Université d'Erfurt

Prof. Dr. Ishita Banerjee-Dube

Gastwissenschaftlerin am Max-Weber-Kolleg
von 01.06.2017 bis 15.07.2017




Bhakti and Individualization in Odisha, eastern India

Taking the cue from analyses of religious individualization that have interrogated the exclusive pairing of modernity and the west, and the invitation issued to social theory by Martin Fuchs (Fuchs 2015) to engage “much more meticulously and elaborately with the diversity and complexity of ‘pre’-modern and non-western social conditionalities”, this study will analyse two cases of religious individualization in Odisha, eastern India, that span the ‘medieval’ and the modern. The purpose will be to explore the cultural ethos of the ‘religious’ that straddles the medieval and seamlessly flows into the modern. Such an exploration will allow for reflections on religious rationality and sensibility that transcend the facile separation of time poised on science and reason.

The two cases in point are Sarala Das, the 15th century author of the epic Mahabharata in vernacular Odia, and Bhima Bhoi, the poet-philosopher of Mahima Dharma, a heterodox faith of mid-19th century Odisha that exists till today. The cases are similar and disparate: they invite juxtaposition and comparison. Both Sarala Das and Bhima Bhoi speak in the language of bhakti (true, pure devotion to a deity or a formless Absolute) that endows the bhakta, devotee with supreme powers and enables him to compose works of great merit that carry the definite and particular impress of the author. Both Sarala Das and Bhima Bhoi declare that they come from ‘very modest’ background, have grown up with little or no formal education and yet are able to compose their works on account of the power conferred on them by the blessing of a devi, goddess, Sarala in the case of Sarala Das, and the ‘eyesight of knowledge’ by the preceptor of Mahima Dharma.

We are faced with an apparent paradox here. Quite in contrast to the classical Sanskrit intellectual tradition where scholars and philosophers denied any claim to newness or novelty by writing bhashyas or ‘commentaries’ of seminal texts even while they proffered entirely ‘new’ interpretations, here we have two vernacular poets who stake their claims as composers of ‘new’ works on the basis of their being ‘blessed’.

If we accept Sheldon Pollock (Pollock 2003, for instance, and Narayana Rao 2001, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, 1997, 2001)’s arguments, the emergence of vernaculars as languages of literary composition marked a break with the Sanskrit tradition and heralded the ‘early modern’ in South Asia from the 12th century on. Did this break infuse the vernacular composers with ‘early modern’ sensibility? If yes, why did they choose to render important devotional literature in Sanskrit such as the epics and the Puranas in the vernacular and insist on their own religious devotion to be the prime motive for such action?

Bhakti or the spirit of bhakti, widely accepted as the hallmark of medieval India, northern India in particular, is intensely individual and acutely collective at once. Often represented as a female being and usually translated as devotion, bhakti is “heart religion”; it emanates from divine encounter of individuals that engulfs them with love, passion and joy and inspires them to break out in poems and songs. Their exhilaration infects others with effervescent enthusiasm resulting in a “glorious disease of the collective heart” (Hawley 2015:2). Bhakti’s effervescence erases frontiers between the individual and the collective, mingling autonomy and heteronomy in intriguing ways. Bhakti is personal in the sense that it is what the bhakta (devotee) says it is and yet hinges on sharing and communion. Bhakti, moreover, is taken to be liberating— from societal hierarchies, sectarian rivalries, and Sanskritic supremacy.

How then do we classify bhakti, as medieval or as modern? It is medieval or ‘pre’-modern because the sensibility is entirely religious. On the other hand, it contains elements of the modern in being individual, autonomous and liberating. Does bhakti encompass and supersede the modern? Or do we need to think of the medieval and the modern in different ways? How do we conceptualize the inextricable blending of the individual and the collective, the autonomous and the heteronomous?

In other words, looking beyond the west and engaging in detail with non-western and ‘pre-modern social conditionalities such as bhakti pushes us to rethink our conceptual parameters that hold the ‘modern’ in place. Is religion only a strategy to “attribute agency to not unquestionably plausible agents” (Rüpke 2015)? Or do reason and religion combine and subsume each other to invest “not so plausible agents” with the power to create new traditions by means of an agency they derive from the divine? Individual reason and agency, and collective devotion and divinity merge into each other to result in a masterful appropriation of a classical tradition in one, and the emergence of a new religious tradition in the other.

Sarala Das, the servant of goddess Sarala, a name he is believed to have taken on when he started composing, was a sudra, the lowest of the fours touchable castes in the varna order. Sarala Das’ assertion that he was a sudra who had taken of the task of narrating the story of the Mahabharata under the command and blessing of Devi Sarala, was an act of daring, a challenge both to Brahmanic and Sanskritic supremacy. The Odia Mahabharata moreover, is not a translation; it is a new rendering. Except or the very broad details of the storyline and the number of parvas (chapters), it does not conform to the ‘original’ in style, rhythm, anecdotes and interpretation. While it introduces the legend of Jagannath linking him to the burnt body but indestructible soul of Krishna, it omits the important Bhagavad Gita narrative. It also indicates the strong prevalence of shakti and tantric worship in the region, portraying a rich and complex world of bhakti and crisscrossing religious trends, firmly embedding the events of the Mahabharata within the contours of what was then Odisha. ‘Rustic’ and at points, ‘vulgar’ in language and rhythm, this Mahabharata has shaped Odisha’s cultural identity as it has occasioned serious ambivalence among Odia literati with regard to its literary merit.

The same ambivalence characterises the evaluation of Bhima Bhoi’s compositions (Banerjee-Dube 2007). This khond (adivasi/aborigine) poet of late nineteenth century Odisha is hailed as the ‘great voice’ of tribal Odisha, a revolutionary and a poet of the soil who closely followed the early poets of Odia in style. At the same time anxiety about his lack of formal education undercuts such glowing appraisal. Bhima Bhoi’s bhajans and other compositions that carry the force of a direct communication with the Master, both his preceptor Mahim Swami, and the indescribable Absolute, constitute the first written works of Mahima Dharma and outline its theology-philosophy. Believed to have been recited and sung by Bima Bhoi and noted down by Brahman scribes, these numerous couplets lay out the basic principle of the faith and of bhakti. And yet, renouncers of the faith who were incensed when Bhima Bhoi took to the life of a householder and allowed women to join the monastic order questioned his status as the poet-philosopher of Mahima Dharma and offered alternative explications of the faith based on ‘scriptures’. In other words, we have a case of individualization that shapes a new religion and causes dissension within it, individualization that forges a collective community and occasions discord.

In sum, my project proposes to examine religious individualization in a non-western arena in order to consider the applicability of the concept, examine its underlying assumptions and engage with its propositions to see whether concepts, understandings, sensibilities and conditionalities of the non-west can open up and add new dimensions to the terms of the debate.

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