South Asian Aesthetics

University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2014

Session 15: The Aesthetics of Devotion Part I: God as Love(r)

Priests before Shri Nathji, ca. 1820. (Kota, Rajasthan)  Ink, gold and watercolor on paper.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Priests before Shri Nathji, ca. 1820. (Kota, Rajasthan) Ink, gold and watercolor on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Guest speaker: John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College.

Over the past month we have studied the concept of rasa (with its attendant concepts of bhāva, vibhāvaabhinaya, etc.) in the writings of several thinkers and in the context of drama, poetry, and painting.  In this session, we will encounter a new rasa— that of bhakti or devotion– in yet another context– that of religious thought and practice.

In the first reading for the session, “Applied Aesthetics of Religion,” Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus make the case for thinking about religious aesthetics, and thinking about religion in terms of aesthetics.  Drawing from a recent effulgence of writing on the topic, they argue that the senses and sensory experience should be taken into account when understanding how religious texts communicate their content and achieve their effects. Though they make this argument for the senses in general, they are particularly concerned with drawing our attention to sound and hearing.  How would one compare the soundscape of, say, a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh gurudwara, and a Muslim mosque?

In the second reading, the Bhaktirasāmritasindhu (1541 CE) of Rupa Goswami, we see how one devotional tradition of early modern South Asia– the Gaudiya Sampraday, a community of Krishna devotees located in Vrindavan and Bengal– theorized the devotee’s experience of God, and spiritual practice, in aesthetic terms.  Rupa, a disciple of the saint Chaitanya and a well-educated scholar and poet in Sanskrit, was obviously drawing on a pre-existing tradition of thinking about religious experience in terms of rasa, but his analysis of how the rasa of bhakti (religious devotion) is produced is probably the most sophisticated and extensive treatment of the topic.  How does his concept of rasa compare with that of the thinkers we’ve read about previously, including Bharata, Anandavardhana, and Abhinavagupta?

Regarding the case studies for this session: you will notice that Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda has returned, accompanied by Jack Hawley’s translation of poems by the sixteenth-century poet and Krishna devotee Surdas, titled The Memory of Love: Sūrdās Sings to Krishna.  Though Krishna is certainly not the only deity or avatar to be made the recipient and embodiment of love (for example, Ram in the Ramarasika community comes to mind), it is Krishna and the narrative of his love with Radha that is made the center and raison d’être of the elaborate aesthetic theory developed by Rupa Goswami and others– so it is perhaps natural that our case studies focus mostly on that divine couple and their relationship.

You may notice in the case studies the recurring appearance of what is sometimes called jhāṅkī, which is variously translated as ‘glimpse’, ‘sight’, ‘scene’, or in the context of dramaturgy, a ‘tableau’.  All of a sudden the action of the poem seems to slow down, almost to a stop, like a film projector slowing down until only one frame is shown, and a moment shared between Krishna and Radha is frozen or suspended in time.  How does this technique create a ‘verbal icon’ that can be experienced in a manner not so different from the darshan of a material icon of God in a temple or a home?  (What makes this even more fascinating in the case of Surdas is that the poet, it is believed, was blind– and thus he ‘saw’ Krishna and Radha in a way that was ‘beyond’ simple sight, and recreated this in his poetry.)

A final note about Surdas and the Sūrsāgar — we are lucky to have John (Jack) Hawley joining us for this session; Professor Hawley has not only translated the portions of Surdas’s enormous oeuvre that we will be reading in class and given us a richer understanding of the poet and his work, but has also made a major contribution to our understanding of this type of devotion (bhakti) in general.  For some wonderful photographs of some of the līlā plays, holidays and rituals that we will be likely discuss during the session, see Professor Hawley’s website.

[I will also soon be posting a short video clip here of traditional dances from Vrindavan that illustrate the narratives that make up the poetry of Jayadeva and Surdas.

Finally, if you feel that you could use a little help getting oriented within the historical and cultural context of early modern Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu and his avatars), Vrindavan, the Gaudiyas, and the practice of darshan, I’ve included some readings by Alan Entwistle and Diana Eck under “Historical and social context.”  (These are not required reading, but are rather for your use should you need them.)  As always, feel free to email with any questions or guidance on where to find out more.

Conceptual readings:

  1. Wilke, Annette and Oliver Moebus. Sound and Communication: An Aesthetic Cultural History of Sanskrit Hinduism. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011. 25-38.
  2. Haberman, David L. “A Selection from the Bhaktirasāmritasindhu of Rupa Goswamin: The Foundational Emotions (Sthayi-Bhavas).” In Krishna: A Sourcebook, edited by Edwin Bryant. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Case studies:

  1. Love song of the dark lord: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. Edited and translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  2. Surdas. The Memory of Love: Sūrdās Sings to Krishna. Translated and introduced by John S. Hawley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Historical and social context:

  1. Entwistle, Alan.W. Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage. Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1987. 134-160.
  2. Eck, Diana. “The Deity.” In The Life of Hinduism, edited by John S. Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 43-52.

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