by Gautam Pemmaraju
Haram aur dayr key jhagdey, kahan tak koi suljhayey
Jisey har tarah fursath ho, voh is maidaan mey aayey.
(Till when can we unravel what is sacred, what is profane?
He, who has nothing else to do, let him enter that battlefield.)
—Habib Painter Qawal
Over twenty years ago, if memory serves me well, travelling in Zaheerabad district of rural Telangana in central India, a group of us, all students on a college project, stopped to watch a folk performance at a local village fair, or jatra, as they are popularly known. The chitukulaata was to be performed by thirty odd men arranged in two concentric circles. In the dead centre sat two musicians and in between the two circles, the sutradhar, or narrator, pranced about animatedly, punctuating his vivid storytelling with a stick and a shrill whistle. The whole night affair, with a eager crowd huddled in blankets, for it was a chilly February night, was to be a long narration of stories of the gods from the Bhagavata Purana, in all likelihood from the regional saint Pothana's vernacular Telugu language version, Bhagavatamu. Before the performance, the troupe raised an invocation: “Yesu murthi ki jai“, they sang, “Hail the Lord Jesus”, for the men were lower caste converts, who in all likelihood, would have converted during the colonial era. Many such people over the centuries have chosen alternate identities through a variety of social mechanisms and for a varied set of motivations and provocations, but a common desire for social justice and dignity has broadly informed the breaking free from an exclusionary, exploitative and often brutal, social hierarchy. Some have retained certain acts of popular ritual, of culture and tradition, (perhaps linked to employment), and their process of repudiation is often a complex, graded act over generations. The histories of such complex social and religious life demonstrating a dense synthesis of identities, deftly conflating diverse strands through equally diverse influences and interlocutors, are numerous to say the least. While such syncretic identities can certainly be looked at with a degree of surprise and anthropological curiosity, the pitfalls of syncretism are also numerous; it is a bad word in contemporary humanities and scholars such as Peter van der Veer, Carl Ernst amongst others have alerted us to the traps that the casual usage of such ideas may present, for the proposition of a simple, benign, humanistic blending is generally a false one, often viewed with a ‘Hindu' lens, and in egregious ways, deployed towards an opportunistic polemical gain.
An immediate danger here is presented by people such as Dina Nath Batra, the serial right-wing litigant, whose strident advocacy has forced the publisher Penguin India, to cravenly capitulate and agree to withdraw Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternate History, and pulp the existing stock. For many, and one can safely assume that his ilk will no doubt agree, such converted Christians singing stories of the ‘Hindu' gods is evidence of the greatness, ‘plurality' and enduring continuance of an ancient three thousand year old tradition, of an essential, undying ‘Hindu' character belonging to the nation-state. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena, a fierce, militant, puritanical, anti-erotic, ahistorical force is quick to attack heterodox ideas that challenge its centralizing agenda. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena is in deep conflict with the ‘Hinduism' of the scholarly arena and the current disturbance with Doniger's book brings this conflict to the fore yet again, igniting a wide range of debates. Some apportion blame, some analyse it in the light of the current political climate, some critique the ‘brahmanical' bias of the commentary and point to dubious claims of 'Hindu plurality', others decry and lament, and most others discuss the principle of free speech. Beyond these debates lies the realm of history itself, and in particular, religious history of this land.
The American scholar Sheldon Pollock spoke of a ‘crisis in classical studies in India' in a short lecture a few years ago, and it is in this context he alluded to the “enemies of history”, a term I borrow as the title of this essay. He argues that there is a decreasing capacity of reading the classics and it is in those readings “that we gain access into the past and alternate ways of being human.” Politicians and their ilk are occupied by ‘nominalist exercises' he says, referring in particular to the Tamil Nadu government's fight to get Tamil classified as a ‘classical language', but there is a far ‘graver' issue at stake here. The threat to access of the past is a deep crisis, Pollock reiterates, for “the capacity to access the world's longest, continuous, multi-lingual, literary tradition” is at grave risk. Indeed, it is an ‘existential crisis' he argues, pointing importantly to what he considers ‘classical': “ways of being that are radically unfamiliar to us.” World class scholars of the caliber of DD Kosambi are no longer around Pollock points out, and this is unsurprising given the decline in interest, support, rewards, and an absence of sustained intellectual engagement specific to the area. In addition, and critical to the current goings-on, is the regular attacks on scholars and institutions by individuals and entities alike. The chilling effect that results from self-censorship percolates through and the crisis thereby deepens; we run the risk of losing access to “3000 years of some of the most significant monuments of human consciousness that might in some way tell us something about our existence.”
Pollock's self-confessed alarmist call here is in no way restricted to what is generally considered a ‘Sanskritized', ‘brahmanical' version of the past, or histories and texts that are aggregated in a way to suggest such a construct, for as we know, such a construct of an ‘exclusive Sanskritized, brahmanical' narrative of the past does indeed exist. There may be debate (and is, rightly so) as to what extent these many histories are exclusivist in a nature, which ones serve the purpose of maintaining traditional hierarchies exercising power and oppression, which remain elitist, orientalist or otherwise partisan. But the key here is that there exist multiple histories (many await being written), some which serve as powerful radical critiques (such as BR Ambedkar's writings, amongst others) and these versions are predicated on our access to classical literature, both religious and secular alike. Secondly, there is an enormous network of vernacular literature that has been created over the centuries, some of which has been shaped by a dense, symbiotic relationship with Sanskrit. The issue of the historical timeline of the many vernaculars in relation to a cosmopolitan, travelling Sanskrit is a broader debate; it will suffice to say here that the challenge that the vernacular traditions posed to a centralizing, exclusionary Sanskrit is an important counter-narrative. The “vernacularization of the Sanskrit world” Pollock has previously written, began in central Deccan with Telugu and Kannada languages in the 9th and 10th centuries. It is a fascinating discussion and has great bearing on not just Wendy Doniger's book but also on the patently ahistoric, disingenuous attacks by the ‘enemies of history'.
Appearing on the same panel as Pollock later, Doniger discusses Hindu puritanism at the outset. She rightly points out that Indian art (and literature) heritage is ‘tumescent' with erotic imagery, bhakti traditions are suffused with sringara, often with the god taking the form of a lover, the songs of renunciates and ascetics are often deeply passionate, and entertainingly, she points to a Bombay Presidency Supreme Court ruling of the 1862 wherein, the Hindu god Krishna's colourful ways were described by the judge Joseph Arnould as “transcendental lewdness.”
Friedhelm Hardy writes at the very outset in A Radical Reassessment of the Vedic Heritage (1995), that it is important to cultivate “an increased critical, factual knowledge of the past” given that “even a cursory glance at daily newspaper reports will reveal the extent to which India's religious past is being manipulated by all kinds of people for a variety of purposes.” Classical Indology itself he argues, has had a role to play in these manipulations. While indicating the existence a ‘monolinear or unidirectional' centralizing Sanskritization or Brahminization, since “a vast amount of source material can indeed be aligned along the central axis of such an integrative, ‘Sanskritizing' trend”, Hardy argues, “this is not enough.” His suggestion is that there are ‘other materials' in the many vernacular languages that have literary histories of over one or even two millienia that hold within an alternate formulation of the religious history of India: “a multidirectional (and thus non-teleological) affair.” He asserts that we must necessarily look at “centrifugal, ‘de-Sanskritizing' forces in the history of what we commonly call Hinduism” in order to effectively assess and counter the “distortion or discontinuity effected by the construction of a pan-Indian (ahistorical, etc.) ‘Hinduism' during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” In this paper, Hardy looks closely at a “highly remarkable, sophisticated and imaginative text”, the Tamil language Acharyardayam (Acharya Hrudayam) composed in the 13th century CE by Manavala Mamuni. Interestingly, Hardy writes that the idea of a ‘monolithic or monodimensional Hinduism' is challenged by this text since it offers “its own reflections on religious history.” Responding to the influence of “typically northern, brahmanical and Sanskritic features” during the period of 500 CE onwards a distinct religious synthesis had evolved in the region: “a highly emotive, aesthetic form of devotion that includes ecstatic features and expresses itself through Tamil songs and poetry.” He points further to the compositions of the Alvars, the Tamil poet-saints, in particular to Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli (8th century CE) or the vernacular Tamil, Dravida Veda. In such a Srivaishnava formulation, “a novel form of religion”, Hardy writes that what essentially took place was “the religion of predominantly low caste Tamil saints is transposed by orthodox Brahmins into the realm of equally orthodox Vedic religion” and the literature thus produced in the vernacular “superseded the earlier inaccessible and elitist Vedic revelation and made the knowledge required for liberation available to all.” In this context of exchange and synthesis the saint used the Acharyardayam “in the construction of an open, universalistic religious programme which he materialized through a radical social restructuring of the Srivaisnava movement.” The text has a distinct ‘polemical tenor' and argues that the Sanskrit Puranas and epics “are inferior” to the vernacular Veda. Hardy writes,
Even without entering into the details of these scriptural allusions, we can easily detect the vehemence of the argument and the radical rejection of traditional, Vedic-oriented dharmasastric religion: unlike the religion of kainkarya, it is misplaced, futile, vulgar and misconstrued, because its arrogant and exclusivist pretentions are not borne out by what it actually achieves for its followers.
The discussions generated by the Tamil Veda, the text and other commentaries, Hardy further indicates, forced reflections on “who is entitled to moksa” and in doing so, there is a critical look at issues such as societal differences, dignity, “exclusivist status claims by some groups who control access to the means of moksa“, what is ‘correct behaviour' etc. The Acharyardayam is “intentionally universalistic” and is meant for everyone, all societal groups, “precisely because it is in the people's mother tongue.” Interestingly, “it de-Sanskritizes in order to universalize; it opens itself up to a large segment of society previously excluded from salvation (and implicitly characterized as ‘inferior' in terms of human potential).”
Hardy briefly discusses similar groups in neighbouring states and brings up “the explicitly antinomian Lingayites (or Vira-Saivites)” of Karnataka, whose religious literature rejects outright “the orthodox and the ortho-practical values associated with brahmanism and Sanskrit.” He notes that the movement broke social conventions such as restrictions on inter caste marriages, etc. I will mention here the historic practice of Lingayat participation in the annual urs (annual commemoration of the death of a sufi saint) of the mystic medieval king Ahmed Shah al-Wali Bahmani in Ahstur, a village close to Bidar fort. The Lingayat community religious leader is accompanied in an 80 km walk to the dargah with a group of five hundred followers. As Sajjad Shahid writes here, the Swami and the dargah's Mutawalli (trustee) perform the urs rituals together in their own respective ways: one recites the fateha, while the other chants shlokas. The Hindutva narrative on the advent of Islam in India is also a hugely false enterprise, and we see the anxieties of such a rhetoric when confronted by alternative historical versions, play out everyday. In the past we have also seen most dangerous changes made to school textbooks to reflect the toxic history of the Hindu right. Not to mention of course, the valourisation of cow protection as an anti-minority tool, the violence related to religious conversion, and several other dangerous distortions of historical fact. We can only but apprehend graver threats to knowledge, scholarship and public discourse in the light of the recent events.
Doniger also asserts the alternate in her book; it is titled so. She writes at the outset that her book offers “a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit and represented in most surveys in English.” Additionally, Doniger also points out that Sanskrit sources too “include vernacular, female and lower class voices.” Interestingly, she likens her history of the Hindus as a “kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history”, much like the traditional yarns of native folk storytellers. (I will make a mention here of the many sodi storytellers in Telugu language traditions – from the itinerants who appear here and there to offer through their yarns life-transforming prophecies or even gentle, subtle hints that change the course of destiny, blessed as they are with vakshuddhi, to the burrakatha artists who sing, dance, entertain, and present social commentary through distinct vernacular idiom). Also framing an opposite of Sanskritization, she terms it ‘Deshification', or ‘Laukification', derived from laukika (common, popular, worldly). Local tales and gods have always found their way into the Sanskritic realm, she points out, “through a process of identificatio brahmanica” (see DD Kosambi's Myth and Reality). A multiplicity of perspectives is necessary in the study of Hinduism she argues, and her book also offers a counter-narrative to the political Hinduism of the right wing. Importantly though, Doniger's initial thoughts are critical to this debate for she hopes “this book will inspire some readers to go back to the sources and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me.”
Of the several reviews of The Hindus there are those that do disagree. This reviewer suggests that despite her claim of alternate voices, Doniger is actually “congratulating Brahmins”: “Yet the very clamour of what Doniger interprets as belonging to women, untouchables and pariahs is also a backhanded way of congratulating the male Brahmin authors. As the writers of these texts, they are the true agents, the accidental victors, of Doniger's alternative history. And while it is doubtful that they are constantly at the service of a monolithic Brahmin class or caste interest, they appear all the same to bear the faculty of drowning all other voices into their own.”
In David Shulman's review A Passion for Hindu Myths, he very interestingly discusses al-Biruni's thoughts and writings on the religion and history of the people he has studied diligently. The curious traveller complains that:
“unfortunately, the Hindus do not pay much attention to the historical order of things, they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of kings, and when they are pressed for information are at a loss, not knowing what to say, they invariably take to taletelling.”2 We know that alBiruni read Sanskrit puranas —immense compendia of mythic narratives, dynastic traditions, metaphysical speculations, and erudite materials taken from various classical disciplines. It is not hard to imagine him throwing up his hands in despair at what must surely have seemed to him an endlessly proliferating, tropical jungle of undigested information about the past.
The styles of ‘pre-modern Hindu historiography' include narrative tales and one must have greater rigour and technique in order to “sift fact from fiction” Shulman writes on, pointing in particular to the many vernaculars of the land. Shulman's own work, in a rich collaboration with Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, has offered many excellent examples of this thought (see the outstanding Textures of Time). I have previously relied on their scholarship to discuss the challenge to colonial modernity in the Telugu play Kanyasulakam (1892). In this context, Narayana Rao indicates to me that Telugu language vernacular texts have not been exclusionary – from the Mahabharatamu of the Three Poets, kavya traya, (Nanayya, Tikkana and Errana) “there is no text in Telugu that restricts access to the twice-born men alone.” And Bhakti poets such as Potana write of the universality of moksha; it is not restricted to only certain castes.
There is a wide range of thoughts on the religious history of this land. And a wide range of critical responses – from a selective reading of Vedic religious texts to an outright rejection of all Vedic literature, and of ‘Sanskritized' brahmanical religion. What is common to all radical critiques, wherever they may be placed on the ideological spectrum, is that they are based on reading, and access to the texts that they set out to critique. (Kancha Iliah's writings are of relevance here; see also The Story of my Sanskrit by Kumud Pawde and DR Nagaraj's Flaming Feet). It may be argued that in the realm of human experience outright repudiation of traditional hierarchies is radical action, but we are talking here of scholarship, where discussion, dialogue and exchange, is essential fodder in advancing radical thoughts.
Over two millennia we have seen great maritime journeys, carrying traders, travellers, adventurers, scholars, philosophers, soldiers of fortune, not to mention crew and deckhands, who have at great risk set out to discover what lies beyond their own four corners, beyond the familiar. In the stormy seas of our current times, with ill political winds blowing in all directions, we find our hope for progressive public discourse, or at the very least equanimous debate, severely tested. There is rich metaphor to be had in the journeys of antiquity for it is indeed these journeys, both inward and outward, that reveal to us who we are and how we have come to be.
I will end here with the words of Partha Chatterjee.
History is today, not implicitly but in the most explicit way possible, the pretext for violent political conflict in India, a conflict which threatens to tear apart what was for several decades taken to be consensus about the fundamental character of the nation state which the constitution calls India, that is ‘Bharat'.