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The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritamrita and the Grammar of Religious Tradition

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In the early sixteenth century, a charismatic Bengali Brahmin, Visvambhara Misra, inspired communities of worshipers in Bengal, Orissa, and Vraja with his teachings. Misra took the ascetic name Krsna Caitanya, and his devotees quickly came to believe he was divine. The spiritual descendents of these initial followers today comprise the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement, one of the most vibrant religious groups in all of South Asia.

In The Final Word, Tony 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. The answer, he argues, can be found in a brilliant Sanskrit and Bengali hagiographical exercise: the Caitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadasasa Kaviraja. Written some seventy-five years after Caitanya's passing, Krsnadasa's text gathered and synthesized the divergent theological perspectives and ritual practices that had proliferated during and after Caitanya's life. It has since become the devotional standard of the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement.

The text's power, Stewart argues, derives from its sophisticated use of rhetoric. The Caitanya Caritamrta persuades its readers covertly, appearing to defer its arrogated authority to Caitanya himself. Though the text started out as a hagiography like so many others-an index of appropriate beliefs and ritual practices that points the way to salvation-its influence has grown far beyond that. Over the centuries it has become an icon, a metonym of the tradition itself. On occasion today it can even be seen worshiped alongside images of Krsna and Caitanya on altars in Bengal.

In tracing the origins, literary techniques, and dissemination of the Caitanya Caritamrta, Stewart has unlocked the history of the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, explaining the improbable unity of a dynamic religious group.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In "The Final Word, a majestic and comprehensive book by any standard, Tony K. Stewart pulls together the work of a scholarly lifetime. . . This book is a landmark in its field. One can scarcely resist calling it the final word."—Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"The Caitanya Caritamrta is one of the great works of Bengali literature, and it deserves a great exposition. That is what we are given in The Final Word - but not only that. Tony K. Stewart's book makes a major contribution to the religious, intellectual, and social history of early modern India."
—Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Columbia University

"It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement for Bengal, for India, and now for the world. Yet what steps led from the ecstatic bliss of Caitanya to the religious movement? How did this god-obsessed man become known as god himself? With comprehensive scholarship, Tony K. Stewart answers these questions and traces the creation of the central text of the movement, the vast Caitanya Caritamrta, and its transformation from pious text, to hagiographical index, to symbol of identity, to the icon that itself is the object of worship."
—Ralph W. Nicholas, William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago

"There are few books that can deservedly be called masterworks, but Tony Stewart's The Final Word is certainly one of them. The fruit of a lifetime of fine-tuned historical scholarship, theoretical sophistication, exhaustive translation work, and ethnographic experience, this book is sure to revolutionize our understanding of not only these important Bengali texts and traditions, but of the very nature of religion, tradition, translation, sainthood, and secrecy. A stunning and deeply significant achievement."
—Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies, Rice University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195392722
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/21/2010
  • Pages: 472
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Tony K. Stewart is Professor of South Asian Religions and Literatures at North Carolina State University. He divides his time between Raleigh, London, and Dhaka.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Reconstructing the Life of a Text
1. Facing the Peril of Disintegration
2. Coping with the Enigma of Divinity
3. Early Formal Theories of Manifest Divinity
4. The Ascendency of the Erotic
5. Hierarchizing Theologies, Sanctioning New Practices
6. The Rhetoric of Primer, Commentary, Canon
7. A Phenomenology of Repetition and The Self-Replicating Community
8. Four Examples of the Grammar of Mimicry: the Legacy of the Caitanya Caritamrita
Works Consulted

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