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Imagined Concepts

Vijaya Ramaswamy

Edited by David N. Lorenzen
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 380, Rs. 595.00


The title is a misnomer. This is the first thing that hits you in the eye when you are encountering this book.  It provides a picture, fascinating albeit partial, of some of the religious movements in Indian history.  Perhaps at the outset a larger South Asian canvas was conceived of and then dropped. Therefore as it stands, the book deals with religious movements in India rather than South Asia.      The essays in Lorenzen’s collection proceed in pairs like the proverbial animals in Noah’s ark except for Richard Burghart’s essay on the Ramanandi Sect which is also the odd man out in the section on ‘Rama and the Muslims’.       The opening essay in this collection by R. Champakalakshmi is titled ‘From Devotion and Dissent to Dominance’ first published in 1996 and the next by Burton Stein is called ‘Social Mobility and Medieval South Indian Sects’, an old essay written in 1968 and reproduced here. Champakalakshmi’s essay integrates Bhakti and the devotional traditions of the Alvars and Nayanars into the broader political discourse of State formation, brahmanical dominance and Sanskritization around the seventh century AD. It is inevitable that when one wishes to emphasize something it can only be done by underplaying something else. Therefore while recognizing the strong element of bhakti which pervades a Sangam text like Tirumurugatruppadai devoted entirely to the praise of the Tamil God Murugan, or Paripadal, she treats them both as threshold texts to the Bhagavata movement of the Alvars and the Nayanars. They are said to mark the transition from the tribal gods of the Sangam anthologies to the formal religious systems of the Pallavas and Pandyas of the seventh-ninth centuries. To quote her, “It was a new religious synthesis of Puranic forms in which the Northern Sanskritic elements assumed a dominant position while the local or folk cults and their deities got completely submerged” (p. 50).      Having ideologically established the devotional movements of the Alvars and the Nayanars on the plank of Sanskritization under the Pallava and Pandya kings, Champakalakshmi draws upon the well known Stein theory of the Brahmana-Vellala alliance for bolstering her primary argument about the elite character of the Bhagavata movement. The obvious trajectory seems to be to counter the earlier studies of the Alvar and Nayanar movements as being popular or rather ‘populist’ in character with strong grassroots origins. Many of the religious figures were identified as ‘low castes’. Interestingly, ...

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