The Hindus: An Alternative History

By Wendy Doniger

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    I don’t call to him as my mother. I don’t call to him as my father.
    I thought it would be enough to call him my lord—
    but he pretends I don’t exist, doesn’t show an ounce of mercy.
    If that lord who dwells in Paccilacciramam, surrounded by pools
    filled with geese, postpones the mercies meant for his devotees—
    can’t we find some other god?

    —Cuntarar, eighth century CE

The image of god (Shiva, who dwells in Paccilacciramam) as a parent, as a female parent, and finally as an abandoning parent is central to the spirit of bhakti, as is the worshiper’s bold and intimate threat to abandon this god, echoing the divine mercilessness even while responding to the divine love. Bhakti, which is more a general religious lifestyle or movement than a specific sect, was a major force for inclusiveness with its antinomian attitudes toward Pariahs and women, yet the violence of the passions that it generated also led to interreligious hostility. This was [an] alliance in which gods were not only on the side of devout human worshipers […] but also on the side of sinners, some of whom did not worship the god in any of the conventional ways.


Beginning in the seventh or eighth century CE, the wandering poets and saints devoted to Shiva (the Nayanmars, traditionally said to number sixty-three) and to Krishna-Vishnu (the twelve Alvars) sang poems in the devotional mode of bhakti. The group of Nayanmars known as the first three (Appar, Campantar, and Cuntarar, sixth to eighth century) formed the collection called the Tevaram, which departed from the Cankam style in using a very different Tamil grammar. Nammalvar (“Our Alvar”), the last of the great Alvars, writing perhaps in the eighth century, called his work “the sacred spoken word” (tiruvaymoli), and Manikkavacakar (late ninth century) called his Shaiva text “the sacred speech” (Tiruvacakam). These works were clearly meant to be performed orally, recited, and since the tenth century they have been performed, both in homes and in temples.

Bhakti in the sense of supreme devotion to a god, Shiva, and even to the guru as god, appeared in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Ekalavya in the Mahabharata demonstrates a kind of primitive bhakti: great devotion to the guru and physical self-violence. The concept of bhakti was further developed in the Ramayana and the Gita, which established devotion as a third alternative to ritual action and knowledge. But South Indian bhakti ratchets up the emotion from the Gita, so that even a direct quotation from the Gita takes on an entirely different meaning in the new context, as basic words like karma and bhakti shift their connotations.

The Tamils had words for bhakti (such as anpu and parru), though eventually they also came to use the Sanskrit term (which became patti in Tamil). But the Tamil poets transformed the concept of bhakti not only by applying it to the local traditions of the miraculous exploits of local saints but by infusing it with a more personal confrontation, an insistence on actual physical and visual presence, a passionate transference and counter transference. A typically intimate and rural note is evident in the Alvars’ retelling of the legend in the Valmiki Ramayana about a squirrel who assisted Rama in building the bridge to Lanka to rescue Sita; the Alvars add that in gratitude for this assistance, Rama touched the squirrel and imprinted on it the three marks visible on all Indian squirrels today. The emotional involvement, the pity, desire, and compassion of the bhakti gods causes them to forget that they are above it all, as metaphysics demands, and reduces them to the human level, as mythology demands.

Despite its royal and literary roots, bhakti is also a folk and oral phenomenon. Many of the bhakti poems were based on oral compositions, some probably even by illiterate saints. Both Shaiva and Vaishnava bhakti movements incorporated folk religion and folk song into what was already a rich mix of Vedic and Upanishadic concepts, mythologies, Buddhism, Jainism, conventions of Tamil and Sanskrit poetry, and early Tamil conceptions of love, service, women, and kings, to which after a while they added elements of Islam. This cultural bricolage is the rule rather than the exception in India, but the South Indian use of it is particularly diverse. As A.K. Ramanujan and Norman Cutler put it, “Past traditions and borrowings are thus re-worked into bhakti; they become materials, signifiers for a new signification, as a bicycle seat becomes a bull’s head in Picasso. Often the listener/reader moves between the original material and the work before him—the double vision is part of the poetic effect.” This too was a two-way street, for just as Picasso imagined someone in need of a bicycle seat using his bull’s head for that purpose, so the new bhakti images also filtered back into other traditions, including Sanskrit traditions[…]



  • One of the great bhakti legends is the story of the Nayanar saint named Kannappar, told in several texts, perhaps best known from the Periya Puranam of Cekkilar, dated to the reign of the Chola king Kulottunka II, 1133–1150 CE:

      Kannappar’s Eyes

      Kannappar was the chief of a tribe of dark-skinned, violent hunters, who lived by hunting wild animals (with the help of dogs) and stealing cattle. One day he found Shiva in the jungle; filled with love for the god and pity that he seemed to be all alone, Kannappar resolved to feed him. So he took pieces of the meat of a boar that he had killed, tasted each one to make sure it was tender, and brought the meat to him. He kicked aside, with his foot, the flowers that a Brahmin priest had left on Shiva’s head and spat out on him the water from his mouth. Then he gave him the flowers that he had worn on his own head. His feet, and his dogs’paws, left their marks on him. He stayed with him all night, and left at dawn to hunt again.

      The Brahmin priest, returning there, removed Kannappar’s offerings and hid and watched him. In order to demonstrate for the Brahmin the greatness of Kannappar’s love, Shiva caused blood to flow from one of his eyes. To stanch the flow, Kannappar gouged out his own eye with an arrow and replaced the god’s eye with his. When Shiva made his second eye bleed, Kannappar put his left foot on Shiva’s eye to guide his hand, and was about to pluck out his remaining eye when Shiva stretched out his hand to stop him, and placed Kannappar at his right hand.

    Kannappar may be a Nishada or some other tribal beyond the Hindu pale; one Sanskrit version of the story calls him a Kirata. The Periya Puranam says that his mother was from the warrior caste of Maravars and his parents had worshiped Murukan, but Kannappar does not seem to know the rules of Brahmin dharma, such as the taboo on offering flesh to the gods. (Or with a historian’s distance, we might say that he does not know that high-caste Hindus, like the Brahmin for whose benefit Shiva stages the whole grisly episode of the eyes, no longer offer flesh to their gods.) He does not know about the impurity of substances, like spit, that come from the body, the spit that he uses to clean the image as a mother would use her spit to scrub a bit of dirt off the face of her child. (Or again, he is unaware of the centuries that have passed since Apala, in the Rig Veda, offered the god Indra the soma plant that she had pressed in her mouth.) He reverses the proper order of head and foot by putting his foot on the head of the god instead of his head on the god’s foot, the usual gesture of respect.

    Kannapar does not understand metaphor: The normal offering to a god is a flower, perhaps a lotus, and in fact he gives the god flowers (though ones that have been polluted, in high-caste terms, by being worn on his own head). But Sanskrit poets often liken beautiful eyes to lotuses, and Kannappar offers the god the real thing, the eye, the wrong half of the metaphor. Moreover, Kannappar’s gruesome indifference to his self-inflicted pain may have had conscious antecedents in similar acts committed by King Shibi and by Ekalavya, in the Mahabharata (not to mention the blinding of Kunala in the Buddhist tradition).

    Many texts retell this story, generally specifying that the form of Shiva that Kannappar found in the forest was a linga and occasionally adding details designed to transform Kannappar from a cattle thief and hunter with dogs (like the Vedic people) into a paradigm of bhakti; thus the animals that he kills are said to be ogres offering their bodies as sacrifice to Shiva. But in the Periya Puranam his “mistakes” are felix culpas that make possible an unprecedentedly direct exchange of gazes; instead of trading mere glances, he and the god trade their very eyes. This is darshan in its most direct, violent, passionate form.

  • [Bhakti] placed [religious] power in the individual and hence by its very nature threatened the hegemony of the Brahmins. Chola records of demands for the lower castes to have equal access to temples further demonstrate that the bhakti movement had originally contained an element of protest against Brahmin exclusivity. As the tale of Kannappar demonstrates so powerfully, some sects of South Indian bhakti regarded non-Brahmins as superior to Brahmins; at the very least, bhakti sometimes sidetracked Brahmin ritual by emphasizing a direct personal relationship between the devotee and the deity. The devotion to the guru that played such a central part in bhakti was also a threat to Brahmins, for the guru was not necessarily a Brahmin. But it did not stop there. As Ramanujan noted, “In the lives of the bhakti saints ‘the last shall be first’: men wish to renounce their masculinity and to become as women; upper-caste males wish to renounce pride, privilege, and wealth, seek dishonor and self-abasement, and learn from the untouchable devotee.” Some bhakti groups cut across political, caste, gender, and professional divisions. Some members were Pariahs, and many were non-Brahmins.

    The questioning, if not the rejection, of the hierarchies of gender and caste, coupled with a theology of love, has sometimes inspired an image of the bhakti worshipers as some sort of proto–flower children, Hinduism “lite.” But on the one hand, the hierarchical categories are reified even as they are challenged—reversed sometimes, and mocked at other times, but always there. On the other hand, the Brahmin hegemony was still firmly entrenched. Shortly after the tale of Kannappar, the Periya Puranam tells the story of Tirunalaippovar Nantanar, a Pariah who went through fire to purify himself since he was not allowed to enter a temple; he was transformed into a Brahmin, a solution that simultaneously vindicates this particular Pariah but enforces the superiority of all Brahmins and upholds the exclusion of Pariahs from temples. Later Nantanar became the hero of tales of caste protest. Like Buddhism and all the other so-called ancient reform movements that protested against the injustice of the Hindu social system, the bhakti movement did not try to change or reform that system itself; reform of caste inequalities came only much later, and even then with only limited success. Rather, bhakti merely created another, alternative system that lived alongside the Brahmin imaginary, a system in which caste injustices were often noted, occasionally challenged, and rarely mitigated.

    But unlike the alternative universe that the mythical sage Trishanku created, a double of ours down to the stars and the moon, the bhakti universe was bounded by that permeable membrane so characteristic of Hinduism. The good news about this was that bhakti therefore leaked back into the Brahmin imaginary from time to time, improving the condition of women and the lower castes even there. Although the leaders of many bhakti sects came from the lowest castes, particularly in the early stages of the bhakti movements, high-caste Vaishnavas and Shaivas eventually accepted their literature. But the bad news was that since all permeable membranes are two-way stretches, bhakti also often made concessions to the caste system even within its own ranks—and I do mean ranks. And so what once may have been non-Brahmin texts became tangled in Brahmin values as the price of their admission to the written record. They were compiled in writing long after the period of their oral circulation and compiled in the service of an imperial project of what was essentially Shaiva colonization. Despite the non-Brahminic elements in the bhakti saints of South India, the movement by and large served Brahmin ends.

    With the passage of time caste strictures often reasserted themselves; Ramanuja, the philosopher who founded a major Vaishnava bhakti sect, accepted caste divisions in some limited form, and even Chaitanya, a much later Bengali Vaishnava leader, failed to do away with them completely. Nammalvar was from a low-caste farming family; all the hagiographies unanimously declared that he was a Shudra. But the Shri Vaishnava Brahmins who claimed him as a founder were aware of the shadow that this ancestry cast on their legitimacy in the Brahmin imaginary and took various measures to minimize the implications of Nammalvar’s low caste. For instance, one hagiographer claimed that the infant Alvar neither ate with nor looked at his family, even refusing the milk of his Shudra mother’s breast, as any self-respecting Brahmin would refuse the food prepared by someone of a lower caste. One step forward, two steps backward.

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