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.