Studies of Hindu saints tend to focus primarily on the saints themselves—their words, teachings, and practices—rather than tending to the often complex and complicated world of texts and traditions about those saints—which is how we have come to know them. Even when hagiographical writings are addressed, more often than not such writings are presumed to belong to a monolithic tradition in which certain texts simply contain more information or stories about the saints than others. In Śiva’s Saints: The Origins of Devotion in Kannada according to Harihara’s Ragaḷegaḷu
(Oxford University Press, 2018), Gil Ben-Herut
, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, challenges such presumptions through his close examination of the text and contexts of the 12th-century Vīraśaiva hagiographical text Ragaḷegaḷu written in Kannada by Harihara. Providing theoretical insight into notions of sainthood itself as well as the politics of commemoration and the contentious worlds of ever-changing religious and other social identity formations, Śiva’s Saints
examines the multiple goals of hagiographical literature like the Ragaḷegaḷu as well as how this text complicates our understandings of what Vīraśaivas today are most well-known for—their bhakti or inner devotion to Siva, their egalitarianism, and their challenging of Brahmanical norms. In doing so, Ben-Herut reveals significant nuances of the social worlds in which Harihara was embedded and to which his Ragaḷegaḷu is responding, most especially who Harihara casts as distinct but familial “others” versus those intimate “others” he agues should be kept out of the community. Through rigorous analysis and sensitivity to context, Śiva’s Saints
demonstrates how close attention to the writings about saints can reveal the complex inner and outer workings of religious groups within specific historical social contexts.
Dean Accardi is an Assistant Professor of History at Connecticut College. His work focuses on gender, religion, and politics in early modern Kashmir and how saints and sultans of that period continue to be invoked today in contestations over Kashmir’s social, cultural, religious, and political belonging. You can find out more about him and his work at his website or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.