Sacred Cows & False Prophets: Traversing History and Religion in South Asia

Bronwen Bledsoe
[Cornell University]
One fierce stava: Buddhist knowledge repurposed in Saiva Kathmandu

This paper takes up a Sanskrit poem of praises to the Buddhist deity Cakrasamvara put forward for consideration in two different sets of circumstance. In the mid-19th century, the text of the Vrsticintamani of King Pratapa Malla of Kathmandu was among the manuscripts assembled by the learned Gunananda Sakya to evidence the Newar Buddhist world for his colonial sponsor at the British Residency. The collection was however edited in its published guide. Cecil Bendall's Catalogue of Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts in the University Library, Cambridge (1883) gives short shrift to texts that either are not strictly Buddhist or aren't Sanskrit, or both. Why then did Gunananda assemble the varied collection he did? What are theist and/or vernacular texts doing there? The standard glosses on Newar culture point to Buddhist/Hindu syncretism in the Kathmandu Valley (a happy if muddled state), and/or to Buddhism's forced accomodation to Hindu standards (a sad and wrongful fate).

Neither explanation does much to illuminate the Vrsticintamani—not to mention the course of Nepali history outright—nor might the text command much attention had it not been "published" some centuries earlier, in the course of the Saiva King Pratapa Malla's extensive career in inscriptional dominion. The poem is in many respects continous with with the rest of Pratapa's epigraphic ouvre. It is a poem of wisdom, phrased as praise; the king's right to rule has something to do with his prowess as a poet and a lot to do with his special knowledge of tantric deities, forming a king-divinity dyad at the apex of the social order. But whereas most inscipritions on stone in this time and place are sober and resolutely non-narrative, here Pratap speaks of wonders—wresting a book written in the blood of nagas from underground chambers where deathless siddhas meditate, thus producing rain in a time of drought. The deity, the poem, and the deed are all ugra, fierce or heroic. And it is the Saiva king whose nerve and knowledge succeed, not that of the Buddhists first charged with the task. Buddhist knowledge has thus been appropriated and deployed by the Saiva king for the common good—and all the world rejoices. This is no mindless syncretism, much less the imposition of a Hindu worldview on suffering Buddhist subjects. Rather it is one move in an ongoing dance of oneupsmanship, subversion, and redefinition played out by Buddhist and theist agents, turn by turn, as they made and remade their distinctive Nepali world.

Michael Rabé
[Saint Xavier University]

Contextualizing the Portrait Bronzes of Krishnadeva Raya and his Wives

A number of tantalizing questions are raised by the presence of the famous donor portraits, still installed after nearly half a millennium within the outer gates and facing South Asia’s preeminent Vaisnava icon, the Sri Venkatesvara murti on Tirumalai mountain. Why, for one, do the named set of wives not include in their number the Gajapati/Orissan princess, Jaganmohini/Tukka, to whom Krishnadeva was solemnly married to seal the hostilities-ending treaty he had just consummated with her father, only months before they were installed, possibly on January 2, 1517? And what, for another, explains Krishnaraya’s reticence to mention these apparently unprecedented portrait images even once in the copious donation inventories he had engraved on this temple’s prakara walls on eight dated occasions, in 54 separate inscriptions, mostly all triplicated in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil versions, plus transliterations of the Kannada texts in a nagari script as a nod to visitors from further a field? And how, furthermore, can their obsequious anjali mudras be squared, if at all, with the santana protocols and prasasti aspirations of deified kingship, that had presumably not yet been entirely obliterated in this great last bastion of Hindu resistance to competing and literally invasive paradigms and assertions of Islamic and European power at the gates, tirthas and ports of the region?

Fortunately, these and a host of kindred questions need not be addressed in either a textual or visual vacuum. While certainly infrequent in the extant art historical record, there are earlier temple portraits of Hindu kings with tandem wives, most notably two, or possibly three, sets in the Adi Varaha mandapam, the only Pallava “deva kula” still in worship at Mamallapuram. And if the sculptural depiction of kings in anjali mudra was unprecedented in the early 16th century, it must have certainly been commonplace in the daily imperial durbars of the period and most especially at the annual mahanavami jamborees of lesser kings presenting arms at Vijayanagar proper each October. Certainly, in the afterglow of Krishnadeva’s glorious reign and in almost certain emulation of this his most public display of deference (only) to a higher divine, anjali mudra donor portraits, coupled with multiple wives, became de rigueur for many a Nayak period claimant of temporal prosperity and terrestrial lordship: would be husbands all of Sri Laksmi and Bhudevi.

On the literary side of our contextualizing query, it is certainly propitious to know that esteemed authorities affirm Krishnadeva Raya’s own authorship of the Telugu classic poem on Antal, the Amutka Malaya--a thickly disguised roman a clef, I would say--commissioned by Lord Venkatesvara himself, about a human incarnation of goddess Earth, madly in love with a guy named Krishna. Not to be outdone, his court poet Nandi Timmana, gifted to Krishnaraya, by the family of his senior wife, Tirumaladevi, celebrated in Parijatapaharanamu the deft marital diplomacy whereby the deva Krishna managed to placate Satyabhama who kicked him in the head for giving a divine parijata flower to Rukmini. These and several parallel tropes in the prasasti inscriptions and other literary works of the period make abundantly clear that the king named Krishna Eva was exceedingly conscious of the dhavni in his name. One only wonders where on the spectral dial between fulsome Satcitanand and ironic hasya rasa he felt most at home.

Ajay K. Rao
[University of Toronto]

Srivaisnavas and the Royal Rama Cult at Vijayanagara

The large Rama temple at the heart of the royal center of the capital, the Ramacandra temple, and the identification between Vijayanagara kings and the figure of Rama have received a great deal of attention from archeologists of Vijayanagara. Yet almost all of this scholarship is focused on the structure of the Ramacandra temple and its significance for Vijayanagara kingship, without any consideration of the sectarian character of Rama worship at Vijayanagara. In this paper, my primary interest is to demonstrate the significant role played by Srivaisnavas in this process.

The approach I emply is a diachronic one. Existing studies of Vijayanagara present a static, synchronic picture of Rama worship which does not take into account the shift in royal dynasties from the Kalamukha Sangamas to the Srivaisnava Saluvas and Tuluvas. We can trace three distinct stages in Rama worship at Vijayanagara: 1) 1336 to the reign of Devaraya (1406-1422), a period of eighty to ninety years when no Rama temple existed; 2) the reign of Devaraya to the reign of Saluva Narasimha (1486-91), a period of seventy to eighty years likely witnessing distinctively Saiva performances of the Mahanavami and Vijayadasami festivals; and 3) the Saluva, Tuluva, and Aravidu periods during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when a number of temples bearing the Srivaisnava insignia were constructed and images of the Alvars and Ramanuja were installed in the Ramacandra temple itself. I pay special attention to this third stage, since the significance of the Srivaisnava affiliation of these temples has been largely overlooked. The existence of Srivaisnava Rama traditions dating back before the thriteenth century may in fact nuance causal explanations for the inauguration of Rama worship at Vijayanagara.

My research on Rama temples and Ramayana commentaries is deeply influenced by the scholarship of Ron Inden. Professor Inden's work helps us to pay attention to what he calls the mutual articulation of disciplinary orders and imperial formations, the complex partnership between royal and sectarian agents resulting in projects such as the Rama cult at Vijayanagara.

As an example of a dramatic and highly consequential precolonial transformation in religious practice, this discussion may serve as an example of the way historical scholarship may challenge contemporary scholarly and popular views of Hindu texts and practices, and I will conclude my paper with some general remarks on the broader themes of the conference.

Sudipta Sen
[University of California, Davis]
The Historian’s Dream: The Past as Oneiric Inspiration in Nineteenth Century Bengal

Gods and goddesses in both epic and folk aspects of Indian culture seem to have a penchant for appearing in human dreams. The frequency of such appearance makes the event curiously unexceptional, especially in the traditional literature. They demand favors: sometimes blood, sometimes a temple for their graven image; they also fulfill certain mortal aspirations: jobs, cures, offspring and the like. This paper looks at the relationship between the quotidian world of devotional dreams and the inspirational reveries of early nationalist history writing in colonial Bengal during the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the works of Bhudeb, Bankim and R. C. Dutt. These authors early national histories and historical novels, who sought to arouse a romantic and idealistic sense of history among their readers and compatriots, employed the trope of oneiric revelation in a manner that suggests an unresolved conflict between forms of folk-narrative and epic imagination on the one hand, and reasoned historical narrative on the other. In this effort, the historical narrative often took on a new persona and voice, at once didactic, motivational and teleological, seemingly able to interweave the everyday world of dreams with the extraordinary world of historical occurrences. In exploring such a sentiment, this paper suggests that the past as a site of early nationalist imaginary urged a sense of historicism in the colonial context, which, while contrapuntal to European/British accounts of Indian history, sought to carve out a new space for its own, autonomous narrative vision.

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi
When Theologians do not follow rules of Historicism!

A significant challenge for Virasaiva-Lingayat theologians, modern scholars and indeed for the community itself has been to come to terms with the unsettling presence of competing conceptions of the self and narratives on the origins of the Lingayat community. Was the Lingayat community established by radical Vacanakaras (authors of Kannada vacanas or sayings) in the 12th century or is it an ancient faith that can be traced back to ancient Saiva (Brahmin) Acaryas and indeed, even to the Harappan civilization? Such competing visions also emphasize different sources of the self, in Sanskrit and Kannada, compelling theologians in both pre-modern and modern periods to reconcile them and offer synthetic visions. A crucial historical question in this dialogue is the critique of Vedic-Brahminical Hinduism that the Vacanakaras offered. Did the Vacanakara dissent occur within the framework of Hinduism or did they critique Hindu civilizational visions? While modern conceptions of community depend on responses to such questions – the recent demand by Lingayats for a separate Census entry for the 2001 Census is a relevant example – what is interesting for us is the deployment of history to make truth claims. As my title suggests, pre-modern and modern theologians do not necessarily follow rules of historicism, often setting up duels between historical truth and historical belief.
I have resolved not to resolve that problem in this paper. Instead, I have a more modest goal of following Prof. Inden’s lead in looking at text-practices. In paricular, I will consider a specific synthetic vision that a Kannada Viratka author, Camarasa produced in 15th century Vijayanagara. While contemplating the purpose of human life, Camarasa (c 1420-30) and his friends in Vijayanagara confronted two significant questions: how does one know Siva and what does one do after attaining that Knowledge? They choose as their example Allama Prabhu, a mystical vacana poet and accomplished yogin, who had lived nearly 200 years earlier and is supposed to have attained unity with Siva. So why would Allama come back into the social world? Well, whether historical Allama wants to be back or not, Camarasa, on behalf of all Virasaivas, surely wants to bring him back. Hence, he re-presents Allama’s life in his Kannada kavya Prabhulingalile, and offers as his elegant solution the notion of Bhedabheda (unity-difference, transcendence-immanence), to explain the relationship of Siva with the devotee. I want to suggest that in Allama’s return lies the constitution of the social and the paper will focus on the social implications of Bhedabheda, at the level of praxis especially.
While my paper is anchored in medieval Kannada narratives on the life of Allama, I have two other objectives in this paper. First, looking towards the 20th century, I want to briefly highlight the consequences for the making of a Virasaiva-Lingayat community. Secondly, looking backwards from the 15th century, I also seek to recreate the genealogies of the virakta theological solution of Bhedabheda and conceptions of Virasaiva self in earlier Sanskrit works such as Sripati Pandita’s Brahmasutra Bhasya (c. 13th century), Renukacharya’s Siddhantasikhamani (c 11-12th centuries) and later Virasaivagamas. My interest in reconstructing this dialogue is to recuperate a consciousness of the past inherent in the virakta narratives and contrast them with the historical consciousness that operates in modern community identity. What are the implications for our contemporary debates on pluralism, for a genuine dialogue between competing civilizational visions?
In my early years in Chicago, I had numerous conversations on the intellectual culture of Vijayanagara, Bhedabheda and Dashnamis with both Prof. Inden and Parimal Patil. So here is an attempt to renew and expand that conversation, with a few new stories. 

Jon Walters
[Whitman College]

Buddhist Historians after the World-wish: Rājāvaliya Reappraised

This paper attempts to read late premodern Sinhala-language Buddhist history as good history, focusing in particular upon the best known and most disparaged of the histories in this genre, Rājāvaliya (“The String of Kings,” probably early 18th c., A.D.). Highlighting the centrality of this text in self-representations of the Kandyans to colonialists and Orientalists, I call into question the virtually universal dismissal of it as late and corrupt – a dismissal which my own previous work on Sri Lankan historiography, however revisionist, also makes. I take as my new starting point a presupposition that the authors who continually supplemented this text (it is more a genre unto itself than a single work) and the many scribes responsible for its large witness in the manuscript record – not to mention the Kandyan elites (mostly Buddhist monks) who availed it to the Europeans –must have considered Rājāvaliya a “good” history. Though I also try to lay bare some of the less than scholarly motives that played into the Orientalist refusal to receive it as such, my primary interest is to understand the ways in which early 18th century Sinhala Buddhists might have understood Rājāvaliya to be “good”. I discuss three (overlapping) domains in which this quality might be discerned, whether in the text’s actual content or in its probable, differing effects: (1) its self-presentation as a post-imperial reading of the earlier Pāli histories in whose image it ironically has been disdained; (2) its correspondence to wider historiographical trends in southern India during the 17th and 18th centuries which, more than Orientalist standards, appear to have been those Rājāvaliya tried to emulate; (3) its negotiation of the historical situation of Kandyan kingship and religion vis-à-vis European colonial power during the period of its composition.

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