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The Archaeology of Bhakti I: Mathura and Maturai, Back and Forth.

The Archaeology of Bhakti I: Mathura and Maturai, Back and Forth. Edited by EMMANUEL FRANCIS and CHARLOTTE SCHMID. Pondichery: ECOLE FRANCAISE D'EXTREME-ORIENT and INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY, 2014. Pp. xiv + 366.

Based on a 2011 workshop convened by Valerie Gillet at the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, this valuable collection of articles follows "early Bhakti threads that have linked North to South India, to and fro, in a continuous movement of exchange" (p. 17). This volume explores these threads through the consideration of various pairs--Krsna and Murukan, for instance--and doubles, as in the cities of Mathura and Maturai. In their introduction, editors Emmanuel Francis and Charlotte Schmid compare Krsna and Murukan, "the handsome young gods" who "bring joy to the women who are drawn to them" (pp. 1-2), and discuss them in light of their cities. As they state, "Maturai, where both Krsna and Skanda/Murukan were worshipped from an early period, illustrates by its name--a Tamil adaptation of Mathura, the home of Krsna in North India--the exchanges between the north and the south of the Indian subcontinent" (p. 2). Francis and Schmid also introduce us to the ranges and varieties of Bhakti, from dry "intellection" to intense love for a deity sublimated in ardent devotion. In order to get at the heart of the problems that arise in juxtaposing deities, cities, places of pilgrimage, and devotional styles and strategies, the editors posit archaeology as the problem-solver, urging us to be "attentive to material testimonies of the past." They state that "to practice the archeology of Bhakti is to study it through texts ... and through artefacts. In this approach, the focus is on sources, agencies, and layers" (p. 13).

In the lead essay, "Dharma, Yoga, and Viraha-Bhakti in Buddhacarita and Krsnacarita," Tracy Coleman begins with sets of questions centering on Krsna's relationships with women in the Harivamsa and the Bhagavatapurana: "Why ... does the author of the Bhagavatapurana situate Krsna's amorous liaisons with women within a carefully crafted context of dharma, yoga, and bhakti," while the Harivamsa does not? (p. 31). The latter is about desire and pleasure in its portrayal of a youthful Krsna's frolics in moonlit forests with nubile gopis. Coleman's answer is the figure of the Buddha. She claims that the author of the Bhagavatapurana "had the figure of the Buddha and the buddhadharma centrally in mind when he composed his ancient tale, and that Asvaghosa's kavya may have provided a model for the Bhagavata" (p. 32). Coleman examines the dramatic change in Krsna's character from his appearances in the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa to the very different Krsna of the Bhagavatapurana, "which emphasizes Krsna's yogic power and his transcendence of passions ... even amidst his affairs with women. This portrayal of Krsna as a specifically brahmanical yogi...was also modeled on Buddhist narratives and demonstrates the increasing prestige associated with yogic knowledge and attainments," leading Coleman to argue that the Krsna of this text is congruous with--and even based upon--Asvaghosa's Buddha (p. 33). I cannot agree with many of Coleman's claims--for instance, that " central to both Buddhist and brahmanical narratives" (p. 33), but her main argument based on literary form rather than on religious principles and styles holds water. She states that "the biographies of the Buddha (and probably Mahavira as well) significantly influenced the tenth skandha of the Bhagavatapurana, the Krsnacarita." In so doing, she emphasizes the importance of the story--the narrative features of the biography--and in following this strategy, Coleman makes some valuable observations.

At the end of her article, Coleman argues that Krsna is "modeled precisely on the Buddha," finding the roots of bhakti in the Bhagavatapurana in As'vaghosa's kavya rather than in the poetry of the Tamil Alvars (p. 64). To argue on the grounds of literary form is one thing, but I think that to argue on the grounds of religious sentiment is another thing altogether, and this is where the article falters. The bhakti of the Alvars is a different phenomenon entirely, and to compare the types of bhakti expressed by them--which is a fierce, radical, and deeply felt direct encounter with the divine--has very little to do with the bhakti of the Bhagavadgita and the Bhagavatapurana. What is more, to call Asvaghosa's Buddha the object of bhakti as such is quite a stretch.

Cedric Ferrier's contribution centers on Gupta-dynasty numismatics, especially in regard to "Karttikeya-type" coins. Ferrier "focuses on the special relationship between the god Skanda and the Gupta dynasty and is based on the study of the catalogues of the four main numismatic collections" in India and in London (p. 64). Ferrier provides a valuable close reading of gold and silver coins issued by several generations of Gupta kings, a reading that reflects the rise and fall of Skanda as a deity among the elite of the Gupta dynasty.

We arrive at the heart of the book with Charlotte Schmid's masterful article, "Bhakti in Its Infancy: Genealogy Matters in the Kailasanatha of Kancipuram." Built by the Pallavas, the Kailasanatha is an eighth-century royal Saiva temple (p. 89), wherein Skanda is represented most often in Somaskandamurti tableaux (p. 95). Schmid notes that "the visual effect is such that the viewer naturally assimilates the suggested identification of the king with the god, and of the royal couple with Siva and Parvati" (p. 97), also remarking that "there is not a single relief of a king in the company of his son in the Kailasanatha," leaving Schmid to observe that the "begetting of a son allows a king to become a god" (p. 98).

Schmid then proceeds to discuss Skanda's connections with birth and marriage, but also in his role as the ultimate child, emerging as "the iconographic model of the child in Hindu iconography" (p. 103). This is a most illuminating study on how various elements of the temple are in conversation with one another: the gods with Pallava dynasts, the gods with their own sons, and mortal kings with theirs. The article comes alive when Schmid turns to a discussion of the type of Saivism "to which the Kailasanatha bears witness," situated at "a unique moment when the roles of Skanda and Siva were controversially defined" (p. 122). Schmid then turns to the god Murukan and his appearances in Tamil cankam literature. The important point in Schmid's analysis is just how the conflation of Skanda with the Tamil god Murukan might have come about, and it is all about similarities. As Schmid writes, "... to present Skanda as the son of Siva is another way of putting Muruku and Siva into contact. The absorption of Muruku into the broad circle of Saivism takes another, more indirect, but not less efficient path," also noting that Parvati and Siva themselves "appear similar enough to Tamil deities to be assimilated to them" (pp. 128-30). In her exploration of the Tirumurukarrupatai, a late cankam poem included in the anthology Pattu-p-pattu, Schmid remarks that "a male deity and Muruku are brought together by the mediation of several female deities or through a goddess having different aspects: Parvati, Korravai, the Ancient One," and that "once Parvati becomes Muruku's mother, Siva can be considered to be his father" (p. 130). She then discusses Murukan's correspondence "to the hero of the love poems of the Cankam ... in which marriage is a central theme ... it is not always easy to distinguish between the 'real' hero and the ideal lover, and the mother can be confused, as well as the priests celebrating rituals in honor of Muruku" (p. 131), and sometimes to humorous and mocking effect. Ultimately, Schmid seems to be emphasizing the absent father (Siva, as well as the invisible father of the cankam corpus) and the ubiquitous mother and foster-mother, and in the mediating figures of Parvatl and Korravai, who make the inevitable conflations of birth with marriage and the triplet of Siva/Skanda/Murukan possible in the first place (pp. 135-36).

Padma Kaimal's fine essay, "Laksmi and the Tigers: A Goddess in the Shadows," is on the granitehewn temples of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), constructed by the Pallavas in the seventh and eighth centuries. Kaimal asks, what is in the Tiger Cave in Caluvan Kuppam? As it turns out, there are traces of a Gaja-Laksmi inside the back wall of this cave (p. 144). It is a real pleasure to see these two Pallava temple complexes--at Kancipuram and at Mamallapuram--through Schmid's and Kaimal's eyes, respectively. Kaimal offers her reading of the lumps and gouges of unfinished tableaux. Kaimal's grammatical assessment of the "scars" in the Tiger Cave at Caluvan Kuppam leads her to "see the traces of no other goddess than Laksmi lustrated by elephants" (p. 158), through her close reading of "material and visual forms" (p. 171), but as she asks, what could it have meant to frame Laksmi with yalis, fierce leonine heads with elephantine trunks and tusks, that in this case wreathe the entrance to this cave? (p. 158). Quoting Schmid, Kaimal notes that the goddesses of prosperity and of victory must be together: they portray a royal Pallava "promise," as it were: "Kingship played a constitutive role in bringing together a life of prosperity and the world of victory" (p. 158).

Kaimal writes, "Implicit within this rich web of identifications between goddesses and kings, sculpture and text, saumya and ghora, I perceive a further set of equations. I suggest that the adivaraha and Varaha rock-cut temples deploy and resolve the saumya/ghora dyad not only within the smiling, graceful figure of the armed goddess receiving bloody offerings but also through the pairing of Laksmi with the armed goddess" (pp. 159-60). She continues: "The web that weaves those kingly goddesses together can demonstrate that kings are the force that brings prosperity out of war" (p. 160). Kaimal reads these images as "conflation rather than confusion" (p. 162). The goddesses at Mamallapuram, as well as those at the Pallava capital at Kancipuram, combine qualities that "play out the concepts of nurture and murder, tranquility and ferocity, fecundity and asceticism as an infinite spectrum of possibilities and interdependencies. All of those options find their home in a unified female divine" (p. 162).

In "'Woe to Them!' The Saiva Curse Inscription at Mahabalipuram (7th Century C.E.)," Emmanuel Francis resituates a seventh-century curse in four separate instantiations at the Mahabalipuram site within the context of "an early sectarian clash between Saiva and Vaisnava devotees" (p. 177). Francis looks at "how the royal site of Mahabalipuram was the object of s'aivaisation at the time this curse was engraved" (p. 178), pointing out that through the examination of various sources, "one witnesses the rise of a growing sectarian zeal" (p. 180).

The Pallavas appear to begin as a tolerant bunch from a religious point of view, supporting Vaisnavas, Saivas, and possibly Jains and Buddhists as well. Then the dynasty underwent a shift in favor of Saivism before becoming solidly Saivite, with the foundation of the Vaisnava Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kancipuram being the lone exception (p. 193). As Francis notes, "Tantric Saivism of the Saiva Siddhanta branch became a kind of state religion of the Pallavas and a zealous sectarianism was at play in Mahabalipuram where Vaisnava temples were saivised" (pp. 193-94). In turning to the curse itself, written in what Francis describes as a "florid Grantha" (p. 194), we learn that it is found "twice as part of a longer versified inscription and twice as an isolated stanza" (p. 194). Francis skillfully reads sectarian antagonism through the placement of the curses, noting just how their emplacement well illustrates "the decline of Vaisnavism and the rise of Saivism as the state religion" (p. 208).

In the following two articles by Alexander Dubyanskiy and Suganya Anandakichenin, we turn to the poetry of two among the twelve Tamil Alvars, the poet-saints drowning in their love for god. Dubyanskiy concentrates on the ninth-century female poet Antal, arguing that her poetry was influenced by the arruppatai genre of the late cankam period, the guide-poem genre that points the way to a god or to a patron (p. 248). Anandakichenin's focus is on Kulacekara Alvar and the final decad of the Perumal Tirumoli from the eighth or ninth century. She characterizes this decad as a retelling of the Rama story "in a nutshell" (p. 249), attempting to identify "this mini-Ramayana's possible sources other than Valmiki's magnum opus" (p. 252). Anandakichenin concludes that Kulacekara's "mini-Ramayana" must have been based on extant oral versions "and possibly at least one written version of the Ramayana in Tamil which most probably was a devotional work which assumed that Rama was a manifestation of Visnu and which predated Kulacekara" (p. 277). The translation she offers is very awkward, and she misses the point of the poem, which is not to narrate the Ramayana as such, but to extol an avatar, and to emphasize the sanctity of Tillai.

Valerie Gillet's superb article, "When Tradition Meets Archaeological Reality: The Site of Tiruccentur," is about the sacred geography of Murukan and his "six abodes" listed at intervals in the Tirumurukarruppatai. Murukan is the god who "presides over affairs of the heart" in spite of his militant, "fearful aura" (p. 289). But precisely where are his six abodes? Are the places mentioned in the Tirumurukarruppatai actual; do they have anything in common with current traditions of pilgrimage and worship that have built up around specific sites, or is this all about the number six, which corresponds to Murukan's six heads and the six sections of the text?

Gillet skillfully considers these questions as she turns her attention to the textual evidence, to inscriptions, and to the "layers" of the temple to Murukan at Tiruccentur. She begins her analysis with the temple's oldest sections. As she states, "... the oldest elements of the temple ... are ... two niches of Visnu and Gajalaksmi which, before the many constructions which have transformed the original setting of the temple, were facing the sea ... their cult was prominent, if not central" (p. 316). But, based on inscriptional evidence, "the main deity was already Subrahmanya in the middle of the ninth century" (p. 316). Arguing along the lines of Pallava-dynasty parallels at Mahabalipuram, she argues that "the Tiruccentur temple may have been originally dedicated to Visnu as the main deity" (p. 316). My one lingering question is this: Did sculptural conventions of the time dictate that there must be a reclining Visnu and a Gaja-Laksmi? In other words, is this a matter of style--of artistic grammar--rather than one of the history of devotional practice, and does the concept of a "shore temple" as a category per se require a reclining Visnu and a Gaja-Laksmi to emphasize the sea's mythological connections to them?

The concluding essay by S. A. S. Sarma is a thoughtful exploration of the worship of the infant Krsna at the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, in light of Narayanabhatta's envisioning of Krsna in his text, the Narayaniya, "while praising Visnu, the Lord of Guruvayur" (p. 324).

The importance of this volume lies in the four expert articles by Schmid, Kaimal, Francis, and Gillet, as well as in their very fine accompanying photographs. When read as a group, these four essays impart a picture of the temples along Tamil Nadu's seaboard as a network, and it is obvious that these sites--from Kancipuram in the north to Tiruccentur in the south--are all in architectural conversation with each other. The book as a whole owes a huge debt to the late Friedhelm Hardy and to Daud S. Ali's early scholarship. Hardy and Ali both underpin and haunt the entire volume, providing most of the authors with a great deal of their own analytical scaffolding, and while several of the authors take exception to many of Hardy's ideas about the development of bhakti in South Asia, this book would not exist without them.


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Author:Selby, Martha Ann
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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