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Publication: Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27321
ISSN: 00030279
Journal code: PJOS

The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritamrta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition. By TONY K. STEWART. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2010. Pp. xxvii + 442. $74.

The Final Word is a masterful and long-awaited work which examines the literary and theological history of the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement and makes some startling new claims about the role and purpose of Krsnadasa Kavirâja's hagiography, the Caitanya Caritamrta (henceforth CC, Stewart's "Final Word"). This work is an essential complement to the Dimock and Stewart translation of the CC that appeared a few years ago, work on which necessarily delayed Stewart's completion of the present piece. Further, it in itself comprises the "final word" on the early years of the Gaudiya movement, as no one else has attempted such a comprehensive examination of the formation and definition of that stage of the community. SK De and Ramakanta Cakravarty have both produced useful overviews of the Gaudiyas, but neither volume is as voluminous or comprehensive as Stewart's work. Other scholars have written on specific subgroups of the Gaudiyas - Glen Hayes and Jason Fuller in their as-yetunpublished dissertations; Alan Entwistle on Braj; David Haberman on rasa theory; and this reviewer on the Advaitacarya corpus. The Final Word, however, brings all previous scholarship together and expands on it, and, more important, through its careful consideration of an enormous set of hitherto unexamined works, pushes our understanding of the CC well beyond previous boundaries. Scholars interested in hagiography, in community definition and formation, in the ways pieces of literature inform subsequent production and use, in rhetorical strategy, in addition, of course, to those working specifically in South Asia or even medieval Bengal, will all find much to ponder here.

Stewart's periodic re-statements of the issue under consideration allow the reader to follow the development of his overarching argument through the book. As the cover "blurb" states, "Tony K. Stewart investigates how, with no central leadership, no institutional authority, and no geographic center, a religious community nevertheless came to define itself, fix its textual canon, and flourish." Indeed the community had begun to show fissures even before the death of its charismatic leader. What, then, would come to be identifiable as Gaudiya Vaisnavism? Stewart discusses the problem in terms of theology, of ritual, and of canon, returning each time to the CC as the key, the "grammar," that allows us to understand and even marvel at the school's remarkable coherence in the presence of considerable difference. For example, on p. 216, he moves the discussion forward with "There were two challenges to be met: reconfigure the constitution of the panca tattva, the only novel theological construct that was sufficiently popular to resist the basic structure of divinity articulated by the gosvamis, and, in that reconfiguration, establish a new form of advanced ritual practice for the adept, manjari sadhana. Not surprisingly, the two went "hand-in-hand." And then proceeds to explain just how those two challenges went "hand-in-hand." This leads him to explain how Caitanya came to be viewed as the divine couple Radha and Krsna. On p.219, "the best practice was one that aided and abetted Radha's connections with Krsna. That meant that the new object of worship had shifted from Krsna by himself to Radha with Krsna as the divine couple."

Later, in explaining why Krsnadasa Kaviraja cited or ignored previous specific works on Caitanya, Stewart reminds us that "Because of the deliberate and comprehensive textual accounting, the Caitanya caritamrta seemed to map all that was important in the foundational documents of the community - and that is much of its function today. His was an act of unparalleled retrospection on the meaning of Caitanya's life and its implications for his devotees, which, once done, stood essentially unchallenged" (pp. 243-44).

Towards the end of the book Stewart describes two aspects of Krsnadasa Kavirâja's agenda, terming them the retrospective and prospective work of the CC. "The retrospective work rationalized the earlier historical narratives to conform to the recently developed systematic theology of the Gosvamis; the prospective orientation furnished the analytical tools and rhetorical techniques necessary to ensure perpetuation, the grammar of tradition. A proper future would look just like the past."

The scholarship, writing style, and organization are exactly the sort of painstaking, careful work we have come to expect of Stewart. He traces the development and the rhetorical strategies of the hagiographical tradition surrounding Caitanya, beginning his tale with that of arinivâsa, Narottama, and ayamananda, three devout followers sent back home to Bengal from Vrndavana shortly after Caitanya's death, to spread the faith. They had two carts full of books to use in doing so, texts composed by the likes of Jiva Gosvami and his uncle Ropa, as well as the new Caitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadâsa Kaviraja. The sole copy of the Caitanya Caritamrta. The journey passed largely uneventfully until the trio, and their contingent of armed guards, were nearly home, when in the dark of night the notorious King Vira Hamvira and his men made off with the carts, having heard they contained priceless treasure.

The heart-wrenching story ends well, obviously, for we have the CC today. Through the conversions of the king and a few key local pundits, the story demonstrates how Caitanya's school gained such a strong foothold in Visnupur as well as how arinivasa and the children of the first generation of Gaudiyas consolidated the tradition. Stewart says that they managed "to homogenize worship and theology in a way that included every major branch of Caitanya's devotees, taking care to preserve the original structure of that community while seeking to avoid confrontations that might lead to ruptures in the fragile coalition they were building. The template for this consolidation would prove to be the lost and now recovered Caitanya caritamrta" (p. 42).

Stewart proceeds to detail just how this was accomplished, in the rest of his book. He describes the story, whose historicity we can never know, as revealing the rhetorical strategies that collectively constitute the "grammar" of the Gaudiya textual tradition. "This grammar simultaneously enables and limits the ways in which the tradition can flexibly expand while ensuring internal self-correction to guarantee conformity to the founding principles of the group" (p. 43).

Stewart backs up at this point to two chapters devoted to the problems of divinity, first (in chapter 2) as an "enigma" in and of itself, and then (chapter 3) as variously theorized by the hagiographers preceding Krsnadâsa Kaviraja. This background is all necessary for us to be able to understand and appreciate Krsnadasa's mastery of the Gaudiya thinking and writing to date, and his synthesizing it into his own work. And the texts themselves, and none more than the CC, will come to sit alongside the various gurus, even somewhat displacing them as the source of authority as "the palpable, yet malleable, extension of Caitanya's personal instruction" (p. 274).

Perhaps the boldest step Stewart takes is in his discussion of the (controversial) place of tantra within the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. On p. 361 he discusses ". . . the two fundamentally different trajectories of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition: the former now considered orthodox, the latter a tantrika heterodoxy." The interesting story of the first two manuscripts of the CC and their respective paths is one no one else has discerned, and this brings a radically new perspective to the history of the movement and the various questions of legitimacy that have accompanied the practices of some of its subgroups. Unlike some previous scholars, Stewart refuses to dismiss the sahajiyas as illegitimate but has discovered why, and how, they are as authentic as the branch he terms "orthodox." One small quibble here: the tendency to subsume previous teachings without overt hostility is not unique to the Gaudiyas but can be observed in polemics all over the subcontinent, and perhaps even more widely, throughout Asia, It does, however, constitute a very fluid sort of argumentation by inclusion that we do not find in the Abrahamic traditions.

Stewart himself, in a sense, performs much the same sort of work he sees Krsnadasa Kaviräja doing with the CC: Stewart makes his point, brings to bear voluminous evidence to support it, and then reiterates again and again, each time building upon the argument until it is irrefutable. We have waited nearly three decades for this work, begun in Stewart's graduate student days, to see completion. This book is nothing short of masterful, though I hope it is not "the final word" we will have from Tony K. Stewart.

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