In this age of shrinking distances and close encounters, a common global concern today is the need for developing the knowledge systems of understanding and interacting with the other in the multilateral societies. In India, due to various historical, political and economic factors, the need for such a dialogue was felt long back. In the medieval era, from the twelfth century onwards, when India’s political and cultural scene was so variegated, the response came through its literary and religious quarters— which were in a seamless existence. The poets and saints expressed themselves through a huge corpus of literary creations, especially in the vernaculars, as well as in Sanskrit.
Bhakti traditions and their literatures have had a deep impact on Indian society for centuries. On the one hand they have served as a language for the expression of existential and social anguish, expressing this often in gendered terms. The injustices of class and caste are a frequent subject of concern. On the other hand—almost at the other extreme—bhakti religiosity (including its ritual and literary forms) sometimes seems to offer an escape valve from these very concerns, trivializing or ignoring them in the process. Or so, at least, it is widely alleged. Where does the truth lie?
This question is a perennial one, but recent scholarly work provides the tools to deal with it in ways that were not possible in the past. We now understand a good bit more about the institutional realities that lay behind the establishment of several of the predominant social formations of bhakti in the Braj region, for example, where one can vividly see both ends of the spectrum described above. Again, where does the truth lie along this spectrum? Is a social evaluation of this sort somehow missing the point about bhakti?
How can we reconsider the Hindu-Muslim question that always lies near the heart of “the bhakti movement question,” given the interlocking power realities of Mughal India, where so much of it was spawned?
What can be said about the movement of persons, ideas, and a musical and poetic form that is trumpeted in commonly heard forms of the bhakti movement idea?
How does the Braj experience, which appears as a standard in much of the early literature and religious expression of bhakti in north India compare with what can be seen elsewhere, in historical terms?
What is the force of the fact that the language most closely associated with this region, Braj Bhasha, is in fact a rather cosmopolitan language?
It would be wonderful if the discussion could be given not just a new hearing but also a new focus.