Shulman’s Exploration of the Imagination in the South Indian Cultural World

Steven P. Hopkins, … a longer version of a review in South Asian History and Culture, vol. 3, no. 4, July 2013, pp. 424-26 (see below)

Coming away from a close reading of this remarkable book one cannot help feeling much like the bemused lover in Ativīrarāmaṉ’s 16th century Tenkasi Tamil poem on the tale of Nala and Damayantī.  The goose messenger has just described in vivid imaginative detail the body of Nala’s beloved, almost placing her “before his very eyes,” when he wonders aloud: “Seeing through the mind [thought, imagination] of a true friend is really seeing (mēyt tuṇaiyār karunttiṉāṟ kāndale kāṇṭa)” (186). Seeing the histories of South Indian literatures through the singularly perceptive and creative mind of David Shulman is, indeed, “really seeing.”  And what we have before our eyes in Shulman’s seeing is an exhaustive and deeply nuanced work of scholarship on the nature of the “imagination” in India.

david_shulman_na_web David Shulman

Over the last twenty years Shulman, along with various colleagues, notably Don Handelman, V. Narayana Rao, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, has been tracing, though exhaustive studies of Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit literatures of medieval and early modern South India, lineaments of what might be termed “non-dual imaginaries,” for the most part explicitly Śaiva-derived forms of advaita distinguished from monistic Advaita Vedānta.  In work that spans narratives of the god Śiva in the Pine Forest (the dāruvana cycles in their Śaiva Siddhānta contexts), the Dice-Game narratives of Śiva and Umā/ Pārvatī, and the “melting and marrying” of god and goddess, tapas and kāma, in Kālidāsa and the Purāṇas, Shulman and Handelman have focused on the dynamic (“not one,” “not two”) relationships between various oppositions in Indian thought, from the images of a god’s yogic absorption to the necessary vulnerability in love; remote self-mastery to the sometimes self-lacerating process of self-knowing; of disciplined order to fecund chaos; of willed ritual inwardness to discrete alienated externality; stillness to the dance;  and the opposing but equally hot and melting powers of tapas and kāma.  Implicit in many of these studies is the unstable relationship between objective and subjective worlds, what is viewed as “real” and “unreal,” reality and “fantasy,” waking and dreaming, the “true” and the “really real,” empirical hardness, and the soft flowing liquid world of imaginative creation and “grace” (aruḷ in Tamil).  Shulman’s work places focus on the fissiparous and dynamic, the unstable, tensile, indeterminate, vulnerable “middle” between such extremes, places of emergence, elasticity, flow, transition, and creative transformation, imaginal spaces favored by poets.  So it is not surprising, given these preoccupations, that Shulman’s scholarly focus would eventually be trained on the imagination itself as an object of inquiry in the history of South Indian literatures.

In More Than Real Shulman tackles systematically what western sources have termed the “imagination” in the history of Indian literature (with some references to ancient and contemporary ritual) and aesthetic theory.  He begins his study with some vivid examples of “mind-born worlds” in disparate historical, literary, and religious contexts: a charming story from Cekkiḻār’s 12th-century Pēriya Purāṇam about the magnificent shrine built by the humble god-lover Pūcalār in his mind (maṉattiṇāl), an elaborately detailed and perfected imaginative act (niṉaivu), laboriously built up mentally over a period of many days, a temple made out of thought (niṉaippiṉāl) by one whose “devotion never knew a gap,” that the Lord Śiva vastly preferred to king Kāṭavar Komān’s material shrine made from all too physical stone, forcing the king to throw himself to the ground before the humble Brahmin (4-6); a reference to the ancient Vedic sacrificial cult (yajña), where one of the Brahmin priests “sits silently thinking the entire ritual in his mind,” even “repairing – mentally — what might go wrong with it,” while around him fellow priests are “performing the visible, concrete tasks of pouring the oblations” and “chanting the mantras” (7); and a contemporary Kūṭiyāṭṭam dancer who, along with singer, drums, cymbals, and ritually lit oil lamps, through a “precise choreography of gesture and rhythm”(14), patiently builds up a “thick space” made up of the four cardinal points, the entire cosmos in miniature, a dense “real, existentially sold, complete, three dimensional, fully populated and autonomous” visionary world present before the eyes of the spectators, where “the gods, celestial musicians, yakṣa spirits, perfected yogis and great sages in the heavenly world; the demons and serpents in the Nether World; the Brahmins, Warriors, Merchants, and Peasants, the domestic animals and wild beasts, the birds and other creatures” (15), among them Lord Siva and Pārvatī, all made present for the duration of the dance drama, “kneaded, chiseled, woven together, and help in place by the puṟappāṭu dancer” (17).  These are indeed impressive displays of the powers of mental acts to systematically create and project “imagined” worlds onto “real” material space.

But this is not all. Shulman will trace a progression throughout this book, arguing that something unusual and original begins to emerge in 16th-century South Indian literature, where the “imagination” attains a new kind of radical autonomy, “infinitely more than a form or extension of perception,” becoming a unique “causal force generating the worlds,” and indeed “the primary mechanism and inner logic of all creation per se” (277).  But how did we get here, from the efficacy of mental faculties to reproduce pre-existent ritual structures (and deities) to an individual and subjective creative causal power of the mind able to bring new worlds “into being” (bhāvanā)?  This may have to do with specific civilizational shifts that reflect the rise of new elites in Nāyaka South India, forms of entrepreneurship and cash-oriented economies, all of which have a deep impact on “the notion of a personal, generate, image-driven faculty of the mind” (152).  Specific historical arguments are beyond the scope of the book, but as Shulman states in the conclusion: “There is a world of difference between effective acts of inner visualization, unspecified beyond being situated somewhere inside, and the imaginative perception of the self-defined, self-aware individual who knows himself or herself to be gifted in bhāvanā in the sense of activating a particular, central faculty of the mind to far-reaching effect” (286).

Shulman begins his genealogy of the active “imaginative process” with relevant Sanskrit terms from Indian theories of the mind and poetic inspiration.  We have common terms derived from the verbal root kḷp: kalpa, “doing, generating;” kalpanā and vikalpa, “mentation,” “thinking,” a thought or “concept;” there is also saṅkalpa, “intention,” “thought,” determination, “imagination” (18-19).  There is a Tamil term, niṉaivu, “visualization” or “imagination,” and cintai, a “disciplined and highly detailed” mentation.  But the set of terms most critical to Shulman’s study of Indian forms of active imagination derive from the verbal root bhū, “to come into being,” or its causative form bhāvaya, “to bring something into being” (19-20).  Much of Shulman’s survey tracks various transformations of this latter root across a variety of grammatical and literary traditions, from logicians and linguists to 16th century South Indian poets (Ibid.).

While it is impossible in the scope of this review to do justice to every detailed example in this closely argued study, I will focus on a few salient ones.  Shulman treats, in separate chapters, a variety of texts and traditions, from romantic projections and paintings that take on a life of their own in Harṣa’s Ratnāvalī (27-39); “landscapes enlivened and transformed by intense, detailed, projected senarios” in Sanskrit sandeśas or “messenger” poems, notably the Meghadūta of Kālidāsa and the Haṃsasandeśa of Veṅkaṭanātha; to lovers in the fevers of separation who re-imagine the bodies of their absent beloveds in the 7th century Kadambarī (40-48).  Though Shulman’s analysis of the speeches of Kadambarī, where he sees her longing with performative “nostalgia” that “takes on an aspect of helplessness and hopelessness” and “trauma” (47-48) is nuanced and powerful, he misses one important aspect of these speeches.  Kadambarī’s taunting insults also follow the literary structures of female lament (vilāpa); they express not only a passive hopelessness and retrospective longings, an “unraveling of personal identity” (48), but an active rhetoric of resistance and critique, witnessing to particular loss and a claim made for fidelity.  Female laments in Indian literatures, such as that of Sītā’s in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, possess their own forms of positive imaginative power, witnessing to particular loss in a positive mode of active critique, witness, and confrontation.

After treating examples of utprekṣa (fancy) as the imaginative reconfiguration of reality, a “figurative domain” where “imagination requires a high-grade, tensile suspension in which reality and unreality come together in the mind of the listener or spectator without resolving the contradiction between them” (60), Shulman’s discussion of dhvani and rasa theory is admirable in its focus not on Bhatta Nāyaka, Abhinavagupta, and the Kashmiri theorists’ overly-rehearsed emphasis on sādhāraṇī-karaṇa or “universalization/ generalization,” but on the “irreducible particular aliveness animating external form” [ ] “made accessible by dhvani,” a focus on particularity and the singular personal in a way that is more loyal to Ānandavardhana’s core theory (71-75).  Bhāvanā balances, in a sometimes precarious, “tensile” way, the particular and the general, “general potentiality,” and that “pretty girl’s face that is like the moon in a uniquely personal way” (74-75).  New critics in the 17th century like Jagannātha will decouple rasa metaphysics entirely from the poetic imaginative enterprise (106-107), which offers us an example of what lies ahead in a vision of the independent, autonomous creative imagination.

After a focus on the active bhāvanā in yogic visualizations of the goddess in the remarkable 7th-century Ānanda-laharī attributed to Saṅkarācārya, and the dense imaginal processes of temple pūjā (117-143) that establish a “cojoint quiver” between devotee and god/ goddess (127), where we have “highly patterned, determined, and probably irreversible” processes that reflect “true but latent identities” (124), the remainder of the book focuses on what is “new” in 16th-century South India.

Through a close reading of several remarkable Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit texts, including the Tenkasi Tamil retelling of Queen Sīmantinī, where a Queen’s imaginative powers (bhāvanā) turn a young Brahmin boy into the girl he always was, latently inside (155-169); the Nala story in the Tamil Naiṭatam (“two fantasies embracing,” 175-204) and the truly bewitching Sanskrit Bhāvanā-puruṣottama, the story of King Best who falls madly in love with his own Imagination (232-265).  In all of these examples from sixteenth century South India, bhāvanā operates as an autonomous active power, in great measure helping to create the very concrete world in which we live.

In such an early modern South Indian world, Shulman argues, what we perceive is largely there “because of the way we imagine it.”  Existential claims follow for this active, causal, autonomous, creative imagination, that marks a “new economy of mind in 16th-century South India:” in such a world, Shulman goes on to say, “I imagine therefore I am.  Even better: I imagine, therefore you are; or, if you prefer, You imagine, therefore I am” (269).

In the conclusion, utilizing the work of Lorraine Daston, Shulman ventures some comparative lines of inquiry, drawing important distinctions between this South Indian “therapeutic” and causal vision of imagination and the more “passive” and ambivalent theories of Aristotle, Plato, and even Renaissance models deployed by Montaigne (278-281).  Shulman rightly perceives vivid connections, however, between Indian visions and the “creative imagination” (khayāl) in the mystical theology of 12th-century Andalusian Ṣūfī master Ibn al-Arabī, opening up this remarkably rich study to a wider conversation on the imagination across traditions.

More than Real; A History of the Imagination in South India, by David Shulman, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, Harvard University Press, 2012, 333 pp, (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-674-05991-7

Steven P. Hopkins, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA USA, Email:

SOUTH ASIAN HISTORY and CULTURE is edited by a collective , viz. David Washbrook, Boria Majumdar, Sharmisthu Gooptu & Nalin Mehta …. and publd by Taylor & Francis

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