Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime

By Vijay Mishra

Subjects: Comparative Literature
Series: SUNY series on the Sublime
Paperback : 9780791438725, 268 pages, August 1998
Hardcover : 9780791438718, 268 pages, August 1998

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Table of contents


A Note on Transliteration

1. The Sublime Object of Devotion

2. Two Truths Are Told: Prologues to the Swelling Act

3. Devotional Poetics

4. Temples of Fire: Plurality-with-Unity

5. Desiring Selves, Undesirable Worlds

Conclusion: The Devotional Sublime


Select Bibliography


Combines Western theories of the sublime (from Longinus to Lyotard) with indigenous Indian modes of reading in order to construct a comprehensive theory of both the Indian sublime and Indian devotional verse.


The last two decades of the twentieth century have been marked by an immense revival of interest in the sublime. The sublime has been periodized (and "trans-periodized"), gendered, politicized, and even made into a commodity with specific social and economic effects. Yet past studies have used Western texts as their archives. This book dramatically shifts the focus by examining a major instance of a non-Western sublime: the Hindu Brahman.

Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime examines European theories of the sublime, reads them off against contemporary critical uses of the term (notably by Lyotard and Paul de Man), and proposes that the Hindu Brahman constitutes an instance of one of the most fully developed of all sublimes. Mishra argues that the negative aesthetics of Brahman (and the largely decentered rhetoric of Hinduism generally) is part of this massive culture's use of the category of the sublime (and not the beautiful) to speak about a moment when the mind is confronted with an idea too large to be presented to consciousness. The book then examines the case of one of India's dominant literary genres—devotional verse—to show that once the category of the sublime is grasped (or seen as the undertheorized category of Indian aesthetics), it soon becomes clear that this massive genre is also predicated upon Brahman, the Absolute, as the sublime object of (impossible) desire. It is the first book to offer a comprehensive theory of both the Indian sublime and Indian devotional verse.

Vijay Mishra is Professor of English Literature at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Gothic Sublime, also published by SUNY Press, and (with Bob Hodge) Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind.


"Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime continues, in fruitful ways, the recent extension of comparative literature beyond the narrow regional boundaries of Europe and North America. Mishra takes up an extremely important strain in pre-colonial Indian literature, which is unfortunately little known outside Indology. His thoughtful analyses should be read by any serious comparatist interested in devotional poetry." — Patrick Colm Hogan, coeditor of Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture

"The book offers a highly original interpretation of one fundamental problem in Indian cultural history: how does a devotee establish a relationship with God (Brahman) when God is ultimately incapable of representation? Mishra brilliantly exposes this problem by introducing the theme of the sublime and shows how the problem has been confronted across a range of central Hindu texts covering a large panorama of historical time and several Indic languages. By a highly judicious combination of both European and Sanskrit poetic theory he opens up new interpretive possibilities—especially about the problem of the representation of the ineffable—in several genres of Indic texts." — Greg Bailey, La Trobe University, Australia

"Mix together Western literary critics such as Stanley Fish, Jacques Derrida, and even Dr. Johnson with classical rasa theorists; philosophers of the sublime such as Longinus and Kant with Shankara, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Bhagavata Purana; modern scholars such as Madeleine Biardeau, Louis Dumont, M. Dhavamony, and D. D. Kosambi with Alberuni; and, throughout, a large roster of religious poets including John Donne, Jayadeva, Namdev, and especially Kabir; and you have one of the most original and thought-provoking discussions of bhakti literature and religion so far written. Mishra's comparisons are bold, apt, and fun." — David N. Lorenzen, author of Praises to a Formless God: Nirguni Texts from North India