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...

The very idea of theology, in early modern India no less than in Europe, generally connotes a strictly textual enterprise. And yet the written word, in published print or palm-leaf manuscript, when circulated within an extensive community of readers or deployed strategically for political ends, often leaves an indelible impression on the world outside of the text. In the European context, one would scarcely doubt that the manifestos of Martin Luther, although consisting of nothing but the written word, occasioned a seismic shift in the religious landscape of Europe when nailed to the church door.

In much the same way, the theology of early-generation Smārta theologians sought to transcend the scope of its textual medium, intervening in religious disputes that had lasting implications for the embodied and lived religious identities of Śaivas across caste and language communities. The majority of the works discussed in the preceding chapter—ranging from Tantric ritual manuals to devotional poetry charged with esoteric significance—were intended for the eyes and ears of a select group of initiates. When Smārta-Śaiva theologians revealed their personal engagement with Śrīvidyā Śākta Tantrism, they aimed to cultivate—and explicate to their coreligionists—interior modes of religiosity that were transmitted within relatively delimited social boundaries, consolidating the internal dynamics of the fledgling Smārta-Śaiva community. Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, most notably, renowned in professional circles for his satirical wit and literary genius, documents in his Śrīvidyā-inflected writings his devotional relationship with his guru, Gīrvāṇendra Sarasvatī, and his authoritative command of the intricacies of

Tantric ritual worship. One might expect, then, that when Nīlakaṇṭha spoke as public theologian, addressing the Śaiva community of his day, his public agen da would arise organically from his inner convictions. In fact, quite the opposite turns out to be the case: Nīlakaṇṭha’s exoteric theology was designed to cultivate a public religious culture that diverged markedly from his own private devotion.

To place this public theological enterprise in context, Nīlakaṇṭha and his contemporaries were faced with navigating the radical sectarianization of south India’s Hindu religious landscape, which in the early seventeenth century was still in the process of unfolding. In the wake of the decline of the Vijayanagara empire, individual sectarian communities, including not only the Smārta-Śaivas but their Vaiṣṇava rivals as well, vied for control of regionwide megatemples. They instituted competing networks of monasteries with vast landholdings that became primary shareholders in the agricultural production and economic circulation at the foundation of south Indian polities. Succinctly, for Smārta-Śaiva theologians, much was at stake in representing themselves as orthodox Hindus with a convincing interpretation of Hindu scripture. Their continuing patronage, on one hand, and their appeal to the broader lay population, on the other, depended to a substantial degree on how suitably they represented themselves as constituting the pinnacle of a unified Hindu religion encompassing the Vedas, Purāṇic mythology, and popular ritual practice such as temple pūjā.

As a result, Smārta-Śaivas pursued their public theology with the same intensity they invested in their esoteric worship. Instead of circulating their devotional poetry to a wider public, Smārta-Śaiva theologians engaged in a project we can describe as “public philology”—text criticism that serves as public theology. On one hand, they established normative standards for the interpretation of exoteric Śaiva classics of mythology and liturgy; Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, for instance, composed a commentary on a popular Śaiva hymn, “The Thousand and Eight Names of Śiva,” one that, for perhaps the first time, systematically identifies for a wider lay public the mythological tropes in a hymn they recited on a daily basis. Other public theological ventures were thinly veiled attacks on the scriptural canons of a rival sectarian community, designed to discredit that community’s claim to scriptural orthodoxy. A particularly appealing target, for instance, was the corpus of sectarian—that is, Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava—Purāṇas, mythology sacred to the Śaivas or Vaiṣṇavas, respectively;because of their prolixity and informal style of composition, Purāṇas were often riddled with internal inconsistencies, making them easy marks for textual critique. In fact, Nīlakaṇṭha appended an entire polemical prologue to his Śivatattvarahasya—“The Secret of the Principles of Śiva,” ostensibly a commentary on a popular Śaiva hymn—to ward off philological polemic that would undermine the ritual sanctity of the hymn in question.

One may note, in Nīlakaṇṭha’s hasty defense of Śaiva orthodoxy, that his method is neither strictly philosophical nor polemical, appealing to a priori rationality or impassioned politics of identity. His method, rather, is text critical: he enters the arena of sectarian debate armed only with the technology of scriptural exegesis.

Indeed, philological reasoning and text criticism appear to have taken on an un precedented centrality in the intersectarian debate of early modern south India. In the place of doctrinal and philosophical critique, scholars frequently challenged rival schools on the grounds of textual instabilities in the primary scriptures of their tradition.[1] The result of these ongoing critiques was an increasing fascination with the hermeneutics of textual interpretation and even the etymology of key terms of sectarian importance—all in the service of demarcating the jurisdiction of one sectarian tradition from another. Partisans of sectarian communities, even across caste and linguistic boundaries,[2] began to approach the very idea of scriptural meaning, and even of textual signification in general, with fresh eyes.

In this light, the early modern centuries provide ample evidence to make the case for a philological turn in Hindu sectarian theology, which, far from representing the reprobate degeneracy of Brahminical elitism, played a central role in the construction, dissemination, and embodiment of religious identities in the world outside of the text. Actively delimiting the boundaries between Hindu sectarian communities, public philology, I argue, constitutes not only an intriguing chapter in the intellectual history of the subcontinent but also a crucial factor in the rapid sectarianization of the Hindu religious landscape during the early modern centuries. In turn, the philological disputes that emerge, through their legislation of religious embodiment of sectarian identities, speak directly to shifts in the nature of religious publicity—indeed, the very idea of the religious public in early modern south India.

Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita concludes the lengthy polemical interlude in his Śivatattvarahasya with the exasperated declaration “Enough with swatting at flies!”[3] And yet this “swatting at flies,” as he considered it, was genuine intellectual work, such that it captivated the attention of the majority of scholars of his day. Thus, it is the process of intellectual fly-swatting that concerns us—an ongoing endeavor that proved fundamental to the scholarly activity of the seventeenth century and remained constitutive of sectarian community boundaries for centuries.

Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, for example, interrogates a seemingly self-evident category of prolixity (ativistṛtatva) as follows:

For, what indeed is it that we call “prolixity”? Is it simply the fact of containing a large number of verses? Or is it being found to contain a greater number of verses than the preconceived number? If it is the first, you cannot prove your case, because this kind of prolixity applies to all Purāṇas. The second, however, is not established. For, one should ask the very person who censures by saying, “The expected number of verses in their entirety are not found, thus the text has lost its original recension,” how could it be possible to maintain prolixity as having those very stated characteristics? [That is, how can a text be overly condensed and prolix simultaneously?][4] Or, let prolixity consist of something else—then, whatever that may be, would it not occur in all manners in the Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas as well? Thus, are you bent on deluding others with your useless ablatives [“because’s”]? Enough of this.[5]

It is one thing to refer to prolixity in common idiom—“Enough of this pro lixity!” (alam ativistareṇa)—and quite another thing to pause to interrogate the category, asking, What indeed is it that constitutes this property we call “prolixity” (kim ativistṛtatvaṃ nāma)? And it is another thing still to apply such philological acumen to text problematics that threatened the standing of one’s religious community: namely, are the Śaiva Purāṇas, mythology sacred to the god Śiva, nothing but textual forgeries that replaced a previously lost manuscript tradition? It is this sort of philological reasoning, and its social and discursive dimensions, that rose to the forefront of theological dialogue in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century south India.

Footnotes and references:


To be clear, the textual practices typical of this period differ significantly from earlier Sanskritic traditions of interreligious debate—for instance, the disputes between the Bauddhas, Mīmāṃsakas, and Naiyāyikas in early philosophical (śāstric) discourse. From the early centuries of the Common Era onward, debate had been mediated largely through shared standards of veridicality, such as pramāṇa theory—that is, key criteria such as perception and inference that transcended the divides of competing canons and doctrines. In contrast, in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century South India, even the analytic tools of text criticism became the property of distinct sectarian traditions. This, in turn, necessitated a serious reconsideration of what precisely constituted the standards of scriptural interpretation and of textual interpretation in general.


A particularly intriguing example of caste and linguistic diversity in this philological turn is a seventeenth-century work of the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta school titled the Varṇāśramacandrikā. The only known work of the lineage to be written in Sanskrit, the Varṇāśramacandrikā takes on caste politics in south Indian religious institutions by defending the legitimacy of the Veḷāḷa pontiffs of the tradition’s monasteries. Through scrutiny of a compendious assortment of Śaiva scriptural citations, the text also makes the case that the tradition’s particular requirement for ascending to the preceptor’s seat—namely, lifelong chastity—is required by Śaiva Siddhānta scripture. See also Koppedrayer (1991).


tad alam anena maśakamṛgayāsaṃrambheṇety uparamyate. Śivatattvarahasya, pg. 23.


tathā hi, kim ativistṛtatvaṃ nāma? kiṃ svata evādhikagranthatvam? kiṃ vā kḷptasaṃkhyāpekṣayādhikasaṃkhyāvattvenopalabhyamānatvam? ādye sarvapurāṇasādhāraṇyān neṣṭasiddhiḥ;dvitīye tv asiddhaḥ; yo hi kḷptagranthasaṃkhyā puṣkalā na labhyata iti naṣṭakośo ‘bhavad grantha ityupālabhyate, taṃ praty eva katham uktalakṣaṇam ativistṛtatvam āpādanīyam (Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, Śivatattvarahasya, pgs. 20–21). The issue of prolixity arises for Nīlakaṇṭha in response to an imagined opponent who claims that the Śaiva Purāṇas are invalid textual authorities because of their prolixity, which, he argues, is grounds for suspecting interpolation. See below for further discussion of Nīlakaṇṭha’s response to this opponent, and the numerous reasons he adduces for discarding the canonicity of the Śaiva Purāṇas.


yac coktam, ativistṛtatyā prakṣepaśaṅkāspadatvād iti, tad dhi na vivicya praśnam api kṣamate; tathā hi, kim ativistṛtatvaṃ nāma? kiṃ svata evādhikagranthatvam? kiṃ vā kḷptasaṃkhyāpekṣayādhikasaṃkhyāvattvenopalabhyamānatvam? ādye sarvapurāṇasādhāraṇyān neṣṭasiddhiḥ;dvitīye tv asiddhaḥ; yo hi kḷptagranthasaṃkhyā puṣkalā na labhyata iti naṣṭakośo ‘bhavad grantha ity upālabhyate, taṃ praty eva katham uktalakṣaṇam ativistṛtatvam āpādanīyam; idam anyad vā kiṃcid astv ativistṛtatvam, sarvadhāpi tat tat kiṃ vaiṣṇavapurāṇeṣu nāsti? tat kiṃ vyarthaiḥ pañcamyantaiḥ parān bhramayasi? āstāṃ tāvad idam. Śivatattvarahasya, pgs. 20–21.

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