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An Anchronistic Reformer?

Jonathan Paul Sydnor

By Ranjeeta Dutta
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 248, Rs. 895.00


What is the relationship between hagiography and biography? For too long scholars have simplistically associated hagiography with sacred legend and biography with secular science. Hagiography was the stuff of myth, uncritically received and vigorously perpetuated. Biography is the Enlightenment challenger, demanding studious doubt and reasoned revision. In the West we have set biography against hagiography, JEPDH against Moses, the Historical Jesus against the Christ of Faith—and insufficiently questioned our categories of understanding. Ranjeeta Dutta collapses these prejudicial binaries in her excellent book, From Hagiographies to Biographies: Râmânuja in Tradition and History. To begin with Dutta’s book offers several bonuses. First, her writing is very lucid and the book is well organized. Second, OUP India still utilizes footnotes, thereby saving the reader the needless tedium of flipping to the back of the book searching for references, or deciphering vague in-text citations. These easily accessible footnotes establish the thoroughness of Dutta’s research; she is clearly contributing to an ongoing scholarly conversation with which she is very familiar. Indeed, the book is more than a meditation on hagiography and biography; it is an engaging history of Srîvaisnavism in South India. Finally, the beginning of the book incorporates ethnographic research into her textual studies, utilizing extensive interviews of Râmânujîs (followers of Râmânuja) in North India. This research grants the work a liveliness and relevance rare in academic writing. From Hagiographies to Biographies includes both history and historiography. Dutta details the Srîvaisnavas’ constantly changing interpretation of Râmânuja. More importantly, she links the changing interpretations to the changing religious needs of the interpreting communities. According to Dutta cultural memory is selective and evolving. Layers of memories accumulate over the centuries. New historical situations, new religious convictions, and new social realities demand new interpretations of historical figures. Sometimes the new interpretation will embrace recent cultural change; sometimes they will reject it. But change and reinterpretation are constant (p. 110). Unfortunately, none of this layered complexity finds expression in popular sketches of Râmânuja (guruparamparâs). Variant hagiographies are homogenized into coherent biography, so that manufactured certainty masks inherent ambiguity. Readers/viewers believe they have encountered the ‘real’ Râmânuja, the one true Râmânuja of tradition and history (p. 10). In order to challenge popular certainty and delineate the interpretive process, Dutta turns to the earliest hagiographies of Râmânuja, who ...

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