Karen Pechilis, Drew University

Before the Difference was Split: Bhakti and Tantra in South India
This conference italicizes a significant comparative question on bhakti and social identity – does the former reify, contest, reject and/or ignore established modes of the latter? – gesturing towards the participatory nature of bhakti, which demands a conscious positionality. The early medieval Tamil poet-saint Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār could certainly be viewed through the spectrum of social power and its lack: She was a partisan of Śiva at the time of “The Śaiva Age” or dominance of Śaivism across India (more power), but she was remembered in authoritative biography as a woman (less power); she records that she personally saw Śiva (more), but she did so in a cremation ground (less). These tensions, largely to do with others’ views of the poetess, suggest that the social measurement obscures her own representation of bhakti as a devotional subjectivity; she embodies an exploratory positionality, especially as a mode shared with tantra until they were both compelled in an evolving milieu to compete for overt mainstream social status. Correlatively, it obscures the imaginative contributions the poetess made to knowing Śiva, especially as the Dancer. Comparatively, `exploratory positionality’ may illuminate some poet-saints’ ambivalence toward representing their social location, in contradistinction to others who thematize it in their poetry.

Bio: Karen Pechilis is NEH Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Comparative Religion Department at Drew University. She has made innovative theoretical contributions to the study of bhakti (as a path of devotional participation); comparative analysis of female gurus; translation and critical discussion of Tamil devotional literature; reclaiming and restoring female voices from Indian tradition through gender and feminist analysis; and interpreting the historical development of the now global Naṭarāja image of Śiva. She is the author of Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India and The Embodiment of Bhakti. She is the editor of The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, and the co-editor with Selva J. Raj of South Asian Religions: Tradition and Today and with Barbara A. Holdrege of Re-Figuring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions.