Potentials of bhakti

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In Kannada there has been a major school of bhakti scholarship (on vacanakaras) that treats bhakti poetry as having ‘radicality and transformative potential’. For some time I have been developing doubts about these claims. I have suspected that much of the socially inclined investment in bhakti poetry has invested its own preferences and priorities all over the bhakti poetry. That is, the equality, freedom and such other ethical ideas that we come across in bhakti poetry perhaps meant something very different then from what it means to us today. If that is the case, then when we see ethical sociality in our reconstructions of bhakti we perhaps are anyway operating within the matrix of modernity. Our dissatisfaction with modernity notwithstanding, we are reinscribing the bhakti into modern discursivity. I am not suggesting that the problem is only that of recovery; but that our own ethics today leads us to value code our pasts. The point I wish to make is that the problem of recovery apart, our reading of bhakti tends to bring in modern ethicality. It is not a problem with me as long as this move is not collapsed with that of recovery – one that claims that we can obtain alternative angle to ethical issues from bhakti; because that is when we stealthily insert precisely what we hope to banish – modernity.

Now this is a slippery area – this modernity. I understand a project that aims to work towards resisting the snares of modernity for all the good reasons. To inflect our current practices of literary reading, for example, with something other than the matrix of modernity. Now the grand narrative of modernity has usually been criticised in
India for the western accent it carries (Nandy, Alwarez etc). I suspect that conceiving modernity within its western career is limiting and also falling prey to its own grand narration. Despite the various symptomatic common modalities of modernity – progress, reason, freedom, state, and so forth,- modernity can very well have a different career in India given the specific socio-cultural topos as well as time in which it is deployed here. Again, how it is deployed. It is possible that modernity has lived both a western career as well as a specific career here. And if we attend to the career of modernity that is different from that of west, (or, that of what we are dissatisfied with in its western avatar) we may still make our current concerns not be burdened with the tired orbit of modernity. In such a scenario, our interpolations into past, our reconstructions of bhakti, need not be bogged down to our resistance to western epistemic arrogance and primacy.

Another point: I feel that the eagerness as well as the anxiety about western modernity are two sides of the same coin. Both maintain that dependency logic one or the other way. If we see west as producing us as much as much other contacts have, it will at least provide us the respite to go beyond the travails of colonisation. I am one of those who believe that colonisation is hardly an issue today in
India. Not because we are post to it, but because coloniser need not be seen in a pure identity: of a white British, or a white Christian etc. What Balagangadhar calls colonial consciousness is strangely its own victim. Because, such theorising never decenters the west (white, or Christian or whatever) despite its eagerness to break free of colonial consciousness.

There is of course, nothing called Indian modernity. That is a hollow boast. Modernity is European, sure. My point however is that it need not have only one impact; the claustrophobic atmosphere that modernity creates and the enabling effects it has are both real. Nandy tells me ethical tools for a just life in a society are not something that (only) modernity provides; these can be seen present in the non western worlds too. How true he is. But the institutions with which we live today mean that it is the heritage of modernity that we have to reshape and re-equip rather than a pure past. Nandy’s ‘gods and goddesses’ are reborn in modern discourses – no dindi is complete without the curious trappings of modern institutions.

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