‘Bhakti challenges communal religion’

Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, John Stratton Hawley has written/edited 18 books, many of which track the religious tradition of north India. His latest offering, A Storm of Songs , examines how devotional songs such as padams mingled with the abhangs , how the Dalit narrative and Sufi music found an outlet in creating the network called the Bhakti movement. In a conversation, he maps the mystical journey which knits India.

What do you mean when you describe India as a great nation because it has a religious narrative? In the present context, is the narrative coming in the way of the country’s secular credentials?

Doubtless, my thinking on this issue is shaped by being an American. Ours is a country that has a strong sense of itself as a collective body and as a collective presence in history. It’s not always been for good — we can be such bullies and so self-righteous — but there it is. The narrative of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth in 1620, dissenters from religious orthodoxy in Europe, is one of the most vibrant imaginable — “a light to the nations,” it was proclaimed, quoting the Hebrew Bible. We know that that “light” has not always been light — it has also spread a fair amount of darkness, right up to the present day. But there is a noble side to it too: the charter to welcome immigrants and try to build something new, something truer, something more imaginative and deeper than the encrustations of the past allowed.

How does your narrative or ours serve as a guide to building a great nation?

I’m not entirely sure, but many large nations — which are also sometimes whole civilisations, as in the case of India — do think in these terms. It is a way of establishing a beachhead in history, and not all bad. The idea of India, after all, is a great idea. In the U.S. case, this narrative has ill-prepared us for the challenges of secularism, if I may use the word in its Indian sense. Despite the canons of our Constitution, which is far more a deist document than a Christian one, we often find ourselves unprepared for our own history. Witness the populist, majoritarian rhetoric of the Republican Party these days, and in particular of Donald Trump. There is something about Bhakti that intrinsically challenges institutional and “communal” religion. Some would say it challenges everything. Achieving its current form at a time when many other movements were in the air (the 1920s and 1930s) — non-cooperation, swatantrata, and all the rest — the idea of the Bhakti movement shone a light back on history that reflected the struggles of the present, as struggle per se. There was also something comforting there, a sense of divinely ordained collective belonging that would make it possible, many hoped, for people on different sides of what were perceived as great divides (Muslim/Hindu predominantly) to recognise their common religious identity and ground themselves humbly, if I may say, in a reality that would go deeper than political affiliation. That would be the great hope of a “Bhakti polity.”

Yet, Bhakti as we understand it now poses a challenge to the secular principles on which the Constitution stands. What do you have to say to that?

Of course, the majority — the self-proclaimed majority — is ever eager to assert what it perceives to be its majoritarian rights: our version of what Bhakti ought to mean. In that sense the idea of a Bhakti movement is dangerous. It can sanction deeper forms of majoritarian associations than the contingencies of political life — alliances and all, the failures and weaknesses of particular politicians — make possible. Hence, Ayodhya in 1992 and all the tragedy that it signifies — and, similarly, yoga today or enforced vegetarianism. The concept of the Bhakti movement has famously fuzzy borders. In A Storm of Songs I’ve tried to make the borders even fuzzier by pointing out that to accept the dominant “Bhakti movement” idea as historical fact is just not possible. The idea of the Bhakti movement is really a creature of history itself — and indeed, of national history. Politics are involved: the creating of India-wide cultural and civic institutions. And the same is true for the role this idea plays in dealing with the long flow of history — its role as a shorthand for what happened in “medieval times”. If we come to accept that these constructions are just that — constructions — then yes, I think India is on an even healthier footing, religiously speaking, than before.

With that realisation should come a sense of humility in the face of time. I’ve hoped in this book to make it possible for Indians of different political, cultural, and religious persuasions to “befriend” the idea of the Bhakti movement in a new way. To recognise that religion is not likely to disappear from human history is really an important thing. Just look at world politics! Secularism cannot hide from that if it is to be truly secular in the best Indian sense. I think the formulation of the idea of the Bhakti movement tried to take that into account, even if it did so from a majoritarian, Hindi-speaking — Hindi-constructing! — perspective.

The interconnections of the bhaktas of the north with the south, between the west and the east — how do you think they contributed to the cultural mosaic of the country?

Let me just say that for me this is one of the great mysteries: for instance, how did the padas of Jayadev relate to the contemporary patikams of the Tamil country? Tagore wondered about this. As we zero in on close connections between Marathi abhangs, Gujarati padas, Hindi pads, and Telugu padams, the mystery becomes more palpable: how did these close echoes between different language streams get formed in historical time? Yet there it is: it did happen — the handful of verses in each pada, the presence of rhyme and metre, the vocal register, and very importantly the name of the poet as a “seal” at the end. The fact that different languages could in this way talk the same language is a wonder. And the fact that different individuals with different regional and social associations could be named there adds masala to this single metrical, musical form. Yet the individuals we think we intone here — Surdas, Mirabai, Namdev, Poykai, Kabir — are often individuals in a very weak sense. Rather, they are themselves Bhakti movements, with many poet-singers contributing their own musical and poetic ideas to the great stream under the name of the poet-saint in question.

Has it proven to be divisive or has it interconnected the north and south and the east and west?

Both. And it’s important to remember that one region’s “Bhakti movement” has often tried to include the Bhakti movements of others under its own encompassing wings. The great question is about Islamic forms, of course. Hence, it’s fabulous to see the hold that Kabir has on the national imagination today. Across the whole Mughal world, when did he not? And let’s also remember that when Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas, he chose the “Muslim” premakhyan form to do so. In that way it reads like a Sufi poem. And the Sufi writers who came before also played their part in this great game. They absorbed the indigenous Indian forms to create their masterpieces.

How do you weave the Dalit narrative into the Bhakti movement?

I would say that Kabir’s position in the cosmopolitan and complex city of Banaras makes a huge difference to who he was: a julaha, yes, but an artisan, and someone accustomed to seeing the world walk by. There are many sides of the great Kabir, but I fail to see in him if a sense of being suppressed — Dalited, you might say. Kabir spread like wildfire in the 16th century, and it wasn’t because of his humility. Ravidas or Raidas: there was Tagore’s image of a Dalit. Was his a voice of suppression released, as in Tagore’s poem ‘Sweet Mercy’ and my title? Well, yes. But it is sometimes a voice that also celebrates its own release. In a poem that is so early it makes its way into the Sikhs’ Kartarpur Bir (1604), Ravidas wonders at the fact that the Brahmins gather to hear him sing. Elsewhere he is in-your-face about being a leather-working Chamar. Either he says he’s a lousy shoemaker — he prefers singing to Ram instead — or he makes fun of the idea that any sort of true purity is possible in this world. Not for body-dwellers like you and me, regardless of caste. And then, by contrast, there is a poem of Ravidas’s — also in that 1604 collection, like all of the above — that exactly answers to what you are expecting: a suppressed soul released.

This is a famous one, where he wanders around the city of Begampura. The name is a pun: it could be “the Begam’s city” in the Mughal idiom or it could be — translating from the Persian — “the city of no pain” (be-gam). Here though, poignantly, he’s not just being released from suppression, not just able to walk wherever he wants and ask no one for permission to go there. No, he actually takes on the voice of the upper classes. Unlike all the other Ravidas poems in the 1604 collection, this poem is heavily laden with a Persianate vocabulary. You might say he play-acts at being the master of Begampura.

One further fact. It’s very important in hagiographical collections and in collections of poetry around the country that Dalits be included, even if only one is there in these regional “Bhakti families”. The Bhakti movement story could hardly achieve its integrative aim if this were not so, and particular hagiographers and anthologists made variousness of background the special sign of the inclusive appeal and range of their collections.

anuradha.r @thehindu.co.in

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