Rise of a Folk God: Vitthal of Pandharpur

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Oxford University Press, USA, Oct 10, 2011 - Religion - 350 pages
Vitthal, also called Vithoba, is the most popular Hindu god in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, and the best-known god of that region outside India. His temple at Pandharpur is the goal of an annual pilgrimage that is one of the largest and most elaborate in the world. This book is the foremost study of the history of Vitthal, his worship, and his worshippers. First published in Marathi in 1984, the book remains the most thorough and insightful work on Vitthal and his cult in any language, and provides an exemplary model for understanding the history and morphology of lived Hinduism. The author, Ramachandra Chintaman Dhere, is the leading scholar of religious traditions in Maharashtra and throughout the Deccan, the plateau that covers most of central India. Vitthal exemplifies the synthesis of Vaisnava and Saiva elements that not only typifies Maharashtrian Hindu religious life but also marks Vitthal's resemblance to another prominent South Indian god, Venkates of Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Dhere's analysis highlights Vitthal's connection with pastoralist hero cults, and demonstrates the god's development from a god of shepherds to a god of the majority of the population, including Brahmans. In addition, Dhere also explores the connections of Vitthal with Buddhist and Jain traditions. In the book's final chapter, Dhere presents a culminating stage in the evolution of the worship of Vitthal: the interpretation in spiritual terms of the god, his temple, the town of Pandharpur, and the river that flows past the town. Dhere received India's highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi prize, for this book.

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The spread of the Vijayanagara Empire throughout Peninsular India brought in its wake social changes which are now being investigated by historians. The gradual transformation of forest dwellers and tribal social groups into social formations allied to or integrated within the Hindu conceptual universe remains the most prominent feature of the social landscape of the last precolonial polity/empire of South India. There are transcriptional evidence to demonstrate that in parts of South India when social groups were enumerated in inscriptions an implied hierarchy was already in place and when we look back at the history of the communities we find that they were rather late entrants into peasant society. One area of research which has opened by in recent years is the study of society and social change as is reflected in songs, ballads, hymns and devotional compositions. The book under review analyses the cult of Vitthal in its setting in the Warkari tradition of Maharashtra. A recent Ph D thesis entitled The Songs of Purandaradasa in the Social,Historical and Religious Context of the Vijayanagara Empire submitted to Pondicherry University by Divya Sandesh looks at the patronage extended to the cult of Vitthala by the Rayas of Vijayanagara as a strategy to integrate marginal social groups like the Dhangars within the framework of the Vijayanagara state.
The work attempts a reconstruction of the religious tradition and practices surrounding the emergence of Vitthala as Vaishanava deity during the early medieval period. Part of the work was undertaken earlier by the Jesuit priest and scholar Father G A Delury whose Cult of Vithoba still remains one of the most important studies on this theme. Dhere wrote this book in Marathi and it has been ably translated by Dr Anne Feldhaus. He is at pains to uncover the "identity"of Vitthala about whom even Purandaradasa is said to have remarked in one of his songs: Show me who you really are or I will tell the world the truth about you. It is clear that the identity of Vitthala or Vitthoba was a contested one even during the medieval period. Though he is considered to be form of Vishnu, the fact is that Vitthala like Venkatesvara is not one of the avatars of Vishnu or is he even included in the list of 24 upaavataras. Dhere traces the Vaishnavisation of Vitthala to the Wakari movement, the quintessential pilgrimage and circulation of bhaktas in Maharashtra. This movement seems to have begun in the eleventh century when the Yadavas of Devagiri were the dominant political force in the Deccan region and got absorbed into the larger pan-Indian Bhakthi tradition as a consequence of the interaction between the Deccan and the Tamil tradition as ably shown by Dr Divya Sandesh in the thesis already cited.
The author has used a particular kind of religious text known as the Panduranga Mahatmya in order to explore the spiritual and religious aspects of the Vitthala cult. This genre of texts is particularly difficult for historians to accept as source material because of the difficulty we have in arriving at a date for their composition.
The same difficulty is faced by those historians who use ephemeral sources like abhangs and kirtans of saint composers like Purandaradasa whose compositions were collected and collated only towards the end of the nineteenth century. During the four centuries when songs and hagiography circulated in an oral medium there would have been considerable contamination by the incorporation of later elements and of course certain fundamental changes in the text itself due to the sectarian or political interests of the redactor. However, most historians assume that the texts they are dealing with retain their pristime quality, an assumption which is challenged by the work of Lord and Father Walter Ong. During the Vijayanagara period we find the spread of the cult of Vitthala to parts of Peninsular India where Vitthala was virtually unknown.
Professor Venkata Raghotham
Pondicherry University


Vitthal Beckons
1 Pur257nic Sources for the Study of Vitthal
2 Hari in Cowherds Garb
3 The Secret of the Dind299ra Forest
4 Vitthal Venkate347 and Virabhadra
5 Vitthaleśvar
6 In Search of the Original Image of Vitthal
7 Vitthal and HeroStones
11 Vitthal Jains and R257md257s299s
12 Mother Vith257299
13 The Vedicization of Vitthal
14 The Y257davas God
15 The Body Is Pandhar299

8 Pundal299k and Pundar299ke347var
9 The Sources of the Story of Pundal299k
10 Vitthal and the Buddha

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About the author (2011)

Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere, the foremost scholar of religious traditions in Maharashtra, has published over 100 books in this area. The dozens of awards he has received for his scholarly work include the highly coveted Maharashtra State Prize and the Sahitya Akademi prize.

Anne Feldhaus is Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe, where she teaches Hinduism, Sanskrit, and religious geography.

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