The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The extraordinary diversity of the medieval Tamil cultural universe

Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedantadesika in their South Indian Tradition By Steven Paul Hopkins, Oxford, Rs 595

This book is a veritable tour de force. Its protagonist is the polyphonic Vedantadesika (1268-1369), a Srivaishnava saint poet-philosopher and founder of the Vadakalai sect of the Srivaishnava tradition. Its setting is the rich and complex cosmopolitan tradition of bhakti in South India, and its agenda is to question assumptions about vernacular devotion, the roles of intellect and emotion in bhakti poetics and the nature of the Indian literary tradition. Of these, the issue of vernacularism is especially interesting, given the more recent historical context in which the Tamil component of the South Indian cultural inheritance has been emphasized, and in which the Sanskrit-Tamil dichotomy has been repeatedly expressed. Hopkins brings out with elegance and force the extraordinary diversity of the medieval Tamil cultural universe. This enables us to empathize with the poet in his context and to address the more contentious issue of the constituents of the South Indian tradition, as we know it and as it has been invoked and reworked in recent times.

Using a range of sacred biographies, Hopkins maps out the cultural universe which Desika inhabited. It was dominated by the cities of Kanchipuram and Srirangam, each identified with a specific variant of the Vaishnavite tradition and in the choice of its expressive vehicle. Born in Sri Tuppul near Kanchipuram, Desika imbibed the best of the city’s sectarian and religious diversity and a deep acquaintance with Sanskrit, the favoured tongue of its pundits and preachers. Sanskrit, Hopkins explains, had become the “popular” tongue of a veritable cosmopolis that crossed the boundaries of a learned, actively engaged community of scholars and religious teachers who were working in a variety of languages.

Desika’s familiarity with Sanskrit did not deflect his appreciation of Tamil, which enjoyed particular currency in Srirangam as the principal cosmopolitan vernacular. Pilgrimages were an integral element of this cultural universe, and Desika’s extensive travels to northern India and Srirangam helped him to acquire proficiency in Tamil, Sanskrit and Maharashtri Prakrit. He emerged as one of the embodiments of the multilingual and multi-layered tradition of South India. The issue of language, so central to the understanding of bhakti, assumed an entirely more nuanced reception in Desika’s repertoire and engagement with these languages. Hopkins makes the very important point here that to place bhakti or devotion in the realm of the mother tongue, and in contradistinction to the intellectual “fatherworld” of Sanskrit, is simply not tenable. Sanskrit was not a fixed, mechanical and artificial language — it interacted with a number of regional traditions and was not immune to regional influences. Thus, as the lion among poets, Desika’s Sanskrit stotras brought together the translocal and inter-provincial aspects of Sanskrit and Prakrit with elements of the local cosmopolitan Tamil vernacular.

Equally, Desika’s virtuosity in Tamil placed him very much within the rich semantic registers and literary traditions of medieval Tamil. His Tamil writings did not imitate or subvert the inherited tradition, rather they enriched and complemented it while pointing to new concerns and sensibilities. Ironically, it was only in the Forties that the Tamil Desika was retrieved — one of the reasons cited by the author for the relative neglect of this thinker-poet and his writings. A little exegesis on the discovery of Desika’s Tamil writings and the position assigned to them in the context of the Tamil cultural movement of the Forties would have been useful to place the problem in historical perspective.

As a philosopher, Desika’s writings demonstrated a complex synthesis of the intellectual and the emotional. Arguing against the commonly held assumption that Desika departed from the emotional strain of early Alwar poets, Hopkins argues that Desika, the poet, cannot be separated from Desika, the philosopher. In his hymns, the mind was an erotic instrument, intellect and metaphor were bound together in the figure of the lover longing for union with the divine beloved. In his theology, he defended the role of self-effort and the human-divine synergy in the action of grace. The centrality of grace comes through more forcefully in his poetics, and we have Hopkins to thank for rendering these in his evocative translations.

This is a book that is much more than an individual study of a lesser known saint-composer. It underscores, above all, the wealth of religious and cultural material that made up tradition in South India with its regional and trans-local ramifications, and how it was altered and enriched by a creative figure like Desika. Hopkins raises serious questions about how tradition is to be read and historicized, and offers an excellent guideline to a historical study of regional and religious traditions during the vernacular millennium.

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