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Updated: August 1, 2011 23:04 IST

Religious culture in South India

Y. Subbarayalu
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RELIGION, TRADITION, AND IDEOLOGY — Pre-colonial South India: R. Champakalakshmi; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1450.
RELIGION, TRADITION, AND IDEOLOGY — Pre-colonial South India: R. Champakalakshmi; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1450.

A detailed and historical account of the evolution of religious traditions in the region

This book, comprising 19 select essays by R. Champakalaksmi, presents a detailed and sober historical account of the evolution of religious culture in South India, from antiquity to the colonial times. It is the culmination of the author's five decades of diligent studies in the religious and art history of peninsular India. While she provides a panoramic picture of the Indian religious traditions as a whole, the emphasis is on the traditions in South India and their contribution to the pan-Indian structure.

The contribution of the three great Vedantic philosopher-saints of South India, namely Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, to pan-Indian tradition is well known through their monumental Sanskrit commentaries on the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, and is given due credit in standard historical texts. But the contribution of the rich regional cults and practices and the Bhakti tradition of this macro-region has not received due attention. Nor has it been properly evaluated. The present work corrects the lacuna quite appreciably.

Salient points

Three salient points are highlighted. One, there is no simple, unchanging continuity in Indian (or Hindu) religion from ancient times to this day. It has been changing and evolving over the centuries. Some historical stages (Vedic, Vedantic, Itihasa-Purana/Agama, and Upa-purana/sthala-purana) can be identified, with some clear disjuncture in the intervals. Through these stages, there were complex interactions between the mainstream (Sanskritic/Brahmanic) tradition and local/regional cults and practices leading to acculturation and assimilation. There is, therefore, no question of that tradition being sacrosanct, immutable, or permanent. Naturally, a proper study of Indian religion(s) ought to pay attention to historical changes.

Secondly, religion cannot be separated from its socioeconomic and political matrix. It needs to be studied, and can be understood, only as part of the contemporary socioeconomic and political formation. Thirdly, though the mainstream tradition displayed a common core through a greater part of the subcontinent and over a long duration, it had all along been interacting with heterodox (Sramanic), regional, and local traditions, mutually influencing and absorbing them.

The author argues that the scholars who used concepts like ‘Sanskritisation' and ‘Aryanisation' to describe this process generally failed to give due importance to the non-mainstream traditions. In this regard, she would also like to give importance to the study of the rich regional, vernacular upa-purana/sthala-purana texts to understand how the local religious traditions tried to absorb and assimilate the mainstream practices.

Bhakti tradition

These and other related propositions are elaborated on the basis of solid empirical data drawn from archaeological, epigraphical, and literary sources. Some of the essays discuss the Bhakti tradition from its inception in about the 6th century and its evolution into canonised Saiva and Vaishnava sectarian religions in the Tamil country by the 11th-12th centuries.

This study tracks the complex growth of the two religions, showing how they derived their sustenance from multifarious sources, pan–Indian as well as local, both orthodox and heretical. The role of the two new socio-religious institutions — temple and brahmadeya — from the 8th-9th centuries; the influence of Puranic/Agamic traditions and hagiographies; the impact of Vedantic theology and philosophy; and, above all, the thrust of the agrarian changes and political ideologies are all discussed with much clarity.

An interesting observation is that Sankara's Advaita philosophy had little role to play in these earlier developments and that it was only from the 14th century one could notice a perceptible presence of his ideas in the religious discourse. It is pointed out that the Shanmatha concept of godhead (Saiva, Vaishnava, Saakta, Saura, Ganapatya, and Kaumara) attributed to Sankara are actually a creation of the 14th century, when an attempt was made to Vedicise non-Vedic and other popular, irreconcilable cults and synthesise them into a monolithic tradition.

Buddhism and Jainism, the two unorthodox religions, were, in fact, the earliest religions in South India. In spite of their significant contribution to the culture of South India, particularly to the early literature of Tamil Nadu, these two religions have either been ignored or looked at generally from a biased sectarian angle. The essays on these religions provide the necessary corrective, by tracing their rich history and vicissitudes through nearly 15 centuries.

While every essay may have its own appeal to different kinds of readers, the one titled “Caste and Community: Oscillating Identities in Pre-modern South India” should be of interest to everyone, the general reader as well as the researcher.

It will certainly be found enlightening in the current context of generally ill-informed debates on a monolithic Hindu religious community, which ignore the persisting notions of community identities and sectarian affiliations. There are some beautiful illustrations and maps that enhance the value of the erudite work. An index and a glossary would have added to its usefulness.

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