John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College, Columbia University

Middling Bhakti
Caroline Bynum, the distinguished historian of European Christianity, once pointed out to me that in the West, medieval history is a field where women are far better represented than they are elsewhere. The cause? As I recall, she suggested that it was a mix of sheer competence—once admitted to higher education, women generally had better-developed language skills than men—and a sort of historical type-casting. Ancient history, supported by the classical curriculum that once ruled the roost in humanistic and indeed general education in the West, was validated by the men-only educational institutions built around that curriculum. As for the modern, there too one naturally saw the predominance of men in public and intellectual life. But the Middle Ages, by definition, fell somewhere in between: there it was not so clear where the pillars were posted. Women wriggled in.

In the geography of Indian academic life things are a bit different—interestingly so—yet the ancient-medieval-modern paradigm established by British historiography has persisted. Could one argue that the long-held perception of bhakti as sign of the medieval has relegated it to the same kind of second-class intellectual space that produced the gendering of medieval Western historiography? This space is not necessarily a placid one. Marxists (Ranajit Guha comes to mind) have argued that bhakti, with its medieval appurtenances, is necessarily feudal; secularists are divided as to whether it is intrinsically divisive or connective; advocates of the helpful influence of religion on public life have seen it as tolerant, embracing, even egalitarian.

In this presentation I hope to argue that bhakti, when regarded as a force in history, is none of these and all of them at the same time—an intrinsically middle space. I will consider some of the historical particulars that were involved in shaping the idea of the bhakti movement at various moments in modern time, from “early modern” to the present. And I am sure to mention the great murals depicting “Medieval Saints” that Binodbihari Mukherji created for the walls of the new Hindi Bhavan at Shantiniketan on the eve of Indian independence in 1947. Commoners, acharyas and poets populate these murals, but as the narrative approaches its climax we see the commanding figure of Guru Gobind Singh, mounted on houseback and surrounded by soldiers.

Bio: Jack Hawley joined Barnard’s faculty in 1986. His research is focused on the religious life of north India and on the literature that it has spawned in the course of the last 500 years. He is the author or editor of some fifteen or twenty books. Most concern Hinduism and the religions of India, but others are broadly comparative. The most recent—A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Harvard University Press, 2015)—is devoted to deconstructing and reconstructing one of the principal ways in which Indians have told their religious history. Its focus is Bhakti, the religion of song, of radical engagement, and of the heart. A second recent book, Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition(Harvard University Press, 2015) is co-authored with Kenneth E. Bryant. It is one of the inaugural volumes in the new Murty Classical Library of India
Jack Hawley has served as director of Columbia University’s South Asia Institute and has received multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. He has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.