The Early Kannada Sivabhakti Tradition

A review of Narrating Devotion: Representation and Prescriptions of the Early Kannada Śivabhakti Tradition according to Harihara’s Śivaśaraṇa Ragaḷĕgaḷu, by Gil Ben-Herut.

Gil Ben-Herut’s dissertation offers a close reading of an important yet surprisingly neglected thirteenth-century Kannada text that illuminates the early history of what is perhaps the most radical and sociologically intriguing Hindu devotional tradition in India. The Liṅgāyats (bearers of the liṅga) or Vīraśaivas (Heroes of Śiva) are renowned today for their rejection of caste and variance from some traditional Hindu practices, as well as for their pithily assertive vacana poetry, which A. K. Ramanujan’s masterful translations made accessible to English readers. In general, however, scholarship on the Vīraśaivas has been quite fragmentary, as Ben-Herut shows in his introduction, and consequently, impressions about the tradition, which are based mainly on sixteenth-century texts, wrongly have been read as representing the tradition’s entire development since the twelfth century. Ben-Herut highlights this problem clearly, citing with appreciation Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi’s work on how a subgroup of sixteenth-century Vīraśaivas crucially reshaped the community’s memory of their past (Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, Pre-modern Communities and Modern Histories: Narrating Virasaiva and Lingayat Selves, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 2005). What, then, lies on the other side of this historiographical intervention?  How might the Kannada Śivabhakti tradition have looked in its nascent stages, and how did it distinguish itself from others?

Ben-Herut gives us the tools to answer these questions by opening up—for the first time among non-Kannada readers—the hagiographical collection Śivaśaraṇa Ragaḷĕgaḷu (Poems for Śiva’s Saints in the Ragaḷĕ Meter), composed by Hampĕya Harihara in the thirteenth century. The ŚR depicts the Kannada Śaiva bhakti tradition as it began to coalesce, less than a century after the saints at the center of its stories lived, before the names Vīraśaiva and Liṅgāyat became standard. This text’s significance extends to literary history as well, since it represents many new features in Kannada literature, including the first appearance of protagonists from diverse social backgrounds being depicted together. The text also reveals the influence of Tamil and Telugu Śaiva traditions on the Kannada Śiva-bhaktas—an inter-regional dimension of South Indian history that previously had gone unexplored in western scholarship.

Ben-Herut argues that Harihara, in composing the ŚR, discursively created “a new social space or legitimacy for the newly-formed śivabhakti community within existing society” by means of telling stories about Śaiva saints (p. 16). Hagiography was thus Harihara’s medium for remembering the past, constructing the tradition’s identity over against others, and representing the normative ideals of the tradition to the text’s audience. Ben-Herut argues that because the ŚR is so intimately tied to its immediate Śivabhakta audience—responding to their anxieties and representing models of devotion—it offers a uniquely valuable window into the cultural world of thirteenth-century Kannada bhakti. Following the leads of Anne Monius, John S. Hawley, and Robin Rinehart, he demonstrates that hagiography has significant historical value when read as a cultural product of its time. One might add that in many cases across South Asia, this literature speaks about periods and social locations that were otherwise neglected in more official and political histories. Something new and sociologically important appears to be happening through traditions like this, as ideas of inclusivity and “equality” were conceptualized in a Hindu idiom among twelfth- and thirteenth-century Kannada speakers. Ben-Herut’s study of the ŚR presents a valuable primary source in which this process can be observed. The contribution of this dissertation to our knowledge of religious, literary, and cultural history in early modern South India is thus difficult to overstate.

The dissertation is divided into two parts consisting of nine chapters total, followed by a short conclusion. Part 1 explores the literary history and context of the ŚR, and Part 2 discusses outstanding themes that arise from the text itself.

Four chapters make up the contextualizing, first part of this dissertation. Chapter 1 examines the milieus out of which Kannada Śivabhakti hagiography emerged. Ben-Herut argues that the ŚR represents “a moment of consolidation of religious community around a text, a moment in time which we can recognize as the creation of literary culture” (p. 34). Noting that what are now the normative terms for describing this tradition, vīraśaiva and liṅgāyata, do not appear in the ŚR (instead, we see śaraṇas, maheśvaras, and others), Ben-Herut calls attention to the ways in which this thirteenth-century text depicts a configuration before Vīraśaivism. As it also employs a schema of purātanas (Ancient Ones, or Tamil Nāyāṉars) and nūtanas (New Ones, or Kannada-speaking bhaktas), the text reveals a strong connection to earlier and coeval bhakti traditions. This network suggests a sort of “mini bhakti movement,” by which Tamil Śivabhakti traveled throughout South India, especially via regional hubs at Śriśailam and Hampi (p. 51). Chapter 2 investigates sources of information about Harihara, a highly prolific author who composed several Kannada poems in high literary style but who is most remembered as the poet of the strikingly simpler ragaḷĕ (defined extensively in Chapter 3). Ben-Herut highlights stories that portray this innovation as fraught with criticisms and revisions. Social tensions also abound, epitomized by Harihara’s withdrawal from the royal court that he served in order to serve Śiva without restriction. This mistrust between Kannada Śivabhaktas and royal patrons was a major theme that would run throughout the sectarian literature of this tradition.

Chapters 3 and 4 are of special technical interest to literary historians, as Ben-Herut provides a detailed analysis of the poetic forms, meters, and literary devices common in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Kannada, all in order to underline Harihara’s innovation. A central argument is that the form and content of the ŚR are closely intertwined, as the less adorned and more flexible style of the ragaḷĕ allows greater emphasis to be placed on popular and collective performance, thereby increasing the text’s didactic utility. Ben-Herut offers a technical analysis of meters in Sanskrit, Kannada inspired by Sanskrit (mārga), and Kannada inflected by local/regional styles (deśi). He shows how Harihara adopted the pre-existent but little used ragaḷĕ meter, which had both mārga and deśi characteristics, but then self-consciously experimented with it further until he had a form that he could use for narrating entire, long compositions (unlike his predecessors, who used the ragaḷĕ only briefly and occasionally as one meter mixed together others in their works). Less restrictive than Sanskrit-derived meters and more compelling for oral narration, the ragaḷĕ proved to be immensely influential, and Harihara’s successors have credited Harihara with opening the door for a new style of Kannada poetry that was neither high nor folk. (Ben-Herut’s analysis is richer and more complex than can be summarized here.)  Harihara’s “popularization” of Kannada poetry (Ben-Herut does not use this term) is observable in other ways too, since his compositions portray elements of the everyday, non-elite world such as labor, family life, and, as one modern interpreter put it, “country life.”  Ben-Herut suggests that Harihara’s innovation had a greater impact on starting a new phase in the history of Kannada literature than the original saints (Basava and company, to whom are attributed the vacanas) themselves had.

Part 2 consists of five chapters that examine themes in the ŚR central to the tradition’s emergent theology and revealing of its self-understanding within the broader society. Ben-Herut’s guiding question is, “What did it mean to be a devotee of Śiva according to the ŚR?”  Chapter 5 focuses on the notion of niṣṭhe (determination) or ekaniṣṭhe (singular determination) that Harihara regularly invokes as the ultimate guiding principle for devotees. Citing multiple examples from the text, Ben-Herut explains that niṣṭhe is the devotee’s interior focus on Śiva, because of which a saintly person is freed from conventional norms of behavior and becomes involved in superhuman events. The ŚR consistently commends devotees, both male and female, to consider themselves as the wife of Śiva. Chapter 6 examines Harihara’s portrayal of “equality” (samaśīla) in stories about the saints—the feature of this tradition that is socially the most radical in comparison to other bhakti traditions. Ben-Herut is astutely careful not to read anachronistic meanings into this term, so he pays close attention to how Harihara refers to samaśīla in stories relating to gender, caste, occupation, untouchability, commensality, and material wealth. Śamaśīla is invoked not as an abstract value for itself, but is “bounded to the exclusive worship of Śiva” and invoked mainly in ritual contexts (p. 193). Some invocations do seem radical, such as Śivabhakti reversing the metaphysics of pollution, whereby a Śivabhakta (regardless of caste) is pure and a Vaiṣṇava brahman is impure. At the same time, not surprisingly, the sense of “equality” that appears in the ŚR is still highly inflected by cultural assumptions about the place of women, occupational background, and the like, although it is nonetheless strongly distinguished from traditional brahman orthodox attitudes. Chapter 7 investigates how Harihara narratively positions the Śivabhaktas within a systematic ritual framework (the āgama system), in relation to traditional brahminical social and ritual practice on one side and radical antinomianism on the other. To do so, Ben-Herut refers to the terms orthopraxy (ritual practice to be done in institutionalized space) and omnipraxy (ritual behaviors that can be done anywhere), which are roughly analogous to the emic categories of sthāvara (standing) and jaṅgama (moving). One notable discovery from this analysis is that the ŚR is at odds with what A. K. Ramanujan held up as characterizing the Vīraśaiva tradition—the early Kannada Śivabhaktas in fact did endorse and participate in temple worship.

Chapters 8 and 9 approach the ŚR narrative in a more social historical mode, reading the text for what it indicates about social tensions and animosities, an activity that ties the end of the dissertation back together with the historical analysis of Part 1. Chapter 8 analyzes stories about Śivabhaktas’ interactions with kings, who materially support the bhaktas but also represent the worldly temptation of wealth and power, and with Vaiṣṇava brahmans, who are the most frequent “religious other” to the Śivabhaktas, who routinely challenged them in debates and miracle contests. In the background of all these encounters are questions of financial and political support. The rivalry between Śivabhaktas and Vaiṣṇava brahmans (“opponent others”) is relatively mild, when compared to the tales of their violent confrontations with Jains (“wholly others”), which are explored in Chapter 9. Ben-Herut points out that although extreme and violent opposition to Jains is also a theme in Tamil Śaiva literature like Cekkiḷār’s Periyapurāṇam, the ŚR is different in that it does not depict this opposition in the context of competition over patronage and public support. At the same time, the ŚR contains many stories of Śivabhaktas and Jains sharing much common space, such that Śivabhaktas are sometimes motivated toward violence by “geographical jealousy” and a wish to control the public religious landscape (p. 384).  Likewise, the ŚR portrays a number of Śaiva-Jain marriages. Ben-Herut interprets this peculiar portrayal of violence and intimacy as Harihara’s attempt both to construct Śivabhakta communal identity (which was still in the process of emerging) and to clarify this identity over against a familiar but clearly different Other, and he is appreciably frank that this matter requires further research and reflection.

Throughout the dissertation, Ben-Herut consistently and adeptly shows why the Śivaśaraṇa Ragaḷĕgaḷu merits greater attention, for what it reveals about the history of Kannada bhakti (and its inter-regional links) and about the history of Kannada literature. By extension, one could argue that this text is immensely relevant to social history as well, since Harihara appears to participate in a pattern common to bhakti traditions—a growing concern with the masses or “the popular,” which is more socially inclusive (and self-conscious of its intention to be so) than other religious and social formations in early modern South Asia. In carrying out his exposition and analysis, Ben-Herut generously provides numerous translated passages from the ŚR, so that his readers will see clearly why this text deserves the close attention that he gives to it. Gil Ben-Herut’s sensitive reading of this Middle Kannada text, augmented by his deep knowledge of Sanskrit and Kannada poetics and his admirable familiarity with modern Kannada secondary scholarship converge in this dissertation. It makes substantial contributions to religious and literary history in South India, and it lays a very solid foundation for future scholarship on early Kannada bhakti.

Jon Keune
India Studies Program, Comparative Cultural Studies Department
University of Houston

Primary Sources

Hampĕya Harihara, Śivaśaraṇara Ragaḷĕgaḷu [Kannada] ca.1225 CE
Kĕrĕya Padmarasa, Dīkābodhĕ [Kannada]  ca. 1225 CE
Pālkuriki Somanātha, Basava Purāṇamu [Telugu, in English translation] ca.1275 CE
Koṇḍaguḷi Keśirāja et al, Śīlamahatvada Kanda [Kannada]  ca.1110 CE

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2013. 414 pp. Primary Advisor: Laurie L. Patton.

Image: Virupaksa Temple in Hampi, Karnataka (Photo by Author).

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