Crossing the Lines of Caste: Visvamitra and the Construction of Brahmin Power in Hindu Mythology
What does it mean to be a Brahmin, and what could it mean to become one? Over the years, intellectuals and dogmatists have offered plenty of answers to the first question, but the latter presents a cultural puzzle, since normative Brahminical ideology deems it impossible for an ordinary individual to change caste without first undergoing death and rebirth. There is, however, one notable figure in the Hindu mythological tradition who is said to have transformed himself from a king into a Brahmin by amassing great ascetic power, or tapas: the ornery sage Visvamitra. Through texts composed in Sanskrit and vernacular languages, oral performances, and visual media, Crossing the Lines of Caste examines the rich mosaic of legends about Visvamitra found across the Hindu mythological tradition. It offers a comprehensive historical analysis of how the "storyworlds" conjured up through these various tellings have served to adapt, upgrade, and reinforce the social identity of real-world Brahmin communities, from the ancient Vedic past up to the hypermodern present. Using a performance-centered approach to situate the production of the Visvamitra legends within specific historical contexts, Crossing the Lines of Caste reveals how and why mythological culture has played an active, dialogical role in the construction of Brahmin social power over the last three thousand years.
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ascetic power Asiatic Society audiences Audumbaras Bakker become a Brahmin bhakti Bharatas Brahmā Brāhmaṇa Brahmin Brahmin and Kṣatriya Brahmin Double Brahmin identity Brahmin power Brahmin sage Brahminhood century chapter composers cultural cursed DbhP Delhi Devībhāgavata Dharmaśāstra dialogic early epic’s epics and purāṇas Gautamī Godāvarī Gujarat HāJ Hariścandra Hiltebeitel Hindu mythology History India Indra Journal Kalmāṣapāda kāma Kauśika king king’s kīrtankār Kolhatkar-buvā Kṣatriya literature Mahābhārata Maharashtra Māhātmya mantras Marathi Mārkaṇḍeya medieval Menakā mythological oral Oriental Outcaste Panta Pratinidhi Pargiter Pāśupata paurāṇikas Pavagadh performance persona political Pollock preceptor Pune Purāṇa purāṇic texts rājasūya Rām Rāma Rāmāyaṇa Ṛcīka religious Ṛgveda river royal Royal Asiatic Society ṚV sacred sacrifice Śaiva Sanskrit epics Sarasvatī Satyavatī Satyavrata Śiva Skanda South Asia śrauta story storytelling storyworld Studies Sudās Śunaḥśepa Śvapaca tapas telling textual tīrtha tradition Triśaṅku University Press Vadnagar Vadodara varṇa Vasiṣṭha Vishwamitra Viṣṇu Viśvāmitra legends Viśvāmitra’s caste change Witzel yoga