hinduism at the Faculty of Theology & Religion of the University of Oxford. The main subject of his research is the early intellectual history of the Caitanya Vaisnava tradition. He is also an editor of the Journal of Hindu Studies.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.