Theses Doctoral

A New Public Theology: Sanskrit and Society in Seventeenth-century South India

Fisher, Elaine Marie

This dissertation documents the earliest stages in the emergence of the Smarta Saiva sectarian community of south India as captured by the theological writings of prominent Saiva theologians. I examine the sectarianization of Hinduism in microcosm by telling the story of a particular Hindu sect in the process of coming into being. The Smarta Saiva tradition of south India ranks among a handful of independent Hindu lineages that palpably dominates the public religious life of south India today. As a sectarian religious system, Smarta-Saivism comprises the institution of the Sankaracarya Jagadgurus and the extensive lay populace that has cultivated a relationship of personal devotion with these iconic figures. Historically speaking, however, the Smarta-Saiva tradition equally comprises the trailblazing theologians who first articulated the boundaries of the community, demarcating its distinct sectarian identity in contradistinction to its various Vaisnava and non-Smarta Saiva rivals. As it was these theologians whose pioneering inquiries crafted the systems of meaning that first gave birth to Smarta-Saivism as such, it is in their writings--their doctrine, polemic, ritual procedures, and devotional poetry--that this dissertation grounds its inquiry. My analysis centers on the textual contributions of Nilakantha Diksita--minister, poet laureate, and public theologian of Nayaka-period Madurai, and those connected with him by virtue of kinship, collegiality, or direct antagonism. Nilakantha and his immediate family and dialogical partners form the core of what I refer to as the "Smarta religious system" of the seventeenth century, culturally a direct antecedent of what we know today as south Indian Smarta-Saivism. My analysis takes the form of three parallel case studies, each of which illuminates a dynamic of intersection between intellectual discourse and religious culture that proved foundational to the religious landscape of south India up to the present day. Taken as a whole, these case studies illustrate the micro-dynamics of public theology, articulating key moments of the consolidation of south Indian Smarta identity and religiosity.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Pollock, Sheldon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013