Archive | 7:24 pm

Divine Malarkey

1 Sep

The Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency for change, the sense that things that happen come to fruition at a particular moment- now- pervades the great history called the Mahabharata

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternate History

SouthAsia emerges from prehistory in the grip of two equally frustrating protagonists. On the one hand is the ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ , rich in symbolism but spare on meaning till the script is deciphered. With the fading of the Indus cities ride in the pastoral tribes popularly called ‘Aryan’, who left little to account for their existence save a literary tradition. This juxtaposition of those who speak against those who act is a prototype for subsequent Indian history, with the literati firmly secluded and policed behind caste lines.

The Hindus takes on that complacent literati with its own arsenal, and she spends much of the book pointing out instances in Indian mythology and philosophy where the brahmins denounce interesting folk in their society. Her choice of texts (apart from a digression into Tantra, albeit a domesticated Tantra) is the orthodox combination of the Shruti and Smriti, a Pujari couldn’t ask for better. Considerable energy has been devoted in Indian historiography towards freedom from their hegemony, and the paradox of Doniger’s work is that it bolsters the  very orthodoxy she challenges. It is a challenge from inside the tradition of authorized texts, which raises the hackles of its conservators while the rest of us doze, or revel in the anarchy.

All art in this post is by the gorgeous Antoine Helbert, and thank you bluefloppyhat for bringing him to my attention by downloading his stuff onto my laptop.

Doniger is unflaggingly affectionate, but rarely indulgent, towards the people she calls “Hindus”. The book extends into modern times, and includes a chapter on Hindu-Americans, the identity at the nub of the latest diaspora, but the real meat of the book is pre-colonial India. Many reviewers have derided this incompleteness, I think it’s apt. Doniger’s project is to let the texts speak for themselves, and the rough outlines of a canon were in place around the period her narrative begins winding down.  The heated theological ‘scene’ Doniger describes evolves into the classical texts the British and then the nationalists were so keen on.

Somewhere between colonialism and modernity, Indian historiography lost the pulse of “itihas”- history by and of the precolonial subcontinent. I’m proof of this bias: with its lack of interest in linearity and frequent fatalism, ‘itihas’ had me flummoxed. How can respectable history loop around endlessly and accommodate centaurs, bird-women, ambiguous reptiles, immortal sages? Doniger helped me understand that ellipses are easier patterns to trace than straight lines. Texts in her telling shadow one another, defying modern epistemology. So much was forgotten and relearned, yet people managed to debate across millennia, and things that were forgotten in Magadha were remembered in Madras (imperial organization, for instance).

There is no category for the sacerdotal in most Hinduisms; ritual literature (Atharva Veda, the Brahmanas) was irrelevant to popular praxis before Christ was born. The rest of the canon is poetry (the Rig Veda), philosophy (Upanishads), technical treatises (Shastras, Sutras) and mythological history (Puranas). The epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata- are poems, histories, morality tales, philosophical debates and political charters. But in Hinduism these distinct “subjects” blend: the Brahmanas have their share of mythology, the Puranas and the Tantras their distinct philosophies, the Upanishads their share of political controversy: each supplementing the others, spawning countless commentaries in a dialogue across history. The basic element of the ‘Hindu’ heuristic arsenal is the story, with everything embedded into narrative: sermonising, dissent, change, disapproval, quandaries, riddles. Stories were bastardised, purged, overhauled; evolving into an intertwined tapestry of ideas that survives better than any ruin from prehistory.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: