#AsiaNow Speaks with John Stratton Hawley

John Stratton Hawley (a.k.a., Jack) is Claire Tow Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University and author of A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement, published by Harvard University Press and winner of the 2017 AAS Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

India celebrates itself as a nation of unity in diversity, but where does that sense of unity come from? One important source is a widely accepted narrative called the “bhakti movement.” Bhakti is the religion of the heart, of song, of common participation, of inner peace, of anguished protest. The idea known as the bhakti movement asserts that between 600 and 1600 CE, poet-saints sang bhakti from India’s southernmost tip to its northern Himalayan heights, laying the religious bedrock upon which the modern state of India would be built.

In A Storm of Songs, I clarify the historical and political contingencies that gave birth to the concept of the bhakti movement. Starting with the Mughals and their Kachvaha allies, North Indian groups looked to the Hindu South as a resource that would give religious and linguistic depth to their own collective history. Only in the early twentieth century did the idea of a bhakti “movement” crystallize—in the intellectual circle surround­ing Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal. Interactions between Hindus and Muslims, between the sexes, between proud regional cultures, and between upper castes and Dalits are crucially embedded in the narra­tive, making it a powerful political resource.

A Storm of Songs ponders the destiny of the idea of the bhakti move­ment in a globalizing India. If bhakti is the beating heart of India, this is the story of how it was implanted there—and whether it can survive.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The narrative of the bhakti movement is absolutely fundamental to the field I study: India’s “heart religion,” the personal religiosity expressed most fundamentally in poetry, sainthood, and song. But all along, especially as I taught the subject, I began to wonder whether the story of the bhakti movement, linking all of India over a period of a millennium, is really true. This non-elite people’s history: Who created it? Under what conditions and influences, and to accomplish what? I worried increasingly that the circumstances of its emergence as an idea might be as important as the substance of the idea itself. As part of a general project to understand our own collective historical role in producing the religious verities that sustain us, I thought it was important to try to find out. 

The idea of the bhakti movement has a lot of politics associated with it—especially the question of whether it’s just a Hindu narrative or, rather, a narrative of broader currents in Indian religion, especially currents that bring together Hindus and Muslims. Just how did these politics play out, if at all, in the creation and sustaining of the bhakti movement idea?

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

It was a project that meant I had to work in many more areas than those in which I had linguistic competence—well beyond my English and Hindi and atrophied Sanskrit. The bhakti movement idea is about the way a multiplicity of Indian languages and the cultures they articulate are supported by common connections. It’s an intrinsically multilingual concept. To understand its contours, I had to rely in important ways on the work of others. Large parts of the book would have to be synthetic in nature. Of course, we always do rely on other people’s work, but it seemed so dramatic to have to be doing it time and again in this project. I’m deeply grateful to the many people who made it possible.

Luckily, as it turned out, the Hindi input into the production of this idea turned out to be as crucial as I had suspected, so I wasn’t totally unmoored after all. But what about the manuscripts that proved equally crucial to this task of historical sleuthing? What if they bore dates that didn’t seem to jibe with the content of the manuscripts themselves? I ended up having to argue that a crucial text had offered a dating of itself that was consciously misleading—always a very uncomfortable position for a scholar to find him- or herself in. But, if I was right, it was also an indication of a quite determined effort to tell history in a way that history didn’t seem to be telling itself. Sectarian manhandling, I guess you could say.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Well, I don’t know about strange or funny, but a wonderful aspect of things turned out to be the task of interpreting a set of murals that were painted on the walls of a particular building—the “Hindi House” (Hindi Bhavan) that belongs to Rabindranath Tagore’s Vishva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan. That formidable statement of the bhakti movement idea, shaped on the very eve of India’s and Pakistan’s independence (shades of the Hindu-Muslim question), turned out to have quite direct connections to the literary critic who emerged in my mind as being the most crucial figure for bringing this idea into focus. It was a complicated and poignant story of religious and cultural nationalism, and to see it expressed in art was somehow especially moving.

Oh, and then there was the Google factor. When I began the work more than a decade ago, it never occurred to me I could just type in the crucial words and find out when they first emerged—at least into English usage. When I did, halfway through, the results were not at all what I expected. Google, that arbiter of truth, led me to a very different context in which the idea of “bhakti movement” had emerged in English—earlier than any I had known, at least in those exact words. But lo and behold, that outlier proved to have echoes in the dominant narrative after all. Or at least, I think it may have done. Again, it proved to be Tagore’s back yard.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Undoubtedly the lectures that the Sanskritist V. Raghavan gave over All-India Radio in 1964, published as The Great Integrators in 1966. That’s a full articulation of the bhakti movement idea, and with direct state sponsorship. Exhibit A. But many readers would recognize much more readily the work of A. K. Ramanujan, in his Speaking of Siva, published by Penguin in 1973. It’s so elegant and accessible, and it speaks from the south of India itself. That’s a very good thing if you accept the idea that bhakti moved into Indian history from the south. But alas. I think the idea came from the north—and half a millennium later than the crucial bhakti-movement moment on which Ramanujan focuses. Still, if I were to direct someone to an articulation of what the movement means in Indian thinking, I would unhesitatingly point that person to Ramanujan’s words.

What are you working on now?

Two things. For years I’ve been working on the famed blind Brajbhasa (or broadly, Hindi) bhakti poet of the sixteenth century named Surdas. Well, at least everyone believes he was blind. Of late I’ve been investigating how that blindness first came to be seen—that is, seen in art, in illustrated manuscripts. I’ve added a new hundred-page chapter to a very old (1984) book, Surdas: Poet, Singer, Saint. This revised, expanded edition will emerge in India itself, I’m happy to say—from Primus Books in Delhi on January 8, 2018.

And on the more contemporary side of things, I’ve been working on a project called “The New Vrindavan,” which a Fulbright award supported in 2016-17. It’s about vast changes in the course of the last fifteen or twenty years that have transformed a time-honored place of pilgrimage—the most famous one connected with the god Krishna—from the wilderness retreat its name suggests it ought to be into an outer arm of the megalopolis that now is Delhi. This is a book about untrammeled noise, frightening water pollution, unchecked real estate development, and a fair amount of religious ambition. Vrindavan, that forest retreat, is now slated to become the home of the world’s tallest religious building. The hole for the foundation has been dug. It’s a triumph of the global Anthropocene—or is it, religiously speaking, its epitaph? 

But you know, there is still an overwhelming sense of joy that people experience in Vrindavan. Since at least twice as many people live and travel there since I came to know the place in the 1970s, that’s a lot of joy indeed.