Pinch on Hawley, 'A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement'

John Stratton Hawley
William Pinch

John Stratton Hawley. A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. Maps, illustrations. 464 pp. $51.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-18746-7.

Reviewed by William Pinch (Wesleyan University) Published on H-Asia (September, 2017) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Walking in the Shadow of Bhakti Mountain

John Stratton Hawley’s A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement is about the history of an idea. As is the case with all histories of ideas, the meat (or perhaps “juice” would be the better metaphor) of the plot is in the historiography. Hawley’s inquiry involves peeling back layers upon layers of understanding, beginning with the meaning of the term “bhakti” itself (usually taken to mean “devotionalism,” but “heart religion” feels better [p. 2]), and the crystallization of the idea of a bhakti movement in the early twentieth century. Given the concurrent rise of Indian and, more pointedly, Hindu nationalism in the same period, the world of politics is never far off; and often it is front and center.

If “movement” is a newish idea, then it stands to reason that the “storm of songs” that comprised bhakti must be understood otherwise. But how? This big question prompts the central chapters of the book, where the institutionalizing interstices of bhakti, especially in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, come in for close examination. Key here is how bhakti’s exponents expressed its historicality. As with his treatment of the “movement” paradigm, Hawley does not take these earlier expressions of bhakti’s unfolding at face value. He probes and disrupts assumptions about bhakti—of which there seem to be as many as there are bhaktas (devotees)—and about Indian history. As he notes early on, “this bhakti movement idea has become so widespread that nowadays it functions as historiographical common sense.” This common sense emerges most explicitly in textbooks, school curricula, encyclopedias, and scholarly monographs, but it also crops up across the internet, on television, and in the movies. “As an idea about history, thus, this idea has itself become an important fact of Indian history” (p. 6).

The book is arranged into seven chapters of about forty to fifty pages each, preceded by a twelve-page introduction and three pages of acknowledgments. In addition, there are two maps (in chapter 1), two short tables (in chapter 3), and eleven images; thirty-nine pages of endnotes; a forty-one-page bibliography; and a fifteen-page index. The first chapter focuses on the emergence of the “bhakti movement” idea in the twentieth century. Hawley pinpoints its appearance in the writings of the Hindi literature scholar Hazariprasad Dvivedi. Hawley is at pains to note, however, that there were important earlier and later articulations or, at any rate, voices that expressed analogous or closely related understandings to that of “movement.” Dvivedi was, for instance, influenced by Ramachandra Shukla at Banaras Hindu University, whose own encyclopedic writings spoke of the “bhakti kal” or “bhakti period” of Hindi literature (1375-1700) as opposed to the “riti kal” or “courtly period” (1700-1900). We learn later, in chapters 3 and 6, about Dvivedi’s mentor at Shantiniketan, Kshitimohan Sen, whom Hawley refers to, with Dvivedi, as “the true fathers of the idea of the bhakti movement” (p. 100). Meanwhile, among those to whom Shukla was responding were an array of Western scholars who tended to see bhakti in the context of—and as a response to—developments in Christianity and Islam. Prominent among these was the administrator-scholar George Grierson, who was especially keen (for a time) to understand bhakti as a derivative Hindu form of Christian love. As Hawley notes, however, Grierson spoke of a bhakti “revolution” and not of a movement as such.

Serving as the narrative and argumentative glue for this first chapter is Hawley’s extended treatment of a work by the intellectual historian Krishna Sharma, Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective (1987). In this work, Sharma mounts a critique of what she takes to be the largely European intellectual deformation of understandings of bhakti as a Hindu Reformation “movement,” which was grounded in Protestant presuppositions about religion and which percolated widely into scholarly understandings, especially in English. A particular target of Sharma’s critique is the aforementioned Grierson, who (she argues) introduced the idea of a bhakti “movement,” but who (as Hawley notes) never in fact used the term. (Hawley largely agrees with Sharma, however, insofar as the Protestant preconceptions are concerned.) Ironically, as Hawley further explains, it is Dvivedi’s translation of a key passage in a 1907 essay by Grierson, which Sharma quotes in her own study, that is the culprit behind the “movement” idea: Grierson’s sentence, “This new idea was that of bhakti,” became for Dvivedi “Yah bhakti ka andolan hai,” or “This is the bhakti movement” (as Hawley translates on page 52). (Later, Hawley translates the sentence as “This is the movement of bhakti” [p. 255].) Dvivedi’s (mis)translation of Grierson then became the basis for the “movement” that is taken up by Sharma in her critique and dismissal of European discussions of bhakti’s history. Thus, contra Sharma, the idea of a movement emerged dialogically, a by-product of Indian and European scholarly conversations, mainly in Hindi and English, rather than simply a result of a European misunderstanding.

Prominent among the later twentieth-century figures who adopted and promoted the bhakti movement idea was the eminent Sanskritist V. Raghavan, whose 1964 Patel memorial lectures to All-India Radio popularized the notion well beyond the halls of academe. Raghavan’s bhakti represented a proto-democratic social movement, and he leveraged a well-known notion of physical circumambulation to support his account. Hawley introduces Raghavan in chapter 1, but he takes up the narrative of physical, which is to say, subcontinental, movement in earnest in chapter 2, “The Transit of Bhakti.” Here Hawley is interested in the genealogy of a popularly held tale about bhakti, where “she” is imagined as a woman: born in “Dravida” or the Tamil south, she matured in Karnataka (in the southwest), wandered about in Maharashtra (west), grew old and enfeebled in Gujarat (“riven by schismatics”), before being renewed and made lovely again in the north (in Brindavan). This “born in Dravida” personification of bhakti appears in a text known as the Bhagavata Mahatmya, which Hawley dates to the latter half of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century and characterizes as the literary product of “a north looking self-consciously to the south for its legitimacy” (p. 69). Who composed this text is impossible to pinpoint, but Hawley holds that the author belonged to “a community of north Indian Vaishnava Brahmins” that was gradually losing out to other purveyors of bhakti (in the form of the slightly earlier Bhagavata Purana, the story of Krishna, the “greatness” of which the Bhagavata Mahatmya celebrates) across north India, including those of non-Brahmanical origins. In response, the members of this community asserted their southern lineage, real or invented, so as to “shore up their authority as purveyors of the Bhagavata’s special power” (p. 73).

This kind of close reading and historiographical sleuthing distinguishes each of the chapters of Hawley’s book. It is impossible to do justice to the many other examples of Hawley’s detective work in this short review, so in what follows I simply point to the main themes. The “Brindavan” allusion in the “born in Dravida” tale serves as the pivot for a lively discussion of “Mughal bhakti” in chapter 2. As Hawley notes, the built topography of early modern Brindavan was the product of a major historical development, namely, Mughal empire building and Mughal-Rajput patronage. A point that Hawley underscores here is that the rebirth of bhakti as a lovely young woman occurs in a Brindavan that has been created, or made real, under a “yavana star” (yavana originally meant “Greek” but came, by this time, to mean “Persianate/Muslim”). The broader contours of Hindu and Islamic religious and aesthetic interactions, what Aditya Behl described as “linked families of cultural practice” (p. 91), are explored. This section, like so much else in the book, is a useful rejoinder to those modern religious nationalists who see Muslims and Hindus as essential opposites.

Chapter 3 takes up yet another commonly held notion associated with bhakti, that it is organized according to “four sampraday,” meaning the four major “Vaishnava teaching traditions that served to connect Hindu bhaktas of the Mughal and post-Mughal north with a south whose religious and cultural moorings were believed to be deeper and more secure” (p. 99). The notion of four sampraday finds its earliest expression in the quasi-hagiographical verse of Nabhadas of Galta (near modern Jaipur, though sadhus in nearby Raivasa also claim him), whose Bhaktamal (“Garland of Devotees,” circa 1600) would gain textual elaboration and expansion in the Bhaktirasabodhini by Priyadas of Brindavan in the early eighteenth century. Hawley introduces the chapter by oscillating between the historical content and historiographical contours of these texts and the scholarly reliance on and critical treatment of them by the aforementioned Dvivedi, whose own arguments (and assumptions) about the four sampraday and north-south linkages that they embodied were shaped by a special interest in the poet Kabir. The discussion soon turns to the rise of Kachvaha Rajput patronage of newly arrived “Sri Vaishnava” sadhus at Galta near Amer (“Sri Vaishnavas” look to the south Indian sage Ramanuja, but many prefer the designation “Ramanandi” as followers of the north Indian Ramanand, a sectarian-terminological morass that reflects the heated debates over the four-sampraday teaching traditions with which this chapter is concerned).

The four-sampraday ordering would be taken up by others as well, most notably Raghavdas in the late seventeenth century, a follower of the Dadupanth in eastern Rajasthan. Whereas the idea of four sampraday served merely as a point of departure of Nabhadas, it was a key “anthologiz[ing]” principle for Raghavdas, who spent considerable effort situating the plethora of sectarian devotional pathways (“panths”) according to their theological affinity for, if not descent from, the south Indian sages Madhvacharya, Vishnuswami, Ramanuja, and Nimbaditya. Other sectarian groupings attend to or, more often, complicate the four-sampraday idea, and Hawley examines these in chapter 4, which is focused mainly on Brindavan, or rather the literary evidence produced by Gauriyas from the east and Vallabhites from the west (though both have connections, again, to the south). We get more fascinating detail in this chapter about the Mughal and Rajput institutionalization of bhakti, as these two perspectives coalesce into sampraday over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and benefit from imperial and sub-imperial patronage.

In chapter 5, Hawley turns his attention to two “cities of victory,” Vijayanagar in the mid-sixteenth century and Jaipur in the early eighteenth century, or rather, to the continuing efforts by Gauriyas and Vallabhites to establish their political-religious legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of Jaisingh II (r. 1699-1743). Chronology takes a back seat here to conceptual framing, to better reveal the dynamics of imperial patronage, textual invention, and religious symbolism. Again Hawley engages in careful readings of sectarian sources, in this instance two texts that claim Brindavan as their authorship locale: one by the Gauriya Kavikarnapura, whose Gauraganoddesadipika (dated to 1576) contains a reference to the four sampraday that is introduced, according to Hawley, much later than 1576, most probably in the early eighteenth century; and the other by the Vallabhite Gadhadar Bhatt, for whose Sampradayapradip (a text that situates Vallabha in the four-sampraday framework, as the heir to Vishnuswami, and which boasts a date of 1553) Hawley proposes a much later provenance, between about 1650 and 1682 (the date of the first manuscript copy). It is in the latter text that Vijayanagar enters the picture more clearly, as a site of Vallabha’s victory in debate; Jaipur looms large, by contrast, as the source of patronage for which the sectarian heirs of Chaitanya and Vallabha are jostling.

Chapter 5 concludes with another lively tour through the forest of “Mughal bhakti.” Hawley allows himself some pleasing numerological speculation here on the “wider meanings of fourness” (p. 223). The thrust of his discussion vis-à-vis the four-sampraday idea is threefold: to point to important theological and institutional precedents set in Vijayanagar, as that imperial formation reached its apotheosis in the decades leading to 1565; to note the significance of the rise of the Mughal imperium at roughly the very same extended moment, and the ways in which “Islamic institutional and intellectual pressures exerted themselves on Brahmin theory and practice” (pp. 224-225); and to suggest that it was at the middling social level, and “initially not in the scholastic world of Brahminism,” where “the four sampraday Vaishnava synthesis appeared” (p. 225). Especially noteworthy in the context of this last point is the prominence of figures whom Hawley regards as emblematic of a “Muslim-Vaishnava ‘concordat,’” namely, the socioeconomically low-status Kabir and Dadu as well as the Mughal noble, Abdurrahim Khankhana.

The final two chapters usher us back into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, respectively. The goal in chapter 6 is to take a closer look at Dvivedi and situate him in his professional context as a teacher of Hindi literature at Shantiniketan from 1931 onward, where he was influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, of course, but more importantly by the scholar Kshitimohan Sen (whose own influence on Tagore on matters relating to bhakti and, especially, Kabir was of no small significance). Storm of Songs commences with, and draws its title from, a poem by Tagore celebrating the poet Ravidas, so the return to Shantiniketan toward the end of the volume is a kind of homecoming. Hawley focuses on the intellectual companionship of Sen and Dvivedi and the comparative understanding of bhakti’s history that emerged out of it, particularly around the question of its status as a “movement” as opposed to “movements.” Sen tended to prefer the latter, or “currents” or “streams,” when writing in Bengali, often with an eye to historical “renewal” (see esp. p. 248); for Dvivedi, the “bhakti movement” was not simply a historiographical problem, it was a faith—a “movement of bhakti” in which he was a participant, both mover and moved (p. 255). There is much else in this chapter that must be skipped over here but I cannot neglect to mention Hawley’s sensitive account of the mural paintings by Binodbihari Mukherji that adorn the central hall at Shantiniketan’s Hindi Bhavan (or Hindi Department). Few works can stand as a more fitting monument to the centrality of bhakti to Tagore’s vision, and to the importance of Dvivedi in shaping how it would be visualized.

Hawley concludes (in chapter 7) with a chapter titled “What Should the Bhakti Movement Be?” One gets the impression that what he usually means is, what is the historical significance of bhakti? I count five answers. First, bhakti should not be drawn on as a justification for Hindu nationalism and its othering of Muslims, as happened at Ayodhya in 1992; better to follow the left and perceive it as an ethic of social inclusiveness and interreligious harmony. Second, bhakti should not be understood as timeless and perennial, outside of history, bred into the putatively ancient-present bones of a forever spiritual India. Third, bhakti was an important venue for vernacularization, extending and cementing (but maybe sometimes preceding) a process that had sprouted in courtly settings. Fourth, bhakti was less movement than network, or a network of networks with multiple regional literary-linguistic nodes and layers that increasingly came to define a vibrant public sphere; as these interlocking and overlaying networks gained spatial density and temporal intensity they wove themselves into a “fabric with wonderful textures,” even a “crazy quilt” (pp. 303, 310).

Fifth, and overarching these points, Hawley makes a case for the “early modernity” of bhakti, or a bhakti that is the basis for the early modern (which is to say, proto-modern) self. This discussion “redirect[s] our focus presentward,” to wrench bhakti out of the “medieval” to which it is generally relegated in historical understandings (p. 313), to discover what it can do for us moderns here and now. Here Hawley turns to Kabir, as he “more than any other figure identified with the bhakti movement [and] has seemed to speak without mediation to modern sensibilities,” and to Purushottam Agrawal, “undoubtedly one of the most eloquent interpreters of Kabir living today” (p. 313). In the poems of figures like Kabir, “as in the West at just this time, early modern selfhood emerges with special clarity; it emerges in a tussle with God” (p. 323).

Given the temporal reorientation that opens discussion of the early modern self, the implicit questioning of received periodizations, the argument that bhakti affords a pivot toward modernity, and the comparison with developments in the West, it is not surprising that Hawley gestures to the work of the historian and theorist Reinhart Koselleck. Admittedly the gesture is a small one, barely noticeable in fact, and restricted to an endnote (pp. 322 and 378n78).[1] But it is an important gesture, as the work to which Hawley points to is the one for which Koselleck is best known, namely, that the period 1750-1850 constituted the “Sattelzeit” or “bridging time” between pre-modernity and modernity, after which Europeans (with whom Koselleck was mainly concerned) had turned their collective backs on the past and lived thenceforth in a future-oriented present, looking to the new. As Koselleck put it, “Neuezeit [modernity] is first understood as a neue Zeit [new time] from the time that expectations have distanced themselves ever more from all previous experience.”[2]

As noted above, Hawley is of the view that Europe and India were on the same religious wavelength in their march to modernity. But were they also on the same temporal wavelength? (This is, after all, what really mattered to Koselleck.) Were they becoming modern in the same way? This is a more difficult question to answer. But in feeling our way through this thicket, I would note how profoundly the world of fifteenth- to seventeenth-century bhakti defines the overlapping scholarly and emotional horizons of figures like Dvivedi, Sen, and Agrawal—and perhaps even Hawley. They all walk, as it were, in the shadow of bhakti mountain. It would not, I think, be an exaggeration to say that most Hindus walk with them. This is why both the left and the right, and above and below, in India today are so keen to chart bhakti’s terrain—and why Hawley’s magisterial route map is so important and timely.


[1]. The work cited is Reinhart Koselleck, The Practices of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Presner, Kerstin Behnke, and Jobst Welge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 154-169. The page numbers refer to the essay “The Eighteenth Century as the Beginning of Modernity.”

[2]. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 276, quoted in John Zammito, “Koselleck’s Philosophy of Historical Time(s) and the Practice of History,” History and Theory 43, no. 1 (February 2004): 126.

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Citation: William Pinch. Review of Hawley, John Stratton, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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