Devoted to the Goddess: The Life and Work of Ramprasad. (Reviews of Books)

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Devoted to the Goddess: The Life and Work of Ramprasad. By MALCOLM MCLEAN. Albany: STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK PRESS, 1998. Pp. xix + 205. $19.95 (paper).

Ramprasad was a religious figure of eighteenth-century Bengal who was responsible for articulating a version of goddess worship that achieved tremendous appeal in his region. He was a major influence on the better-known nineteenth-century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna, and remains enormously popular in Bengal today. But just who was this influential saint? Malcolm McLean leads us into an investigation of the life and work of Ramprasad with this very historical question. He responds to the question by questioning the assumptions imbedded in the question itself, and with the aid of deconstructive techniques of literary criticism creates a new interpretation and understanding of the Sakta saint and his songs. The result is a stimulating work that suggests fruitful ways to read religious biographies as projects of larger religious communities.

McLean advances three main theses in this book. First, after reviewing the difficulty in any attempt to discover the historical Ramprasad and determine which poems are actually his with any confidence, McLean shifts the direction of his inquiry--primarily with the aid of Foucault--to look for the social and institutional function of the biographies of Ramprasad. From this perspective, the life and work of Ramprasad emerge as a collective representation of the beliefs and aspirations of the Sakta community rather than that of a single author. All poems attributed to Ramprasad are then "genuine" within this viewpoint and the historical question is rendered irrelevant. What has been preserved by the Sakta community is what was deemed significant and important by them. Moreover, McLean argues that whatever historical position Ramprasad had, he functions in the biographies that survive as an exemplar of the true Sakta; here he serves as an ideal of one devoted to the goddess. This methodological approach will be i nstructive for others working on religious biographies in South Asia, or in other cultural areas for that matter.

McLean's second main thesis is that the life of Ramprasad must be read in light of the biographies of the earlier Bengali saint Chaitanyn, head of the revival of Vaishnavism that took place in Bengal in the sixteenth century. He maintains that the life story of Ramprasad was modeled after that of Chaitanya in order to create for the former a position of greater respectability and leadership. He argues that a serious rivalry existed between the Vaishnavas and Shaktas, and that when Vaishnavism became a mass movement in the sixteenth century, the goddess cults were restrained and driven underground. …