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Religion, Tradition, and Ideology Pre-colonial South India

Religion, Tradition, and Ideology Pre-colonial South India
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Item Code: NAQ320
Author: R. Champakalakshmi
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780198070597
Pages: 662
Other Details: 8.50 X 5.50 inch

The present collection of essays is the result of fifty years of research on religion carried out by me, first as a research scholar at the Department of History, then as a faculty member in the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Madras, and later as a faculry member at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-a research interest which continues to this day. My interest in the history of religion thus goes way back to my early years of research, when I chose to work on Jainism in south India, then hardly understood as a potential area of research, particularly in south India, in the early medieval and medieval periods, although a rich variery of sources, epigraphy, literature and monuments existed, which were, however, little known. This is in striking contrast to the research on Buddhism, which was highly visible as the dominant religion from the Mauryan period, especially in the early historical period in the Deccan and Andhra regions and which declined by the ninth century AD. Research on the more familiar 'Hindu' religions like Vaisnavisrn and Saivism had been prolific as the general concern was to study the dominant 'Hindu' (Brahmanical) tradition, which was believed to have had a long historical past with its origins traceable to the Vedas. Interest in counter traditions like Jainism and Buddhism was peripheral and marginal due to their lesser visibility and influence in modern times.

My work on Jainism interestingly led me into little known. avenues of south India's past and inspired me to venture into a more comprehensive study of religious history to understand the interaction between the Brahmanical religions and the Sramanic religions, namely, Jainism and Buddhism, the historical processes which led to the emergence of the Brahmanical (Sanskritic) tradition as the dominant or mainstream tradition, and the marginalization of the Sramaic tradition. Hence, from Jainism my research moved on to the Brahmanical religions like Vaisnavisrn and Saivism, that is, Puranic religion, which stands at the very core of what is now understood as Hinduism. Such a study required long term perspectives by situating the religious processes within the changing historical contexts in which the making of the dominant religious tradition took place in South India. Hence the period covered represents a vast span of time from the early historical (300 Be to AD 300), through the early medieval (AD 600 to 1300) to the medieval periods (1300-1700) of south Indian history.

The present collection represents an attempt to make the results of my studies available in a single, thematically united volume. Written at various points of time over a long span of fifty years, and for different purposes, for journals and thematic volumes (festschrifts), the essays are inevitably marked by important differences in approach and methodology, the early essays (of the 1960s and 1970s) emphasizing the need for a sound empirical base for reconstructing religious history, especially as many of the sectarian traditions remained scarcely known or researched in an academically significant way. Attempt has been made to revise all of them in the light of my later work, as the more recent essays (1980s and 1990s to the present) have tried to keep pace with the changing historiography of India with its methodological advance and interdisciplinary approach to the study of history. The later essays have greatly benefited from the empirically significant (rich) essays of the early years. Despite some inevitable overlaps in these two groups of essays, there is a thematic unity and inter- connection among them. To fill in the lacunae among the published ones and to provide clearer perspectives on art and religion and community identities, some new essays such as 'Buddhism in South India: Patterns of Patronage', 'Caste and Community: Oscillating Identities in Pre-modern South India', 'The Matha: Monachism as the Basis of an Alternative Authority Structure', and 'Symbol and Metaphor: Temple Architecture and Iconography in South India' have been added. Hence, putting them together in a single volume has not only proved to be an interesting experience, but also has been a useful exercise in presenting a more comprehensive view of the making of a religious tradition with fresh perspectives that would not have been possible in studies more narrowly focused.

Conventional writings have looked upon religion as isolated from other developments, socio-economic and political, and not as integral to them. There has been a tendency to see simple continuities from the Vedic times to the present day, thus tracing every conceivable aspect of the mainstream tradition from the Vedas or confining their interest to the different sects and their history, ignoring their constant interaction with other/counter traditions, belief systems and their impact over the making of a religious tradition. The nature and patterns of patronage to the different religious sects have also not been considered as important issues in their development or decline. Much less attention has been paid to the interaction between the Sanskritic tradition and local regional cultic practices and the processes of acculturation and assimilation by the mainstream Sanskritic tradition of the folk/popular elements, which were 'upgraded' and/or remained important/major components of the mainstream tradition. Similarly, the regional variations and complexity in the development of religion and religious institutions and their role in the evolution of the rich and complex socio-religious matrix of India, and south India in particular, were not serious concerns in the conventional studies. For much of the early research was focused upon north India, while India south of the Vindhyas was only incidentally touched upon and referred to in passing. To counteract this imbalance in the conventional writings, it was not only incumbent upon the researcher of the 1960s and 1970s like me to shift the focus to south India, but also to concentrate on the counter Sramanic traditions of Jainism and Buddhism and their interaction with the Brahmanical religions. New perspectives that would not have been possible in studies more narrowly focused on history of religious sects, theology, philosophy, and textual traditions, have now emerged with the shift in focus on comparative study on the role of religion in society and economy and polity. This may be particularly visible in my work on religion as ideology and religious institutions as instruments of socio-political integration, economic organization, that is, the agrarian order and urban development as well as a state synthesis.

These essays thus address themselves to issues like religion and its social base, development of religious communities, religion as ideology in the evolution of regional and supra-regional states, temple as an institution of integration, as an ideological apparatus, as a symbol of political authority and iconography as a metaphor for power and equation of king and god.


The recent spate of debates on what constitutes Hinduism and how best it can be defined has made the subject of religion a major academic concern and challenge for the historian of India, who is confronted by the questionable ways in which the discipline has been appropriated by non-historians. More so because of the problems involved in the study of religious processes, which require expertise of different kinds in the reading of sources. Not the least challenging of these is the remarkably rich corpus of texts produced over a period of nearly three millennia in Sanskrit and the regional languages, apart from the epigraphic sources, and monumental religious architecture and sculpture. Rarely does a historian possess all the necessary skills in tackling such diverse sources. Equally problematic is the fact that the approaches to this discipline are as varied as the sources and hence the historian and the scholar studying comparative religion find themselves often using terminologies which are not universally applicable. Nothing short of a rigorous methodology, which would help to correlate all categories of sources and contextualize the processes of religious development, could provide necessary and meaningful insights into the role of religion in history. A collaborative effort between the historian and those working on comparative religion would create a further refinement in the approach to the study of religion and history, as it would help to contextualize the rich textual corpus with the aid of more fixed "This is a revised and enlarged version of the Presidential Address, Indian History Congress, 70th Session, Delhi, 2010. categories of sources like datable inscriptions and monuments and bring it within the reach of the historian.

The making of India's religious tradition has been one of the most complex processes in the development of its culture and civilization. Hinduism, as this religious tradition is known, defies definition as a religion, nor can it be described as a way of life. It certainly is more than both. It is the result of a complex interaction between Vedic and Puranic Brahmanism and innumerable indigenous cults, that is, regional and local beliefs, practices, cult forms and ethnic associations, many of which are still unexplored, ultimately contributing to the emergence of a pan-Indian tradition, with interesting regional manifestations and variations. The historian's approach to understanding its development should look at the various chronological periods and contexts, in which it originated, developed, and transformed itself to suit different historical situations.

The historicity of tradition in India is now generally understood but not yet fully comprehended. This can be attributed to inadequate research on the multiple traditions and complex processes of their evolution and interaction with societal formation and change. Hence, the fact that the domination of a specific tradition is often inscribed in the ideologies of power is totally missed. Equally important is the tendency, which still prevails in many studies, to take Hinduism as a given, hardly being aware of the new perspectives brought about by recent researches, particularly, the complex processes of interaction between the Sanskritic (Brahmanical) and the vernacular (regional) traditions.

Tradition is often regarded as sacrosanct and monolithic, which reflects an unhistorical notion that it is static, unchanging or immutable. Such a notion also assumes simple continuities in the past, as also from the past to the present, and points to the role that specific constructions of the past play in the politics of different periods of history and of the present. Tradition is not immutable or static, nor can it remain isolated in a context of change or continuity. Often changes are represented as continuities due to an anxiety to establish the antiquity of a tradition or a conscious attempt to link irreconcilable elements to an accepted tradition as their source. While forces of transformation within tradition need to be recognized, as has been done in recent studies, it may be emphasized that the discourse of continuity remains significant in legitimizing and carrying through changes within a tradition. Changes are represented as extensions and elaborations on a theme rather than as innovations. Processes of transformation and the remaking of traditions can take on a variety of forms. Confrontation, interaction, accommodation, and marginalization lead to such transformation and the fashioning of dominant traditions. Alternative traditions, opposition, and non- conformism are often accommodated or subordinated, the study of which is crucial to the discourse of domination and power.

In conventional historiography the term Hinduism is used for a long span of time covering three millennia of history starting from the Vedic times to the present day both in north and south India thus losing sight of the historicity of the religion and the processes in the making of a tradition, the unhistorical motion of tradition as static, the unchanging and immutable dominating such an approach. Religion is often treated in isolation from other aspects of historical significance, wherein religious changes or mutations not only reflect social and political transformations but are also integral to these processes. Conventional writings (which still influence historical writings on religion in south India) have invariably failed to make the distinction between Vedic, Vedantic, and Itihasic-Puranic traditions, which appeared at chronologically different and contextually varied historical situations. As a result, they invariably tried to establish continuity in the Brahmanical tradition, even major changes being represented as different ways of interpretation and authenticity being sought in the Vedas for the transformations.

The historical processes which carried Brahrnanical tradition from Aryavarta-s-the Ganga valley into the peripheral regions, from the north to the eastern, and southern regions-show that there was a general pattern of its dissemination, in which there was a remarkable continuity in the core of Brahmanism but also a change due to its immense capacity to adjust to radically different political and social situations, accommodate or rework itself. The brahmanas were not (and are not) a homogenous community and yet an awareness of sharing common symbols, idioms, a scriptural language and social values with the others of this Varna throughout the subcontinent developed among them, despite regional differences and fluctuating patronage under different political authorities.

South India offers the most interesting and complex forms of the development of the cultural mosaic that is known by the term Hinduism, which is best described as a conglomeration of reconcilable and often irreconcilable elements and hence heterogeneous. It represents the most fascinating regional pattern of the Puranic process, which was central to the development of religion in India, that is, a vernacular synthesis of the northern and southern cultural tradition, especially in the sphere of religion and its social base, being a paradigmatic process for incorporating regional differences/specificities.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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