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Sachi K. Patel, Politics and Religion in Eighteenth-Century India. Jaisingh II and the Rise of Public Theology in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism

Abingdon/New York, Routledge, coll. « Routledge Hindu Studies Series », 2022, 220 p.
Monika Horstmann
p. 244-246
Référence(s) :

Sachi K. Patel, Politics and Religion in Eighteenth-Century India. Jaisingh II and the Rise of Public Theology in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, Abingdon/New York, Routledge, coll. « Routledge Hindu Studies Series », 2022, 220 p.

Texte intégral

1By the 16th century, bhakti had become a dominant religious stance in North India. On the part of the bhakti sects, this led to a revision of the established Hindu dharma. According to this, the performance of ritual, karma, or righteous deeds in general, was mandatory. If bhakti was freely accorded grace beyond human agency, however, what would be the use of ritual or righteous deeds? Around this revolved a debate among Vaishnava, especially Krishnaïte, theologians whose center was the region of Braj. Their sects received royal patronage, regional kings made their icons state deities, and this generated a web of the sectarian and the political spheres. This was also the case in the Kachvāhā kingdom of Amber/Jaipur (in the following: Jaipur) where in the 18th century religious leaders of bhakti sects from Braj had migrated with their icons. There, the brahmanic councellors of king Jaisingh II designed for him the concept of Hindu rule, based on Vaishnava dharma that would harmonize karma and bhakti to contain the views of the specialists of karma and of the bhakti sects, and also non-Vaishnavas. A leading role in this was played by the Gauḍīya sect, for which Jaipur had become a stronghold by the promotion of the sect’s prime idol to the status of a state deity.

2From the beginning of their sect in the 16th century, Gauḍīya scholars had pondered the conundrum of karma vs. bhakti, and so had the sect of Vallabha, well-represented at the Jaipur court. The Gauḍīyas were divided over the problem into an orthodox faction pleading for mandatory ritual and a faction proclaiming its uselessness for bhakti. The scholars basically agreed that the suspension of karma would put the order of the world at risk. For this, however, they came up with radically different remedies. Pro-ritual scholars were drawn to Jaipur. While lobbying in the interest of their own faction, they made ideal supporters of the Kachvāhā cause. Their take on the matter of karma as supportive of dharma and therefore upholding the world fit well in the spectrum of views of the dominant court scholars, notably of the rival Vallabha sect.

3The present study addresses this situation which, according to its author, marks a sudden turn in Gauḍīya theology towards “social engagement” (p. 5) and “public theology” (thus in the book’s subtitle). He makes out a new paradigm of “responsible public conduct”, captured in the principle of lokasaṃgraha, a key-term occurring in an often-quoted passage from the Bhagavadgītā (3.20) and meaning “holding the world together”, which the author rather tends to interpret as “benefiting the people of the world” or “education of the world”. He examines the positions in this matter of the scholars directly or indirectly implicated in the debate. In Jaipur, these were Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya and Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, and in Braj, Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya’s teacher Viśvanātha Cakravartī, who had died by the time Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya was active in Jaipur, but whose writings are invoked as a testimony by his disciple. Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya had been recruited by Jaisingh to arbiter the case under review and thereby to contribute to the forging of norms for a ritually correct “good conduct” that would conform with both Vedic and bhakti principles. For this purpose, Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya authored a number of treatises. Patel’s study engages with the only published one of these, Karmavivṛti, the treatise on karma.

4Chapter 1 represents an analysis of the history of the Kachvāhās and their relationship with the Mughal court. Chapter 2 reviews scholarship on the inner-sectarian conflicts of the Gauḍīyas and the relevance of these for their interaction with the court of Jaisingh. However, greater concision, on the one hand, and more careful verification of catalogue information and the contextualization of the views laid out in the relevant treatises listed, on the other, would have been helpful. Patel ignores non-English scholarship on the topic but subjects to discussion the edition of Kṛṣṇadeva’s Karmavivṛti.

5Chapter 3 is dedicated to that treatise which pleas for the mandatory regular ritual regardless of the practitioner’s degree of perfection in bhakti. Patel was able to identify in this some passages as quotations from Kṛṣṇadeva’s own teacher Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s commentary on the Bhāgavatapurāṇa which are refuted by Kṛṣṇadeva in an attempt to remove possible exegetical uncertainty. Patel’s analysis does justice to the complexity of Kṛṣṇadeva’s commentary which seeks to remove all obstacles against mandatory ritual. However, background information on the views of Viśvanātha would have been appreciated.

6In Chapter 4 Patel presents the Karmādhikāranirṇaya, an anonymous treatise preserved in manuscript form in the library of the City Palace of Jaipur (the siglum is hidden in n. 4). Information on its incipit (p. 163, n. 5), its end (quoted in n. 89?) and length (14 folios according to n. 89?) is scattered in notes. From the long quotations from the text it is clear that it is overwhelmingly verbatim identical with Kṛṣṇadeva’s Karmavivṛti, which covers 37 folios. Thereby it seems to be a summary of the Karmavivṛti. But did it also differ from the longer treatise, and if, in which respect? For ascertaining this, a concordance would have been indispensable. In its absence, the reader has to work through several pages of text quotations identical with passages of the Karmavivṛti. It is therefore absurd to say that “[t]he Karmādhikāra-nirṇaya and even the Karma-vivṛti…largely draw on Jīva’s Bhakti-sandarbha” (p. 153).

7Chapter 5, finally, probes the relationship of karma and bhakti as discussed in the Bhagavadgītā (BhG) commentaries by Viśvanātha Cakravartī and Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, respectively. For Viśvanātha, Patel takes as the point of departure his own observation that in that commentary Viśvanātha “appears to promote his accommodation of the practice of karma far more [than in his commentary on the Bhāgavatapurāṇa]” (p. 183). He wonders whether this is due to the character of the Bhagavadgītā or perhaps also due to “evolving trajectories and concerns” or “an alternate audience” (Ibid.). Beyond this general assumption, the relevant passage in the BhG and Viśvanātha’s commentary thereon illustrates why the passage could be regarded as seminal for forging the image of good governance and the wise ruler embodying this. Crucial is BhG 3.20 where karma is called a means to hold the world together (lokasaṃgraha), the issue around which Patel’s interest revolves and which he regards as a paradigm of Gauḍīya theology in the period under review. BhG 3 is devoted to karma, deeds of any kind, including ritual.

8In agreement with Śrīdhara and Madhusūdana Sarasvatī, commentators momentous for Gauḍīya thought, Viśvanātha underscores karma as absolutely necessary for purifying the mind. Deed is the prerequisite of knowledge (jñāna) (comm. on BhG 3.2 foll.), in the sense of wisdom by which the supreme truth is realized. Therefore, Viśvanātha says (comm. on BhG 3.9), basing this statement on a passage in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, that conducting the prescribed karma without desiring its results leads to purified knowledge. He says that the purpose of karma is the maintenance of the order of the world (on BhG up to 3.14). Like sacrifice, this is ordained by the Veda, and the best type of person is he who conducts sacrifice (vide Śrīdhara on BhP 3.10). Thereby, the Vedic sacrifice is identified with karma, which thereby cannot be skipped at will. Inactivity is forbidden. The right way of acting is “good conduct” (sadācāra), introduced first in the commentary of Śrīdhara on BhG 3.20 and adopted by Viśvanātha. The behaviour of those who possess knowledge and perform karma according to their own dharma forms an example of instruction for the ignorant. Viśvanātha is here exclusively concerned with the disinterested performance of karma by a person still belonging to the world, that is, the exemplary householder or the king. The self-revelatory power of bhakti is of another superior quality. Karma and knowledge are ancillary to this. That passage in BhG and the commentaries thereon could be well applied to the role of Jaisingh, but is actually hard to find evidence for Viśvanātha’s argument being prompted by the debate conducted at the Kachvāhā court.

9To recapitulate the time line: in the beginning of the Gauḍīya sect in the first half of the 16th century, Rūpa Gosvāmī, one of its founding fathers, had discussed the relationship between karma (vaidhī bhakti) and progressively advanced stages of bhakti, followed suit by the Gauḍīya scholars up to the 18th century. In Braj, this debate flared up into a conflict between Viśvanātha and Rūpa Kavirāja in the period between the 1690s and the middle of the teens of the seventeenth century, and perpetuated by the scholars debating at Jaisingh’s court since the adoption in 1713 of the deity Govinddev as a royal deity, whose custodian was a staunch detractor of Rūpa Kavirāja. The debate received political momentum in the ideological climate of the 18th century. Kṛṣṇadeva defended the principles of the pro-karma Gauḍīya faction and thereby served Jaisingh’s purposes, but his target group was, beyond this, the Gauḍīyas, whether supporters or dissenters, whether based in Braj or in Bengal.

10As for Baladeva, he introduces in his commentary on the BhG the obligation to perform, and the dispensation from, karma, respectively, for three types of bhakti practitioners. Upon one type of these falls the duty to perform karma for the sake of holding the world together, regardless of their advanced maturity in bhakti by which they are actually exempt from ordinary ritual. Patel discusses the taxonomy of those practitioners in detail. He concludes his discussion saying, “Baladeva’s promotion of lokasaṃgraha reveals emphatically the vital importance of public responsibility for the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sect member in this era” (p. 195). This reviewer rather sees Baladeva exploring the BhG text faithfully to its words and spirit though grafting on this the threefold typology of the bhakta. This reminds one of similar typological constructs on the side of the Vallabha sect that entered the deliberations at Jaisingh’s court. This suggests the general usefulness of a widening of the perspective to the intersectarian dialogue. However, the study suffers from the absence of a comprehensive bibliography and the careless transcription of Indian terms.

11As for the main argument of the study, Patel sees a new form of engagement with the world at large emerging among Gauḍīya scholars in the 18th century and fanned by the political breeze blowing from the Kachvāhā court. This engagement he finds condensed in the term lokasaṃgraha, “holding the world together”, of BhG 3.20. Patel circumscribes this by expressions like “responsible conduct in the public sphere”, “public concern”, “social responsibility”, “giving education”, “consciously developed public theology”, or “public debate”.

12This echoes the concept of the public sphere according to Habermas. The debates in Jaipur were not public, however, but rather prepared by an exchange of written statements solicited from the parties and arbitrated, in part at least, in gatherings monitored by authorities acting in the name of the king. A public sphere is quite different from the secluded spheres of those scholars, notwithstanding the lobbying happening in temples or other informal ways of exchange with the king or his middlemen. The public sphere in the modern sense is also not identical with the representative public convoked in those days at court and defined by their status group, such as that of merchants or religious dignitaries, and counterbalancing the potentially subversive group of the king’s clansmen. If one strips the central term lokasaṃgraha of its ill-fitting twentieth-century guise, there remains at the very least the following, which is not inconspicuous at all, but strengthens Patel’s case: In BhG 3.20 foll., the duty to hold the world together is incumbent on those who have attained wisdom by abiding by the karma enjoined for them. They do not act for any gratification of their own but to give an example to the ignorant detractors of the order of the world. This stance is epitomized by king Janaka of Videha, thereby the model king. Another of the founding fathers of the Gauḍīya sect, Jīva Gosvāmī confirmed that duty as incumbent on all initiated Hindus by expressly engaging in his Bhakti-saṃdarbha with that long passage which Kṛṣṇadeva incorporates in his treatise on karma. Viśvanātha, too, pleaded for the execution of karma to prevent the breakdown of the worldly order (for example, in Rāgavartmacandrikā). The BhG description of the wise man of good conduct is epitomized by Jaisingh, the wise kṣatriya. His deeds are thereby scripturally confirmed. This was crucial at a time when it was debated at Jaisingh’s court and expertise solicited if true kṣatriyas qualified to conduct royal sacrifices had not died out.

13While naturally geared to the task assigned to them, Gauḍīya scholars contributed to the debate by drawing on prior sectarian tenets. This marked hardly a turn for a new public sphere. This reviewer agrees with the author as to the significance of the notion of lokasaṃgraha in the given circumstances, but she finds this insufficiently explained in sociological terms and not critically examined for their applicability to the topic.

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Monika Horstmann, « Sachi K. Patel, Politics and Religion in Eighteenth-Century India. Jaisingh II and the Rise of Public Theology in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 204 | 2023, 244-246.

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Monika Horstmann, « Sachi K. Patel, Politics and Religion in Eighteenth-Century India. Jaisingh II and the Rise of Public Theology in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 204 | 2023, mis en ligne le 02 février 2024, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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