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Volume Three - Issue One

1 April 2010
Online ISSN 1756-4263 - Print ISSN 1756-4255


Arts and Aesthetics in Hindu Studies

Jessica Frazier

The turn to the arts After decades of textual fixation, the study of Hinduism has taken a 'visual turn', which is unfolding to view a much wider map than the one which earlier scholars had held in their hands.1 Scholars looking for manuscripts in India have found themselves suddenly awakened to the omnipresence of performed transmissions and visual texts that speak, beyond the limitations of dialect, to all who have eyes to see. There is an increasing interest in the window that the arts, in all their forms, open onto the more pervasive, popular forms of Indian religious life, as opposed to the elitist preserves of the written text. From dance to sculpture, song to architecture, craftwork to poem, myth, or sacred history, the arts present a range of cultural artefacts in which ever-fresh provinces of the imagination are laid bare before the eye of the scholar. Yet these arts present various problems; they require new hermeneutic sensitivity, while stirring hornets' nests of tense debate about the boundary between the 'safe' secular arts and their politically loaded religious equivalents. But their potential for expanding our understanding of Hindu cultures is vast – filling hitherto unrecognised demographic gaps in Hindu Studies, while forcing scholars to critically examine their own frameworks for interpreting arts and seek 'indigenous' modes of aesthetic appreciation. Perhaps this is because, although arts are typically seen as subsidiary and derivative modes of intellectual discourse, their proper aesthetic understanding nevertheless brings foundational questions of history, method, and metaphysics into view. The very possibilities entailed in ideas of 'object' and materiality are reconsidered, to consider 'notions of vision and visuality that are specific to South Asia'.2 An increasing focus on the arts demands an increasing awareness of the workings of beauty and appeal, reality and appearance, taste and genre – in a word, …


Mirabai Comes to America: The Translation and Transformation of a Saint

Nancy M. Martin

The story of the sixteenth-century Hindu saint Mirabai is told and performed in a multitude of genres in India across the centuries, and her songs generate a tradition of continuing composition in her name. Her popularity readily moves across boundaries of language, caste, class, religion, and culture not only within India but also beyond, taking root in American culture more broadly in the latter decades of the 20th century, as Americans begin looking for figures for inspiration and canonisation within an emerging non-institutionalised global spirituality and women around the world mine the past to find their spiritual foremothers. Her popularity quickly moves beyond even this broadly defined religious context, as her life story is invoked by poets and philosophers, psychologists and ecologists, and a multitude of others seeking authenticity, wholeness, and healing. The history of Mirabai's appropriation and transformation in such diverse cultural forms raises a number of issues. What are the features that invest a religious story or symbol with generative life that can extend across time and diverse cultures? What forms can the continuation of such classic traditions as hagiography and devotional poetry take, and how should the boundaries of legitimate participation in that tradition best be understood?

Beauty and Words Relating to Beauty in the Rāmāyaṇa, the Kāvyas of Aśvaghoṣa, and Kālidāsa's Kumārasaṃbhava

David Smith

This paper examines particular words for beauty in four Sanskrit poems (Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa, Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita and Saundarananda, Kālidāsa's Kumārasaṃbhava) and discusses the changing role of beauty in Sanskrit poetry. Building on Ingalls' study of words relating to beauty in the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, it is shown that beauty becomes increasingly important and present in classical Sanskrit poetry as exemplified by the Kumārasaṃbhava. Various words are studied in detail as they occur in the four poems. Śrī, royal beauty and success in the epics, comes to express the rule of beauty within kāvya from the time of Kālidāsa. Śubha has a moral sense prior to Kālidāsa, but this is not evident in the Kumārasaṃbhava. Clearly important is the notion of shining, where existence itself is to shine. Kāvya comes to inhabit a wonder-world, where light itself is solidified. Localised instances of beauty in Vālmīki and Aśvaghoṣa become pervasive in Kālidāsa. However, Kālidāsa's increasingly beautified world is kept from absurdity by the human touches he scatters through the Kumārasaṃbhava, most notably in the unmade bed that comes at the end of the poem.

Hagiography and Community Formation: The Case of a Lost Community of Sixteenth-Century Vrindāvan

Heidi Pauwels

This paper studies the link between hagiography and religious community formation, analysing how sectarian communities are 'imagined' in hagiography. The immediate purpose of this article is to look at hagiographies about the sixteenth-century Harirām Vyās to investigate why no sect formed around him, but how he instead came to be claimed by different sectarian groups. The more general relevance of this article lies in its methodology of how to read hagiographies as a literature subject to issues of genre, form and␣redaction criticism, and intertextuality, and in tracing how religious communities can be constructed and how they fail.

Indian Classical Dance: A Sacred Art?

Alessandra Lopez y Royo

Is Indian classical dance a sacred art? A great many people tend to assume that the temple origin of the dance ensures that a sense of the sacred and a link with religion continues to shape its practice. In this brief paper, however, the author rejects this position, arguing that Indian classical dance has not been a sacred art for well over a century, due to the process of modernisation it underwent throughout the 20th century. The nostalgia attached to the notion of classical dance as a Hindu 'sacred' art is one example of a more widespread appropriation of Indian arts by contemporary socio-political agendas. Indian classical dance can however be a vehicle for modern spirituality, understood to be detached from any specific religious affiliation, and no longer dependent on tradition, but predicated on a modern subjectivity and on the performer's and audience's agency and interaction.

Kerala's Mahābhārata on Stage: Texts and Performative Practices in Kūṭiyāṭṭam Drama

Bruce M. Sullivan

This article concerns the performance of Kūtiyāttam enactments of Mahābhārata narratives and the written texts on which those performances are based. The Kūṭiyāṭṭam tradition of Sanskrit drama enactment in Kerala has been recognised by UNESCO as a 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity' but is also profoundly concerned with written texts. I␣argue that the ways Kūṭiyāṭṭam performers have modified and elaborated upon the dramas' texts have resulted in enactments more devotionally oriented than are the texts themselves, and that this distinctively devotional performative practice has contributed to the tradition's longevity. I also argue that performances in secular settings in recent decades represent both an opportunity and a danger to the tradition.

Book Reviews

Rebecca J. Manring

The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of Jīva Gosvāmī: When Knowledge Meets Devotion. By Ravi M. Gupta.

The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of Jīva Gosvāmī: When Knowledge Meets Devotion. By Ravi M. Gupta. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-415-40548-5 (hardback), xiv + 225. £85.00.

Few scholars writing in English have explored the writings of the early Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theologian Jīva Gosvāmī. In The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of Jīva Gosvāmī: When Knowledge Meets Devotion, Ravi Gupta provides us with an edition and translation of Jīva Gosvāmī's Catuḥsūtrī Ṭīkā, Jīva's commentary on the first four verses of the Brahma-sūtra. This commentary is at the end of Jīva's Paramātma-sandarbha and has no independent manuscript tradition. In order to extract this piece, Gupta had to first determine the entire history of the text, from published editions (relatively easy to trace) to its manuscript history (a more daunting task). Finding the latter required arduous searching in available manuscript catalogues of several repositories. Gupta used seven manuscripts for his study, and is aware of, but did not use, another ten, most of which are incomplete. He has done a careful reading of the text, and his translation is technically accurate. Unfortunately, however, the work contains some serious methodological and theoretical flaws. Gupta seems to take a positivist approach to Gauḍīya history and to the life of Caitanya. In describing different accounts of the debate between Caitanya and Sārvabhauma (note …

James M. Hegarty

The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upaniṣads. By Brian Black.

The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upaniṣads. ByBrian Black. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-7914-7013-8 (hardback); ISBN-13: 978-0-7014-7014-5 (paperback), pp. 224. $65.00 (hardback); $21.95 (paperback).

In The Character of the Self In Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upaniṣads (henceforth The Character of the Self), Brian Black offers us a rich new set of readings of the early Upaniṣads. By early Upaniṣads, Black refers to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Kauṣītaki, and Taittirīya Upaniṣads. In addition to the general introduction and the conclusion, the work is divided into four chapters that take up, in turn, the portrayal of the relationships between teachers and students, between Brahmins engaged in competitive debate, between kings and Brahmins, and between women and Brahmins. This is a work that seeks from the outset to ask questions of the early Upaniṣads that relate to the matter of their narrative detail rather than their philosophical doctrine. Indeed, Black emphasises the idea that insufficient attention has been paid to the narrative 'setting' of philosophical ideas in these texts. His concern is, in his own words, with the 'literary presentation of ideas' (p. 5) in the early Upaniṣads. Black is undoubtedly successful in his overall aim of demonstrating the significance of the setting of Upaniṣadic discourse to its interpretation. The introduction presents Black's view of the Upaniṣads as being mainly concerned with new orientations to the self (ātman). He bases this on both emic intellectual tradition and etic perspectives from Müller to Olivelle and Roebuck. Black also emphasises the importance of the Upaniṣads in modern intellectual history both in Europe and America and in India. He takes up the place of the Upaniṣads in South Asian religious and literary history and contextualises them in relation to the Vedic Saṃhitas paying particular attention to the relationship between the Upaniṣads and the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas. Black also forges connections between teachings on ātman and related concepts of life, death, biological process, and the possibility of …

Hazel Collinson

Consciousness in Indian Philosophy: The Advaita Doctrine of 'Awareness Only'. By Sthaneshwar Timalsina.

Consciousness in Indian Philosophy: The Advaita doctrine of 'awareness only'. BySthaneshwar Timalsina. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. ISBN-10: 0-415-77677-5 (hardback). 208. £80.00.

Despite the longstanding academic interest in Advaita, few detailed studies of consciousness in this system have been published in English. Consciousness in Indian Philosophy is the first such study since William M. Indich's Consciousness in Advaita Vedānta (Delhi: Motial Banarsidass, 1980). Timalsina's book tackles a thorny issue with clarity and depth. His findings are presented in a manner that is at once informative to the reader of Sanskrit and accessible to the nonspecialist. The book follows on from Timalsina's previous work, Seeing and Appearance (Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2006), which explores the Advaitin concept of Dṛṣṭisṛṣṭi in relation to Sureśvara's Ābhāsa model. In this previous work, Timalsina argues that dṛṣṭimātra or 'seeing only' is synonymous with cinmātra, a term which he translates variously as 'consciousness only' or 'awareness only'. It is this concept of cinmātra that is the focus of the present work. Timalsina examines the use of this concept in the works of Advaitins such as Śaṅkara, Sureśvara, Vimuktātman, Śrharṣa, Citsukha, and Madhusūdana. He explores the …

Stuart Ray Sarbacker

The Self-Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation. By Frederick M. Smith.

The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation. By Frederick M. Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-231-13748-5 (hardback), xxvii + 701, 12 plates. $60.00.

Frederick Smith's The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature provides a number of groundbreaking insights with respect to conceptualisations of and methodological approaches to the phenomenon of possession (āveśa, praveśa, and samāveśa) in the Indian traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and more broadly in South Asian religion. Smith's analysis of the issues of gender, embodiment, economics, and class in relation to possession demonstrates the complex sociodynamics of adorcism (encouragement of positive possession states) and exorcism (removal of negative possession states), as have been postulated in the larger comparative context. Smith's work also elicits a number of insights into the dynamic spectrum within the traditions of yoga and tantra between world negation and world surmounting that are characteristic of the Indian traditions of bodily and contemplative practice. It provides greater contextuality to the phenomenon of possession on a broad comparative scale and specifically with respect to South Asian religion. As such, it is a testament to the profound transformation of the study of South Asian religions and specifically the study of yoga and tantra over the past two decades. The Self Possessed contributes to a growing range of scholarship relevant to these traditions that is reconfiguring the field and its core set of assumptions. It intersects in numerous ways with the recent works of scholars of tantra within South Asia, most notably Ronald Davidson's Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement and David Gordon White's Kiss of the Yoginī: 'Tantric Sex' in its South Asian Contexts. One of the central assertions of Smith's work dovetails with a key assertion made by White – just as White asserts that tantric ideology is not to be understood as being …