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 Making of a Hindu Sectarian Community

[Full title: A Continuing Legacy: The Making of a Hindu Sectarian Community]

Who invented Smārta-Śaivism? Was the tradition created ex nihilo through the abstract discourses of an intellectual elite, or did it emerge organically through the unfolding of social dynamics over the course of the early modern centuries? As with the purported “invention” of Hinduism, to identify the moment and circumstances of birth of a particular sectarian tradition raises a number of vexing theoretical questions about historical causation—the process by which a genuinely new cultural edifice comes into being. My aim in this work has been to sketch the unmistakable impressions of public theology on the embodied, socially embedded boundaries of Smārta religious life, its role in shaping emerging modes of religious identity—a process that cannot be reduced either to hegemonic domination or to elitist fancy. Indeed, the impact of Smārta-Śaivism on contemporary religious culture in Tamil Nadu extends far beyond the boundaries of maṭha or sampradāya, “monastery” or “lineage.” Much in the way that the “Sacred Games of Śiva,” the distinctive legend of place of Madurai, has historicizable discursive origins in the public theology of the seventeenth century, the same can be said for the wider public Smārta culture of the Tamil region. The subsequent inauguration of a public regional culture, from the Śrīvidyā inflection of Carnatic music (Shulman 2014) to the public esotericism of contemporary Chennai (Kachroo 2015), bears the distinct impressions of the actors and events of early modernity.

The Smārta-Śaiva community—with its perduring alliance between Śaṅkarācārya renunciant lineages, the monastic institutions they maintain, associated temple complexes such as the Kāmākṣī Temple of Kanchipuram, and a laity comprised largely of south Indian Smārta Brahmins—an integral feature of Tamil Smārta culture today, began to emerge under specific and eminently observable social circumstances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I have documented throughout this book, the intellectuals who found themselves in the midst of this rapidly emerging network were by no means passive observers; rather, they actively contributed to the constitution of the network itself and the continual rethinking of its dimensions and boundaries. Precisely by doing so, in fact, Nīlakaṇṭha and his colleagues forged systems of religious meaning that opened new avenues for public religious participation in the Smārta community and, concomitantly, new models for lived religious identity. Although seemingly confined to palm leaves and paper through the medium of written text, the intellectual work of these scholars played a foundational role in the conceptual constitution of the emergent Smārta system, articulating new boundaries for the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of participant devotees, stabilizing the social structure of the system by delimiting it from competing sectarian systems, such as the more transgressive Śākta esoteric lineages or the vibrant Vaiṣṇava traditions of the region.[1] Niklas Luhmann (1995), indeed, insightfully observes that systems, composed of socially embedded institutions, cohere not on the basis of institutions alone but, rather, through the shades of meaning they acquire through the communicative endeavors of social agents. Such meaning supplies the very rationale for preserving religious institutions—and the religious publics they cultivate—in the face of constant competition from neighboring communities and perpetual fluctuations in the fabric of society. It is no surprise, then, that court-sponsored intellectuals of the seventeenth century should have exerted their most formative influence on extratextual life through their work as public theologians.

Indeed, the public memory of their influence in shaping the boundaries of a new religious community is palpable throughout the writings of their descendants, from the eighteenth century down to the present day. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the decidedly southern Purāṇa, the Śivarahasya: As the text-critical acumen of our early modern theologians has taught us, some Purāṇic extracts offer representations of seemingly modern phenomena and so warrant suspicion of interpolation. Some passages, however, occasion no room for doubt.

The following vignette allays our fears that the practice of scriptural forgery may have somehow diminished under early colonial rule:

All twice-borns will be devoted to barbarous conduct, poor,
And of meager intellect. In such a world, a sage will be born.
O Śivā, Śaṅkara, born from a portion of me, the greatest of the devotees of Śiva,
Will take incarnation in the Kali Yuga, along with four students.
He will bring about the destruction of the groves of heretics on earth.
To him I have given the wisdom of the Upaniṣads, O Maheśvarī.
In the same Kali Yuga, O Great Goddess, the twice-born named Haradatta[2]
Will be born on the surface of the earth to chastise the non-Śaivas.
There will also be a certain [Appayya] Dīkṣita, a god on earth, a portion of me, O Ambikā,
Ceaselessly engaged in radiant practices, born in a Śaiva Sāmaveda lineage.
And other Bhaktas, O Mistress of the Gods, in the Cēra, Cōla, and Pāṇdya countries,
Supremely devoted to me, will be born in all castes:
Sundara, Jñānasambandha, and likewise, Māṇikyavācaka.[3]

Śaṅkara, Haradatta, and Appayya Dīkṣita: in this eighteenth-or nineteenthcentury Purāṇic accretion, the Smārta-Śaiva legacy has rewritten the canon of saints of the Tamil country, elevating the progenitors of the Smārta tradition above the common “devotees” of Śiva, the Tamil Śaiva bhakti saints. This particular passage, in fact, was adduced as the prototypic source text for the divinity of Appayya Dīkṣita by his nineteenth-century biographer, Śivānanda Yogīndra, born Śeṣa Dīkṣita. The tradition he inspired, however, reaches far beyond the printed pages of his classic chronicle to inform the religious identity of the present-day Dīkṣita family, who pride themselves on their descent from a genuine aṃśāvatāra, or partial incarnation,[4] of Śiva.

Intriguingly, hagiography, if not history, has never ceased to remember the formative theological influence of Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha on the nascent Smārta-Śaiva community. From within the tradition, such hagiography blurs the line between theology and Indological scholarship.

Spokesmen for the Appayya Deekshithendrar Granthavali Prakasana Samithi, for instance, advertise the intellectual legacy of their forefather in polyglot newsletters with theologically inflected taglines such as:

“Srimad Appayya Deekshithendrar is regarded as the aparavathara of Srimad Sankara Bhaghavathapadal and also revered in this country, as an incarnation of Iswara.”[5]

The divine status of these scholars is commemorated most frequently, however, by means of narrative. Short anecdotes depicting the exploits of Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha have circulated over the course of multiple generations, preserved with the stamp of authority of their influential biographers. Swami Sivananda,[6] founder of the Divine Life Society, to name one highly visible example, includes both Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha in his Lives of Saints, in the company of Jesus and the Buddha, Śaṅkara and Vidyāraṇya. His narratives, moreover, capture something of the deeply sectarianized climate in which the scholars actually moved, hinting at the highly charged community boundaries that solidified over the course of their lifetimes.

Such is the case with this memorable account—forced English versification and all—of Appayya’s ostensive pilgrimage to Tirupati, stronghold of south India Vaiṣṇavism par excellence:

Once to Tirupathi the sage
Went on a lonely pilgrimage,
And there the Mahant to him told:
“Enter not the fane; it can’t hold
Within its precinct a Saivite;
To enter here you have no right.”
Wrath was the saint and quietly he
By occult power did o’ernight change
The fane’s image of Lord Vishnu
To Siva. The Mahant turned blue
When in the morn he, aghast, saw
Vishnu’s image changed to Siva.
To the great sage he now did run
And of him humbly beg pardon,
And asked the image be restored
To the shape he loved and adored.
Such was the great saint Appayya,
An incarnation of Siva,
Whom men still love and have reverence
For his wisdom and intelligence. (Sivananda 1947, 313)

Such stories abound in the public memory of Nīlakaṇṭha and Appayya’s descendants: Appayya leaves his body in Cidambaram in the presence of Naṭarāja, Nīlakaṇṭha is granted the gift of sight by Mīnākṣī, Ratnakheṭa Dīkṣita garners the favor of Kāmākṣī in Kanchipuram. More often than not, these episodes have been dismissed out of hand by contemporary Indologists as an impediment to reconstructing a lost intellectual history. In this case, however, beneath hagiographical adulation lies a kernel of historical fact: these narratives serve as communal sites of memory for the socioreligious transformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the systemic restructuring of the religious landscape that had been publicly facilitated to no small degree by Appayya, Nīlakaṇṭha, and their intellectual contemporaries. A few generations before the fact, these narratives superimpose the same Smārta-Śaiva culture that was born from their public theological interventions. These stories are replete with rivalry between Śiva and Viṣṇu, the veneration of Śaṅkarācārya ascetics, the adulation of Kāmākṣī and Mīnākṣī, and initiation into the mystery of Śrīvidyā. Like most hagiographies, the exploits of Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha tell us less about their actual biographies than about the lives they shaped in future generations, when such motifs were no longer novel inventions but fixtures of the fabric of Smārta religiosity.

As a point of fact, neither the cultural icons of south Indian Smārtism nor the everyday religious practice of the community could be conceived of today, in their present shape, were it not for the theological innovations of Appayya’s and Nīlakaṇṭha’s social circles. For instance, the tradition of Carnatic music would not have been the same without the Śrīvidyā-inflected kirtans of Tyāgarāja and Muttusvāmī Dīkṣitar,[7] whose compositions practically constitute the canon. Nor is it an accident that among the ranks of influential scholars in twentieth-century Tamil Nadu, many were devotees of the Kanchi and Sringeri Śaṅkarācārya lineages, initiates in Śrīvidyā ritual practice, or descendants of the Dīkṣitas themselves. Indeed, the very same P. P. S. Sastri who is responsible for orchestrating the preservation of Nīlakaṇṭha’s Saubhāgyacandrātapa was also the chief contributor to the editing of the southern recension of the Mahābhārata. The authority of the Śrīvidyā Society of Mylapore, at one time the defining institution of Chennai’s quintessential Brahmin neighborhood, rests squarely on the shoulders of Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha; and the neighboring academic bookstore, Jayalakṣmī Indological Bookhouse, maintains itself largely through the sale of Śrīvidyā scriptures and paddhatis, consumed voraciously by local intelligentsia. The Sanskrit curriculum in Tamil Nadu pairs the transregional classics of Kālidāsa with the highly regional centuries of the mute poet Mūkakavi,[8] a devotee of Kāmākṣī, largely unknown to Sanskrit literature beyond the Tamil region but celebrated with reverence as an icon of Sanskrit Smārta culture.

That this particular confluence of cultural currents is prototypically Smārta in character—that is, that these features are universally definitive of Smārta-Śaiva religious culture—is captured eloquently by Sankara Rama Sastri, remembered as one of the most prolific critical editors of works of kāvya and Alaṅkāraśāstra of the period.

Speaking for the twentieth-century Śrīvidyā practitioners of Chennai, Sastri writes, in his Sanskrit introduction to a handbook of Śrīvidyā ritual, the Śrīvidyāsaparyāpaddhati:

This [tradition] was first taught by Paraśiva, the primordial Lord, to the auspicious goddess. Partisanship to this tantra, which independently aggregates the entirety of the aims of man, was manifested by the Blessed Feet of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya, composing the Saundaryalaharī, which encapsulated the entirety of Mantraśāstra, and the commentary on the Lalitātriśatī. The ancient great poets, crest jewels of the Vedic tradition, such as Kālidāsa and Mūkakavi, and those of more proximate times, such as Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, had firmly secured their affections to the pair of lotus feet of the goddess, as is celebrated repeatedly by numerous anecdotes. It has also been ascertained that Vidyāraṇya and others, although the highest of preceptors of the knowledge of Advaita, engaged in the practice of Śrīvidyā. It is well-known by word of mouth that the great treatise on Mantraśāstra, titled The Forest of Wisdom, was composed by the sage Vidyāraṇya, and likewise, the treatise on Mantraśāstra known as the Parimala was written by the illustrious Appayya Dīkṣita. These two works, however, are no longer extant. Through an unbroken succession in sequence from the Blessed Feet of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya, the worship of the Śrīcakra, performed in various locations in the monasteries of the Śaṅkarācārya lineages, establishes beyond a doubt the Vaidika status of the tradition of the fifteen-syllable Śrīvidyā mantra.

For, the great goddess Rājarājeśvarī, the supreme deity of Śrīvidyā, known by the name of Kāmākṣī as she adorns the domain of Kanchipuram, has been worshipped by many thousands of the leading traditions of śruti and smṛti; likewise with Mīnākṣī, illuminating the city of Madurai, who is renowned as the Advisor (Mantriṇī) in the Śrīvidyā tradition, and the goddess referred to as Akhilāṇḍeśvarī, lighting up the sacred site of Jambukeśvara, who indeed is known in Mantraśāstra as the Chastiser (Daṇḍinī), bearing titles such as Daṇḍanāthā, and likewise, Śrī Kanyākumārī, illumining the sacred site of Kanyakumari, who indeed in Śrīvidyā is renowned by the name of the three-syllabled goddess Bālā. Every single twice-born who is intent on the practices of the śrutis and smṛtis worships daily the mother of the Vedas, Sāvitrī. This is precisely why it is commonly said that all twice-borns on earth are externally Śaivas, and internally Śāktas. Therefore, the Śrīvidyā tradition itself is included within the Smārta tradition.[9]

The peculiar aphorism cited here bears repeating, as its theological import cannot be underestimated: as S. R. Sastri informs us:

“All twice-borns on earth are externally Śaivas and internally Śāktas.”

The above passage outlines the conceptual, historical, and geographical territory of a homogenized, unified Smārta sectarian tradition. While modern Smārta religiosity is orthodox Śaiva in its public image and was founded on Śrīvidyā esotericism at its core, it is anchored on the authority of the figures who were narrativized in the seventeenth century as the progenitors of Smārta-Śaivism, such as Śaṅkarācārya and Kālidāsa, and those who set in motion those very narratives, such as Appayya and Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita. And for the Smārtas of present-day Tamil Nadu, Smārta-Śaivism is as intimately bound up with Tamil geography as with the intellectual heritage of Śaṅkara: Śrīvidyā, in its highest abstractions, abides for south Indian Smārtas in the embodied form of the newly domesticated Śākta sacred sites of the Tamil country, where scripture maps perfectly onto spatial territory.

In practice as well as in theory, the legacy of Nīlakaṇṭha’s generation synecdochically invokes the characteristic Smārta-Śaiva religiosity preserved by Nīlakaṇṭha’s contemporary descendants. Nearly twenty years ago, the residents of Palamadai, the ancestral agrahāra of Nīlakaṇṭha’s lineage in southern Tamil Nadu near Tirunelveli, honored the memory of their illustrious forefather by allocating a plot of land in the village as a branch maṭha of the Śaṅkarācārya lineage of Sringeri. The inauguration ceremony was graced by the presence of Sringeri’s Jagadguru Bhāratī Tīrtha Svāmigaḷ, whom present-day descendants of Nīlakaṇṭha have commonly accepted as family guru. In the adjoining shrine to the village’s Maṅgalanāyakī Temple, presently venerated as Nīlakaṇṭha’s samādhi shrine, rests a set of three photographs: a reproduction of a mural painting of Appayya bequeathing scriptural manuscripts to Nīlakaṇṭha, flanked by portraits of the two most recent Jagadgurus of the Sringeri lineage, Bhāratī Tīrtha and Abhinava Vidyātīrtha. Three and a half centuries later, now that Brahmin scholars are no longer sponsored by local rulers to compose works of Sanskrit poetry and philosophy, some things have changed very little for the descendants of early modern south India’s leading intellectuals. A hereditary devotional relationship with Śaṅkarācārya preceptors remains to this day a cornerstone of the religious observances of both Appayya’s family, who profess allegiance to the Śaṅkarācāryas of the Kāñcī Kāmakoṭi Pīṭha, and of Nīlakaṇṭha’s, devotees of the Sringeri Śaṅkarācārya lineage who continue to accept Mīnākṣī as their kuladevatā, many of whom recite the Lalitāsahasranāmastotra on a daily basis.[10]

Through this book, I have endeavored to capture the process of public theology in the making—the point of intersection between discourse and social system. I have chosen to highlight three instances of theological trajectories—genuinely revolutionary in the scope of their agenda—that exerted a fundamental influence on the future shape of Smārta-Śaiva sectarianism. I chronicle the birth of the formative features of Smārta-Śaiva religiosity from within the sectarian community itself. On one hand an epoch-making development in the history of Indian religion and intellectual life, the birth of the Smārta sectarian tradition also provides an optimal illustration of the widespread acceleration of Hindu sectarianism throughout the centuries of the early modern era, in south India and beyond. When placed in the context of a wider sectarian community in the process of coming into existence, these works begin to speak with a cohesive voice, telling the story of the earliest articulations of the religious values that came to structure the experience of an enduring religious tradition. It is not merely the historical facticity of the Smārta tradition—and the circumstances of its origin—that I have aimed to elucidate in this book; it is also, more crucially, the process of its emergence. Public theology, I contend, provides us with a powerful model for accounting for both the diverse, multivalent texture of Hindu religious experience and the historically contingent phenomena—the genuine theological efforts—that allowed these traditions to assume the shape we observe today.

Footnotes and references:


Luhmann (1995, 17) anticipates such a circumstance, in which shared resources come to play a role in constituting a distinct system: “The concept of boundaries means, however, that processes which cross boundaries (e.g., the exchange of energy or information) have different conditions for their continuance (e.g., different conditions of utilization or of consensus) after they cross the boundaries.”


Haradatta, author of the Śrutisūktimālā, also known as the Caturvedatātparyasaṅgraha, is cited as early as Śripati’s Śrīkarabhāṣya, a Vīraśaiva (Śaktiviśiṣṭādvaita) commentary on the Brahmasūtras (circa thirteenth or fourteenth century), and Umāpati’s commentary on the Pauṣkara (circa fourteenth century).


mlecchācāraparāḥ sarve daridrāś ca dvijātayaḥ | bhaviṣyanty alpamatayaḥ yatis tatra bhaviṣyati || śive madaṃśasaṃbhūtaḥ śaṅkaraḥ śāṅkarottamaḥ | caturbhiḥ saha śiṣyais tu kalāv avatariṣyati || tasmai copaniṣadvidyā mayā dattā maheśvari | bhūmau pāṣaṇḍaṣaṇḍānāṃ khaṇḍanaṃ sa kariṣyati || kalāv eva mahādevi haradattābhidho dvijaḥ | aśaivadaṇḍanārthāya bhaviṣyati mahītale || dīkṣito ‘pi bhaved kaścin madaṃśo bhūsuro ‘mbike | bhāsurācāranirataḥ śaivacchandogavaṃśajaḥ || anye ‘pi bhaktā deveśi cere cole ca pāṇḍyake | bhaviṣyanti mahābhaktā mayi sarvāsu jātiṣu || sundaro jñānasambandhas tathā māṇikyavācakaḥ |


The term aṃśāvatāra typically implies not that the individual is only partially a divine incarnation, but rather that he or she is a full incarnation of a portion of the god in question.


Ramanathan (1966). These newsletters published short essays in Sanskrit, English, Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi celebrating the remembered life of Appayya Dīkṣita, both historical and hagiographical, and advertising the publication ventures of many of his previously unpublished works.


This Sivananda is not to be confused with the nineteenth-century biographer of Appayya of the same name, author of the Appayyadīkṣitendravijaya, although both are descendants of the Dīkṣita family. Swami Sivananda, in fact, was born in Palamadai, Nīlakaṇṭha’s ancestral agrahāra.


Shulman (2014).


Mūkakavi, known only by the name “the Mute Poet,” is reputed by legend to have been deaf and dumb until granted the blessings of the goddess Kāmākṣī, at which point he spontaneously burst into poetry, composing the Mūkapañcaśatī. Unsurprisingly, the very same narratives about his divine gift of poetic virtuosity are often applied in south Indian Smārta circles of Kālidāsa as well (see chapter 2 for further discussion). As for his historical origins, the editor of the Mūkapañcaśatī (Kāvyamālā, vol. 5), writes, “It is not certain when this poet, originating in the Drāviḍa country, was born, but it appears that he was not very ancient.” His verses are scattered with Śrīvidyā terminology and specific references to the deities of Kanchipuram; in short, he could not possibly have lived earlier than the seventeenth century, as his writings evoke a full-fledged south Indian Smārta-Śaiva religiosity. I have seen no evidence that Nīlakaṇṭha or any other scholars of his generation were aware of his existence.


idaṃ hi paraśivenādināthena prathamam upadiṣṭaṃ śrīdevyai. akhilapuruṣārthaikaghaṭanāsvatantre ‘smiṃs tantre sudṛḍhe pakṣapāta āviṣkṛtaḥ śrīśaṅkarācāryabhagavatpādair mantraśāstrasarvasvabhūtāṃ saundaryalaharīṃ lalitātriśatībhāṣyaṃ ca praṇītavadbhiḥ. vaidikaśikhāmaṇayo mahākavayaḥ prācīnāḥ kālidāsamūkādyā arvācīnā nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣitādayaś ca devīcaraṇāmbujadvandve dṛḍhaṃ baddhabhāvā iti ghaṇṭāghoṣo jegīyatetarām. vidyāraṇyaprabhṛtayo ‘dvaitavidyādeśikavaryā api vidyāṃ samupāsāṃcakrira iti nirdhārito ‘yaṃ viṣayaḥ. vidyāraṇyamunibhir vidyārṇavākhyo mahāmantraśāstragrantho vyaracīti, tathaiva śrīmadappayyadīkṣitaiḥ parimalābhidhāno mantraśāstragranthaḥ praṇāyīti ca karṇākarṇikayā śrūyate. paraṃ tu granthāv imau sākṣān na dṛṣṭacarau. ādiśaṅkarabhagatpādopakramam avicchinnapāramparyeṇa tatra tatra śāṅkaramaṭheṣv ācaryamāṇā śrīcakrapūjā ca pañcadaśākṣarīvidyāsampradāyavaidikatvaṃ niḥsandigdhaṃ pratiṣṭhāpayati. paraḥsahasrair hi śrutismṛtisampradāyapravarair ārādhyate kāñcīmaṇḍalaṃ maṇḍayantī kāmākṣyabhidhānā rājarājeśvarī yaiva paradevatā śrīvidyā, tathā madhurāpurīṃ vidyotayantī mīnākṣī yā śrīvidyāyāṃ mantriṇīti prathitā, tathā jambukeśvarakṣetraṃ bhāsayantī akhilāṇḍeśvaryāhvayā devīkila mantraśāstre daṇḍinī daṇḍanāthetyādīn vyapadeśān bhajate, tathaiva kanyākumārīkṣetraṃ prakāśayantī śrīkanyākumārī ya hi śrīvidyāyāṃ tryakṣarī bāleti prathitābhidhānā. śrautasmārtakarmānuṣṭhānatatparā dvijāḥ sarve ‘pi pratyahaṃ samupāsate sāvitrīṃ vedamātaram. ata eva ‘antaḥśāktā bahiḥśaivā bhuvi sarve dvijātayaḥ’ iti vādo ‘pi saṃgacchate. tena śrīvidyāsaṃpradāya eva smārtasaṃpradāya iti suśliṣṭam. Sastri, Śrīvidyāsaparyāpaddhati, 1938, pg. 3.


Personal communication with various descendants of Nīlakaṇṭha, January 2011.

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