Mahima Dharma (‘the Dharma of Glory’) is one of the most fascinating living religious traditions of Orissa. It originated During the Nineteenth century as an autochthonous reform movement, emerging out of the nirguna bhakti tradition of India. The earliest authentic testimonies of this movement are the impressive compositions of Bhima Bhoi, a lay guru, who fought against social evils such as caste and ritualized piety and initiated women into his community.
The Present volume is the first representative and comprehensive anthology of Bhima Bhoi’s religious poetry. It offers a detailed introduction, which discusses the poet and his work in its social, religious, and philosophical contexts. All poems, originally in Oriya, are transliterated into Roman script first and then translated into English on the facing page for easy comprehension.
This critical edition --- the first ever mad --- is based on two manuscripts available now on the internet at www.mahimadharma.de. Since Bhima Bhoi’s poetry is above all oral poetry, and his song are still recited by Mahima Dharmis, the editors decided to complement the written text by authentic audio samples from Orissa. An audio CD, recorded in the areas of Sonepur and Sambalpur bhajans of Bhima Bhoi sung by practicing Mahima Dharmis.
In the end, the volume brings to a worldwide audience, for the first time, an outstanding poet, widely unknown outside Orissa.
Johannes Beltz is curator of Indian art at the Meseum Rietberg
in Zurich, Switzerland. From 1999 to 2003 he did intensive field research on
Bhima Bhoi (www.mahimadharma.de). In addition to his museum assignment, he teaches
courses in Buddhism and Hinduism at the University of Zurich.
Bettina Baumer is an Indologist from Austria, researching
and teaching in India (Varanasi) since 1967. Professor of Religious Studies
(university of Vienna, Berne, Salzburg), Coordinator of the Indira Gandhi National
Centre of the Arts (Varanasi), Prof. Baumer is the author of many books and
articles and also the translator of texts on Orissan Temple Architecture, Kashmir
Shaivism and Indian Aesthetics. She has done fieldwork in Orissa for over 20
Mahima Dharma is one of the most fascinating and controversial religious traditions in contemporary Orissa. Though of relatively recent origin ---- it is not more than 150 years old – it has its roots in Orissa’s long and complex history. This book focuses on Bhima Bhoi, the faous disciple of Mahima Gosian and the legendary founder of the Mahima ‘sect’. the major part of the text we possess today of the Mahima Dharma is written by him. It is Bhima Bhoi’s literary work that makes him so important outside the inner circle of the Mahima Dharmis.
However, despite its popularity in Orissa, Mahima Dharma is relatively unknown outside the state. Until today, the basic texts are available only in Oriya and remain largely untranslated into Western languages. This book therefore presents the first scientific and critical edition of some of Bhima Bhoi’s poems with a Roman Transliteration and English translation. Systematic academic research or ethnographic data on Mahima Dharma is still not accessible for wider audience and scholarship. The aim of this thoughtfully-selected anthology is therefore to provide direct access to the beautiful compositions of Bhima Bhoi, the saint and founder poet of mahima Dharma. The editors present a reader which gives an inside view of the Poetics and the logical concepts of early Mahima Dharm.
Here, a note on the institutional and academic context is necessary. The research which had culminated in this book goes back to one particular person, Anncharlott Eschmann, and to the Orissa Research Project sponsored by the German Research Council. The project was conducted from 1970 to 1975 in Orissa by group of German and Indian scholars. It intended to analyse the cult of Jagannath in Puri and its regional ramifications. Within this agenda, a specific project on Mahima Dharma was conducted by Anncharlott Eschamann, the first European to do a systematic research on this particular movement.
Let us recall here that Anncharlott Eschmann was born in Munich on 24 September 1941, the first daughter of Prof. Ernst Wilhelm Eschmann, a renowned Professor of Philosophy, and Charlott eschamann, a retired psychotherapist. She grew up in Switzerland, studied Protestant theology, comparative religion and Indology at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg where she submitted her doctoral thesis in 1969 on ‘The Idea o History in Aztec Religion’. As a member of the Orissa Research Project, Anncharlott Eschmann went to India in the autumm of 1970. During her long stays in Orissa she become interested in Mahima Dharma. Anncharlott Eschmann died in tragic circumstances on 6 April 1977 in New Delhi (Kulke and Tripathi, 1994).
In 1999, almost 20 years after the first Orissa Research project was completed, the now-senior professors met and re-discussed their research of that time. What had changes since? What was to be affirmed, added or changes? Were the theoretical premises still appropriate approaches of academic value? A new Orissa project come into being, which was entitled ‘various Identities: Socio-culture profiles of Orissa in Historical and Regional government. As the title indicates, the interest shifted to the various folk and tribal traditions in the inland centers beyond coastal Orissa. This implemented a shift of paradigms, which concentrated on the marginalized actors, the periphery, the subalterns. And, again, Mahima Dharma became a project of its own.
Mahima Dharma (Dharma of Glory) is not only one of the most fascinating, but also one of the most important living religious traditions of Orissa. Despite its popularity in Orissa, it remains largely ignored outside that state. This is mostly due to the quasi non-existence of sources translated ninto English or other Indian languages, thereby rendering them unavailable to an international readership. With this volume the editors want to challenge the stpmontherly treatment and unjustified poor attention paid to this extraordinary movement. We present the first critical edition along with an English translation of some major poetic creations of Bhima Bhoi. In order to understand the importance of this project, one has to remember that there is no surviving text, oral or written, authored by Mahima Svami, the founder of this movement. The earliest authentic testimonies are the compositions of Bhima Bhoi, his most famous disciple who popularized Mahima Dharma in western Orissa. Bhima Bhoi attracted our attention, being the most outstanding poet of Mahima Dharma. Our academic interest quickly turned to passion of Bhima. While translating his compositions and collecting oral narratives about the life of the saint, we became ever more convinced that the saint and lay guru from khaliapali deserved intensive research. With this book we intend to show that Mahima Dharma is not a strange or particular phenomenon limited to Orissa or is ‘an autochthonous reform movement’ as Anncharlott Eschmann labeled it, it is a part of the Bhakti tradition of India. It is a regional variation of the rich tradition of religious devotion and poetry. Throughout our research we discovered, again and again, links and similarities with the bhakti saints and poets from other parts of India. Though we do not compare Bhima Bhoi to the great saint-poets Kabir, Tukaram or Namdev, who all lived and worked much before him, we claima for him a place of honour within this canon of saints. His compositions are worthy to be admired and read, both within Orissa and abroad.
In this essay, a sketch of the life of Bhima Bhoi, the author of this anthology, is drawn. It goes without saying that the project to write a scientific historical and biographical essay about a religious saint is a challenging and difficult one, since almost nothing is known about the historic person behind the legends. As with the case of Kabir or Surdas, Bhima Bhoi’s life is shrouded. This scholarly hesitation and ignorance is contrasted by the fact that the life of the saint-poet is well-remembered by his adherents till today. But these memories are often devalued as hagiographic narratives of a religious nature having nothing in common with historical objective data.
But this approach would be misguided. Since several years scholars of biography have, again and again, underlined how important it is not to diminish the value of hagiographical texts. In fact, it is an error to take only ‘objective’ data, information that can be verified, as valuable sources for writing history. In reality, the perspective should be changes since, in fact, these hagiographic narratives produce and create history. They are testimonies of how Bhima Bhoi is considered important by his followers, about how he is imagined to be real. The question is therefore not whether these legends are fact or fiction, but why these stories are remembered and imagined as real by certain people.
This short essay is a polished and synchronized biography of the author. Indeed in this introduction no attempt is made to present the ultimate and correct version of his life, as it ‘really’ historically, happened. Rather we intend to show how Bhima Bhoi is remembered today and what he means for his adepts. However, the limited space in this bood does not allow us to present all the stories circulating about Bhima Bhoi in Orissa, which are transmitted by Mahima Dhramis as well as others in western Orissa. One cannot emphasize enough that this kind of hagiographic narratives are by their nature controversial and contradictory, and that Bhima Bhoi’s life is depicted in Quite different says, according to the narrator,s interest. In our project, we labeled the competing and contradictory versions of his life stories as ‘contested hagiographies’.
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