Traditional As Modern - Community, Discourse and Critique In Jnanadev


Jayant Lele
Political Studies and Sociology
Professor Emeritus
Queen's University,
Kingston, Canada


Traditional As Modern - Community, Discourse and Critique In Jnanadev Part I


        Two rather obvious questions were at work behind the idea of examining the revolutionary potential of Varkari Sampradaya : the fact of continuing and, perhaps, growing influence of Varkari persuasion on peasants and rural artisans, in spite of the rise of 'urban' institutions and the fact that despite large scale bureaucratically sponsored projects, no real enthusiasm has emerged in rural areas for a cooperative effort: an effort such as that foreseen in the ideology of Community Development. In this regard another important technological fact should also be noted. In India and particularly in Maharashtra, prospects for large scale irrigation are severely limited ,which means that any significant rise in agricultural productivity must come from massive, imaginative and yet routine cooperative effort of peasants, labourers and artisans. Thus indigenous and all pervasive economic development demands precisely those impulses which have been conspicuously absent so far.
        Such self-generating efforts within village communities cannot be expected to arise without basic changes in rural man-land relations. Even the largely symbolic gestures, in the form of tenancy legislations, have been aborted in practice by the same class of rich fanners who control political and administrative apparatus. Frustrated by lack of consciousness about structural contradictions hidden behind the ruling ideology of legal justice, freedom and individual rights through parliamentary democracy, several young men and women seem to be willing to dedicate part of their lives to this task of raising consciousness. However, they usually go into rural areas with a predetermined adverse orientation to tradition, often imparted to them by their 'progressive' teachers. Varkari Sampradaya, as an element of that tradition, is also treated as an obstacle because they have found or learned no other way of dealing with it. Consequently, they become incapable of establishing a dialogue of shared meanings with the rural masses because
(a) they have never before shared the life experience of oppression in the rural context,
(b) they bring with them a hostile attitude towards tradition which, paradoxically, is the only possible common bond between them and the rural folk.
        These considerations point to the need for exploring contemporary relevance of tradition and for studying Varkari Sampradaya in these terms.         So far I have concentrated on three major themes and explored them in a preliminary way. They are:
1. Varkari Sampradaya as a discourse on tradition.
2. Contemporary society and Varkari practice
3. Contemporary lack of appreciation of its revolutionary impulses by intellectuals and activists.
        Study of the writings and practices of Varkari poets along these lines reveals a variety of directions from which dialectical growth of tradition can be gleaned. However, in such a research effort, criterion of successful social transformation, as a predetermined outcome of this dialectic, is not available. Whether an impulse was potentially revolutionary or not has to be judged in terms of the nature of oppressive social practice and the options open to a given society. The context of social and material conditions of production has to be examined. Whether a critical impulse can regain its potential in a changed social practice cannot be determined without such examination. Even a superficial review of the social history of Varkari Sampradaya suggests a possible critical approach. Varkari insistence on the use of the language of the masses and its open door policy with respect to all castes, including the untouchables, are the first obvious critical grounds. Similarly, the rise of linguistic nationalism under Shivaji and corresponding disappearance of creative writing by Varkaris, point to hegemonic appropriation by the ruling classes.
        My starting point for a more detailed treatment of Varkari Sampradaya as discourse is the notion of ‘potential community’ which unites, dialectically, the critique and ,its hegemonic appropriation. The notion of potential community can be explored by contrasting it to that of the actual community in ,which members live and communicate on the basis of shared meanings.
        Community in the latter sense is living tradition. Family, village, caste are various levels of such actual community in which tradition remains alive and meaningful, for all members, not only through language and rituals but through other shared productive activities as well. Human communal existence has three basic dimensions of the material world, the social world and the world of the self. All of these dimensions acquire substance through meanings that are intersubjective. The necessity of having to regard others as subjects, as having intentions behind their beliefs and activities, implies that the latter can be brought into open and discussed as to their validity within the community. In this sense an actual community also implies a potential community in which tradition becomes its own critique. It becomes a critique of the validity of beliefs and activities in the three domains of human social life. Potential critical scrutiny of social practice, of beliefs and activities rests on three standards that are basic for productive human existence; truth , justice and freedom. In the actual community also these principles operate.
        However, they receive interpretations and meanings that seek to justify domination of nature and man over man. Such interpretations negate the potential community. However, they are available to active subjects for critical discourse and for subsequent acceptance as legitimations or rejection. Thus, seeds of revolutionary transformation of a society remain embedded in its tradition. In a genuine and successful revolution these seeds germinate as critical reappropriations through discourse and transform social practice. Tradition as it remains alive in an actual community constitutes a hegemonic moment, an ideology legitimizing domination. But it also carries within it the opposite moment of critique: as a reflection on oppressive social practice which distorts the principles on which a potentially human community rests. In more concrete terms this means that the other side of tradition, the discursive, critical side, must become a conscious activity of those who share basic productive tasks even as they do so under conditions of domination. Our first task in examining Varkari Sampradaya is to see to what extent its initial efforts were directed towards widening the discursive capability of productive subjects. By examining this impulse in and through a dialogue with those who routinely uphold only the hegemonic interpretations, one may contribute to a theoretically guided, genuinely cooperative, productive activity for a transformed society.
        Since most interpretations of Varkari theory and practice conclude that it, has always upheld Brahmanic social order, we. should illustrate how, initially at least, it was a critical impulse with a potential for creating revolutionary social practice. In this paper I wish to do this in a limited way. I shall attempt a brief examination of the writings of Jnanadev (1275-1296) who is recognized as the founding father of the Sampradaya.
        Notions of community, inter-subjectivity and domains of human social existence appear in Jnanadev's commentary and are basic to his thought. Through these vehicles Jnanadev develops a dialogue with those who constitute his actual linguistic and potentially human community. He elaborates on the differentiated unity of knowledge, devotion and action of the three spheres of human social existence and of the participants of a discourse. For these reasons Jnanesvari is not merely a hermeneutic on Gita but an original exercise in critical re-appropriation of tradition.


Part II