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Book review: More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India

When I began my commentarial series on Saundaryalahari I quickly realised that I’d have to give myself a ‘crash course’ in Indian poetics. This led me into pondering the relationship between imagination, visualisation, speech, metaphor and ritual production. Unlike western philosophies, which tend to a hard distinction between the imaginary and the “real”; between mental cognition and objective truth, the imagination has a central place in Indian philosophy and religion. There are many accounts of yogis, for example, who are able to directly transform reality by the power of their minds; similarly many tantric texts stress the capacity and power of internal ritual exclusively. The Cidvilāsastava for example, is a 40-verse text detailing the mental worship of the goddess Tripurā.

More than RealA book which I have found invaluable is David Shulman’s More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012). David Shulman is a highly regarded authority on Indian languages, poetics, and cultural history. His previous works include: God Inside Out: Siva’s Game of Dice co-authored with Don Handelman, (Oxford University Press, 1997) ; A Poem at the Right Moment: Remembered Verses from Premodern South India co-authored with Velcheru Narayana Rao, (University of California Press, 1998); Classical Telegu Poetry: An Anthology co-authored with Velcheru Narayana Rao, (Oxford University Press, 2002); and Siva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge co-authored with Don Handelman, (Oxford University Press, 2004).

More than Real is a thorough and systematic account of Indian theories of ‘imagination’ traced through poetics, painting, theatre; into tantric ritual, yogic meditation and aesthetics. Shulman brings into discussion some of the spectacular ‘mind-born’ worlds’ found in both literary and religious texts, such as the story of a 12th-century Tamil Saivite devotee from the Pēriya Purāṇam who, over many days, builds a complete temple in his mind; or the tale of Queen Sīmantini who mentally worships all who come before her mentally as Śiva and Umā, and through the power of her bhāvanā transforms a brahmin youth into a passionate young woman.

There are paintings and romantic imaginings that take on a life of their own; the heroine of the 7th-century Kadambarī who, suffering the pangs of seperation, creates for herself an imaginary lover, and in the sixteenth-century play Bhāvanā-puruṣottama “King Best” who falls in love with an embodiment of his own imagination. The fifth chapter: “Towards a Yoga of the Imagination” takes in diverse themes such as Ānandalaharī, ritual puja, and the poems of the Vaiṣṇava theologian Vedânta Deśika.

Along the way, Shulman discusses various key terms such as bhāvanā, Pratibhā 1 and Rasa and how their meanings shift and are used in different ways. Central to More than Real is Shulman’s argument that in South India around the 16th-century, “imagination” acquired attained a new kind of autonomy – so that “what is real is real because it is imagined” (p151). He quotes the 15th-century Annamaya (pp147-148):

Seeing is one thing,
looking is another.
If both come together,
that is God.

If you look for an elephant,
he comes as an elephant.
If you look for a tree,
he’s a tree.
If you look for a mountain,
he’ll be a mountain.
God is what you have in your mind.

If you look for empty space,
he appears as space.
If you look for an ocean,
he’ll be an ocean.
If you look for a city,
he will come as a city.
God is what you have in your mind.

If you think of the god on the hill,
married to the goddess,
that’s who you’ll see.
What you look for,
is the god in you.
What you see
is the god out there.
God is what you have in your mind.

Shulman says (p148) “So god is … something within the purview of the manas, a mental production said repeatedly to emerge or become visible – in accordance with an image the mind contains a priori. Such a god is pliable, sensitive to (mental) context, adaptive: you get whatever you see, and you see whatever you imagine.”

Shulman locates the roots of this ‘revolution’ in the rise of new elites in South Asia, drawn from castes of “warrior-merchants and other nonlanded groups that sought to profit from an increasingly cash-oriented economy, with its new opportunities for self-made men, free from ascriptive determination” (p152). This is a reference to the Nāyaka polities, examined in Shulman’s (co-authored with Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam) 1992 book Symbols of Substance: Court and State in Nāyaka Period Tamilnadu (Oxford University Press, 1992) – which again argues that Nāyaka-period literature saw a new emphasis towards the human body and its sensory capacities, expressee through medical books, poetic works, and ritual, devotional & metaphysical texts – where the human body [is} “the primary epistemic tool in the pursuit of transcendence” (1992, p118).

Overall, I found More than Real to be a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking work, opening up many avenues for further exploration, particularly in regard to the interplay between Indian literature, plays, and ritual texts. But anyone with an interest in the role of imagination in ritual praxis would also find much of interest here, as would anyone with an interest in how, in India, gender can be a production of mind. Highly recommended!


  1. see Saundaryalahari – IX for some related discussion