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Understanding Bhakti

Kunal Chakrabarti

Edited by Anna S. King and John Brockington
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 425, Rs. 695.00


This collection of essays on the devotional element in Indic religions has an interesting history. It arises from an international conference organized by the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Religions, University of Cambridge, which was widely attended by academics, interested lay participants and ‘devotees’. We are told that the dialogic nature of the workshops enabled participants to engage across boundaries of religion, country and community, and gave devotees an opportunity to express their views and sentiments within an academic setting. The editors also declare that while making a selection of essays for publication, they had in mind a much wider readership than would be usual in academic contexts, even though all the contributors—except one—are academics in an institutional sense of the term. Thus, the essays do not really reflect the divergence in attitude—for, a devotee treats bhakti as a way of life, just as an academic problematizes it and treats it with the scholarly suspicion expected of him—they are lucid, sensitive to the devotee’s concerns, and very accessible. The range of topics and the multidiciplinarity of approach also make the volume somewhat exceptional within the rapidly expanding field of research on bhakti.   In the opening essay John Brockington has set the tone of the volume by arguing that bhakti has to be understood within its historical and social contexts. He shows how the heroic tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were transformed by an understanding of bhakti, how some of the Puranas further developed the emotional bhakti emphasis in their summaries of the epic stories, and how the vernacular adaptations of the epics became a potent medium for the transmission of the ideas of bhakti. He concludes that without the two Sanskrit epics, the Bhakti Movement could not exist in the form in which we know it. Julia Leslie’s essay, one of the finest in the volume, explores how the pressures of bhakti have transformed the legend of the poet-saint Valmiki. By a process of text-historical analysis Leslie locates Valmiki in sacred texts and traces the key motifs of the popular Valmiki story—the ascetic in the anthill, the dacoit-turned-devotee, and the blasphemous mara-mara-mantra. She shows that only after the development of Rama Bhakti in north India was this motif attached to Valmiki, which illustrated perfectly the power of the name of God to turn the worst of sinners into the best of ...

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