Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: Bhakti and the State

Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: Bhakti and the State

in Interview
Published on: 23 August 2019

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.

Kesavan Veluthat in conversation with Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019.

Kesavan Veluthat is one of the most important historians of pre-colonial South India from his generation. A Marxist by conviction, adhering to a structural-functional method of history writing, he is best known for his studies on the brahmana settlements in Kerala and political structure in early medieval South India, besides earning recognition as the theorist of South India’s early medieval epoch.  

Born in late 1950 in the lower Bharatapuzha Valley in southern Malabar, Veluthat was trained at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, from where he obtained an MPhil degree, and the University of Calicut, where he was conferred a PhD for his thesis on South Indian political structure under the Pallava, Chola, Chera and Pandya states. He taught at a couple of government colleges before joining the Department of History, Mangalore University, where he taught from 1982 to 2008. He joined the University of Delhi as Professor of History in 2009, from where he retired in 2016. Veluthat has also been visiting professor at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and Jawaharlal Nehru University. He currently heads the Institute for the Study of the Heritage of Coastal Kerala, Kodungallur.

In the course of his illustrious career spanning more than four decades, Veluthat published eighteen books in English and Malayalam, including two monographs and three collections of essays. His oeuvre consists of such monumental works as the critical edition of the Malayalam-Latin dictionary, Amarasimham: Dictionarium Latino-Historico-Mythologico Samscredonico Malabaricum, the eighteenth-century Mahishashatakam of Vanchesvara Yajvan in English and Malayalam translations, and a revised critical edition (jointly with M.R. Raghavavarier) of the Tarisappalli copperplates. 

Signs of amazing originality and dissent with existing scholarship are hallmarks of Veluthat’s work. These were to be seen even in his earliest works. As early as 1975 (the year when, incidentally, the doyen of South Indian history, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri passed away), he carried out a study of the shalas that figure with great regularity in the inscriptions, and established that more than being institutions dispensing instructions in religious, scriptural or secular forms of knowledge, they were centres for military training. This was the second research paper that Veluthat had written. The first paper, which appeared in 1973, was no less important, for in this paper, he marshalled evidence from the Sangam Tamil songs that, as early as the first centuries of the Christian Era, there existed a brahmana settlement at Chellur (Perunchellur, now Talipparamba) in northern Malabar. 

Veluthat’s first major landmark was a 1978 paper (which he jointly authored with M.G.S. Narayanan) on the Vaishnava Alvar and Shaiva Nayanar Bhakti movements in South India. In this paper, Veluthat challenged the existing perspectives that Bhakti was an expression of an individual’s longing for god or that it represented a form of resistance against state oppression. He argued, instead, that Alvar and Nayanar devotionalism was a state-sponsored project that found expression through the temples established or supported by the state and its functionaries. He presented Bhakti as a feudal ideology through which the state sought legitimacy and through which diverse sections of the population were brought into the ambit of the state. 

Veluthat’s next major work was The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India, which was based on his PhD thesis. In this work, he argued that the early medieval state in South India was feudal in structure. The thesis was, in theoretical terms, far reaching. In Veluthat’s estimation, the early medieval state was also the earliest state in South India, for the state as an institution was unknown in the preceding early historical period. In this sense, the advent of the state in this part of the world was itself characterised by feudalism. It presented a picture that was at variance from the influential thesis of Ram Sharan Sharma that Veluthat otherwise admired. Sharma had argued that feudalism in India was the result of the break up of an already existing centralised state and its replacement by numerous regional states. Veluthat awakened historians to the fact that there existed no state in South India before early medieval times that could have undergone fragmentation. In more recent times, he has nuanced this position, arguing that one of these states, the Chera state, was marked by feudal as well as integrative and early state features. 

From a study of political structures, Veluthat moved forward to make a broader study of the early medieval period of South India, which led to his emergence as the theorist of the early medieval in South India. He made the first clear statement of his theory of the early medieval in his presidential address to the Medieval India section of the Indian History Congress in 1997, held in Bangalore. In his address, Veluthat argued that the early medieval in South India was characterised by the presence of the state, the veḷḷanvakai peasant settlements, eleemosynary settlements such as the brahmadeya and the devadana, and the temple with its ideology of Bhakti, which were all conspicuous only by their absence in the preceding period of chieftaincies, plunder, and gift-giving. The new world was a product of agrarian expansion and hierarchical patterning of landholding, in which the presence of the peasantry as a class that functioned on the principles of extra-kin labour was crucial. In fact, Veluthat recognised extra-kin labour as ‘the thin end of the wedge which brought about the eventual erosion of the earlier system of production and distribution based on kinship, reciprocity and patronage and the evolution of a new system based on the differential distribution of surplus’. This transition was, prima facie, a fundamental structural transformation in the mode of production. Labour—in the present instance, peasantry with its extra-kin form of labour—was the fulcrum of this understanding of the mode of production. This estimate of the mode of production and its categories was rigorous and marked by amazing clarity. They were not stained by eclecticism; nor were they diluted by flexible and endlessly malleable definitions. Few epochal transformations in Indian history have had the benefit of so rich an analysis.

Veluthat has continued to inspire awe by his unconventional approach to history writing that has constantly challenged accepted representations of the past. His interests and areas of engagement have expanded manifold, making occasional forays into early historical northern Indian history. His recent works on the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Manipravalam poetry of Kerala, the vishishtadvaita element in the devotional works of Kerala poets such as Ezhuttachan and Melpattur, and the influence, if any, of the Mauryan ruler Ashoka’s presence in South India break new grounds with their refreshingly novel analyses. But for his writings, the historiography of precolonial South India would have been more than a trifle poorer. 

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.


Here is the second part of the edited transcript of a three-part video interview with Kesavan Veluthat conducted by Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019. 

Manu Devedevan (MD): The Brahman settlements (Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical Studies) appeared in 1978. Another important publication of yours of the same year was on the Bhakti movement in South India. This was jointly authored with M.G.S. Narayanan. Until this paper appeared, I think Bhakti was seen in two different ways. One as a longing for god as a very personal, as an individual’s personal longing, for god, or as a rebellion against the orthodoxy, against the establishment. But you argued that the Tamil Bhakti movement was actually a state-sponsored project. What prompted you to think differently?

Kesavan Veluthat (KV): I wouldn’t quite say that these are the only two ways in which Bhakti was looked at before that. To begin with and, in fact, the label ‘Bhakti movement’ was given to the literary phenomenon that was associated with Bhakti, the Alvar and Nayanar literature that had grown around. It was later that the religious content of it was appreciated. The religious, philosophical aspect of it. Still later, when scholars like Nilakanta Sastri and Varadachari started writing about it, they saw the social aspect of it, particularly the anti-caste, reformist aspect of this. But when we, that is, M.G.S. Narayanan and I, looked at it, we saw that it went beyond that.

First of all, we saw that it was not actually a protest against caste, it was more a conformism than protest. This conformism we realised was because of, I wouldn’t quite call it a sponsorship, but it had a heavy political content there. We saw that the Bhakti movement in South India at that time was some kind of a reflection, some kind of a legitimation of the existing, emerging social and political order. For this, we will have to understand also the fact that Bhakti in South India at that time was invariably associated with the institution of the temple. Shiva and Vishnu are there but not Shiva and Vishnu who reside in Kailasa or Vaikuntha. Shiva who is in Thiruvarur, Shiva who is in Chidambaram, or Vishnu who is in Srirangam. So it is not Vishnu in the absolute or Shiva in the absolute, but Shiva or Vishnu as consecrated in individual temples.

And temples, as I was saying earlier, were huge landed magnates by then. So, around the time of the Bhakti movement, that is, seventh–eighth century, this was the time when the temple-centred agrarian corporations were emerging as huge landed magnates. The population of South India was getting transformed into peasants subservient to the institution of the temple and the brahmanical groups who were controlling the temple.

So, getting their allegiance to the temple meant getting allegiance to the upper sections of society at that time. In fact, one of the by-products of that project that we had undertaken together was a paper that I had published called ‘The Temple Base of the Bhakti Movement’. The temple was the institutional base of the Bhakti movement and the temple as an institution, as a landed magnate, as a money lender, was this.

And the temple was seen also as a node of power which was made use of by the state. So, in that aspect, the state had a role to play in this. So, you can see the Chola ruler Kochchenganan, or the Pandyan ruler Nedumaran, or the two Chera rulers, Kulasekhara Alvar and Cheraman Perumal Nayanar, being leaders of the Bhakti movement. So, it is in this way that we see it.

I do not know if we were conscious, at least I cannot say about myself, I wasn’t conscious about this. Now looking back, this is the advantage that you have when you have hindsight. When looking back, I realise that we were writing this in the immediate post-Emergency period. Emergency had come to an end in 1977 with Mrs. Gandhi losing heavily, and the Janata Party coming to power. One of the major [constituents] of the Janata Party was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnation of the BJP—Bharatiya Jana Sangh with Advani and Vajpayee as ministers. When Jana Sangh was a major constituent of that [government], there was this very, very heavy attempt to use religion for political gains.

So religion as a means of achieving political gains was happening in front of my eyes. I may have been influenced by this. I will not be able to say for sure but I don’t rule out the possibility of my being influenced by this reality that was happening around us, what with all the controversy about textbooks, the Arya Samaj and RSS demanding the ban of textbooks written by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, R.S. Sharma, etc. The slogan that was being shouted in Delhi University by students, ‘R.S. Sharma hatao, Hindu dharm bachao (Get rid of R.S. Sharma, Save Hindu religion).’ Perhaps religion as a major tool of gaining power and remain in power was what I was witnessing in front of me, perhaps I must have been influenced by that also in our understanding of the Bhakti movement.

I remember, I had written another paper: ‘Socio-political Background of Kulsekhara Alvar and His Bhakti.’ There I had used Romila Thapar’s analysis of Ashoka and his use of Buddhism as a matter of policy—dhamma as a policy. I was very heavily influenced by that in my analysis of Kulasekhara Alvar’s policy of Bhakti.

So, perhaps these were the factors behind my understanding of Bhakti as a political tool, the temple as a political institution, etc., which I had developed later also in my dissertation.

MD: Would your understanding of Bhakti have been different if you were writing today? Had this project happened in more recent times, in the last five–six years, would you look at it in a very different way?

KV: I remain where I was, I haven’t changed my position. Perhaps some of the adjectives that I have used there, for example, when I said, this was a reflection and legitimation of the emerging socio-political order. But I had described that as the emerging feudal order. Perhaps that adjective I may not use with so much confidence today because the confidence I used to have about society being feudal, that confidence I have lost. Otherwise, the frame of analysis would be the same.

MD: Your doctoral work was on the political structure of early medieval South India. So, when you began work in the late ’70s, there was a dominant paradigm, the one represented by the works of Nilakanta Sastri, C. Minakshi, T. V. Mahalingam, what we now call the nationalist historiography. But this model was already being called into question by a number of historians, each in their own different ways, Karashima or Subbaarayalu, George Spencer, Kenneth Hall, Burton Stein, maybe even Arjun Appadurai in Worship and Conflict. How do you make sense of this shift and do you think your work has resonated with this shift?

KV: There I will have to be a little autobiographical, naturally, since the question is autobiographical. I began my work in the second half of the ’70s. In 1977, I got registration [for a PhD] and by about 1980, I had nearly completed writing the first draft. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue it because of various reasons. One is, I shifted my job from Kerala to Mangalore. There was the responsibility of building up a new department, a new university. Then I had domestic problems, so I had to go home every week, both my parents were ill. And I also had a bout of illness myself. The first draft that I had completed by the end of 1980, I had to leave. I couldn’t do anything until about 1985–86. When I took the first draft to finish it, I realised that this had become completely outdated with the publication of the writings of Karashima, Subbarayalu, Burton Stein . . . not so much Spencer and Hall but these were the three major names. I realised that what I had written in the first draft was largely a critique of Nilakanta Sastri and his disciples like Angadipuram Appadorai or Minakshi or Mahalingam.  

I had actually designed it as a critique of Mahalingam’s South Indian Polity because we were dealing with the same thing. But I realised that there is no point in now criticising and rejecting Mahalingam. Now I had to reckon with the writings of Karashima which came out in the early ’80s, I had to reckon with the writings of Stein which came out again in the ’80s, and when I redid it—in fact I should say that I did it all over again—I saw that I could do a better job in writing this.

Now I was able to see, for example, that there is a yawning gap between the image of royalty that was presented in the royalist literature including the prashastis, court chronicles etc., on the one side, and the political structure that was represented by other kinds of documents, that is land grants, proceedings from local groups like nadu, brahmadeya, sabha, etc. So how can one make sense of this gap? This was one question that I asked myself which to my knowledge neither Stein nor Subbarayalu have asked.

In trying to answer this question, I went closely into the secondary literature and I saw that Nilakanta Sastri’s description of Byzantine royalty that you were talking about earlier was derived largely from the prashasti part of it without paying any attention to the reality that is represented in the documents of the village committees, the nadu, the brahmin settlements, the trading corporations and others.

Then I saw that in order to make sense of this, we will have to go to the local groups better and it was here that I was able to see that it evolves from below, that is the peasant settlements, the groupings of the peasant settlements into larger units like the nadus. Then the trading corporations like the nagarams. The brahmanical settlements called brahmadeyas with their sabha, etc., these were the actual units of political organisation, the building blocks which get integrated with the rule of the monarchical state. So, the monarchical state was a very weakly organised polity, and in order to legitimise this weakly organised polity, all this rhetoric in the inscriptions, the prashastis, the court literature, etc., was necessary.

This is how I was trying to make sense of this. And I found that Karashima’s explanation was meaningful. The details that Subbarayalu had provided in his political geography were useful, and the rejection by Burton Stein of Nilakanta Sastri, particularly the exposure of the contradictions in Nilakanta Sastri, that was also handed to me. And that is the way in which I resonated. I did not, at least I don’t think that I was directly influenced by any of these writings. I was trying to chart my own course. Of course, being indebted to Sharma’s model of Indian feudalism, more than Nilakanta Sastri’s idea of a centralised monarchy or Burton Stein’s idea of a segmentary state, I was more influenced by Sharma’s understanding of Indian feudalism and that was what I was doing.

MD: Did the contemporary state, the state that was there in front of you, did that influence in any significant ways your approach to state as the character of the Indian state was undergoing a rapid transformation in the ’70s? It was becoming increasingly authoritarian. So, did that in some sense influence your approach to the idea of state itself?

KV: Perhaps yes. When Prof. Champakalakshmi and I edited a volume on state and society in pre-modern South India, in the introduction which I wrote, I have said this because the 1970s was a period when the state in India was undergoing a major transformation. After the Bangladesh war, before Emergency, the state was [moving] closer towards authoritarianism and the experience that the European fascist states had gone through in the pre-war period was perhaps happening in India. This is the feeling that we had. And it is precisely during this period that some of the major studies about the origin of the state in India were coming out. For example, Thapar’s work From Lineage to State comes out in 1980. Then Sharma’s work Material Culture and Social Formations, where he did not directly address the question of state formation which he reserved for a later book—all these were coming up.

Now you can make a comparison between Sharma’s understanding of the evolution of state, emergence of state on the one side and his earlier 1958 book, Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, where the question of the formation of the state is not addressed. So, the formation of the state becomes a central concern towards the end of the ’70s and the early ’80s and I must believe that I too was worried about the direction that the institution of the state was taking.

So, perhaps my study of the nature of the state and the way in which the state was evolving in South India was directly influenced by what was happening around us, particularly since I was younger by 30 years at that time, perhaps I was more worried about the state, more concerned with what was happening.

MD: You have acknowledged your debt to Sharma, to Sharma’s feudalism model and you have described the state in early medieval South India as feudal but there is a significant difference. Sharma’s understanding of feudalism is that there was a centralised state, geographically extensive, and this fragmented into a number of regional polities in the post-Gupta period. But your description of feudalism in South India is different because the emergence of the state itself is identified as feudal in character. So, this feudal state appears in a place, in a region where there were no states to begin with but only a number of competing chieftaincies. So, that I think is a very interesting difference because Sharma’s ideas of fragmentation have been widely contested. So, what do you think the model that you were trying to present has? What ramifications does this model have for understanding the evolution of state as an institution?

KV: As I was saying earlier, when I was able to look at the local groups, the peasant settlements, uru, vellan vakai villages and their groupings into nadu, etc., I was able to see the building blocks in the emergence of states in these and the integration of these groups into a single rule by the time, for example, the Chola state, or the Chera state in the context of Kerala, or the Pallava state in the context of northern Tamil Nadu.

Sharma’s, I have always felt, was some kind of a mechanical application of the Marxist scheme where, when the Roman empire fell, the centralised Roman empire gave way, in the post-Carolingian period, to a larger number of fractured political units in the feudal states of the high middle ages. So, it is a replication of that experience, that European experience that you find in the understanding of Sharma . . . what we were [talking about] earlier, trying to understand things in familiar categories. That is what we can see in the writings of Sharma. In the context of South India, the specificities in South India in the context of Kerala or in the context of Tamil Nadu, where there is no antecedent of a state, [I was] trying to make sense of that. But then the forces, feudal forces, feudal tendencies that Sharma saw in the context of post-Gupta India, they were visible also. So, one side you have clearly identifiable feudal tendencies but without the experience of a pre-feudal classical slave-owning society or a centralised empire. I was trying to make sense of this in my writing.

MD: You just mentioned that you are not confident any more of feudal as an adjective. Why do you think so?

KV: That is because when you grow you graduate and many of the certainties that I had in those days have graduated into probabilities.