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The Srivaisnava Tradition

Bharati Jagannathan

By Steven Paul Hopkins
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 344, Rs. 595.00


The history of studies in Srivaisnavism, a sectarian religious tradition of South India focusing on the worship of Visnu has, not unlike the tradition itself, charted a well-defined path, the highway showing clear across stray footpaths and bylanes.   Traditional scholars, often practising Srivaisnavas, saw an unbroken tradition from the Alvars, bhakti saints of the 6th to 9th centuries CE, to the Acaryas (10th century onwards), notwithstanding the late medieval split into the Tenkalai and Vatakalai sects emphasizing sometimes radically different philosophical doctrines. This position draws directly from the Acaryas, beginning with Nathamuni/ Ramanuja who saw themselves as direct spiritual descendants of the Alvars. In 1983, Friedhelm Hardy challenged these age-old assumptions in his pathbreaking Viraha Bhakti (OUP, Delhi), arguing that the Acaryas of the Srivaisnava tradition reinterpreted the hymns of the Alvars to fit their contents into their own theological positions, in the process more or less erasing the deeply emotional content of the hymns, at least some of which draw on the rich erotic-emotional akam genre of Sangam literature. While there have been some studies on the pilgrimage tradition among Srivaisnavas, or the sectarian divide and its material fallout in terms of temple control and lay following, critical scholarship in the field since Hardy has concentrated on marshalling textual evidence either to support or to refute his thesis. (The traditionalists, needless to say, aren’t similarly divided in their opinions!). The book under review is hence, an important contribution since, with Nancy Ann Nayar’s Poetry as Theology (Otto Harrosowitz, Weisbaden, 1992), it is the only one which tries to chart a middle path, arguing that while the traditional claim that the Acaryas were faithfully following both letter and spirit of the Alvars isn’t entirely bogus, there are significant departures from the themes of the saint-poets.   Hopkins’ focus is on the poetry of one of the most important, and easily the most prolific of the Acaryas. Vedantadesika, brought up in the cosmopolitan environment of Kancipuram, home to practitioners and theologicians of diverse religions, wrote in three languages: Tamil, his mother tongue and the language of the Alvar literary tradition, Sanskrit, the pan-Indian language of learning and prestige, and Maharashtri Prakrit, the most cosmopolitan vernacular, established as a vehicle of literature and philosophical writings. Equally at ease in debate with religious opponents—Saivas, Jainas and Buddhists, in the composition of hymns to specific shrine-idols of Visnu in the style of the ...

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