Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1

by Lucianne Englert

One type of knowledge can be gained through the reading of texts. But other knowledge comes through experience, through ritual, and through following in holy footsteps.

Experiential knowledge is particularly relevant to Hindus in Vraj, India. Religiously inspired leaders methodically mapped out shrines in Vraj based largely on a sacred text, the Bhagavata Purana. People walking through the pilgrimage centers of Vraj may hear the Purana being read over loudspeakers, find portions of the text recited daily by many people, and see dramatic presentations of the text.

David Haberman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, with artwork related to the Bhagavada Purana

David Haberman, an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, focuses his research on the Vaishnava culture found in this region and on the sacred text of the Purana. "As a historian of religions, I'm not only interested in the written text that we would define as 'scripture,' but I'm also interested in how texts really become embedded in cultures in other fashions," Haberman says. "My last book, Journey through the Twelve Forests, takes the reader into a pilgrimage experience in Vraj."

According to Haberman, "In Vraj, the written text (the Bhagavata Purana) became a sacred space. In my study of the pilgrimage in that region, I focused on how shrines, temples, and sacred sites function like a sacred text or scripture. Many Hindus encounter what we recognize as 'scripture' within a cultural form such as a dramatic presentation, a sermon on the text, a musical rendition of an episode, or they may encounter 'scripture' through the pilgrimage sites. Walking around the 200-mile-plus circular pilgrimage circuit, the pilgrims are, in effect, reading the text."

Haberman seeks conceptually to expand the notion of scripture. "It's important to realize that all cultures aren't cultures of The Book. In a way, India is a culture of the book and in a way it's not." Haberman notes, "The Protestant reformation, in particular, almost reduced religion to the reading of and talking about the Bible. But that's a fairly unique form of religion in the world. Protestantism has always been fairly suspicious of ritual, so it has really downplayed what I'm calling the cultural performative side of religion in favor of 'scripture.' That's why we tend to think of religion in scriptural terms," he continues. "If you were to go to India and ask someone to tell you about their religious tradition, they probably wouldn't whip out a pocket-sized version of some scripture. My guess is that they'd take your hand and lead you to a nearby temple. That isn't to say the two aren't connected, but they're not the same either."

As for the text itself, "The Bhagavata Purana gives expression to the philosophies and mythological traditions associated with Krishna, who, for the devotee, is the Supreme God," Haberman says. "It's a self-conscious narrative that claims to offer a lesson in enlightenment in seven days. The method for enlightenment here is listening to a story, so the storytelling itself is sacred activity within the text itself. The text is a story about a story."

One hundred eight priests read the Bhagavada Purana in a temple compound in Vrindaban, India, a sacred site within Vraj. This text is the foundation of this region's culture, which celebrates the Hindu god Krishna.

Haberman says two aspects of the Purana are unusual. "The Bhagavata Purana offers an understanding of our emotional life that is rarely explored in other scriptures," he says. "This text celebrates emotions. It understands emotions to be potentially powerful in spiritual life. It's the emotional element in the text that I find interesting, and in some sense, the self-conscious exploration of the real power in human emotion."

The Purana includes many stories of the gopis, the "simple cowherd women who are the enigmatic lovers of Krishna." Haberman explains, "They tend to be young, emotional women. Many other religions would advise us to suppress, renounce, or avoid our emotions. In the Purana, these young lovers who get carried away with their love for the god Krishna are considered the main teachers. Later poetic and artistic traditions make a great deal out of the emotional life of the gopis for Krishna."

The Purana also elaborates on other emotions. "Parental love, for example, is celebrated in the text and analyzed by the later tradition. Friendship is narrated and analyzed, and poetry is produced to celebrate it. The relationship of servitude, of an inferior toward his superior, is another relationship worked out and explored in this text."

The second unusual issue in the Purana, Haberman says, is the text's reflection of the non-dualistic philosophy of Hinduism. "The text finally sees everything as God and God as everything," Haberman says. "Although there's a very important transcendent dimension to God as he or she is expressed in the Bhagavata Purana, there's also very much an immanent quality to God. This text says that the world itself is the body of God, here we find direct identification between the world of nature and God."

"The nondualistic philosophy identifies everything with divinity, a major point of contrast with western scriptural traditions. Western scripture has tended to mark a boundary between the Creator and creation, where that boundary does not exist in the Bhagavata Purana. The Purana describes the world as an emanation out of God."

In Hinduism, a multitude of gods and goddesses appear, but Haberman notes that neither monotheism nor polytheism is an accurate description of the religion. "Hinduism is a tradition that recognizes God to be one, but that one God can be perceived in many forms, called by different names, and gendered differently."
Speaking of the relationship of nature with God, Haberman continues, "Although there are different forms of God, the Purana said that, of the immanent form of God, the oceans are his abdomen, the mountains are his bones, the rivers are his veins and arteries, and the trees are the hairs on his body." Haberman is beginning a new piece of research related to this issue. "I'm looking at a theological perspective in which the world of nature itself is divine. What happens to such a tradition in a world where nature is becoming increasingly polluted?" Haberman asks. He hopes to travel to India again next year to pursue this project.

"The Yamuna River runs through the city of Delhi, widely considered the second most polluted city on the planet, and that river is celebrated in the Bhagavata Purana." Haberman wants to know what happens to the religious perspective of the Bhagavata Purana in the face of this pollution. "How do these religious ideologies and even theologies influence our relationship with nature, particularly at this time in history when we rightfully fear that we might be moving ourselves out of existence by our current consumption habits?"

A holy actor playing the part of Krishna in a Rasa Lila performance in Vraj, India. These dramatic enactments from the Bhagavata Purana are performed on the very site where the event is believed to have taken place.

The Bhagavata Purana is one of dozens, "maybe even hundreds" of sacred texts in India that could be considered scripture. "The whole term 'scripture' is a western concept," Haberman says. "That is, it's easy to identify what the Christian scriptures are. They're the biblical literature. That's not so clear in Hinduism because Hindus don't recognize a single set of texts that they would call 'scripture.' Many different kinds of Hindus would identify different texts as the most important authoritative texts for them."

"I've been interested in what texts get privileged in western constructions of Hinduism and what texts get left out of such discussions. The early Orientalists who studied Indian culture had their own agenda that made them select certain texts as representative," Haberman notes. Historians from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries believed that what was oldest and most original in a culture was the most important, Haberman says. "Therefore they were very concerned with the Vedas, the earliest of Hindu scriptures, and probably the earliest religious texts we have from anywhere. They go back 3,000 to 3,500 years. These very old texts were used by British Orientalists to represent what they thought was a 'pure form' of Hinduism," he says.

But Haberman also notes a hidden agenda. "It was also part of the colonial agenda to undermine contemporary culture within India. Their move to 'privilege' or put great emphasis on the Vedic texts was simultaneously a move to discredit other texts and forms of authority that were important to the contemporary culture in India. They marked many texts as corrupt, impure, or somehow problematic. British Orientalists widely held up the Bhagavata Purana as the grossest culprit. Yet when I look at the lived culture in India from the medieval to the modern period, it's hard to find a text that has a wider appeal."

Haberman's selection of the Bhagavata Purana as his research focus reflects that wide appeal. "I'm kind of an ambiguous creature," Haberman says. "I'm both an ethnographer, meaning that I go to India and I work with the living communities there, and I'm also trained as a Sanskritist, a translator of Sanskrit texts." Haberman's first venture into India occurred with the support of a Fulbright dissertation grant while he was at the University of Chicago. "I was reading a particular text to understand a religious technique, that of dramatic visualization meditation." When the project took him to Vraj, "I became fascinated with the local culture, the pilgrimage centers, the temples, and what's going on in the performative traditions of this area. It became clear to me both from my textual and ethnographic work that the real foundational text for this tradition was the Bhagavata Purana."

Haberman has been teaching the Purana at IU for three years. "It's a new experience for me to teach the text simply as a text." Because his research extends the written text into the culture, Haberman strives to overcome the limitations of using the text as the basis of the class. "I always say that I wish I could turn the classroom into a 747 and take the students to India," Haberman says. "But since I can't, I use a lot of visual materials, like slides, so that my course isn't just reading the scripture. I try to 'take them' to a Hindu temple and encourage them to understand that what they're reading has strong connections to what they'd see if they went to India."

Haberman relates a story about Max Müller, "the so-called 'Father of the History of Religions.' I'm not sure this is exactly true, but it makes a valuable point. It's said that Müller forbade his students from going to India because 'the Real India' existed in texts. During his day, Max Müller was the most authoritative Indologist in Europe and he never ever went to India. I think that shows the problem," Haberman says.

"I tell students how humble we have to be about what we really know about another culture, studying it through texts from a great distance," he says. "It's an important way of knowing, it's a valid way of knowing, but in the end, it's a very limited way of knowing." dingbat

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