Accepted Paper:

Creating a community, Creating a Tradition: The Politics of Tamil Srivaisnava Hagiographies and  


Bharati Jagannathan (Miranda House, University of Delhi)

Paper short abstract:

The early medieval Tamil Srivaisnava tradition engaged in a creative project to weave in a diverse community through its hagiographies. A study of these tales of the Alvars, saints revered by the tradition, reveals deep social fractures that were sought to be papered over.

Paper long abstract:

The Srivaisnava tradition, a living religious tradition in modern Tamil nadu and parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, reveres twelve saints called Alvars who are placed between the 6th to 9th centuries CE. It has generally been believed that these were all historical figures since there are poetic compositions in Tamil attributed to all twelve of them. However, a careful study reveals that many of these compositions are not signed but are merely ascribed to some saint, whose name does not exist outside the hagiographical tradition. Indeed, the hagiographies, composed between the 11th and 14th centuries, are clearly far removed from the time of the saints, and have undoubtedly introduced many mythical elements into the 'life-stories' if not actually constructed them from imagination.

An examination of these accounts of the lives of the Alvars reveals that they served a number of crucial purposes for the emerging Srivaisnava community. Some of these concerns were communitarian, ie, relating to the issue of accommodation of devotee-members belonging to diverse castes, or drawing potential followers away from the Buddhist or Jaina faiths which were competitors for patronage in the contemporary environment. Royal patronage of the Buddhists and Jainas was clearly an important politico-social concern for the preceptors of the community. A third strand that emerges is theological. The Srivaisnava soteriological vision was communicated not only through discourses and commentaries on the hymns of the Alvar saints, but woven by the early medieval, brahmanical hagiographers into the very tales of the Alvars.

Panel P47
Of saints, converts, and heroes: hagiographies and conversion auto/biographies across religions in South Asia