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Updated: March 9, 2010 15:32 IST

Chaotic confusion

PREMA NANDAKUMAR
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Among the foreign Dravidologists of recent times, Dennis Hudson has a special place. He did have varied interests in south India's religious world (Christianity, Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Saivism), but his centre of literary research was the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kancheepuram. Krishna's Mandala is a posthumous publication edited by John Stratton Hawley, who is himself well known for his work on the bhakti poets of North India. Hawley's detailed introduction to the assorted essays presents Hudson's style of work in its proper “surround,” which had its accent on relating Hindu temples to the text of bhakti poetry. Hudson had linked the Vaikuntha Perumal temple to Tirumangai Azhvar's decad. A natural extension of this line of reasoning led him to study Andal's poems and the Srivillipputtur temple. The outcome of this research forms a substantial portion of the book.

Unfortunately, by falling in line with the style employed by some of his U.S. colleagues in the discipline of religion (Jeffrey Kirpal and Sarah Caldwell, among them), Hudson slips into the Serbonian Bog of Freudian analysis. “Historical interpretation of poetry necessarily requires conjecture,” he says. But how far should speculation be stretched?

An eroticised view that marks his essays on Andal leads the argument through mis-translations (the term ‘cankam' used by Andal has nothing to do with classical Tamil) and a generous sprinkling of twilight terms like ‘may be' and ‘probably' till it ends up with an insinuation of incest: “I doubt, however, that Andal engaged in sexual rites with a man, although by having brought Vasudeva into his own through mantra, her acharya would have embodied Vasudeva Krishna for her.” There is more to come in the detailed ‘notes'! This Tantric (of the Vamachara mode) visualisation of the sadhana of bhakti reveals a chaotic confusion of categories in Hudson's critical paraphernalia, sometimes descending to the level of ‘Kamasutranics' presented in slick academic diction.

Curious interpretation

The last verse of Andal's Tiruppavai gets a curious interpretation: “The fact that she speaks of correct recitation rather than of correct understanding of her poem as the criterion for receiving the Lord's grace suggests that the poem itself is meant to serve as a verbal means for approaching Narayana, a means adapted to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of people living in the present age.”

Apart from the misconception of the term tappaame (actually it is a suggestion, lest jumbling of the verse-order lead to misunderstanding the theme), it sounds rather crude to comment like this as though the intellectual and spiritual powers of Srivaishnavas are going downhill. After straining himself to explain the sitting, standing, and reclining images in the temples, Hudson takes his own elucidations to be authorised commentaries and breezily proceeds with, “given those meanings …” A farce too droll to be described as Hudson's epiphany by Romila Thapar.

Going through the book one gets plenty of educative titbits such as: “antagonism between brothers-in-law is a realistic fact in ordinary Tamil families.” To borrow from Hudson's own words elsewhere in the book, Krishna's Mandala has no vijnana. And, that is the pity.

KRISHNA'S MANDALA BHAGAVATA — Religion and Beyond: D. Dennis Hudson; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 725.

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