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Devotion of the Excluded


Suguna Ramanathan

UNTOUCHABLE SAINTS: AN INDIAN PHENOMENON
Edited by Eleanor Zelliot  and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar
Manohar Publishers, Delhi, 2005, pp. 279, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

This study, indispensable to anyone interested in either dalit voices or in religious devotional traditions, leads one to ponder the inextircable rooted nature of social arrangements that not even divine forces can overcome. Neither humiliation nor defeat nor the deity’s displeasure overthrows brahminical power. Tirupan Alvar is carried into the Shiva temple on the back of a brahmin so that he does not set foot on holy ground; Nandanar’s ordeal by fire shows his true brahmin nature; Chokha was born in place of the fruit his mother gave to God in the guise of a brahmin; Ravidas tears open his chest to reveal a golden sacred thread. Brahmin supremacy reigns; it is as if legitimacy can only come in terms of brahminness. The title Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon underscores the peculiar nature of our arrangements. Saints, therefore pure; but untouchables by caste, therefore impure. Is there any other society in the world where practical occupational transactions have lasted as long as here, remaining as a residual ghost in the mind even as modernization and talk of equality take over?   This volume is a valuable addition to the literature on the bhakti movement dealing as it does with poet saints from only the dalit community. While bhakti itself asserts the right of all to commune with god and experience his love, the devotion of the excluded takes on an added poignancy and beauty. Common to all of those portrayed here (save perhaps Chokhamela’s son Karmamela) is an acceptance of the power structure that coexists with awareness of its unjust unholy nature. There are no revolutionaries among them, no rejection of social institutions in the manner of Mira, which is not surprising considering where these voices come from and the punishments meted out to those who even dared worship from the threshold, as Chokha did. The figures under study in this volume offer little hope of radical transformation, but there is hope of another kind—that the pure in heart do indeed see god, that there can be an overflow of love in men and women despised and rejected. It is almost enough to make one believe in miracles.   A question that remains unanswered in the volume is why the saints became such ardent devotees in a system that gave them no rights of worship. A religious system only collapses when it ceases to be meaningful in material ...


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