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A Palimpsest of Performance: The Construction of Classicism in the Vallabha Tradition

Priya Kothari

University of California, Berkeley

The western notion of a classical tradition has exclusively centered around ancient Greece and Rome, but this paper suggests a broader construction of the classical.  Focusing on the reception of a seminal pre-modern Sanskrit text through the lens of a specific Hindu community–-the Vallabha Sampradaya or Pushtimarga—this paper seeks to broaden our notions of both the classical and Asian America.  Over fourteen months of fieldwork, I lived among gurus and devotees in India and the United States studying the living, breathing sermon tradition of the Bhagavata Purana, or “Stories of the Lord.”  These elaborate ritual events, which supplement local, vernacular exposition of scripture with song, dance and reenactments in celebration of the life and poetic memory of Lord Krishna, have become a popular form of engagement with Sanskrit literature and one of the most pervasive mediums for mass religious education in modern India.

Preachers in the Vallabha Sampradaya acquire their spiritual authority by the grace of Krishna and through the direct bloodline of the community’s founder, 15th century philosopher-theologian Vallabhacharya.  As the consecrated book of the Bhagavata Purana is believed to be the real, bodily manifestation of Krishna, the divine speech of Krishna flows through charismatic preachers with the ability to faithfully narrate the Lord’s form, divine qualities, and teachings.  Gujarati-language sermons reveal the means to interpret the Bhagavata—the repertoires of visual gestures, narrative rhythm, arguments, analyses, exegesis, and intertextual linkages—demonstrating how generations of commentary on the text are creatively shaped, transformed or discarded in the sermonizing process.

In an effort to make meaning of the Sanskrit text for contemporary audiences, gurus transport these audiences to the “golden age” of Indian civilization.  This image has its roots in the British construction of a relationship between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, which placed their empire at the center of an Anglo-Indo-Hellenic fantasy imagining Graeco-Roman antiquity and an Indian past running parallel.  Colonialists heavily relied on Indian Sanskrit scholars as intermediaries to write India’s past, in which they erroneously but inextricably tied Sanskrit exclusively to India and to Hinduism.  Early colonial and nationalist agendas conveniently superimposed the European pattern of periodization onto India, which imagined a glorious classical Hindu period, medieval Muslim period of decline, and modern renaissance ushered in by the British—a powerful image that continues to shape academic scholarship and the lived realities of Indians and South Asians in the diaspora.  This paper takes the experience of my fieldwork with gurus in the Vallabha tradition as a privileged window into the historical construction of an Indian classicism modelled on western conceptions of ancient Greece and Rome.

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Classical Reception in Contemporary Asian and Asian American Culture

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