Ancient text, new lives

A lucid work that deals with an immensely complex subject such as the contemporary oral performance of the 1,200-year-old Bhagavatapurana.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

SEVEN Days of Nectar is beautiful and beguiling. It is written with such simplicity and clarity, as to make for a lucidity admirable in any work of scholarship. Yet, it deals with a subject that is immensely complex—the contemporary oral performance of the Bhagavatapurana, a 1,200-year-old Vaishnava, specifically Krishnite, Sanskrit text of cosmology, mythology and much more, which has enjoyed great prestige and popularity down the centuries.

The book deals less with the actual contents of the Purana and more with the strategies, context and consequences of its contemporary, oral, week-long narrations called the Bhagavata saptaha , both in India and abroad. The author, McComas Taylor, thus takes on simultaneously the oral and the textual, the ancient and the contemporary, the sacred and its worldly interface, the vernacular and the global. Himself a Sanskritist, he bravely ventures to roam beyond the text. Drawing on speech act and reader response theories from the field of culture studies, which are as modern an arena and technique of enquiry as can be, he poses what are crucial anthropological questions to the Sanskrit genre of Purana and then subjects it to techniques that are also ethnographic.

This can be said to constitute the most prominent novelty of Seven Days of Nectar out of the several that are there. For, as Milton Singer, the dedicated anthropologist of Indian civilisation, noted: “The literary scholar who is willing and able to incorporate interviews and observations of the living religion into his work is as rare as the anthropologist who employs textual studies” ( When a Great Tradition Modernizes , 1972). Taylor sets out to be that composite scholar, defying what Nicolas Sihle, the more recent anthropologist he quotes, calls: “some inherent lack of fit between religious texts as objects of study and (at least traditional) understandings of anthropological practices and concerns” (page 13).

While what Sihle says may be true, a genre such as the Puranas actually cries out for an analysis that opens them up to the dynamism involved when texts are fundamentally oral rather than read unilineal ideological statements into them. The Puranas, much like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were almost certainly orally composed—in fact compilations of floating oral narratives, for the most; and were orally transmitted and orally performed. Along the way, they were also entextualised and gained manuscript form. But, as Taylor avers: “Sanskrit [narrative] texts were not written to be read like novels…. [They] do not usually function as books in the sense that we understand. They are sources of narratives, fonts of stories, which are selected and related orally to an audience…. [They] require oral exposition to bring them to life” (page 20).

Centrality of audiences

While such a position would need to be tested and possibly reworked for the many different Sanskrit genres individually, what would hold true in every case is the presence and role of readers or listeners. In the opinion of this reviewer, the book’s determined emphasis on the centrality of audiences to the materialisation of the meanings of a text is of singular significance. It happens to also correspond with her own recent work ( Cultural History of Early South Asia , 2014), that zeroed in on the admittedly challenging task of identifying the elusive audiences that partook of a variety of cultural forms in early South Asia—sculpture, poetry, drama, painting and architecture. Providing a necessary completive to the social history of culture, identifying the “consumers” in addition to the “producers” helps reconstruct the range of meanings and imports that these diverse viewers would have brought to the cultural product, as well as drawn from it towards constituting their own beliefs and identities.

Taylor, however, does not accept the challenge of reconstituting the ancient audiences of the Bhagavatapurana (page 20), doable though it probably is from references and hints within the text and analogies with other sources. He prefers to adopt the classic ethnographic approach and belief, that is, to work from the present to the past, assuming the pre-modern performance and reception of the Bhagavata would have followed the pattern of current practices. It can be seen how this is a risky proposition. Fortunately, however, the author does not dwell on this retrospective agenda. It is firmly the contemporary oral performance and reception of the Bhagavata saptaha that is the object of the book.

Oral expositions

Whether it is the past or the present, however, orality is a phenomenon that cannot be taken lightly. This book mentions, albeit in passing, that orality operated in the context of a “preliterate society” (preface, xi). This would not be true of early South Asia; which is why A.K. Ramanujan, that scholar extraordinaire of pre-modern South Asian literatures, carefully chose to designate Indian oral literature as “non-literate” instead of implying the absence of literacy (illiterate) or the chronological precedence of orality to textuality (pre-literate). In other words, orality was, and is, a cultural choice, not a compulsion or accident. Further, Ramanujan pointed out that the oral and the textual in early India formed a continuum; narratives constantly shifted back and forth between the two in different stages of their histories. When this insight is juxtaposed on the Puranic corpus, the work of another literary historian, V. Narayan Rao, comes to mind. He described Puranas as highly literate oral texts. Indeed, the Vedas and the Upanishads themselves are an outstanding example of learned orality.

Interestingly, Taylor’s own analysis is a splendid illustration of the fluidity of literary processes. Bringing out the original orality of the Puranas, he observes: “According to the Bhagavatapurana, the gods first narrated the text to the sage Narada.… He retold it to the sage Vyasa, who told it to his own son Suka. Suka narrated it to the king Parikshit, and so on. As such, the texts as we encounter them are written accounts of (legendary) oral performances” (page 3).

As if extending this continuous process of moving from the oral to the textual and back, the Bhagavata saptaha s of today that Taylor documents are essentially oral expositions in the vernacular on the life of Krishna, but regularly punctuated by the exponent (the puranavacaka ) returning to the “text” for a verbatim recitation of original Sanskrit verses. This is possibly the key to understanding how Bhagavata performances function as affective and transformative events. Taylor reports that this intermittent invocation of Sanskrit verses was a powerful narrative tool that moved and won over all listeners.

Interestingly, this included, for the most, people who did not follow Sanskrit! So it is argued that the power of the discourse went beyond its semantics; it inhered in the power and aura of Sanskrit itself. However, such aura can be expected to work its charm best on those who believe in it or are exposed to it. This would be Hindus or Indians generally.

Taylor says: “To be a Hindu is to have internalised these Puranic narratives” (page 3). Therefore, it does not entirely explain the way the performance is recorded as moving and drawing in people completely unfamiliar with the Indic cultural universe.

Seven Days of Nectar tells us that this included white Australians and Italians, for example, who found themselves attending the saptaha for the first time in their lives when it was organised in Canberra or in Brisbane. This also included an avowed atheist.

This raises several issues. One may be the potential capacity of Sanskrit phonetics or mantra s, which have long been advocated by traditionalists and recently by scientists as possessing a certain aural effect on listeners. The other, broader issue is that of defining the limits of the Indic cultural universe itself.

For the experience of the Bhagavata saptaha, as described by the book under review, tends to break down conventional notions of the insider and the outsider. Indeed, one may say that the author can be seen at the intersection of these two sets of audiences. He is both the observer and participant as he goes about attending and interrogating this event that is at once spirituality and spectacle. To his credit, far from shying away from possible aspersions that it may cast on his objectivity—that much vaunted but ultimately elusive scholarly goal—the author is upfront about including a very brief epilogue that describes his own completely unexpected brush with the “numinous and transformative” effects of attending a Bhagavata saptaha .

He experiences a “flash of total awareness, a moment of numinous insight” as he drives down a Canberran road after days of listening to the Bhagavata, and wonders whether this was indeed a way in which he too had been “transformed” or at least touched. This reviewer, for one, does not believe that choosing to include such an experience in an otherwise scholarly account and analysis takes away from the scholarship; if anything, Taylor fortifies his case study by embodying it, howsoever momentarily. It does seem a rather apposite way to understand an event that projects itself as affective and experiential.

Social capital and communitas

Not that all stakeholders in the Bhagavata saptaha that Taylor documents are a part of it for salvific benefits. A number of attendees and certainly organisers and exponents bring to the saptaha , in addition to piety, their will to social capital.

Others come to experience communitas. For the exponents, in particular, the puranavachaka s, it provides the financial means to keep alive both their vocation and their families. The book explores their motivations deeply and shows them to be cognizant of a clash between commercial and devotional impetuses. The clash is resolved for some by invoking the exponent’s purity of heart.

Taylor speaks of the ever growing scale and international reach of the saptaha s in connection with globalisation and rising middle class religiosity; thereby, he considers them an aspect of modernity itself. The development of “ saptaha tourism” is indeed an eye-opener. It throws up bizarre situations like when travel agents offer sight-seeing trips to Europe with a saptaha performance on board. One itinerary included the following: “Morning listen to Srimadbhagawat Katha. Later you have the option to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa” (page 12)!!

One of the best things about Seven Days of Nectar is its emic impulse—a deep openness to, rather than an Othering of, a tradition sought to be comprehended. This reflects in various forms, one being the book’s chapters named on different aspects of a Vedic yajna , so that the chapter on sponsors of the saptaha is titled “Yajamana”, the one on exponents is called “Hotr”, and the one on the audience, the “Vis”. The other is the author’s unfailing ability to catch on to the essence of the discourses he heard or of conversations he had with other attendees. Sample the following conclusion he comes to on the question of where the authenticity of saptaha discourses stemmed from:

“On the first day of the Canberra saptaha , the exponent made an interesting point. He told the audiences that they could choose to believe the stories of the Bhagavata or not. The essence was bhakti, jnana and vairagya…. The teachings on these are still valid, even if the rest are only stories. ‘But believing is extra sweetness’, he added” (page 146).

Perhaps what Narayan Rao said of the Puranas (quoted on page 170) holds true for Seven Days of Nectar as well: It is not communication but communion.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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