Jon KeuneJun 3, 2021
Shared Devotion, Shared Food
Equality and the Bhakti-Caste Question in Western India
Oxford University Press 2021
Jon Keune's book Shared Devotion, Shared Food: Equality and the Bhakti-Caste Question in Western India (Oxford UP, 2021) is about the deceptively simple question: when Hindu devotional or bhakti traditions welcomed marginalized people-women, low castes, and Dalits-were they promoting social equality? This the modern formulation of the bhakti-caste question. It is what Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar had in mind when he concluded that the saints promoted spiritual equality but did not transform society. While taking Ambedkar's judgment seriously, when viewed in the context of intellectual history and social practice, the bhakti-caste question is more complex.
This book dives deeply in Marathi sources to explore how one tradition in western India worked out the relationship between bhakti and caste on its own terms. Food and eating together were central to this. As stories about saints and food changed while moving across manuscripts, theatrical plays, and films, the bhakti-caste relationship went from being a strategically ambiguous riddle to a question that expected-and received-answers. Shared Devotion, Shared Food demonstrates the value of critical commensality to understand how people carefully negotiate their ethical ideals with social practices. Food's capacity to symbolize many things made it made an ideal site for debating bhakti's implications about caste differences. In the Vārkarītradition, strategically deployed ambiguity and the resonating of stories across media over time developed an ideology of inclusive difference-not social equality in the modern sense, but an alternative holistic view of society.
Raj Balkaran is a scholar, educator, consultant, and life coach. For information see rajbalkaran.com.