Karma in the Public Sphere: Habermas in Ancient India

William E. B. Sherman on Christian Novetzke’s The Quotidian Revolution

Christian Novetzke, The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India, Columbia University Press, 2016, 432pp., $65.00

Let the knowledge of Brahman abound in the city of Marathi.

During the thirteenth century in the western region of India now known as Maharashtra, religious communities began to write in the regional language of Marathi. The flowing river of classical Sanskrit had been breached, and the waters of knowledge and salvation could course through the vernacular. The turn to written Marathi represented more than just a translation of language—it spurred the emergence of new ethical possibilities, new forms of gathering and belonging as a public community, and new ways of sonically relating to the salvation that abided in Krishna’s speech to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā. This process of “vernacularization”—and the social transformations that the move from Sanskrit to Marathi both reflects and generates—is the subject of Christian Lee Novetzke’s compelling new work: The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India

Novetzke capably and warmly introduces us to the revolutionary story of Marathi’s emergence by focusing on two critical religious actors of the thirteenth century and the texts that followed in their wake. One is Chakradhar, who came to the domain of the Yadava dynasty (850–1334 CE), taught in Marathi, and called upon the followers of the Brahmanical sect he founded known as “Mahanubhav” to renounce their rigid devotion to caste and gender distinctions. The stories of his encounters, lessons, and dialogues form the core of the Līḷācaritra, evidently compiled by the Mahanubhav followers of Chakradhar around 1278 CE. This text adopts Marathi as a way of preserving Chakradhar’s attention and concern for meeting people in their own language, acknowledging rather than rejecting the value of everyday life. Jnandev is the second religious figure Novetzke conjures to tell of the socially radical and linguistically innovative emergence of Marathi. A scholar of Sanskrit, Jnandev produced a Marathi translation and commentary of the Bhagavad Gītā that is called the Jñāneśvarī (circa 1290 CE). Jnandev evinces a self-conscious delight in the ethical and liberating possibilities of Marathi for an audience of “women, low castes, and others.” As Jnandev sings:

Therefore, now anyone at all may bathe in these sacred waters as if they were at Prayag viewing Krishna’s form as the Universal Lord.

Though it is tempting to consider Jnandev and Chakradhar as the protagonists in this tale of vernacularization, Novetzke is quick to emphasize that something larger is happening. These two saints are but icons of a process in which the “everyday” became—and continues to become—the central concern for political and religious culture in premodern India. The use of Marathi in literature certainly incites and expands the concern for quotidian life, but the profound social, ethical, political, and religious transformations of thirteenth-century Maharashtra cannot be confined to a question of literature.

Even as Novetzke’s work represents a vital contribution to a social history of South Asia, a wider readership will find themselves challenged and excited by his arguments as he guides us through the charming worlds of the Līḷācaritra and the Jñāneśvarī. The concerns of Novetzke’s book do not merely orbit these particular texts or these particular religious communities; Novetzke seeks to describe the ethical gravity of language itself and the horizons of social possibility found in vernacular literature. While I occasionally bristle at the theoretical language he uses to scaffold his study, his questions are nevertheless critical. Why do we speak and write the way we do? Who is included and excluded by our habits of literature and language? What is language capable of doing?

Through his careful reading of the rhythms, critiques, jokes, and puzzles of the Līḷācaritra and the Jñāneśvarī, Novetzke shows us religious communities interested in extending the possibilities of liberation and salvation (moksha) to all—regardless of caste and gender. A capacious vision of blessing and salvation emerges from the very existence of written Marathi. This is a critical point. According to Novetzke’s interpretation, the Līḷācaritra and the Jñāneśvarī do not use Marathi as a mere vehicle to make ethical critiques—though they indeed do that. Rather, the use of Marathi is the ethical critique. In the religious and political imaginations of the Yadava kingdom, written Sanskrit was the grounds for religious authority and salvation. Given that common Sanskrit linguistic theories gendered Marathi as a feminine language and categorized it as popular, the turn to Marathi is a foundational reconsideration of who and how one may hear their way to salvation. Jnandev suggests that a listener of his Marathi text need not be on a chariot in an epic battle to hear Krishna’s voice—the “sonic equality” of the Jñāneśvarī promises a more intimate, familiar setting for listening to a divine voice:

And may those who live according to this text in this extraordinary world

Have the same victorious dialogue [with God] that Arjuna had.

Language is not just a means for ethical transformation—it is the very stuff that constitutes a public. Here Novtezke adopts Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the “bourgeois public sphere” as his theoretical inspiration. Habermas’s “public” is a space of encounter where people may recognize and discuss their shared lots in life, their anxieties, and the solutions arrived by thinking as a people meeting in public. The use of Marathi in premodern India coincides with a “nascent” public sphere—an “open social audience that attends to but does not necessarily participate in a capacious and circulating discourse.” The public, in other words, is a place of shared attention.

Novetzke insists that he is not trying to plot thirteenth-century Maharashtra on a teleological path to modern liberal democracy—though I’ll confess that I often felt he was doing just that as he uses the term “public” alongside his descriptions of Chakradhar and Jnandev as “entrepreneurs,” “innovators,” and “venture spiritualists” who “invested” symbolic capital. I question, as an example, the value of casting the belief in the Bhagavad Gītā’s salvational power as a matter of distributing “literary symbolic capital.” What do we gain through such a description? As the language of symbolic capital suggests, the work of Pierre Bourdieu serves as Novetzke’s other theoretical lodestar alongside Habermas on the public sphere. But absent in Novetzke’s work is the abiding pessimism of Bourdieu’s theory—the idea that symbolic capital tends to merely reinforce hierarchies that favor the rich and powerful. When recalibrated to the optimism of Habermas’s work on the public, Novetzke’s economic metaphors and sociological theory seem to avoid Bourdieu’s critiques and accept the transformation value of capitalist habits of mind. “Investment” implies not just worth or commitment but an increase on returns, on rational reinvestment, and so on. I would have liked Novetzke to entertain the possibility that there is some quality of the Jñāneśvarī or Chakradhar’s teachings that elude or even rupture our ability to describe them with modern social theory.

But it is a strength of Novetzke’s work that he is willing to risk his readers’ frustration and their protestations of “Teleology!” and “Anachronism!” in order to perforate the lines that we quickly draw between the histories of “the West” and India, between modernity and premodernity, between the enduring caste hierarchies of that society and the history of public spaces of this one. There has been a long and noxious history of describing premodern India as a mystical and irrational place; by identifying a burgeoning public sphere around the emergence of written Marathi, Novetzke’s work forcefully rejects such an Orientalist account and proposes a striking—if problematic—alternative.

Critically, the public that takes shape around a Marathi language calibrated to everyday life is not simply a political public. The Līḷācaritra and the Jñāneśvarī do not articulate a nascent “nationalist” public or even a political region we might easily equate to contemporary Maharashtra. Rather, this is a public emerging from ethical and religious projects. Students and scholars of South Asia will see in Novetzke’s work a powerful extension and challenge to aspects of Sheldon Pollock’s work on “the vernacular turn” in South Asia. Pollock’s foundational work rejected the assumed one-to-one relationship between bhakti devotional movements and vernacular languages, and Pollock instead emphasized the role of royal courts in the promotion and development of vernacular languages. It was at the behest and desire of princes, kings, and queens and other courtly figures that scribes began to write in Kannada, Gujarati, Assamese, and other languages. Novetzke’s work—both in this book and his previous one—reclaims in a more rigorous and convincing fashion the importance of bhakti in larger social transformations. The Yadava court in Maharashtra demonstrated only a “benign ambivalence” toward Marathi. In this case, therefore, vernacularization was not a project of the royal court—it was an aspect of burgeoning public culture of bhakti, shaped by elite religious actors whose attention had turned away from the maintenance of social distinction and towards its transcendence in the possibilities of everyday life.

In short, Novetzke’s public attests to a space more expansive than the court, the temple, the monastery, or even the market. It is a crossroads at which men and women of all backgrounds gather and contemplate their collective belonging. Marathi literature both generates and emerges from this idea of a collective public space—from the idea that we all have a stake in this.

Ironically, Novetzke’s own rhetoric attests to the fact that the emergence of Marathi literature is something in which a wide range of people have a stake. Novetzke notes that he intends no offense with his analyses, he repeatedly demurs on the veracity of a controversial account of Chakradhar’s trial and disfigurement, and he grants Jnandev the benefit of the doubt when discussing the markers of discrimination that persist in his colloquial Marathi. It is hard not to see these expressions of Novetzke’s good intentions in the shadow of the public response to other academic works on religion and history in India—the backlashes to works such as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus and Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb. But Novetzke’s sensitivity to these issues merely proves his point: there is a power that dwells in the history of the public sphere and in the appeals that are made in just such a public to the sanctity of everyday life.

The Quotidian Revolution is an impressive account of the remarkable potential of vernacular literature to levy social critiques, open ethical possibilities, and create a space for new types of public belonging.

William E. B. Sherman is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte. His work explores premodern Sufi and messianic movements in South Asia as well as imaginations of language, revelation, and vernacular in Muslim societies.

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