Hindu Pluralism: Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India
My book manuscript, Hindu Pluralism: Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India, aims to excavate, for the first time, the historical emergence of Hindu sectarianism in the centuries prior to British intervention, a crucial era that set the tenor for the role of religion in public life in India through the present day. To be a Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava in early modern India, to be a Mādhva, Smārta, Gauḍīya, or a member of any other sectarian lineage constituted the core of one’s religious identity with a nuance that inclusivist categories such as āstika (orthodox) or vaidika (Vedic) failed to capture.
I adopt as my case study the Smārta-Śaiva community of south India. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Smārta-Śaiva community became one of three sectarian traditions to palpably dominate the south Indian religious landscape, segmenting both theological discourse and religious institutions into functionally distinct, parallel domains. Smārta-Śaivism attained this new social prominence, I argue, through a strategic alliance between the region’s most innovative intellectual voices and the emergent monastic institutions of the Śaṅkarācārya lineage of ascetic preceptors, who provided Smārta-Śaiva scholars with a social and economic network to propagate their theological vision.
In turn, Smārta-Śaiva intellectuals adopted vows of personal devotion towards Śaṅkarācārya preceptors, who rank even today among the most iconic religious figures in all of South Asia. Through this emergent network of circulation, Smārta-Śaiva theologians engaged in polemical encounters with rival sectarian lineages, particularly the Mādhva and Śrī Vaiṣṇava traditions, securing a principal share in the socio-cultural capital circulated through trans-regional temple complexes and the royal courts of the Vijayanagar break-away states. As a result of this strategic alliance, Smārta-Śaiva theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth century have left an indelible impression on the structure of interreligious interactions in public space across south India.
The work aims in particular to rethink the nature of publicity and the “public sphere” in early modern India. Contrary to Western models of publicity, the public in early modern India did not consist of a common dialogical space free from sectarian interests; rather, the Indian public was, more accurately, publics in the plural: spatially overlapping but institutionally distinct networks in which each community generated its own internal conversations.