The idea of a “bhakti movement” has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of “Indian civilization” and, more specifically, the notion of a “composite culture”. Bhakti is in English generally rendered as “devotion”; in the generally accepted narrative, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the 8th century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country. India’s history for a thousand years, from the early medieval period until around 1650, a period perhaps not quite accidentally coinciding with the advent and then ascendancy of Islam, is thus described as having been preeminently shaped by a remarkable number of men (and often women) whose philosophical and literary compositions were marked by an intense devotional spirit. Whatever the differences amongst these great devotees (bhaktas) of God, and whether they considered themselves followers of Shiva or Vishnu or conceived of God as formless (nirguna), they are supposed to have shared certain attributes. The bhakti movement is said to have opened the doors to God to women and the lower castes; where Brahminism affirmed the ritual superiority of the Brahmins, the infallibility of the Vedas, and the idea that each person was bound to the observance of his ‘caste’ duties, the adherents of bhakti are said to have rebelled against the authority of the Vedas and the upper castes and prioritized the idea of personal experience of God.
Much of the scholarly literature on bhakti has pivoted around certain themes. The distinction between saguna (conceiving of God with form) and nirguna (the notion of God as formless) was a bedrock of the literature for a long time. Another strand of the scholarly literature focused on differentiating women bhaktas from men bhaktas. From around the early 20th century, some colonial writers had dwelled on what might be called the social capaciousness of bhakti, or, to put it with a tinge of provocation, the insurrectionary and rebellious aspects of bhakti. Some of the more recent scholarly works on bhakti, showing an awareness of how the language in which we speak of bhakti has changed, have worked in themes of subaltern agency and Dalit consciousness into their discussions of the works of bhakti poets such as Kabir and Tukaram.
John Stratton Hawley of Barnard College has been a student of bhakti over the last several decades, and in his most recent study of the subject he takes the study of bhakti in very different directions. The fundamental achievement of A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a “bhakti movement” came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility. Hawley hints, though he could have dwelled on this idea at greater length, that the colonial period generated an anxiety, which Indian nationalists commencing in the late 19th century were eager to address, about the basis of Indian unity. From the late 18th century, it became a staple of colonial writing to argue that India had never constituted a “nation”. If the colonial claim that only British rule had succeeded in giving geographical integrity to a people divided by immense differences of caste, religion, and language was to be ably contested, some palpable evidence of India’s cultural unity had to be put on offer. The Sanskritist V. Raghavan, in his 1964 Sardar Vallabhai Patel Memorial Lectures, led his hearers on a tour where the itineraries of bhakti and its most sublime exponents—the Alvar poets, Virasaivas, Jnandev, Narsi Mehta, Jayadev, Caitanya, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Laldeo, Tukaram, among many others—might reasonably be construed as having wrought a tapestry of emotional and territorial integration that led inescapably to the idea of “India” itself. Raghavan described his religious subjects as “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, but he was scarcely alone in giving voice to such a view. Two decades earlier, working in an entirely different medium, the artist Binodbihari Mukherji and his students created frescoes of these “Medieval Saints” on the walls of the Hindi Bhavan at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati (pp. 275-83), a “world university” envisioned as a monument to interculturality, civilizational dialogue, and an integrated conception of the “human”.
The more precise contribution of Hawley’s impressive study, which draws upon his four decades of experience of India’s massive devotional literature and the concomitant scholarship in a number of Indian languages, however lies in his delineation of the two major constituents of what would become known as the bhakti movement. The central part of his story revolves around the notion of the four sampradays, that is the traditions of teaching and reception which were the conduits through which bhakti was thought to have made its way to the north from the south. Secondly, two prominent Hindi scholars, Ramchandra Shukla and especially Hazariprasad Dvivedi, emerge as the principal figures who helped to shape the commonplace understanding of the bhakti movement. This portion of Hawley’s narrative, esoteric and rather detailed at times, will be of interest mainly to specialists, but its wider import can be estimated if we pause to think how the idea of a bhakti movement became enmeshed with the desire to carve out a space for Hindi as something like a national language.
Few scholars can claim the wide and erudite command over the literature that Hawley brings to his subject. His articulation of the politics of knowledge that has informed the idea of the bhakti andolan (movement) is enviable and forces us to consider anew some of the most important strands of the cultural and intellectual history of India. However, some readers might find it amiss that there seems to be comparatively little analysis of bhakti compositions, and readers will get acquainted with very few bhakti poems or compositions as such. Most of the verses that Hawley chooses to quote and analyze have a bearing on his discussion of the four sampradays: having dwelled on the notion of ‘movement’, the reader might perhaps in vain look for the spirit of bhakti. More striking, still, is the comparatively understated role and near omission of certain major figures who, in various ways, were critical to the consolidation of the idea of a bhakti movement. India, the great Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji was to proclaim in Krsnacaritra (“The Life of Krishna”), had become overwhelmingly captive to the idea of bhakti, and this passivity and devotionalism seeded the country’s oppression under the Muslims and then the British. The question of whether Bankim’s essay is at all persuasive aside, the influence of this long essay was very considerable and remains to be gauged. Similarly, while Hawley recognizes the supreme importance of Narsi Mehta’s bhajan (devotional song), “Vaishnava Janato” (p. 28), in the Gandhian rhetoric of resistance to colonialism in the language of love, he might perhaps also have considered the fact that Gandhi dared to describe the venerated Rammohan Roy, the author of the “Bengal Renaissance” and by some measures the architect of Indian modernity, as a “pygmy” in comparison with Kabir and Nanak. Nevertheless, in A Storm of Songs, Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.
[This is a modified and slightly lengthier version of my review of John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), first published in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2017).]