“Canonical Authority, Social Location, and Vedacization:
The Case of the Bhagavata Purana”
March 8, 2012
Prof. Barbara Holdrege gave a presentation and led discussion on the Hindu constructions of scripture. Focusing on the Bhagavata Purana, she highlighted the categories, dynamics, and strategies employed in negotiating the sruti-smriti economy. In her analysis, these negotiations underscored the history of the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition, especially the Alvars of South India, and their positionality vis-à-vis the dominant Vedic traditions.
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Prof. Holdrege's scholarship has challenged a number of boundaries used to maintain the superstructure of religion scholarship. Whether through her sustained work in comparing Jewish and Hindu complexes, her critique of biblical studies, or her critical study of scriptures, Holdrege has worked diligently to observe the players in the game of religion. Throughout her discussion, I found myself impressed by her simultaneous attention to the peoples con-scripted by the Bhagavata Purana and the scholars studying them. This gave credence to her employ of comparison as a historical tool and provided a broader forum to interrogate the ISS project.
In a great deal of human societies, power is distributed via a means of brokerage – which usually implies a system to stratify said power. In the case of religious knowledge and enlightenment, it is the same way. However, what happens when those with a greater number but with lesser influence due to system of brokerage desire to claim just as much power by equipping themselves with the ability to obtain said knowledge? One answer is to subvert the system by using the language or tools that it was built with – such as in the case of the Bhagavata Purana, a popular “Hindu” text that is used for this very function.
Professor Barbara Holdrege defends the thesis that this text usurped the very functions of the higher, pure scriptures of the Vedas that only certain members could chant and only certain castes could hear chanted. This text put the power of the Vedas in a story form that follows the path to moksha by way of bhakti or devotion in contemplation of Krishna. This is very interesting because the bhakti described in the Bhagavata Purana is not just a regular devotion but is an impassioned, fleshly devotion to Krishna, one in which he dances with milkmaids and disappear when they try to cling to him. The lower castes represent the physical, sweaty, passions and embody these every day but the divine via Krishna visits them anyway, thus being available to all people. Therefore, the case that Holdrege presents for this text is a convincing in the sense that it documents the scripturalizing of the fleshly, incarnate struggle of the people together with the lofty power of the Vedas and the Gods. This produced a product that was both able to empower the lower parts of the Indian caste and involve the divine in an earthly struggle via the appearances of Krishna – a way of tying rocks to clouds, so to speak.
In conclusion, the project that Professor Holdrege is pursing is particularly relevant to the work done at the ISS – it uses theory about “scripturalizing and scriptures” and the discourses of power associated with these terms to explain how this happened and served to empower the peoples of the lower caste in India. The voice of the “subaltern” and how it came to be heard is certainly well-documented in her work.
Prof. Holdrege’s analysis of the Bhagvata Purana highlighted many of the questions and issues that have been part of our conversation here at the ISS. The case of the Bhagavata Purana underscores the politics of scripturalizing: how women and lower castes encroach on or arrogate the scripted privilege of the twice-born high castes. In order to broaden the conversation, how might an engagement with the erasure of the out-castes, the Dalits, and how they negotiate their scripted ex-centricity inform the excavation of discourse and power? Do these ex-centric voices register as more than just afterthoughts in an academy invested in disciplinary rubrics such as “Hinduism” or “South Asian Traditions”? How might our conversation around “scriptures” attune us to the self-articulating subaltern?
Dr. Holdrege argued that the construction of the Bhagavata Purana was a way for marginalized groups, who had been denied access to the Vedas, to “appropriate the transcendent authority of the Vedas.” In light of this, I found it interesting that the Bhagavata Purana “celebrates Krishna as Bhagavan, the supreme godhead who is Veda incarnate.” In the Vedas, Krishna is not mentioned because he, himself is the Veda. In other words, the Bhagavata Purana is unique in that the godhead is anthropomorphized. This prompts the question, why did marginalized groups choose to portray the supreme godhead in an anthropomorphic way? Was it an attempt to usurp the authority of the brahminical class, who had exclusive access to the Vedas? Did the marginalized individuals who constructed the Bhagavata Purana think the only way to usurp the authority of the brahminical class was to transfer their authority to another human person?