A lifetime in research

Scholarly legacy: Dennis Hudson.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Vitek Kruta


Prof. Dennis Hudson was a pioneer in researching the intersections of religion, history and art.

EVEN through my tears, I could recall the movie-star good looks of Dennis Hudson, as he stood framed in the door of his beautiful home in Northampton last September. I had taken leave of him and I knew this was the last I would see him. He had no problem talking about his illness and his imminent death. Dr. Dennis Hudson was a star in his own right. He touched many lives with the generosity of his spirit and the sharing of his learning, his sense of fun and his humility and child-like curiosity. When I visited him, he was on heavy dose of morphine. Yet he would laugh at jokes, take joy in conversations and go out into the garden to pick flowers

Praise from peers

Historian Romila Thapar sums up his work on Hinduism as "Dennis Hudson has spent a lifetime in the study of Hinduism and more particularly, the Bhagavata tradition. His studies are not only carefully researched but also draw on an impressive knowledge of Hindu belief and practice, derived from his readings of Sanskrit and Tamil texts and from his fieldwork. His is a pioneering work where the analyses of religion, history and art intersect." Scholar David Shulman said, "Dennis Hudson was a scholar of total integrity, deep insight, and a true love for the world of south Indian, especially Tamil, religion. His scholarly legacy is rich and enduring. He was also, indeed primarily, a wonderful friend and a caring, loving human being. His courage and fortitude in the face of devastating illness were an example for all who knew him." From 1960 to 1962, Hudson held an Oberlin Shansi Teaching Fellowship in Madurai, India, where he taught English at the American College for Men and Lady Doak College for Women and directed the Lady Doak Choir. There his interest in Indian religions deepened. He later won both a Kent Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to study in India. He brought his family to Madras and became fluent in Tamil. His Ph.D. in the development of Indian Protestant Christianity was published as Protestant Origins in India: Tamil Evangelical Christians, 1706-1835.After spending a year at the Center for World Religions at Harvard, studying Sanskrit and completing his dissertation, Hudson accepted a position teaching the history of religions in India at Smith College, and he became a popular teacher and mentor to students throughout the Five College area. Dennis Hudson wrote on the early medieval Alvar poets; on Nayanar hagiography; on the 19th century Saiva reformer, Arumuga Navalar; on Hindu worship and festivals; and on the Buddhist poem, Manimekalai. While teaching a course on temples, sculpture, and their corresponding literary texts, Hudson was drawn to a poem by Tirumangai Alvar, the ninth-century royal saint-poet, about the building of the eighth-century Vaikunta Perumal Temple, which the poet called Parameccuravinnagaram dedicated to the Lord Vishnu in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.

Using temple architecture

Prof. Hudson realised that these verses help explain, and in turn are illuminated by, the temple architecture and the sculptured panels adorning its walls. Together these verses and carvings outline the history of the Pallava dynasty that built the temple. The temple's upper sanctum originally housed an image of Vishnu. Following the 10th century conquest of the region by the Badami Chalukya dynasty, this statue was removed and lost. However, Hudson's explication of the sculptured panels on the ground level of the temple revealed that one of these panels is a representation of the missing statue. On a visit to Kanchipuram in 2003, he was surprised to learn that devotees had begun to worship this newly identified representation. I remember the day Prakriti Foundation organised a visit to the Vaikunta Perumal temple in Kanchipuram with him as the guide. We realised on arrival that it was Vaikunta Ekadasi and there was a huge crowd. The priests and the local people gave way when they saw we were with Dennis Hudson. He commanded great affection. Prof. Hudson was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 1996, and retired from teaching in 2000 to concentrate on writing a full account of his research. Dennis loved company and greatly enjoyed spirited conversation and debate, especially when it could be shared over a meal. Cooking was a great pleasure to him, and he did so with an unassuming flair and enviable ease. His friend John Bollard says, "Dennis and his wife, Lori, created a remarkable sense of community in their home. The door to their house was always open to friends, visitors, students, and travellers from just about everywhere. One never knew upon entering who else might be there, but everyone was welcomed comfortably into a family defined not by birth but by an inclusive thoughtfulness, care, and love."Dennis Hudson's research focused on the Tamil-speaking peoples of South Asia, with special attention to the eighth-ninth century period of Alvars and Nayanars in the context of temples and expansion into Southeast Asia and the 18th-19th century interaction between Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. He did a detailed study of the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram and applied its Bhagavata code to other Vaishnava temples in India and Southeast Asia. He sought to understand the history of the Bhagavata cult and its diffusion, as manifest in written texts and in temples and sculptures. He worked on the relation of Bhakti to Tantra or Agama, with particular attention to the Pancaratra Agama as the most ancient and pervasive liturgical dimension to the Bhagavata religion, whose origin appears to date at least to c.400 BCE.