Gil Ben-Herut, University of South Florida

Religious Equity, Social Conservatism: Society and the Kannada Śivabhakti Community as Imagined in Early Thirteenth-Century Hagiographies

The Kannada Śivabhakti tradition, commonly known today as “Vīraśaivism” and “Liṅgāyatism,” is famed for its uncompromising resistance to Brahminical ideology of ritualistic and social supremacy. This resistance has taken different forms in the historical developments of this tradition over the last eight centuries and in the prolific devotional literature it produced during this period. Next to the Vacanas, the celebrated lyrical poems composed by Kannada Śivabhaktas from the twelfth century onward, we find a vast body of devotional literature in Kannada that remains mostly unexplored by Western scholarship. Such is the case with the Ragaḷegaḷu, the earliest corpus of the Kannada saints’ lives, composed in the first decades of the thirteenth century. In this presentation, I will examine socially-related themes in the Ragaḷegaḷu stories and argue that the social configuration of the Bhaktas’ community, as it is imagined in this corpus, is complex in ways that do not cohere with modern concepts often projected on this tradition, such as “egalitarianism” and “gender equality.” The saints’ stories at hand celebrate the god’s unlimited accessibility to people from all strands of society, including poor people, women, and people associated with occupations traditionally considered polluted and marginal, and by this portray a society of devotees that is potentially liberated from the constraints of the traditional and mediated religion. At the same time, the literary figurations in the Ragaḷegaḷu presuppose an absolute commitment to the god and show no interest in social upliftment or empowerment outside the canopy of devotion to Śiva. Furthermore, even within the imagined fold of Bhakti, these stories adhere to a social world of entrenched and fixed identity markers, such as one’s occupation, economic status, and gender-related roles. In this way, the genuinely-championed and groundbreaking religious equity of this tradition is completed with to a rather conservative social vision.

 Bio: Gil Ben-Herut is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department, University of South Florida. His research interests include pre-modern religious literature in the Kannada language, South-Asian devotional traditions, and the vernacularization of Sanskrit poetics and courtly poetry. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University in 2013 and is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the Kannada Śivabhakti movement, known today as “Vīraśaivism” and “Liṅgāyatism,” as it is represented in Harihara’s Śivaśaraṇara Ragaḷegaḷu, the first hagiographical corpus about the Kannada saints, written in Kannada in the early thirteenth century.


Leave a Reply