Marathi Historiography’s Bhakti, Brahmans, Untouchables

A review of Eknāth Remembered and Reformed: Bhakti, Brahmans, and Untouchables in Marathi Historiography, by Jon Milton Keune.

The dissertation by Jon Milton Keune is a meticulous study of the various representations of the Marathi sant Eknāth, from the earliest hagiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the stage and screen adaptations of the second half of the twentieth century. Using this rich array of retellings, Keune (pronounced koi-nee) examines how the contentious themes of inter-caste relations and socially-exclusive ritual purity were negotiated at different historical and cultural contexts in literature, theater, and cinema.

This dissertation fills a considerable lacuna in the study of the Marathi bhakti tradition of the Vārkāris, with which Eknāth is associated, by providing an exhaustive and in-depth presentation of the pre-modern and modern sources about the life of Eknāth—most of which were only fleetingly treated until now—their literary and authorial background, as well as their reception, impact, and transmission in history. In addition, Keune’s particular lens for examining these sources, which is the question of caste relations under the assumed bhakti charter of religious egalitarianism, produces valuable insights that transcend the specific field of Marathi bhakti, regarding the changing demands and expectations of the bhakti audience from the sant’s reconstructed figure throughout the ages, the significance of each particular medium (here, traditional hagiographies, literary compendia, modern biographies, historical plays, political drama, film and theater, devotional VCDs) for conveying the sant’s  social message, and, above all, the undetermined and pliable treatment of one Indian society of the question of caste and bhakti, stretching from late pre-modernity to modernity.

Assuming that the dissertation’s readers should establish some knowledge of Eknāth’s life story as backdrop to the critical discussion of subsequent different representations, the first chapter in the dissertation provides a sketch of the life of the sixteenth century Bhakta based on a popular book by Shridhar Kulkarni from 1968. Keune’s useful contextualization of this retelling informs the readers about the particular Marathi social sensibility, pan-Indian nationalism, and anti-Muslin sentiment that shaped this text while effectively introducing us to the outline of Eknāth’s life story and his considerable literary production. Here, Keune supplements Kulkarni’s narrative with independent episodes that did not make it into this particular version, while reminding us that “this grand total [of independent episodes in Eknāth’s life] does not straightforwardly represent actual social memory” (p. 28) but is, rather, an extrinsic and retrospect scholarly artifact. A few sentences later, Keune states that “stories about Eknāth’s inter-caste relations occur exclusively in the independent episodes and not in the more chronologically anchored stories … [Thus, they] can be included or left out without drastically affecting the flow of the overall biography” (pp. 29-30). This valuable discovery serves Keune throughout the study, as he analyses how particular caste-related episodes are either ignored or reconfigured in each text according to different agendas. The rest of the first chapter is dedicated to an exhaustive critical anthology of Marathi and Western scholarship about Eknāth, which points to the absence of a comprehensive treatment of the significance of Eknāth’s life story in terms of caste relations.

The second chapter commences a chronological inquiry into the remembered history of Eknāth’s life story using the early hagiographies composed about him between 1650 and 1760.  Each of the three texts discussed in this chapter—the Śrīkhaṇḍyākhyān (mid-seventeenth-century), the Pratiṣṭhān  Caritra (late-seventeenth-century), and the Eknāth Caritra (1760)—is considered with careful attention to literary form, poetical aspects, and manuscript circulation (though this information is, admittedly, only partially available at times). The subsequent comparative analysis reveals that the three texts differ considerably from each other: the first text was widely circulated but makes no reference to caste issues, the second is sensitive to caste but remained virtuously unknown until the middle of the twentieth century (and, thus, did not influence consequent accounts), and the third, the most influential for later accounts, is multivocal and apologetic with regard to the social transgressions attributed to Eknāth. The third text, the Eknāth Caritra, is also the most mature in terms of its devotional agenda, presenting Eknāth as a full-blown avatār whose life purpose is to “uplift” the world.

According to the third chapter, Eknāth’s hagiographies from the middle of the eighteenth century until the turn of that century became part of a larger textual parcel Keune terms a “hagiographical compendium” or “collective hagiography” (p. 133). Within this genre of religious texts, two voluminous works composed by the same author called Mahīpati, the Bhaktavijay and the Bhaktalīlāmṛt, receive the bulk of Keune’s attention due to their lengthy treatment of Eknāth’s life and the influence these texts (especially the latter) had on early modern writings about Eknāth. Of particular note here is the enhanced presence of Muslims and untouchables in these two texts, which Keune links to the political realities of the late eighteenth century under Śivajī’s rule. Keune also notes a particular scene in the Bhaktalīlāmṛt in which Eknāth eats in untouchables’ house. In this scene, Mahīpati’s use of divine intervention to vindicate Eknāth from transgressing Brahmanical practice paves the way for all future retellings of this scene, which would go on to become central to the tradition. In a third text from this period, also called the Bhaktalīlāmṛt, the author Bhīmasvāmī realignes Eknāth’s life story, in a highly unusual fashion, toward support of caste hierarchy. Significantly, this text had very little impact on the Marathi public memory. Additional texts from this period are short poems that narrate episodes from Eknāth’s life. Throughout the chapter, Keune sheds light on Marathi lexical choices made by the different authors as an entry point to discussing how caste issues are represented. For example, Keune points to the multitude of terms used to relate to Eknāth’s caste-inclusive approach: sama, samadṛṣṭi, samabuddhī, samantā, samadarśī, samasamān, to their specific meanings, and the contexts in which they are used, as indicative of this tradition’s overall insistence on complexifying the presentation, and therefore also the implications, of Eknāth’s purported contact with untouchables. Keune concludes this rich chapter by stating that “Eknāth in all these stories is negotiating the value systems of two simultaneous realms: the realm of devotional egalitarianism … and the ritual realm of caste and purity.” This negotiation never seems to reach a conclusion, and that is the cause of the innate ambiguity of Eknāth’s stories and their continual instability.

Keune treats the entry of Eknāth’s tradition into modernity in the next two chapters.  The fourth chapter is dedicated to biographical treatments of Eknāth by Marathi writers from 1800 to the present. With the appearance of new literary genres, such as Marathi bhakhars (chronicles), modern caritras (biographies), and others, the development of print, and new social and political agendas connected to the British rule over the region, the early modern biographers of Eknāth were able to ask new questions about Eknāth. They considered the historical veracity of his life story and its non-fantastic aspects, his public work and the institutional and economic developments related to it, and the applicability of his legacy for contemporary issues.

The earliest biography from 1883 recasts the figure of Eknāth according to the modern concept of Marathi society, providing a broader point of reference than the Vārkāri devotionalism (p. 219). Social tensions and caste are not this biography’s primary concerns, but they are for the following text, the Eknāthāñce Caritra (1890). Significantly, this text completely omits the fantastic from Eknāth’s life and is written as social self-criticism for its primary audience of Marathi Brahmins. This text had little influence on twentieth century writers. The most widely read and accepted rendition of Eknāth in this period, which is also—in sharp contrast to the previous biography—permeated with devotional attitudes, is Pāṅgārkar’s text from 1910, the Eknāth Caritra. Building on the now-canonical Bhaktalīlāmṛt but also introducing new episodes in Eknāth’s story, this version takes a conservative, pro-Brahmanical approach to the issue of caste relations while embracing a uniform and idealistic perception of untouchability. The fourth biography, from 1925, omits the episodes that involve untouchables altogether. At this point, Keune turns our attention to the fact that the more influential texts from this era are those which are least political and least conscientious to caste tensions and social hierarchy. At a different plane, contemporaneous retellings of Eknāth’s story in English and Urdu, had little to no influence on Marathi literature according to Keune. The concluding analysis in this chapter examines the different early biographies according to four vectors that emerge from modern discourse: nascent Hindu nationalism, “spiritualism” (a provisional translation of adhyātmik), devotionalism, and materialism. According to Keune, the issue of caste relations was secondary for the first three, while the fourth failed to leave a mark on the later Eknāth Marathi tradition.

The fifth chapter discusses Eknāth on Marathi stage and screen. According to Keune, these new media forms were catering to different audiences than the modern literary sources surveyed thus far and, accordingly, were more tuned toward entertainment and marketability than to agenda-driven claims. Perhaps surprisingly, this shift bolstered the prevalence of episodes from Eknāth’s life story that deal with untouchability and caste relations, though, like in the previous genres, we find here no single and conclusive approach to this contentious subject. Keune does a meticulous job of recovering now-forgotten plays and tracking popular VCD productions while charting the intricate web of influences and cross-references among the various visual and performative representations of Eknāth in the twentieth century. The famous film Dharmātmā from 1935 receives a thorough treatment by Keune, with a consideration of the influence of the Board of Film Censors in Bombay, as well as other extrinsic elements, on the production (pp. 307-8). In his conclusions, Keune writes that in modern plays and films “it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish whether productions of Eknāth’s life ought to be interpreted as education, edification or entertainment” (p. 353), and identifies this period as producing stabilization and even unification of the traditional stories about Eknāth’s inter-caste activities, although their socially contentious baggage under new, modern conditions was mitigated considerably.

In his dissertation, Jon Milton Keune shows us how the different primary  sources about Eknāth’s life greatly vary in their representation of the contentious issue of caste relations, from complete silence to complete prominence, with radically different approaches to the matter that include Brahmanical traditionalism, devotional egalitarianism, advaita philosophy, and even Marxist ideology and contemporary popular entertainment. Despite this mélange of partisanships, some patterns are quite discernible: for example, there is a sharp contrast between modern literary representations and visual, popular ones with regard to issues of caste, purity, and social tension; the former group conveys relative disinterest in these themes while the latter makes them central to Eknāth’s story. Another example is the refusal of modern Marathi subalterns to use Eknāth to promote their agendas (pp. 365-68), which points to a perhaps counterintuitive but certainly real disconnect between devotionalism and social struggle in the society of modern Maharashtra. Keune’s project shows us how the shape of the religious saint is inherently dependent upon particular audiences across time and different social spheres. What is remarkable is that in most of the sources, especially those which were historically significant, one finds consistent and deliberate ambiguity and refusal to take a finite stance on what the figure of Eknāth should prescribe regarding the idea of untouchability. This appears, according to Keune, as one of the constitutive characteristics of Marathi bhakti.

Methodologically, Keune’s ability to treat pre-modern and modern contexts with equal skill is exceptional. Hopefully, this study will pave the way to additional diachronic research of South Asian religions. Keune’s dedicated inquiry of how the social memory of Eknāth has changed over a long stretch of cultural production contains a highly informed survey of Marathi sources, including some never discussed before in scholarship. The appendices to the dissertation make these materials easily accessible. Thus, the richness and thoroughness of material made available in this dissertation is of real scholarly value to anyone concerned with Marathi pre-modern and modern culture. Religious scholars of bhakti traditions will benefit from Keune’s strategies for understanding the figuration of the model Bhakta and its relation to different audiences and media. In addition, historians of South Asia will find value in this study, especially regarding the author’s treatment of different audiences and social contexts of texts which are markedly religious and their relevance to broader social and historical issues at different periods of pre-modern and modern India.

Gil Ben-Herut
Department of Religious Studies
University of South Florida

Primary Sources

Kṛṣṇadās Jagadānandanandan, Pratiṣṭhāncaritra (ca. 1700)
Keśavsvāmī, Eknāthcaritra (1760)
Mahīpati, Bhaktavijay (1762)
K. N. Kāḷe, V. Śāntarām & Prabhat Films, Dharmātmā (1935, Marathi film)
Gopāḷ Govind Śirgopīkar, Bhāva Toci Dev (1964, Marathi play)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 439 pp. Primary Advisor: John S. Hawley.

Image: Pilgrimage scene. Photograph by author.

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