By Avni Chag
For the fourth Sanskrit Reading Room session of this year we were joined by our first specialist in Vaiṣṇava studies, Dr. Måns Broo, all the way from Åbo Akademi University, Finland. The session took place on Wednesday 15th November at SOAS. Dr Broo presented on a 16th-century Sanskrit Vaiṣṇava ritual text, the Haribhaktivilāsa, also known as the Bhagavadbhaktivilāsa. The text is one of the earliest texts of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava texts and historically important for this tradition. The verses are said to have been written by Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmin, a devotee of Caitanya, and the Digdarśinī commentary by Sanātana Gosvāmin. It is a voluminous nibandha, and a tantric text, which as Broo explained, not only describes ritual practice but also the fruits of that practice, and has played a significant role in developing ritual procedures within the sampradāya. Generally the text dedicates 3 to 4 verses to a particular procedure, followed by a selection of verses on the procedure’s māhātmya, i.e. what great fruits the practitioner can expect from the particular ritual. We learned, to our surprise, that most procedures were directed to also members that fell outside the 3 twice-born varṇas as well as women. Like most texts written in the early stages of a developing sampradāya the Haribhaktivilāsa is orthopractic, referencing authoritative treatises, especially the Veda, whilst also incorporating something new, something specifically Vaiṣṇava.
The devotional and ritual procedures the text covers are varied. With a total of nearly 10,000 verses the text describes in various degrees of detail how a Vaiṣṇava devotee ought to:
Honour one’s guru
Self-purification in preparation of worship
Offer worship to Kṛṣṇa
Reciting the 1000 names
Read the scriptures and narrate Kṛṣṇa’s līlās
Perform rituals at various junctures of the day
Shun bad company
Installing images in a temple
Partake of offerings made to the deity
Prostrations and circumambulations etc. etc.
Broo’s work in putting together a critical edition of the text is the first comprehensive one of its kind as most earlier editions are not critical editions. These earlier editions do not allow the scholar to understand what the text might have originally looked like or how it might have changed during its dissemination throughout India. His efforts in producing a critical edition involved collating as many manuscripts as are available, a process that he lamented had not been straightforward. The catalogus catalogorum records around 100 manuscripts, many of these unfortunately are not available or are not in fact manuscripts of the Haribhaktivilāsa. He has also been able to locate many manuscripts that do not appear in the catalogue. Getting copies of manuscripts has not always been an easy process; even the selected archives in India that have digitised collections are not always so interested in sharing them.
Broo has been collecting manuscripts for quite some time now and has collected near to 100. Manuscripts are located all over India, as far west as Gujarat, or north as Panjab and Assam, down to Orissa etc. This was the product of the rise in manuscript culture during the Mughal period, when paper was comparatively cheap and readily available. Most of these are not dated, but those that are were copied in the 19th or early 20th centuries. The oldest dated manuscript he was able to secure is from Jaipur, dated 1743 CE:
Other early manuscripts include one from 1770, from Patna:
One from the same year, from Orissa:
Broo interestingly brought us back to Dr. Formigatti’s session from last year on manuscript marginalia with this particular manuscript. While the marginalia, he explained, were often glosses of particular words in the manuscript, they also referred to various other treatises and well known interpretations, something that might help us to understand more about the scribe or the particular manuscript’s use.
And another manuscript from Calcutta, dated 1790:
We do not know much about the scribes because they generally did not include their names. Broo has found that for those manuscripts in which scribes did sign off their work, though many were brāhmins, who probably copied manuscripts for a living, some were Vaiṣṇava devotees, recognised by their dikṣā name ‘dāsa’.
The edition we read from in the session used 11 manuscripts, which were chosen on the basis of age, geographical spread and interesting particularities that have affected further discoveries to do with the text. We began right at the beginning of the text from the first Vilāsa, here meaning ‘types of bhakti or devotional past times’. Although the first vilāsa didn’t quite give us a taste of the codified ritual aspects of the Gauḍiya Sampradāya, it showed us how the Digdarśinī gloss reports on the mūla text. We were looking for how, despite the understanding that the gloss is an auto-commentary or was written by a close companion of the author, it sometimes reports curious, alternative readings of the mūla text or uses a different text than the received one. In the gloss of verse 2, for example, the commentator leaves out the names of two of the gurus honoured in the verse, only mentioning Ragunāthadāsa:
bhakter vilāsāṃś cinute probodhānandasya śiṣyo bhagavatpriyasya |
gopālabhaṭṭo ragunāthadāsaṃ santoṣayan rūpasanātanau ca ||2||
…śrīraghunāthadāso nāma gauḍakāyasthakulābjabhāskaraḥ paramabhāgavataḥ śrīmathu-
rāśritas tadādīn nijasaṅginaḥ santoṣayitum ity arthaḥ ||2||
This might tell us something to do with the author of the commentary – did he perhaps consider Ragunāthadāsa the most important of the three, or did he feel that his non-brahminical background needed to be explained?
Another interesting aspect of the text, or what we learned is a typical feature of many Vaiṣṇava texts, is the common use of the ablative, such as the suffix –taḥ. For example, verse 1 ends with samastaśāstrataḥ (from all the śāstras).
The first volume of Dr Broo’s work on the Haribhaktivilāsa will hopefully be available next year, the first of what will probably be a series of volumes. Here is a link to Dr Broo’s most recent text critical work on the Rādhā Tantra.