John E. Cort, Denison University
Bhakti As Middle Class Religion And Literature
As the call for papers for this conference rightly notes, a major theme within bhakti literature and practice has involved the expression of criticism of and resistance to forms of domination within Indian society. Many of the stars of scholarship on bhakti, and among those who have most often been translated, represent a subaltern social location: Ravidas, Kabir, Mirabai, Antal, Mahadeviyakka, Namdev, Muktabai, Janabai, Chokhamela, Tukaram—the list goes on. Tied to the perception of bhakti as primarily a literature of protest are several other generalizations: it is the language of the uneducated or under educated rather than Brahmanical learning, it is a literature of the spoken vernacular rather than the elite classical Sanskrit, it is a sung verbal tradition rather than a written one.
But this is not the whole of bhakti. Many of the earliest extant bhakti hymns are elaborate Sanskrit stotras, composed by poets trained in all the complexities of Sanskrit poetics. Other important bhakti texts are extensive Sanskrit theological treatises, and Sanskrit narratives found in the Purāṇas and similar literature. Even during the heyday of the composition of bhakti literature in Braj Bhasha, we find Sanskrit treatises authored by learned Brahmans, and these texts are essential for an adequate understanding of bhakti in early modern Braj and North India. Further, many of the vernacular traditions give evidence of extensive learning in those languages, as the training of a vernacular poet could be no less rigorous than that of a poet in a classical language.
In this paper I will look at one specific example of early modern north Indian bhakti literature and performance that reveals a more elite—or at the very least, middle class—social location. This is the extensive bhakti literature in Braj Bhasha, Dhundhari and other vernaculars, and also in the classical languages of Sanskrit and Apabhramsha, composed by Digambar Jains in the early modern period. These authors include both mendicants and laymen often given the honorific of pandit. In particular, I look at two aspects of this literature that show a “non-subaltern” social location. First is the evidence of the training in Sanskrit and Braj Bhasha poetics that many of the poets underwent. We have mentions of specific pandits with whom they trained, and the subjects they learned. There is also the evidence of the Bhuj Braj Bhasha Pathshala; a study of the curriculum and the remaining library from the Pathshala shows that it was a place of sophisticated advanced literary studies. Second is the evidence of the literature itself. Here in particular I look at the extensive presence of Sanskrit in the Braj Bhasha literature, as almost every one of the important Digambar bhakti poets also engaged in translating Sanskrit texts into the vernacular, and in many cases composing texts in Sanskrit.
My goal in this paper is not to overturn the perception of bhakti as a language of protest. Rather, my goal is to present material that leads to a more complicated and multi-faceted portrait of bhakti, as a mode of religiosity, literature and performance that spanned the full range of social locations in classical, medieval and early modern India.
Bio: John E. Cort is Professor of Asian and Comparative Religions at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. He is the author of Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India (OUP, 2001), Framing the Jina: Narratives of Icons and Idols in Jain History (OUP, 2010), Desert Temples: Sacred Centers of Rajasthan in Historical, Art-Historical and Social Contexts (with Lawrence A. Babb and Michael W. Meister; Rawat, 2008), and co-editor (with Andrea Luithle-Hardenberg and Leslie Orr) of Cooperation and Competition, Conflict and Contribution: The Jaina Community, British Expansion and Scholarship during the 19th and Early 20th Century (EB-Verlag, forthcoming). He is currently working on a book on the North Indian literatures of the Digambar Jains between the sixteen and nineteenth century.