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Crossing the Lines of Caste: Visvamitra and the Construction of Brahmin Power in Hindu Mythology.

Crossing the Lines of Caste: Visvamitra and the Construction of Brahmin Power in Hindu Mythology. By ADHEESH A. SATHAYE. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xxii + 310. S99 (cloth); S35 (paper).

While this book traces the mythological persona of the irascible sage Visvamitra through Vedic literature to the present day, it does so in a quite different way from what one might expect if it were just another example of the German text-historical method, which produces good results with a strong philological rigor but within a very narrow frame. What Sathaye has achieved, in this reworked doctoral thesis from Berkeley, is to show how images of Visvamitra have been transformed across the ages, in large measure according to the way brahmins have sought to conceptualize themselves. As such, not only does it provide an excellent and detailed study of Visvamitra and the way he has been used to depict a fundamental fracturing in brahmin identity throughout the ages, but it also offers a model of how particular myths and mythic themes can be studied across the ages, particularly when a strong sociological perspective is brought in. At the broadest level Sathaye wants to show "What has Visvamitra meant to Hindu communities over the years?"

The underlying thematic frame of the book is determined by this conception relating to Visvamitra in the Puranas: "He and Vasistha continued to capture the dichotomy between the normative Brahmin Self and the transgressive Brahmin Other, but it was now upgraded for the social realities of the mid-first millennium" (p.112). As such, this fulfills the promise that this book is not just about Visvamitra, but that, as its subtitle indicates, it is also about "the construction of Brahmin power in Hindu mythology." It thus offers a much wider historical and social ambit than merely being a study of a particular mythic character, and it is here again that it will be a model for other such studies.

Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the initial appearance of the Visvamitra myth in Vedic literature and then present its development in the two epics, where the most prominent aspect of the myth is Visvamitra's successful attempt to upgrade his status from ksatriya to brahmana by the performance of terrifying austerities, and his conflict with the mild brahmin, Vasistha. Sathaye argues that the development of the myth in its various forms demonstrates the increasing rigidity of the varna system between late Vedic and post-Mauryan periods, but also raises the question of the so-called "brahmin other." "Initially the distinguishing feature [between brahmin and ksatriya, gb] seems to be only the presence or absence of sacred power, brahman, but in the Jaiminiya Brahmana, as the Indus River questions Visvamitra's parentage, we begin to hear murmurs towards heredity being a factor in determining social identity" (p. 51).

This seemingly relates to the development of caste varna, but of greater significance in the renditions of the myth in the two epics is the distinction they work out between the extreme, potentially violent/transgressive brahmin and the normal/mild brahmin, a distinction that proceeds through to puranic literature. And it is also here that Visvamitra's conflict with Vasistha comes into play, because the latter represents the mild brahmin who would be successful as a purohita, whereas Visvamitra is too volatile to occupy such a position. And he extends this argument further in giving it an historical resonance, to the extent that "His aggressiveness makes the fiery ascetic a poor candidate for the purohita post, and the best man for the job is instead the householder Brahmin Vasistha, peaceable and beneficent and non-aggressive. Such a message would have been especially meaningful at a time when Vedic Brahmin ritualists were vying with renunciant and heterodox religious orders for bureaucratic and administrative positions within the early Indian monarchies" (p. 91). Such a supposition is certainly true as a fundamental axiom, and it is a clear desideratum that we need to build on it in reading the early Buddhist texts and the two epics.

In chapters 3 and 4 he analyses selected versions of the Visvamitra myth through seven puranas, arguing that the continuity between images of normative and transgressive brahmins was retained through his persona (p. 112), but that "Visvamitra's counter-normative persona contributed to the construction of an elite political identity for Brahmin officiants within the Gupta era monarchical state by showing them to be masters of both Vedic and extra-Vedic religious powers" (p. 113). In moving to the Skanda Purana we find that the conflict between Visvamitra and Vasistha is resolved, and Sathaye suggests that it mirrors a resolution between two tendencies in Pas'upata Saivism: "By resolving the conflicts between Vasistha and Visvamitra, then, the Skanda may be read as bringing contrasting orders of Saiva brahmins--one that was rigidly ascetic and antisocial and the other that had taken up ritualist and pedagogical roles in society...--under the umbrella of a single comprehensive identity" (p. 137). "The result of these puranic endeavours on a broader level was to ensure that the highest prestige should be accorded to Brahmins within both multi-caste domains (the royal courts and the lay Saiva mainstream) ..." (p. 138). In both cases various renditions are being used to keep the brahmins in the front position. This then defines a continuity with what he has already alluded to in dealing with the epics, where the brahmins were jockeying to become the privileged administrative figures in the royal courts.

In chap. 5 he moves from the fifth century C.E. up to the medieval period where he uses both Sanskrit and Marathi sources to analyze how the brahmin Visvamitra's persona is interpreted to fit the pressures placed on caste in the new forms of bhakti developed from the twelfth century onwards. For in the medieval bhakti literature there is a sense of equality before the deity, at least where this applies to the exclusively devotional framework, though not in the broader social setting. In his analysis of the image of Visvamitra in these texts he uses the idea, derived from Christian Novetzke, of the "Brahmin Double" as a literary construction, within the framework of which concept Sathaye argues that Visvamitra functions. "The literary construction might be thought of as a 'bad' Brahmin character who oversteps his bounds, abuses his social power, and causes others to suffer. In the vernacular performance traditions of medieval India, Novetzke argues, such a figure, whether mythological or historical, served as a villainous foil to stand in as the target of public censure while actual Brahmins could represent themselves as 'good' devotees" (pp. 181-82; cf. p. 242).

This allows Sathaye an entree into Visvamitra's role in one early purana and then one medieval purana. He is depicted as being arrogant because of his brahmin status, but at the same time quite compassionate in his help of others, and Sathaye demonstrates this contrast with great acuity in his analysis of the role Visvamitra plays in the myth of Hariscandra in the Markandeya Purana and especially in the Devibhagavatapurana. In the latter, in particular, the composers of the text both criticize Visvamitra in his treatment of Hariscandra, but then "recuperate his persona by providing 'the rest of the story'" (p. 194). What this means is that Harisxandra is shown to be far from adequate in his regal role, and Visvamitra in taking him to task actually brings him back on the right path. Visvamitra is shown to be especially cruel to Hariscandra's wife (p. 195), and in doing so fits perfectly the image of the corrupt brahmin criticized in the medieval bhakti movements. But it is also shown how he had previously rescued Trisanku, Hariscandra's father, and then adopted Sunahsepa, whom Hariscandra was going to sacrifice. Both the abusive side and the compassionate side come out very clearly, the Devibhagavatapurana depicting a new side of Visvamitra not found in earlier puranas. Then he moves on to some Marathi plays and verse texts dealing with Hariscandra, which also demonstrate the duality in the representation of Visvamitra from nasty brahmin to compassionate figure. These have special significance because they were composed by non-brahmins.

The sixth and final chapter deals at length with the use of Visvamitra myths in colonial and contemporary India, beginning with the paintings of Ravi Varma, the writings of Gandhi, then moving on to the nineteenth-century brahmin reform movements in Maharashtra, a television series, and finishing with what a contemporary Marathi kirtan singer makes of Visvamitra. Here the fundamental point is that the brahmins were "... torn between aspirations toward the ideals of modernity, progress and self-determination ... and a nostalgic desire to cultivate a sense of belonging to their regional Indian traditions.... Preventing the resolution of this tension, according to the modern understanding of Visvamitra's persona, is egocentrism, ahamkar" (p. 212). All these depictions are consequential upon the emergence of new views of a brahmin's role in the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of anti-brahmin movements in Maharashtra, in all cases causing a revision of the normative role a brahmin should hold. More recently, "for traditional Brahmins trying to cobble together meaningful social identities amidst the postmodern chaos of India's rapidly expanding cities, Visvamitra's hybrid persona has come to serve as a reflection of their own fragmented subjectivities" (p. 209). But has this not always been the case, as we see in figures like Rama Jamadagnya and Drona in the Mahabharata.

While the conclusion draws the whole book together, it goes beyond this in proposing some valuable theoretical insights about the interaction between myth and personal experience, that is, how people relate their own life to the mythic narratives they have received through a range of media.

I found a number of misprints in the book and on a few occasions one could question some of the translations; for example, on p. 78 he translates asyanugaminah (Ram. 1, 57, 10) as "who had supported him," which may perhaps be better rendered "who had followed him." On p. 80 "bewildered" may be a more circumspect translation of mohita than "stunned," and "ignoble" in preference to "abominable" for anaryavat (p. 197), but I like "sexually active" for kamavrtta on p. 87. In the great majority of cases the translations are excellent. None of these quibbles detracts from a really superb book that is a model of what Indological scholarship can be. It makes a major contribution to the image of the brahmin from late Vedic literature up to the present day and also, whether intended or not, is exceptionally incisive on how myth can be reinterpreted and received by consecutive generations subsequent to its original composition and dissemination. Thus the way in which the Visvamitra myth has been able to be translated into images and themes exploring the self-image of brahmins in the past two centuries must be suggestive as to how the myths, of which he is a central character, were understood in the post-Mauryan period and beyond.


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Author:Bailey, Greg
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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