In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saints and Hagiography in Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Studies
  • Medieval and Early Modern Poet-Saints and Their Stories
  • Modern and Transnational Sainthood
  • Saintly Qualities and Virtues
  • Saints in Places
  • Oral and Performed Hagiographies
  • Hagiography and Community Formation
  • Vernacularization and the Rejection of Elite Tradition
  • Hagiographies and Saints of Contestation and Community Crossing
  • Translations

Hinduism Saints and Hagiography in Hinduism
Emilia Bachrach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0227


The terms “saint” (derived from Latin) and “hagiography” (derived from Greek) are used, respectively, to describe a wide spectrum of revered Hindu figures and accounts of their lives from ancient to contemporary periods. The sources gathered here, however, generally focus on Hindu saints and their hagiographies from the medieval and modern periods. This is in part to contain an already vast topic, and also because there is a scholarly emphasis on the topics of sainthood and hagiography after the so-called vernacular turn, beginning at the start of the second millennium. “Saint” may refer to any number of designations in Indian languages: guru or acharya (a spiritual “guide” or “preceptor”) or sant (a “virtuous” person), to name only a few. Likewise, “hagiography” may gloss a range of South Asian narrative genres (from charitra, recounted “deeds” or “conduct,” to purana, or “legend”), which need not focus exclusively on a recording of saintly lives per se. Beyond narrative genres, lives of saintly figures are also celebrated in multiple other modes of representation, such as painting and film. While Hindu “saints” and “hagiography” capture a diversity of revered figures and representations of their lives, there are several important similarities across historical periods, religious communities, regions, and languages. First, a significant number of Hindu hagiographies seem to be composed in honor of figures remembered for their own compositions, often sung poetry in devotion to particular deities—Krishna, Shiva, Devi, and their innumerable localized forms. These narratives invite the reader/listener to experience intimacy between saint and the Divine vicariously and to elevate the reader/listener’s emotional state. Second, Hindu hagiographical representations are often linked not only to representing the awesome, mysterious, miraculous, wondrous, or imitable lives of the saintly, but also to calculated modes of memorialization. For instance, Hindu hagiographies memorialize a saintly figure in order to articulate community identity or a particular ideology. Likewise, many tellings of saintly lives are as didactic as they are devotional, not only teaching their readers/listeners to be devout, but also to behave in certain ways. With such qualities, hagiographies can also be polemic, articulating contested views of the past, the present, and the desired future. They may be used, for example, to contest authority over specific places, to defend or challenge inherited religious or political authority, or to normalize changing forms of ritual practice. Third, hagiographies, at once devotional and polemic, are also historical texts. Reading hagiography, then, can often be a complicated task of interpreting multiple layers of theology, social commentary, and historiography. From medieval accounts of poet-saints like the 6th-century Shiva devotee Karaikkal Ammaiyar to English-language comic book hagiographies of modern figures like Swami Vivekananda, the study of sainthood and hagiography in Hindu traditions provides ever-expanding areas of research across fields of religious studies, anthropology, literature, and history.

General Overviews

Although often in the form of introductory articles in journal special issues or edited volumes, summary accounts of South Asian sainthood and hagiography do vary in length and scope. Snell 1994, Mallison 2001, and Accardi 2018 all include introductions to these collections of essays. In addition to introducing the corresponding essays, Snell 1994 also remarks on the spectrum of didactic and devotional qualities in Indian hagiographical writing. Mallison 2001 and Accardi 2018 also discuss hagiography as a genre and emphasize the significance of scholarship on the topic. It is noteworthy that in the time between the publications of Mallison 2001 and Accardi 2018 there has been a shift—Mallison 2001 laments a dearth of scholarship (particularly in languages other than English), while Accardi 2018 recognizes that saints and hagiography have become an increasingly popular area of research. Granhoff 1984 and Barz 2012 both provide useful discussions of indigenous categories of “hagiography” in South Asia, such as charitra and varta, while White 1988 does the same for the category of “saint” (e.g., rishi, guru, sant, etc.). Novetzke 2011 theorizes on the hagiographical genre, arguing that such narratives might be read for their historical “texture” as much as for their theological content, and Smith 2000—the only monograph in this section—is a detailed study of the topic of saints and hagiography in South Asia, with a focus on Hindu traditions.

  • Accardi, Dean. “Introduction to Special Issue: Making a Hindu Saint.” In Special Issue: Making a Hindu Saint. Edited by Dean Accardi. International Journal of Hindu Studies 22.3 (2018): 379–384.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11407-018-9237-1

    A brief and cogent introduction to themes in research on Hindu sainthood, including a commentary on more recent scholarly considerations of hagiographical accounts as “valuable in their own” right, even if divergent from a saint’s “true legacy” (p. 379). Offers summaries of the special issue’s five articles from well-established and emerging scholars of South Asian religions, all of whom attend to the “making of Hindu saints” and the “the politics shaping of their legacies” (p. 383).

  • Barz, Richard. “Hagiography.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2012.

    Introduces hagiography as a category broadly, and also specifically as it relates to Indian literary genres, including purana, charitra, varta, and katha. Provides examples of these genres, with a focus on Hindu hagiographies in English translation.

  • Granhoff, Phyllis. “Holy Warriors: A Preliminary Study of Some Biographies of Saints and Kings in the Classical Indian Tradition.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 12.3 (1984): 291–303.

    Considers shared themes (e.g., doctrine of avataras and mission to destroy enemy or demon) in “biographies” of saints and kings across a variety of Sanskrit and some vernacular literary genres, including kavya, epics, purana, digvijaya, and caritra. Argues that such genres should be approached as “religious” biographies and that the “distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ biography does not in fact hold for the classical Indian tradition” (p. 292).

  • Mallison, Françoise. “Introduction.” In Constructions Hagiographiques dans le Monde Indien: Entre Mythe et Histoire. Edited by Françoise Mallison, vii–xxviii. Paris: Champion, 2001.

    A concise introduction to Francophone scholarship on Indian hagiography, primarily in Hindu, but also in Jain and Muslim traditions. Recognizes the (then) dearth of scholarship on Indian hagiography, particularly in languages other than English, in relationship to the attention given to the genre in Christian studies (p. viii).

  • Novetzke, Christian. “The Theographic and the Historiographic in an Indian Sacred Life Story.” In Time, History, and the Religious Imaginary in South Asia. Edited by Anne Murphy, 115–132. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Uses examples from hagiography of 13th-century Maharashtrian saint Namdev to argue that the genre of hagiography should be read for its historical “texture” as much as for its theological content. Examples include descriptions of Namdev, and other saintly figures, in relationship to imperial figures and empire more generally.

  • Smith, W. L. Patterns in North Indian Hagiography. Stockholm: Department of Indology, University of Stockholm, 2000.

    While specific to North Indian traditions, this monograph functions as a miniature encyclopedia to the topic of Hindu saints and hagiography. It begins with an accessible introduction and chapters organized according to shared themes such as “meeting the emperor,” “the Brahman opposition,” and “temptation, sin and salvation.” There are also two useful though not comprehensive appendices—“Saints” and “Hagiographic Texts.”

  • Snell, Rupert. “Introduction: Themes in Indian Hagiography.” In According to Tradition: Hagiographical Writing in India. Edited by Winand M. Callawaert and Rupert Snell, 1–13. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1994.

    Discusses themes across Indian hagiographical traditions, including Hindu traditions, as well as trends in (Euro-American) scholarship on hagiography. Emphasizes hagiography’s referential and reverential qualities and offers examples to suggest that as a genre hagiography is both didactic and devotional, inviting the reader into the company of “the saints.”

  • White, Charles S. J. “Indian Developments: Sainthood in Hinduism.” In Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions. Edited by Richard Kieckhefer and George D. Bond, 98–139. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

    Offers an account of various qualities of “saintliness” across Hindu traditions over time and according to different regional and theological traditions. Delineates certain Indic (namely Sanskritic) terms for saintly figures, including yogis, rishis, munis, acharyas, sants, and so on. Briefly discusses saintly virtues vis-à-vis gender as well as the changing perception of the “saint” during British colonial rule.

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