Seeing the Bhakti Movement

Speaker: Professor John Stratton Hawley
Date: October 21, 2007
Time: 14:30 pm

Session 14 of the 2007 Shivdasani Conference.

In this paper, I would propose to ask what we can make of the “bhakti movement” picture, when we look at it more closely. Prioritizing Vaishnavism—the sometimes unspoken point of reference for much “bhakti movement” thinking—I will begin by considering the text usually held to have exerted the greatest force on Hindu bhakti generally, the Bhagavata Purana. Where, if at all, can it be seen in stone? This is the question Dennis Hudson asked of the 8th-century Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kancipuram, and one that I would also ask about narrative depictions of the life of Krishna as seen on temples throughout India up to ca. 1500. I will also consider the mention of specific temples on the part of the Alvars and other Sri Vaisnava Tamil poets.

That would serve as background to my central concern: the striking absence—or at least paucity—of such references in the Vaishnava bhakti poetry that emerged in Hindi beginning in the 15th century. Why and how is this so? What about the depiction of certain poets as having taken their inspiration from particular images of Krishna? What about the visual record that was created as Brindavan and Braj came to be constructed in the 16th century? Is this “built bhakti”? How does it relate to the official hostility to temple-building that is enshrined in the theology of the Vallabha Sampraday? And how does it relate to a broader spectrum of “vulgate Vaishnavism” in roughly the same period that would take account of poets such as Kabir? Certainly Kabir is firmly ensconced in every influential “bhakti movement” narrative, but can he be associated in any way with a built canon?