The objective of this paper is to construct a social history, however speculative, of religious identity in sixteenth-century South India. Using Sanskrit philosophical and literary sources, along with epigraphy and archaeological evidence, I explore what it meant to be Saiva or a Vaisnava in early modern history. The specific focus was the Vaisnava writings of Saiva intellectual, Appayya Diksita, and his complex relationship – his fascination – with his Vaisnava predecessor, Vedanta Desika. Why was this paradigmatic Saiva so obsessed with the discourse and practice of those who ought to have been his natural adversaries? Appayya’s Vaisnava’s writings are especially curious given that they were produced in the last decades of Vijayanagara and its aftermath. During this period, boundaries between Saivas and Vaisnavas appear to have been intensifying as is evident from a number of documented cases of institutional conflict, perhaps resulting from the ebbing away of royal patronage from Saiva institutions. Many cases occurred in the near vicinity to the district in which Appayya lived and wrote.
My hypothesis is there were fissures between ritual practice and intellectual discourse which opened up a radical space for engaging with the other. Appayya seems to have taken advantage of this intellectual space to move between Vaisnava and Shaiva discourse. This is a kind of ventriloquism where Appayya is becoming a Vaishnava, but it is helping in his own theological process.
On the challenge of constructing a social history:
We are confronted at Vijayanagara and elsewhere because of the weakness of our data. This is because of historical circumstances, environment, ideology… this is incomparable to the data Western historians have to work with when studying this exact time period. We don’t have that kind of copious documentary evidence.