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Listening to 'The Three Bhakti Voices'

Suman Keshari

By John Stratton Hawley
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 439, Rs. 695.00


If one did not read the preface quite carefully, one is not likely to realize that the volume under review contains articles published over a span of thirty years. (The essay on the ‘Sur tradition’ was first published in 1979). Hawley has put these diverse essays in such a way that a clear consistency of the concerns and argument characterizes his treatment of the ‘Three Bhakti Voices’—so distinct from each other.   Hawley’s book firmly rooted in careful reading of the manuscripts, questions many a commonsensical position prevalent among the scholars of Bhakti poetry. The standard historical schemata prevalent in the university departments of Hindi literature divide the Bhakti poets into mutually exclusive, in fact, antagonistic categories of the devotees of the formless God (Nirguna) and those devoted to some incarnation of God (Saguna), these categories are also supposed to be indicative of the orientations and worldviews, one being radical and the other being the orthodox. Having internalized this categorization, the critics and scholars pick and choose their favourites and not so favourites.   Hawley is clearly puzzled by the very neatness of the above classification, which simply leaves out the overlapping of views and is incapable of taking note of the complexities and the ambiguities of the poetic sensibilities. In fact, the continuities between Kabir, Surdas and Mirabai outweigh the contrasts, which are supposed to be there, as Kabir had a rather contemptuous attitude to the idea of incarnation, while Surdas and Mirabai were devoted to Krishna. But as it happens quite often in academics, once ‘established’ the schema starts ‘dictating’ the history itself. So, in spite of facing the ‘continuities’ constantly, scholars and students almost force themselves to privilege the contrasts over such continuities. Hawley’s strength lies in taking his puzzlement to its logical end and that not in just a polemical manner, he takes the arduous way of going back to the hard evidences instead of taking recourse to argumentative nit-pricking. And, hard evidence in this case is the vast reservoir of the manuscripts. Incidentally, Hawley’s obsession with manuscripts is indeed inspiring and of course to some it could be irritating as well. Those who are in a hurry to create ‘exciting’, yet ‘fixed’ images of the Bhakta poets like Kabir and Mirabai are not going to be exactly happy with Hawley informing them of the existence of ‘many Kabirs’ and of unavailability of Mirabai’s ...

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