Fierce Words: Repositionings of Caste and Devotion in Traditional Śrīvaiṣṇava Hindu Ethics

Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (3):399 - 419 (2002)
In the 13th and 14th centuries CE the Śrīvaiṣṇava Hindu community of south India struggled to integrate the traditional values of the older brahmanical hierarchical system with the devotional egalitarianism that had come to the fore with fresh force in the Tamil vernacular tradition in the 7th and 8th centuries and thereafter. One of the most vexed aspects of this integration pertained to caste, and whether devotionalism foreclosed a continuation of traditional caste distinctions: do divine love and grace mandate radical egalitarianism? Śrīvaiṣṇava theologians were divided on the issue, some more conservative, some more radical in their rhetoric about continuity and change. Yet, as this essay argues, none were willing to go to the extremes either of dismissing caste structures entirely or of entirely subordinating devotion to caste. New values were to take primary place, while old norms were to be reinterpreted and given new meanings. Analyzing well-known examples from the tradition they argued instead a balance between norms and exceptions, treating violations of caste as occasions to glorify the power of devotion but without predicting the end of caste altogether. Attention to this case sheds light on caste and devotion in the Hindu context, the nature of ethical debate in India, and consequently too ways in which rhetoric functions more widely in ethical analysis
Keywords caste  duty  devotion  rhetoric  egalitarianism  hierarchy
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