By Anand Venkatkrishnan
First, a note on Field Notes. Writing is a lonely activity, and one is compelled to be absolutely certain before putting arguments out there. Notes, though, are a space to speculate and experiment with new and inchoate ideas, without the pressure of publishing or the fear of being wrong. Scholars have few opportunities to show their work, to pull back the illusory curtain of solitary, objective research, and display everything that goes into what they write. Everything: illnesses, injuries, worries, wonders, rough drafts, cold drafts, draft-dodging, draft beer. The life of the mind is still life, brief and vulnerable and abundant. And it is worth sharing.
For those who work their way up the great chain of academic being without the privileges traditionally attendant upon that ascent – privileges of caste and class, of family pedigree, and of curated educational opportunities – each level can be progressively alienating. This is particularly so for those in the humanities, where efforts to democratize the university are imperiled by the destruction of the space itself. The problem is even more acute if you study religion, especially your own religion, so often hostile to interrogation, bubbling up and over the methodological agnosticism of scholarly inquiry. Because, like your hometown sports team, you can never quite renounce it. For all the patriarchy and pageantry, the scandals and self-deception, it leaves its ineradicable traces within you, in life, and afterlife, and life after life.
By my own account, I have had more privileges than most, beginning with the support of my family. They don’t really understand what I do, though they read all my publications meticulously, but they believe that my work has its own value, simply because I am the one doing it. Maybe it is their responsibility to believe so, but what am I, in the words of Psalm 8, that they should be mindful of me? I am by training a philologist, by accident an intellectual historian, and by temperament a peacemaker. The first identifies the materiality (and thus secularity, or worldliness) of a text, amassing physical evidence to reconstruct words and their meanings so that we become the best-informed readers possible. The second attends to changes in the history of ideas, and approaches readers in the past with generosity, in order to understand what they were doing in writing as they did. The third believes in pluralism, in intellectual and in social life, and works to build bridges between communities otherwise separated by belief and practice. At the university, this is called interdisciplinarity. At home they call it love.
About two years ago, when I began a luxurious but lonely postdoctoral fellowship, I wondered how I would keep these parts of myself together. Without the community of my colleagues in graduate school, I returned to what sustained my research in the first place, the encouragement of my family. Instead of engaging in our usual polite inquiries, I asked my mother if she would consider working with me on a new research project. A friend had photographed a Sanskrit manuscript for me from a library in southern India. For most of its premodern history, Sanskrit was been written in local, regional scripts from West to Southeast Asia; a good manuscript researcher must know at least five, with their diachronic variants. This manuscript was in Grantha, a South Indian script once used widely by speakers of Tamil and Malayalam to write the Sanskrit language. I speak a highly dialectal version of Tamil, inflected with Malayalam, but have never learned to read or write either. My mother, however, knows both, but does not have the requisite level of expertise in Sanskrit. With our powers combined (and the help of a Grantha primer), I reasoned, we could move through the text much faster than I could on my own. Because my mother lives in India, and I am in the U.K., we had to conduct these sessions over Skype. In this virtual way, we met nearly every morning over the course of two months, perhaps the first people to read this text in the decades since it was catalogued.
The text in question was a commentary on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (BhP), a popular legend of the god Krishna, whom it describes as being at once the philosopher’s formless absolute and the devotee’s embodied lover. It is difficult to overestimate the animating power that the BhP came to possess for a variety of religious, scholarly, literary, and performative communities in South Asia, so as to become one of the most famous Hindu scriptures of the second millennium. The text and its stories were translated, explicated, painted, sculpted, and performed throughout the subcontinent. Not only did it purport to be the quintessence and culmination of all Brahmanical scripture, it also claimed to extend access to that wisdom to (or incorporate the voices of) those outside the pale of Brahmanical religion. This was because it spoke the language of bhakti, or love – in Sanskrit, yes, but in a gentler, richer, more enthusiastic register, one that combined the archaic and the fresh, the philosophical and the literary, and bore witness to the irruption of the local into the universal. In spite of its vast cultural reach, however, scholars tend to place the BhP within a surprisingly limited set of historiographical narratives. My research re-examines some of the historiographical common-sense that features in scholarly accounts of the history of religion, philosophy, and aesthetics in the reception of the BhP.
Although the BhP found its final form around the tenth century, the first extant commentaries date from a full three to four centuries later. The most famous among them was written by Śrīdhara, who probably lived in Orissa, in northeastern India, around 1400 CE. His text became the standard for many later readers of the BhP. The commentary sent to me from that Southern Indian library and that my mother and I reconstructed was by one Lakṣmīdhara, a contemporary of Śrīdhara who may have lived in Orissa as well. I had written about Lakṣmīdhara’s other works in my dissertation, but, to my knowledge, no one before had read these fragments of his commentary on the BhP, called the Amṛtataraṅgiṇī or River of Ambrosia. I approached this text with little more than the general thrill of discovery, and the simple hope that it would shed light on his overall philosophical theology. Instead, my mother and I may have stumbled on an entire alternative commentarial tradition on the BhP, one that circumvented the routes and religious affinities that scholars have associated with the reception history of that text.
We began by slowly analyzing the bare text: identifying the copyist’s unique ligatures, applying punctuation for organizational purposes, differentiating the commentary on one verse from the next, and producing a working transcript. Along the way, we made notes on the content, comparing its style and substance with Śrīdhara and other major interpreters. It quickly became clear that the River of Ambrosia had quite a distinct interpretive take on the BhP, and seemed to betray no familiarity with Śrīdhara whatsoever. It even included verses absent from Śrīdhara’s version of the text, explicitly pointing out variant readings in several verses. Moreover, it gestured to the existence of a previous commentary unacknowledged by Śrīdhara. And although there is good reason to believe that Lakṣmīdhara lived in Orissa, in the northeast of India, almost all extant manuscripts of the River of Ambrosia are found in Kerala, in the southwest.
This last detail puzzled me until I noticed passages from the River of Ambrosia being repeated almost verbatim in a similarly neglected (but published) commentary on the BhP written two hundred years later in sixteenth-century Kerala by Rāghavānanda. He was a practitioner of Tantric goddess worship, influenced by both the South Indian ritual cosmology of Śrīvidyā and the northern Kashmiri philosophy of non-dual Śaivism, treating the god Śiva as the ultimate, all-pervading reality. I had been reading Rāghavānanda as I rewrote the first chapter of my book in progress to show how the BhP, a text otherwise sacred to devotees of the god Viṣṇu, inspired followers of a religion often in competition with theirs. Rāghavānanda’s writings allowed me to explore the intellectual history of the structural correspondences between Brahmanical and Tantric religion that characterized politics and society in medieval Kerala. I located this history at the nexus of several complex and overlapping relationships: between private esotericism and public religion, between high textual culture and antinomian, anti-caste ritual practice, between austere philosophical traditions and exuberant literary aesthetics, and, in the end, between Śaivism and “the bhakti movement.”
Rāghavānanda was not simply parroting Lakṣmīdhara; he worked with the River of Ambrosia – the imported passages are too extensive to be coincidental – but towards much more ambitious commentarial ends. His contemporaries in Kerala knew of the text too. The fifteenth-century litterateur Pūrṇasarasvatī, for example, briefly cited the River of Ambrosia while commenting on a devotional hymn. And a few generations later, in the eighteenth century, a tutor of the ruling class of Kochi composed a commentary on the BhP that placed the River of Ambrosia and Rāghavānanda’s Krṣṇapadī in the same genealogy. Finding Lakṣmīdhara in Kerala telescoped this regional story into subcontinental networks of intellectual exchange and manuscript transmission. Suddenly the transference of ritual manuals of goddess worship like the Śāradātilaka from Orissa to Kerala, and the northeastern popularity of Sanskrit poems by the Kerala native Bilvamaṅgala, made good sense, as did the possibility that an alternative commentarial tradition on the BhP circulated along the same routes.
I am still building a proper case for the alternativeness of this tradition, and working to answer the question that if it was a tradition, why it was overshadowed, and why it survived. The scholarly article that results will perform the basic task of revising the assumptions of current historiography. But it will be pared down to its argumentative core, stripped of serendipity and joy, my mother relegated to a footnote of acknowledgment. As an intellectual historian, I am often more concerned with the history of ideas than the ideas themselves. Why should my own case be any different? Why should I not be fully forthcoming about the conditions of my research, rather than leave its illocutionary effects for a future graduate student to reveal?
After all, my mom was no silent subaltern or native informant. She is a devotee of the same god celebrated by the BhP, knowledgeable in both the philosophical wisdom he teaches and the inscrutable tricks he plays. Though ours was a scholarly, not a spiritual exercise, she would bring out her tattered copy of the vulgate BhP to check against the commentary, and supplied notes she has made over decades of attending religious lectures, remarking with surprise when Lakṣmīdhara failed to find important verses of interest. These discussions oriented me to the many histories of the text’s reception, and to the interventions that Lakṣmīdhara thought it meaningful to make. Sometimes we discussed the finer points of methodology. When my inner philologist obsessed over a corrupt reading, I heard a more insistent voice from the Skype window, saying: “I am a pragmatist. Is it useful for you? Then okay. Otherwise let’s move on; I have tea on the stove.” If I have not convinced her to take credit for co-authorship, it is because her distrust of publicity exceeds her desire for recognition. But she will not fail to remind you, and rightly, that she has literally fed my success.
The River of Ambrosia flows through our home now, rippling between Dropbox folders and Google Docs, surging over online phone calls, pooling in the silences of time zones apart. By the time it gets to peer review, it will be dry as the Nilā, on the banks of which it was once read, centuries ago. For a commentary on a text that encouraged its audience to drink of its rasa, that juicy distillation of aesthetic delight (BhP 1.1.3), this would be a sad, desiccated fate. Instead, here, I am sharing a different version of scholarship, attentive to the conditions of everyday life, mindful of the loving voices amplifying my words.
Anand Venkatkrishnan is a Junior Research Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. He received his Ph.D. in South Asian Religions from Columbia University (2015), and a B.A. in Classics from Stanford University (2010). His book in progress, Love in the Time of Scholarship, examines the relationship of bhakti, religion as lived affect, with philosophy as intellectual practice, in early modern India. It also demonstrates how vernacular ways of knowing pushed through the glass ceiling of Sanskrit intellectuality. Anand fills his spare time with sports commentary, pop culture, and translations of Sanskrit poetry at http://apurvaracana.tumblr.com.