Hindu Pluralism

by Elaine M. Fisher | 2017 | 113,630 words

This thesis is called Hindu Pluralism: “Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India”.—Hinduism has historically exhibited a marked tendency toward pluralism—and plurality—a trend that did not reverse in the centuries before colonialism but, rather, accelerated through the development of precolonial Indic early modernity. Hindu plur...

Religion in Early Modern South India

Much like Europe, India in the seventeenth century was in the midst of a transition, a substantial rethinking of religious boundaries on both the institutional and the philosophical levels. The Indic religious landscape was brimming with iconoclasts, luminaries, and reformers, each with a vision of how to navigate the complexities of an increasingly divisive and sectarian social order. And, much as in the European case, many were keen to raise awareness of their opponents’ shortcomings, critiquing the excesses they perceived in the religious institutions around them.

Take, for instance, Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, seventeenth-century poet laureate of Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu. Let’s refer to Nīlakaṇṭha, for the time being, as the “Indian Voltaire”—an ironically incongruous comparison that we will have a chance to revisit shortly. Best known in academic circles for his incisive satirical wit, our poet rivals Voltaire in his willingness to publicly lambaste the moral degenerates of his day who occupied positions of clerical or political authority, and he did so to great comedic effect.

In his work the Kaliviḍambana (A travesty of time), Nīlakaṇṭha exposes the shortcomings of the scholars and priests in his company:

If you want to triumph in learned societies, do not be afraid, do not pay attention, do not listen to the opponent’s arguments—just immediately contradict them! Unflappability, shamelessness, contempt for the adversary, derision, and praise of the king: these are the five grounds of victory.... If the arbitrator is not learned, one wins by shouting. If he is learned one has only to insinuate bias: “Greed” is the premise, “money” is the probandum, “the priest” is the example, “personal advance” is the result: such is the correct syllogistic procedure.[1]

Nīlakaṇṭha continues at great length to deride all manner of religious officiants and charismatic authorities, from astrologers to mantra-sorcerers and ascetics. Each of them, in Nīlakaṇṭha’s satirical portrait, fails dramatically to live up to the principles of his profession, exhibiting instead a thoroughgoing deceitfulness and opportunism. In such rhetoric, it is tempting to hear the ringing echo of Voltaire’s own cry “Ecrasez l’infame!”—“Crush the infamous!”—referring most likely to the clergy he found so burdensome in the Europe of his generation. Given this portrait, it may come as no surprise that scholars have located a semblance of secularism in the textual culture of early modern India, whether manifesting as social critique or as public adjudication of religious disputes. And thus, Nīlakaṇṭha himself enters into academic literature in the West the very image of the secular public intellectual.

And yet, a closer look at Nīlakaṇṭha’s writings reveals an entirely different picture. When he was not penning satirical diatribes, Nīlakaṇṭha was composing some of the most heartfelt devotional poetry ever written in the Sanskrit language—a case could even be made to include him in the canon of Indian devotional, or bhakti, poetry, a category typically reserved for vernacular lyric composition. Likewise, Nīlakaṇṭha’s philosophical prose includes a commentarial essay on a popular Sanskrit hymn, the Śivatattvarahasya (The secret of the principle of Śiva). The introduction to this essay doubles as a theological counterpolemic, as Nīlakaṇṭha defends his own religious tradition, Śaivism, against the scathing critiques of his rivals from Vaiṣṇava communities. But perhaps the most intriguing of Nīlakaṇṭha’s works, and certainly the most unexpected based on our assumptions, is a manual for esoteric ritual practice, the Saubhāgyacandrātapa (Moonlight of auspiciousness). Entirely unknown to Indological scholarship to date, the “Moonlight” provides us with an insider’s account of the esoteric Śrīvidyā tradition of Śākta, or goddess-oriented Tantric ritual, a tradition of which Nīlakaṇṭha himself was an avid practitioner. This would be tantamount to discovering, in the European sphere, that the French Voltaire, outspoken critic of theological excess, had spent his spare hours practicing Rosicrucian ritual or angelic magic.

When we attend to the texts, Nīlakaṇṭha emerges as a man of profound religious commitments, both in his personal practice and in his public theological agenda. One may rightly wonder, in fact, whether the term secular could possibly do justice to the complexity of his life’s work. And yet, academic literature on early modern India has scarcely noted the theological investments of scholars such as Nīlakaṇṭha;recent studies consistently depict such intellectuals purely as poets, logicians, and social theorists, implicitly secular in their public outlook. Most notably, over the course of the previous decade, Sheldon Pollock’s Sanskrit Knowledge Systems Project has considerably advanced our knowledge of early modern thought in India. In doing so, this team of scholars has uncovered discursive patterns that invite direct comparison with the European Renaissance and early modernity, including a return to the classics of Sanskrit thought—an Indic neoclassicism—and a fascination with the idea of “newness,” giving unprecedented sanction to intellectual innovation. Others have located a mounting historical consciousness in the writings of early modern intellectuals and literati, revealed not through historiography as a discrete textual genre but through narrative “textures” that evoke an awareness of historical change (Narayana Rao et al. 2003). It is in such features that recent scholarship has sought to locate a distinctively Indic “modernity.”

Such strictly textual scholarship on Indian early modernity builds on the rich terrain of extratextual work that has excavated a pervasive transformation in the economic, political, and social dynamics of early modern Indian polities. We need not, of course, assume intellectual changes to be derivative of socioeconomic change—invoking in the process the much maligned base-superstructure dichotomy. Ample evidence exists, however, that a model of modernity characterized in part by shifts in capital flow had found a home in early modern India. The work of Sanjay Subrahmanyam (2001), for instance, complicates the traditional narrative, inherited from the economic imperialism brought on by colonial intervention, that early modern India had been stultified by a homegrown epidemic of economic stagnation. Instead, Subrahmanyam proposes a revised model for mapping modernity as a transregional phenomenon fabricated through global exchange between multiple regions of the globe, with South Asia itself playing an integral role in this multidimensional web of exchange. This “conjunctural” model of multiple modernities essentially challenges Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1976) traditional explanation of early modernity’s onset as a virus borne by the vector of capitalism spreading from the European center to peripheries around the globe.

In short, recent research into seventeenth-century India has ambitiously sought to reveal a distinctively Indic early modernity, one that developed in dialogue with its Western counterpart rather than being exported in toto owing to the beneficence of a European “civilizing” power. With such a project in mind, the temptation to compare looms high on the horizons, with all the promises and limitations that comparison typically invokes. As historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith has taught us, comparison often operates through a sort of sympathetic magic, creating a semblance of similarity through a process of contact or contagion. Wary of the consequences of unduly hasty comparison, Smith further invites us in his book Drudgery Divine to engage in a comparison not of similarity but of difference—to compare so that the unique features of each standard of comparison appear all the more salient. It is in the spirit of Smith’s dictum that I have invoked the image of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita as the Indian Voltaire. The comparison rings true at first glance; and yet the role of anticlerical iconoclast does a remarkably poor job of explaining what motivated Nīlakaṇṭha to compose his works, and an even poorer one of clarifying how his ideas influenced seventeenth-century south Indian society. Seeing the limitations of this comparison, one would scarcely believe that not a single scholar to date has remarked on the theological agenda of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita. Likewise, scholarship has barely scratched the surface of the actual theology of Nīlakaṇṭha’s granduncle Appayya Dīkṣita, who has been credited with reinventing south Indian Śaivism and its accompanying philosophical discourses a century before.[2]

And yet the influence of Nīlakaṇṭha’s theology is by no means marginal. Remembered by their descendants as the equivalent of living saints, both Nīlakaṇṭha and his granduncle Appayya were instrumental in rethinking the theological boundaries between the sectarian Hindu communities of south India, Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava alike. Between the two, Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha contributed significantly to the articulation of the fundamental pillars of Smārta-Śaivism—in matters of theology, devotion, ritual practice, and even the constitution of its religious public. Evidently, “secularism”—or the critique of religion—is the last thing we should expect to uncover in the writings of early modern south India. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction. In the early centuries of the Common Era, philosophers across religious boundaries—Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and even atheist (Carvāka)—found common ground for intellectual debate through formal epistemology, or pramāṇa theory, a framework that, by foregrounding common means of ascertaining shared knowledge such as perception and inference, allowed partisans to engage in dialogue while bracketing religious presuppositions entirely. In contrast to the European case, then, early modern intellectuals in south India instigated a radical theologization of public discourse, such that even the very tools of their intellectual work—approaches to text criticism and the interpretation of scripture (e.g., Mīmāṃsā, Nyāya), previously founded on a shared epistemology—were claimed as the exclusive property of particular Hindu sectarian communities. In short, not until the sixteenth century did religion became the constitutive language of public intellectual exchange in south India.

In the European context, historians remain rightfully skeptical of the extent to which Enlightenment Europe had denuded its intellectual discourse of theological concerns—although exceptions do exist, and the movement to revitalize secularization as the telos of modernity is alive and well even today.[3] Nevertheless, it is difficult to underestimate the centrality occupied in the sociological study of religion by the metanarrative that modernity, as such, is necessarily heralded by a concomitant decline in religiosity. From Max Weber to Peter Berger, theorists have adamantly described secularism as an intrinsic feature of modernity itself, many presupposing that religion would inevitably die out or become obsolete in the course of time. Even in recent years, as the resurgence of fundamentalism around the globe has disabused many sociologists of religion of their faith in the teleology of secularism, theorists, such as Charles Taylor (2007), present us with claims that secularism remains intrinsic to the very experience of modernity. Within the substantial literature on secularization theory, Taylor identifies two primary subsets of definitions given for the concept of secularism. On one hand, secularism can be an attribute of belief, suggesting that individuals in modernized societies are far less likely to profess belief in a higher power or the doctrines of organized religion. On the other hand, secularization can refer exclusively to the removal of religious content from public space and civil society without reference to personal belief or private religious practice. Taylor, for his part, chooses to adopt elements of both approaches as constitutive of what he calls the “secular age.”

Early modern India, to the contrary, exhibited neither of these tendencies that Taylor believes encapsulate the range of theories of secularization.[4] With regard to religious belief, we can locate no major thinkers of the precolonial period who personally disavow the very idea of religion—not even vociferous iconoclasts such as Kabir, whose critiques of Hindu and Muslim dogmatism are matched by enraptured descriptions of subtle-body experiences and fervent adherence to the power of the divine Name.[5] This is, to put it mildly, a striking counterexample to the European narrative and cannot be overemphasized. Even though India at the beginning of the Common Era was home to a number of flourishing atheist schools of philosophy, in the early modern centuries, atheism, or even skepticism, played virtually no role in public discourse. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, indeed, that India fails to conform to an ostensive gold standard upheld as the harbinger of modernity in western Europe. Not only has it become a matter of common sense to question the European teleology of modernity, implicating civilizations around the globe in the march of progress, but also theorists have gone so far as to locate a genuinely theological project within the Western concept of secularism, proper to the religious terrain of post-Reformation Europe. Such a theme is perhaps most interestingly theorized in the 2013 work of Giorgio Agamben undertaking an archaeology of the theological concepts that underlie such mainstays of Enlightenment rationality as sovereignty, law, and the very concept of economy.

What then, was the place of religion in early modern India, if we can even be so bold as to imply with this question the possibility of an answer in the singular? In speaking of a theologization of public discourse—or in speaking of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita as public theologian—care must be taken, first and foremost, to steer clear, on one hand, of the European metanarrative of secularization and, on the other hand, of its implied opposite, or the failure of India to secularize. To date, theorists of the early modern in South Asia have scrupulously avoided mentioning religion—whether its presence or decline—as an intrinsic feature of Indic early modernity. To point out the obvious—namely, that religion in precolonial India showed no signs of rational interrogation, let alone evacuation from the public sphere—would be to tread dangerously close to painting precolonial India as the irrational, mystical Other that missionaries and British Orientalists envisioned: in other words, as an India that simply failed to modernize. Rather than endorsing a theology underlying Western modernity as unproblematically universal, we are better served by returning to the archive to excavate the theology of India’s early modern publics, acknowledging that India’s early modernity will be permeated by a distinctive theological vision.

The alternative to adopting such metanarratives, perhaps, is to bracket the diachronic itself for some time: historiography, as Hayden White (1975) has taught us, cannot avoid implicating itself in the art of emplotment. Speaking synchronically of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita as a public theologian demands instead a delineation of what precisely constitutes the public in the intellectual discourse of his contemporaries in post-Vijayanagara south India. To map the concept of the public—to say nothing of the omnipresent “public sphere”—directly onto Indian society, however, could result in more than a few historical anachronisms. We would be remiss not to question implications of an Indian public sphere, particularly before the overt Western influence of the colonial encounter. One has to take care, naturally, to avoid privileging Eurocentric concepts and teleologies in the study of the non-Western world. Over the past decades, however, the notion of an extraEuropean public, varying by degree from its presumed European model, in and of itself has ceased to be a conceptual problem. We can speak equally of a public sphere in early modern England or in Safavid Iran (Rahimi 2011) without an overt fear of unwarranted parochialism. Such a public, however, must be contextualized within its South Asian context, particularly as it relates to the place of religion in early modernity. Because the very idea of the public, in certain formulations, implicates a rationalist critique of religiosity as such, a South Asian analogue of the public sphere must above all make room for the existence of religiously inflected publics—that is, for public spaces and channels of discourse that are rooted in the lifeworlds and religious cultures of particular sectarian communities.

Footnotes and references:


Translation by Vasudeva (2005).


For a qualification of the argument that Appayya Dīkṣita reinvented south Indian Śaivism through a recovery of Śrīkaṇṭha’s Brahmasūtrabhāṣya, see Fisher (2017), which draws attention to the debts Appayya owes to Vīraśaiva theologians in the Andhra and Tamil regions.


See, for instance, Victoria Kahn (2014) for a “return to secularism” as the intrinsic feature of a singular modernity inherited from western Europe; and see Gregory (2012) on the argument for the causal relationship between the Protestant Reformation and secularism.


On distinctively Indian manifestations of secularism in the twentieth century and beyond, see for instance Asad (1993) and Bilgrami (2014).


Among counterexamples that can be proposed, Kabir and other nirguṇa bhakti saints, I would argue, do not fit this description. Disavowing ritualism or affiliation with particular communities is not the same as rejecting religion as a category.

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