Bhakti Between the Elite and the Popular

Religion, Poetics, and Audience in the South-Asian Vernaculars

Bhakti Between the Elite and the Popular

Bhakti Between the Elite and the Popular

150 150 Regional Bhakti Scholars Network

organized by Jon Keune, Gil Ben-Herut, Anne Monius

Center for the Study of World Religion, Harvard University - May 19-20, 2014

This workshop seeks to investigate how bhakti traditions understood their target audiences, especially vis-à-vis the common scholarly conceptualization of such audiences as popular, socially inclusive, and non-elite. Modern scholarship on literary histories in South Asia often has referred to a distinction between vernacular-language poetry that is composed in high/courtly/sophisticated registers in order to promote the language’s illustrious status versus poetry that explicitly aspires to be accessible to wider, popular audiences. More often than not, bhakti traditions and their literatures have been perceived to be associated with the latter category, aimed at the non-elite masses, linked to traditions of open, public performance, and expressing horizons that consciously traverse social boundaries of caste and gender. In the regional variations of this generic distinction between uses of vernacular language (rīti/bhakti in Hindi, pant/sant in Marathi, mārga/dēsi in Kannada, and caṅkam/patti in Tamil) we find some of the most articulate conceptions of “the masses” or “the popular” in early modern South Asia—a crucial development in both literary and social history.

But what work does this taxonomic distinction actually accomplish? To what extent does it reflect sentiments found in early bhakti compositions themselves, and how much does it grow out of later historiographical interventions that try to use bhakti pasts for other purposes? How exactly do bhakti authors refer to their audiences such that we now assume them to be popular and non-elite, and to what extant have we imposed modern sociological categories on this material? Was the “popular” truly as inclusive as is commonly assumed, or are traditional conceptions of audience more socially nuanced in ways that have been overlooked? Are there tangible connections between vernacular ideas about popular audience and the appearance of the compound strīśūdrādi in Sanskrit literature? Can we identify a pattern of when this distinction and its implied a sense of “the popular” appear in history; does this correspond to a common set of political or social conditions under which the unification of diverse groups became useful? Keeping in mind Sheldon Pollock’s influential argument against the importance of bhakti traditions for the development of vernacular languages, how ought we understand then the widely shared idea in many regional traditions that bhakti literature is poetry for the people? Most generally, what do we and can we know with confidence about the precise makeup of bhakti traditions’ audience?

By considering various regional examples of how bhakti literature squares with the elite/non-elite dichotomy and how a notion of “the popular” is articulated, we hope to achieve a clearer understanding of bhakti traditions’ audiences and thereby illuminate more precisely the roles of these traditions in literary, social, and intellectual history.

Monday, May 19, 2014

8:15 – 9:00

Breakfast / coffee

9:00 – 9:30

Welcome, opening comments


Christian Novetzke (Washington)
The Language of Men in the World of Gods: Religion, Vernacularization, and Everyday Life in Medieval India


Velcheru Narayana Rao (Emory)
Irreverent questions about Bhakti


Rich Freeman (Duke)
Conundrums in the Formation of Bhakti in Kerala

12:30 – 1:30



Gil Ben-Herut (South Florida)
‘I’ll sing as I love:’ The Literary Intervention of Bhakti in Kannada Literary History


Tyler Williams (Columbia)
Scholarship, manuscripts and merchants in the bhakti public of early modern Rajasthan

3:30 – 4:00



Jon Keune (Houston)
Relations Across the Sant/Pant Divide: Eknāth to Mukteśvar and Mahīpati to Moropant





Tuesday, May 20

8:15 – 9:00

Breakfast / coffee


Tony K. Stewart (Vanderbilt)
Jaban Haridās: The Strange Tales of the Sufi who Practiced Kṛṣṇa Dhikr


Anne Monius (Harvard)
Is Bhakti Poetry Properly Literary? The View from Tamiḻ- Speaking South India

11:00 – 1:00

Discussion, including possible next steps

1:00 – 2:00