Where We Came From – A Review of “Early Indians” by Tony Joseph

20190325_142751Indians are a people who are always a bit confused about their identity as “Indians” – maybe because the nation itself is a relatively recent construct (not ignoring the mythical “Bharata”) and the regional and caste identities are more strongly embedded. Ever since the West discovered the mystic East, there have been attempts to create an Indian past which is wholly spiritual – based on the mythical, Vedic “Aryan” – by the proponents of the enlightenment. In colonial times, this “Aryan” became an invading race who destroyed the mature Harappan civilisation; the same figure was taken to be the epitome of race purity and became the basis of the toxic Nazi doctrine. And later on, in a reversal of the myth, the invading Aryan became the villain who destroyed the peaceful Dravidian civilisation in the Dalit version of history.

All these are now discounted by serious historians. The widely accepted theory about Indian prehistory is that the Harappan civilisation perished because of a severe drought, and the Indo-Aryan speakers migrated to the Indian subcontinent later on from Central Asia and mixed with the indigenous population. There is, however, a vociferous fringe who staunchly oppose this: they are adamant that there have been no migrations to India at all, and that the Vedic people are the direct descendants of the Harappans. All arguments to the contrary are taken to be part of a “colonialist conspiracy” to undermine Indian culture.

So far, the (hotly disputed!) evidence for the migrations have been mostly archaeological and linguistic. But now, a new tool is available with the scientific community for the analysis of the origin, development, and spread of homo sapiens across the globe: genetics.

Tony Joseph has been writing regularly about how the recent advances in DNA research have been impacting the research into prehistory. Now, he has arranged all his arguments in the form of this highly readable book.

In the introduction, he writes:

There is a reason why this book could have been written only now, and not earlier. It is because our understanding of deep history has changed dramatically in the last five years or so. Large stretches of our prehistory are being rewritten as we speak, based on analysis of DNA extracted from individuals who lived thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Many ‘facts’ that we took for granted have been proved wrong, and many questions left dangling in the air as historians, archaeologists and anthropologists argued it out among themselves have been given convincing new answers — thanks to the recently acquired ability of genetic scientists to successfully extract DNA from ancient fossils and then sequence it to understand all that bound people together, or distinguished them from each other. If technology had not matured to the level it has, scientists would not have been able to make the discoveries they are making today. And if it were not for their latest findings, our prehistory would have remained as vague and contentious as earlier and this book would not have been written.

So how exactly does DNA put paid to the debate? Well, without going into the technicalities (it is all detailed in the book), let me try to explain in plain terms how this whole thing works.

All the genetic code that makes us what we are are packed into twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that we all carry in the nuclei of our cells, plus the mitochondrial DNA or the mtDNA that stays outside. This is called a person’s genome. In the twenty-three pairs, one of each pair inherited from each parent, exactly one pair – the sex chromosomes – will differ. If the type is XX, the person will be female, and if the type is XY, the person will be male. The Y-chromosome is passed relatively unchanged from male parent to male progeny, while the mtDNA is passed on without change from the female parent to both male and female progeny: but it gets further transmitted only through the female line. Thus, the mapping of these two over the human population spread across the globe helps us to get a genetic map of the world’s population. And since there are minor mutations to both the Y-chromosome and mtDNA that get accumulated over time, it provides us with the genetic history of the changes over time, too – combined with the DNA analysis of skeletal remains.

(This is super-condensation, and hence, a bit simplistic. Detailed and reliable info is available in many places, especially on the net.)

Aided with this technology of DNA analysis, the following is the timeline of India’s population during prehistoric times.

  1. 70,000 years ago – Homo Sapiens starts move out of Africa, where they originated.
  2. 65,000 years ago – The “Out of Africa” (OoA) contingent reach the Indian subcontinent, where they meet other archaic human species, whom they must have subdued and subsumed in their spread all the way across South Asia to Australia.
  3. 45,000 to 20,000 years ago – The First Indians, descendants of the OoA group, start using Microlithic technology and spread across India.
  4. 7000 to 3000 BCE – Migration of Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region to South Asia leads to their mixing with the descendants of the First Indians. These people create the Harappan civilisation which exists from 5500 to 1300 BCE, through the Early, Mature and Late Harappan Eras, until it dies off most probably due to a massive drought. The Harappans migrate towards the south.
  5. 2100 to 1000 BCE – Pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe, the famed “Aryans” of legend, migrate into the Indian subcontinent, mixing with the Harappans. Thus we have two main DNA mixes that is found in India today: those of the Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians, called the Ancient South Indian (ASI) group; and Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians + the Central Asian Pastoralists, called the Ancient North Indian (ANI) group. They were called Dravidians and Aryans in the past.

(There was some migration from China as well, especially in the North East.)

20190326_171643
Now the million-dollar question: how does one say that the migration happened in one direction, that is, towards India? Why can’t it be the other way round, as the Out of India adherents claim? The author presents the following arguments against this:

  1. The Indo-Aryan languages which spread across most of Europe and Asia could conceivably have gone from India. However, if such a thing happened, the genetic footprints of the First Indians – the people who came originally out of Africa and settled in the subcontinent 65,000 years ago – should be seen across the populations of Europe. This is conspicuous by its absence.
  2. The horse, which is the prime animal in the Vedic religion, is absent in the Harappan culture – which is strange if the Vedic culture directly follows from it. Also, there are no vestiges of the Vedic deities anywhere in Harappa. (There are a multitude of other factors that the author points out – I am only highlighting a few prominent ones.)
  3. The Dravidian languages, the roots of which are markedly different from the Indo-Aryan ones, has strong connections to Elamite, the language of the Iranian agriculturists, at its roots. It has borrowings from Sanskrit too and vice versa – this points to the intermixing of language at later stages.

    (Once again, I am over-simplifying for brevity. There are a lot many other arguments quoted by the author, many of them raised by more than one historian/ archaeologist/ linguist from across the world. “Out of India” theory holds sway, it seems, with very few reputed scholars.)
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    In conclusion, the author says:

The best way we can define ourselves is as a multi-source civilization, not a single-source one, drawing its cultural impulses, its traditions and its practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories. The Out of Africa migrants, the fearless pioneering explorers who reached this land around sixty-five millennia ago and whose lineages still form the bedrock of our population; those who arrived from west Asia and contributed to the agricultural revolution and the building of the Harappan Civilization which then became the crucible for new practices, concepts and the Dravidian languages that enrich much of our culture today; those who came from east Asia, bringing with them new languages and plants and farming techniques; and those who migrated here from central Asia, carrying an early version of what would become a great language, Sanskrit, and all its associated beliefs and practices that have reshaped our society in fundamental ways; and those who came even later seeking refuge or for conquest or for trade, and then chose to stay — all have mingled and contributed to this civilization we call Indian. We are all Indians. And we are all migrants.

This, I like.

This is an extremely readable book on a fascinating subject, and will whet your appetite for more research.

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This Feminine Nature

Last Saturday, we had our monthly book club meeting where one member quoted from a book of local farmer lore: about how the earth was not farmed for a certain period of time when it was considered to be menstruating! I immediately remembered a piece of lore of the Kerala fisher-folk I had heard years back.

In Kerala, we have Saturday something called “chaakara”, when fish come to the surface in great numbers and the fishermen have a fine time just scooping up the fish in large numbers. The interesting thing is that for some days before this, the sea turns red: and the fishermen don’t venture out. Kadalamma (“Mother Sea”) is supposed to be having her periods.

What we are seeing here is a variant of the almost universal mythical theme of equating nature – prakruthi – with Woman. And since myth is almost always written by men, the woman becomes the passive object – the “eternal feminine”. Before we go into the politics of this, however, I would like to look at this concept in a bit more detail.

The Myth of Ahalya

The Samkhya Philosophy posits the evolution of the universe, and its continued existence, on the interaction of the active principle (purusha – “male”) with passive principle (prakruthi – “nature”). (A week ago, I witnessed a play by a group from Pondicherry based on this theme, composed entirely of scenes of male-female fusion – some of them violent – without any dialogue. It seems that this concept still holds sway even among progressives.) In the Vedic religion, the woman is continuously referred to as the “field” and the man as the “sower”. And reading a book on the knightly quest for the Holy Grail by Joseph Campbell, I find this:

Because of the tendency to anthropomorphize—a tendency characteristic of ignorant peoples—the feminine earth notion takes definite form, finally, of a goddess, and the masculine fertilizing principle takes shape in a vigorous god. The union of god and goddess, it is thought, results in the abundant fertility of nature.

I immediately thought of Indra – the rain deity of the early Aryans who held sway in the Vedic religion before the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva took over – who is indeed a vigorous (and oversexed) god like the Greek Zeus. Indra used to run after women, rather in the vein of Zeus: and in the context of the current topic, the myth of Ahalya is instructive.

ahalya

Ahalya being released from her curse – painting by Raja Ravi Varma

Ahalya was the wife of the sage Gautama, who was desired by Indra. Once when the sage went out, Indra assumed his form and seduced her. Gautama came to know of this deceit, and cursed Ahalya into a stone (and according to one version I heard, cursed Indra with a thousand penises – however, these have been sanitised into eyes subsequently). Ahalya was imprisoned her rock form until Rama came and set her free, in Treta Yuga.

 

One analysis of the myth is provided by Prof. Leelavati in the introduction a book about the “Pancha Kanyas”, the five distinguished women of Indian myth. She sees Ahalya as the untilled field (A – Halya: “not-ploughed”) and Gautama as the sun (Gau – Tama: “earth-warmer”): Indra, as rain, fertilises it. So shorn of all moralistic preaching, this could be a very ancient myth of a people, slowly moving into an agrarian mode of life from one of hunting and gathering. The act of seduction here is thus desirable, as it is what produces life. (Maybe, after Indra fell from grace with the advent of the Trinity, the roles were reversed and he was cast as villain. But note that the sun turns the untilled field into rock – a symbol for barrenness – until Rama, the hero from the Sun Dynasty, comes and changes her back into her fertile form, as one of the tasks in his Hero’s Journey.)

The Earth Mother

The earth in her feminine form is also mother and goddess (Bhumi). Rama’s consort Sita is not born from a human womb but a furrow in the field, as her father, King Janaka (“creator”), ploughs it. A rather odd occupation for a king, unless we see him as a version of the grain king: the dying and reviving god who is synonymous with the harvest (the myth of Maveli in Kerala is another version). Here, however, instead of the king, it is his daughter who symbolises the grain – and at the end of the epic Ramayana, Sita, spurned by Rama, calls upon her mother and is swallowed by the earth.

sita_bhum_pravesh

Sita swallowed up by the Earth – painting by Raja Ravi Varma

The two wives of Vishnu, the God who sleeps on the thousand-header cosmic snake and dreams up the whole of human existence has his head in the lap of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity and his feet in the lap of Bhumi, the Earth Goddess.

the earth motherPupul Jayakar in her book The Earth Mother has compiled different variants of this archetype from across many primitive cultures in India.

All these have convinced me that the concept of nature as feminine predates the patriarchal culture. What has changed as man took over the reins of society was how the feminine was viewed. Instead of a bountiful mother, sometimes nurturing and sometimes punishing but always protective, she became a passive field: a place for the male to “sow his seed” and reap the harvest. The holy mystery of menstruation became a sort of social taboo (as seen in its most virulent form in the recent Sabarimala agitation). Man was in the job of “husbanding” the environment, not being part of it.

Seeing nature as feminine need not be related to the objectification of women. It could be with a feeling of reverence, as women were revered in primitive societies as the people who were responsible for the continuance of the race. The worship of earth (and as an extension of it, nature) may be just what the doctor ordered in these days of rampant and suicidal environmental destruction.

Samudra Vasane Devi, Paravata Stana Mandale;

Vishnu-patnim Namastubhyam Paada Sparsham Kshamasva Me…

(O Goddess! Having the ocean as Her garments and mountains as Her breasts, who is the consort of Lord Vishnu, I bow to You; please forgive me for touching You with my feet.)

The Year 2018 – A Bookish Retrospective

 

It was a year of exceptionally heavy and eminently satisfactory reading, when even the books I one-starred served a purpose.

Non-Fiction

ggsThe year was almost equally split between fiction and non-fiction, with fiction having the slight edge. Of the non-fiction ones, the outstanding reads were Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, a history book which actually looks at the whys and not only the hows; and Being Reshma, the horrifying yet uplifting memoir of an acid attack survivor. Another book which repays attention is by another brave girl, Payel Bhattacharya, who is fighting a desperate battle against VHL syndrome, a rare and life-brthreatening genetic disease. Her book, The warrior princess, is not exactly award material: but she definitely is. I know her personally, and her pluck.

India is slowly sliding into fascism, in a classical example of the “boiled frog” syndrome. To understand this drift towards the right, I read a lot of books from various genres: politics, history and reportage. These being from the whole range of the political spectrum, there were some I abhorred, the explicity right-wing ones: but I had to bite the bullet and forge ahead, as they were required reading to obtain a first-hand peek into the brain of the Hindu right-wingers.

sixThe most famous (and IMO, the most poisonous) among them is V.D. Savarkar, whose book Hindutva is the core of the philosophy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s answer to the Nazi party. This year, I read his even more obnoxious Six glorious epochs of Indian history, in which he advocates the ethnic cleansing of Muslim men and the wholesale enslavement of Muslim women. This sentiment of “de-Islamising” India is echoed by Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who was the second supremo of the RSS, in his book We Or Our Nationhood Defined. golwalkar

Savarkar’s disciple and friend, Nathuram Godse, murdered Gandhi in 1948. His justification for doing so is set out in his deposition before the court, finally declassified: I read that too, to understand the spread of the right-wing cancer into the Indian psyche. (There are still people in India who consider Godse a hero. Need I say more?). Interestingly, Savarkar was implicated in the Gandhi murder and just escaped by the skin of his teeth: the history of which is set forth in Savarkar and Hindutva ; The Godse Connection by A.G. Noorani.

biFascism has deep roots in the falsification of history. The creation of a fictitious super race or a mythical homeland is part and parcel of all fascist philosophies and Hindutva is no different: but here, the country already exists and they only have to imagine a “golden past”, dismissing all mainline historical research and filling the vacuum with their kooky mix of mythology and legend. Such an exercise is Rajiv Malhotra’s Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, where this guy with a right-wing agenda and no background in history tries to overturn widely accepted theories of Indian history – viz. the migration of Aryans into the subcontinent. He even denies that the Dravidian language exists! The ignoramus has no valid arguments, other than it’s all a conspiracy theory by “leftist historians”.

The prime accused is, of course, Romila Thapar, whose left-of-centre views seem to irk these bigots. Her book The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Thrtpapough History is the perfect antidote to idiots such as Malhotra; her erudition and balanced voice as she analyses how the present is affected by the past makes it clear why the right wants to rewrite Indian history at all costs. The same theme is explored further in On Nationalism, of which she is one of the contributors: about how a false national identity based on a “Hindu” past is created.

Did I mention conspiracy theories? Well, the one to end all of them that is currently the rage in India is the one about “Urban Naxals” – a sort of “deep state” akin to the one imagined in the USA in the McCarthy era. Urban Naxals, written by the right-wing filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, is responsible for creating this tag which has been taken up enthusiastically by the powers that be. These are incidentally imagined left-wing “moles”, hidden among the intelligentsia, who support the Maoist subversives in India’s so-called Red Corridor. Agnihotri’s book is a classic case of right-wing paranoia, short on facts and long on insinuations – yet dangerous all the same. I could see McCarthy’s ghost being revived in India, especially after I read the pamphlet The Time of the Toad by Dalton Trumbo, one of the famous Hollywood Ten. (BTW, anyone interested in Maoists in India should read Hello, Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement by the award-winning journalist Rahul Pandita – another excellent read from the year under review.)

 

Again coming back to politics, I read The Hanging of Afzal Guru and the Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament, a collection of essays by various left-wing and liberal writers who raise the disturbing possibility that Afzal Guru, the alleged mastermind behind the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and who was subsequently executed, might in reality may have been innocent. Compellingly written, this book gives ample substance to the argument that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. Similarly, eminent journalist Barkha Dutt’s collection of reports on the chronic ills plaguing India (This Unquiet Land) and Mother, Where’s My Country?: Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur, by another journalist Anubha Bhonsle about Manipur were also disturbing yet enlightening reads.

mtusMoving on from politics to religion, I read two books which have tried to remove the mask of piety from the facade of the modern-day saint Mother Teresa: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens and Mother Teresa The Untold Story by Dr. Aroup Chatterjee. The first one was polemical and entertaining; the second, balanced and a bit dry. However, both of them presetmpnt a strong case against this Catholic icon.

I love to read the views of non-Hindus on Hinduism: Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism was an interesting read. This lady is roundly reviled by the Hindu right, but there is nothing in her views that denigrate the religion: it just does not conform to their idea of a fictitious monolithic faith, that’s all. Similarly, Prof. D. N. Jha’s book, The Myth of the Holy Cow had also invited the wrath of the Hindutva gang because he tears apart the lie that the cow has always been a sacred animal to Hindus: with textual and archaeological evidence, he proves that the Vedic Indians positively revelled in cow meat. It is a wonder that the author survived, because so many rationalists who tried to cleanse the Indian psyche such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were murdered by Hindu right-wingers. I read one book by Pansare, Who was Shivaji about the greaholy cowt Maratha leader Shivaji, where he argues that contrary to popular belief, Shivaji was really a people’s ruler and not “protector of cows and Brahmins”.

As part of my decision to explore Indian culture, I started my Sanskrit reading project last year. I read through the Manusmriti and the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Manusmriti is a toxic document, patriarchal and racist; the Bhagavad Gita contains some great mythic imagery, but it also is tainted with caste and gender prejudice. I have blogged my reviews of both the texts (here and here).

Continuing in the same vein, I read Dance Of Shiva by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a book recommended by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell as required reading. However, the book is terribly dated and carries a lot of the misconceptions of the early Indologists. I also read The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension ― Selected Essays 1944–1968 by Campbell himself – as always, a pure pleasure to read.

On to other subjects now.

I read three books by Bill Bryson – two travelogues and a book on language. I liked one travelogue (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America), the other one, not so much (Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe) and loved the book on English (The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way), written in his quirky style with weird factoids peppered all along. And speaking of English, I loved Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss too – being the spelling Nazi that I am.

brainOther non-fiction books of note: The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen, The New Adventures of Socrates: An Extravagance by Manny Rayner (thanks for gifting me the book, Manny!) and Two in the Bush by Gerald Durrel. Akkarmashi, the autobiography of Dalit Indian which I read in its Malayalam translation was also a poignant read.

That is it for the non-fiction. Onward to fiction now!

Fiction

I would like to call this the year of reading the classics. I decided to stop buying books temporarily and finish off the ones languishing on my shelves – and it paid rich dividends.

aqotwfMost definitely, the top fiction read of the year was All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It reminds one that book doesn’t have to be fat and full of dense prose to be profound. This slim volume hits like a sledgehammer: the futility of war is laid out in spare and even humorous prose. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich also had the same effect, but to a lesser degree.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is all it’s hyped up to be. Frightening and literary at the same time, this horror story will wibstay with one a long time after one closes the book.

Another book which blew me away, with its mixture of humour and pathos, is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. I read it without any expectations, and was pulled into the tale. A hilarious look at the cockeyed world of projects in the Middle East, carried out with only political intent and no thought of scientific feasibility.

ttlhOnce one gets past the opaqueness of impressionist writing, one can swim with the tide and enjoy it. This fact was proven to me once again by Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a true classic.

Angela Carter got me again with Nights at the Circus. Such a magnificent writer! Sadly, she passed away too soon…

Lolita! Read it finally… the book is well-written, and the prose is extremely powerful, but I couldn’t bring myself to wholeheartedly ‘like’ it – because the subject matter was so repugnant.

Also, finally managed to climb all the way to The Castle, after a few aborted attempts, unlike Franz Kafka’s protagonist. Disturbing and frustrating, he may be – but Kafka is certainly compelling.lolita

And I must not forget to mention Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the idol of my youth, still the most magical writer I have ever read.

Other books of note I enjoyed: Jazz by Toni Morrison, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Selected Stories by Jerome K. Jerome, The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle tmouhStop Cafe by Fannie Flagg and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

The big disappointment of the year was The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. It seems years of writing only political essays have blunted her pen. This book read like a political essay disguised as a novel.

Coming to genre fiction:

Whodunits

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashimo and Original Sin by P. D. James: both passably good mysteries but not mind-bending. The authors have written better ones.

SF and Fantasy

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, my first experience of SF by a non-European author, was a qualified success: strong on science, a trifle weak on fiction.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – an SF classic, but unfortunately has not aged well.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville: typical Mieville stuff, with drawings by himself. Enjoyable dark fantasy for Young Adults.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – a much-touted fantasy classic. It has fantastic world-building and an engaging story-line. But I felt the author let the reader down a bit at the end.

Horror

I had become a fan of Basil Copper after reading his terrifying story The Janissaries of Emillion. So it was with some anticipation that I read volumes two and three of his collected works (Darkness, Mist And Shadow: Volume 2: The Collected Macabre Tales Of Basil Copper and Darkness, Mist & Shadows – Volume 3 pb ). However, I was sorely disappointed. Maybe Volume 1 is better.

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The Song of the Lord

Krishna_tells_Gota_to_ArjunaIf someone asks a devout Hindu what his most sacred religious text is, you more likely than not to get the answer: “The Bhagavad Gita”. This short Sanskrit text is purportedly a discourse given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when he was assailed by self-doubt at the moment of going into battle against his kith and kin. Though it is an exhortation to the warrior to carry out his duty and fight regardless of consequences, it is supposed to contain the kernel of the Indian philosophy of life, death, rebirth and the attainment of everlasting bliss.

The Bhagavad Gita –roughly meaning “the Lord’s discourse on the philosophy of the Brahman” – is largely an unread text. Most learned people know a few verses which are quoted time and again, and which are considered to be its heart. I was also guilty of this, until lately, when I got this bee in my bonnet about reading up on all of India’s ancient literature in the original. Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a dictionary, I set forth on this quest.

The Manusmriti was the text I first attacked, for the reasons I have explained in my blog (here on these pages). I decided that the Gita should be next, as a text which had formed part of my outlook on life. I was fed up of second-hand observations and wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

I know that many say that such a “deep” philosophy cannot be understood by untrained minds, and a guru is required on such a journey. I appreciate their argument, and plan to read a few of the famous commentaries. But in my opinion, reading the original is the mandatory first step.

The Setting

The Bhagavad Gita is set within the Mahabharata , the world’s largest epic. The Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins disputing the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura, have decided to go to war. Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior asks his friend and charioteer Krishna to steer his chariot to the middle of the opposing armies, to survey the forces arrayed against him. But on seeing all his relatives ready for battle, Arjuna’s nerve fails him on the contemplation of the enormity of the task ahead – nothing short of the murder of near and dear! He throws down his weapon in disgust and says that he won’t fight. Better to die than rule over a kingdom obtained through bloodshed and fratricide!

This is when Krishna begins his long-winded discourse to take apart Arjuna’s seemingly noble arguments. And this is what the Bhagavad Gita such a controversial text: it argues for himsa as part of warrior’s noble duty, and rejects ahimsa as moral cowardice. This is in direct opposition to the Buddhist doctrine that was prevalent in India at that time, and it is why many scholars see it as a Brahminical attempt to strike at the root of Buddhism. But then, one has to take into account the fact that Gandhi, perhaps the greatest proponent of ahimsa that ever lived, took the Gita to heart!

We don’t hear the discourse first hand. Sanjaya, the minister of the blind king Dhritarashtra who is the ruler of Hastinapura, has been gifted with long range vision so that he can see the battle and report it to his sovereign. It is through him that we hear what transpires between Arjuna and Krishna.

The Discourse

The Gita is divided into eighteen short (by Indian standards!) chapters. They are:

  1. Arjuna Vishada Yoga (The Yoga of Arjuna’s Grief), where the warrior develops cold feet and throws down his weapons. This chapter also introduces the situation.
  2. Sankhya Yoga (The Yoga of Sankhya) which establishes the basic tenets of the discourse – the inevitability of birth and death in the universe, and the merit of action without attachment.
  3. Karma Yoga (The Yoga of Action), where the merits of attachment without action is further extolled. Here, all action is identified as coming from the Yajna (Vedic sacrifice), and Krishna makes the first statements indicating that he is more than what he purports to be.
  4. Jnana Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of Wisdom) in which the correct actions are mentioned, and the ways to obtain detachment from action; also total renunciation. Krishna reveals himself as the returning messiah.
  5. Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Renunciation), where the fruits of total renunciation are enumerated. This is the classic description of Indian asceticism as per the Upanishads.
  6. Adhyatma Yoga (The Yoga of Spirituality) where the methods of attaining Nirvana are elaborated.
  7. Jnana Yoga (The Yoga of Knowledge): Here, Krishna reveals himself as the supreme lord; as the Brahman itself.
  8. Akshara Brahma Yoga (The Yoga of the Indestructible Brahman), where Krishna explains the method to escape from the cycle of birth and death by knowing the Brahman (which is he himself).
  9. Raja Vidya Raja Guhya Yoga (The Yoga of the Royal Secret), in which the worship of Krishna, as the eternal truth, even in different forms, is explained as the only way to moksha (release).
  10. Vibhuti Yoga (The Yoga of Supreme Power), which is basically an extension of the previous two chapters. Krishna declares himself as encompassing everything within the space-time continuum.
  11. Vishwaroopa Darshana Yoga (The Yoga of the Vision of the Universal form). This, according to me, is the crux of the document. Krishna takes the form of all-consuming time, terrible in his fiery visage. This is the peg on which the previous chapters hang.
  12. Bhakti Yoga (The Yoga of Devotion), where Krishna extols devotion to him, even without enlightenment, as a possible path to release.
  13. Kshetra Kshterajna Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Field and Knower of the Field), where the relationship between the field (the body) and the knower of the field (the soul) is explained with respect to the attainment of release.
  14. Guna Thraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Separation of the Three Qualities). According to Indian concept, all things are comprised of three qualities: Sattva (purity), Rajas (passion) and Tamas (darkness) – corresponding to good, middling and bad. This chapter expounds on how to enhance purity.
  15. Purushottama Yoga (The Yoga of the Perfect One), which explains the concept of Krishna as Purushottama, the perfect one. Here the duality of Purusha and Prakruti are also explored.
  16. Devaasura Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division between Devas and Asuras). A curious chapter. After talking about going beyond all dualities in the previous chapters, here the divine is separated from the demoniacal.
  17. Shraddhathraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division of the Threefold Faith). Again, this is a departure from the previous chapters. Here the “correct” way of worshipping and sacrificing is expounded.
  18. Moksha Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Liberation through Renunciation), in which action and renunciation are merged, and there is a sort of summary of the previous chapters. However, what is important here is, action is clearly linked to the caste of the actor, something which was not evident in the previous chapters – and Krishna declares himself the ONLY god, rather like the God of the Abrahamic faiths.

(Note: The chapter names are from the Annie Besant/ Bhagvan Das translation. The Gita Press has slightly different chapter names. What I understand is that in the original Gita, chapters are not titled.)

The Philosophy

(Please note that what follows is my interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita’s philosophy. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, neither am I an expert in Upanishadic thought, so my interpretation might not match those of the scholars and the ascetics. I am open to counterviews.)

We live in a universe of inevitability, where “life eats life”, as Joseph Campbell puts it neatly. In this world, it is impossible to live without acting: and it is inevitable that all actions will not be beneficial to all. So how to cope? One method is to run away to a secluded place, and meditate upon the absolute: and thus gain freedom from this phenomenal world of birth, death and rebirth. This is the way of the Indian rishis and the Buddha – pierce the veil of illusion (maya), reach the still centre of existence, where there is ‘Nirvana’ (“no wind”) and be at one with the eternal. In Buddhism, this is the knowledge of one’s nonexistence – the ‘anatman’ – while in Hinduism, it is the dissolution of the individual self with the Brahman, the universal self, or the SELF, which permeates all of creation. Take your pick.

This may, however, be a tad difficult for a person engaged in the world. I still remember an incident. On the erstwhile Joseph Campbell Foundation discussion fora, an American GI posed a problem. He was against the war in Iraq, but as a soldier, he was duty-bound to fight; and if he quit his job, his family would starve. How to tackle this situation without going mad? It is exactly this question that is being answered through Karma Yoga: act, but without attachment. As said by Krishna in what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Gita:

You have control only over your karma, and never on its fruits: You are not the cause of its fruits; let not you be attached to non-karma.

That is: just do it, what you have to – do not worry about the fruits (that is, the result, reward or consequence). Do your karma without attachment. While acting in the world, lead your mind on the path of renunciation. Act in the world, without being of it.

This is almost in sync with the Taoist concept of Wu Wei:

One of Taoism’s most important concepts is Wu Wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu Wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awareness, in which — without even trying — we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.

From ThoughtCo

I also relate this concept to a story, again narrated by Joseph Campbell. It was during his series of interviews with Bill Moyers on the PBS Series, ‘The Power of Myth’:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: …Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?

BILL MOYERS: Why?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.

Like Octavio Paz said in In Light of India, Krishna does not give Arjuna a way to save the world: he gives him a way to save himself.

The Myth

Of course, much of the Gita’s attraction lies on the character of Krishna – how he grows from Arjuna’s friend to the eternal Brahman, the be-all and end-all of all creation. As Krishna himself repeatedly says, he is EVERYTHING: the sacrifice, the sacrifice, the sacrificial fire, and the deity who consumes the sacrifice. Krishna’s stature grows slowly from chapter 3 onwards till chapter 11, when he shows his “Vishwa-roopa”, or the Universal Form: to see which, Arjuna cannot use his ordinary vision but must be bestowed with second sight.

As Sanjaya, witnessing this at second hand says: “It is bright as a thousand suns.”  And here’s the awestruck Arjuna gushing about it:

Arjuna said:

My dear Lord Krsna, I see assembled together in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahma sitting on the lotus flower as well as Lord Siva and many sages and divine serpents.

O Lord of the universe, I see in Your universal body many, many forms-bellies, mouths, eyes-expanded without limit. There is no end, there is no beginning, and there is no middle to all this.

Your form, adorned with various crowns, clubs and discs, is difficult to see because of its glaring effulgence, which is fiery and immeasurable like the sun.

You are the supreme primal objective; You are the best in all the universes; You are inexhaustible, and You are the oldest; You are the maintainer of religion, the eternal Personality of Godhead.

You are the origin without beginning, middle or end. You have numberless arms, and the sun and moon are among Your great unlimited eyes. By Your own radiance You are heating this entire universe.

Although You are one, You are spread throughout the sky and the planets and all space between. O great one, as I behold this terrible form, I see that all the planetary systems are perplexed.

All the demigods are surrendering and entering into You. They are very much afraid, and with folded hands they are singing the Vedic hymns.

The different manifestations of Lord Siva, the Adityas, the Vasus, the Sadhyas, the Visvadevas, the two Asvins, the Maruts, the forefathers and the Gandharvas, the Yaksas, Asuras, and all perfected demigods are beholding You in wonder.

O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your many faces, eyes, arms, bellies and legs and Your terrible teeth, and as they are disturbed, so am I.

O all-pervading Visnu, I can no longer maintain my equilibrium. Seeing Your radiant colors fill the skies and beholding Your eyes and mouths, I am afraid.

O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered…

(Translations from Bhagavad Gita As It Is)

Translations can never capture the beauty of the original: in Sanskrit, the verses I quoted above simply roll of the tongue and one can almost imagine the majesty of a vision that cannot be described through words or colours. As Campbell says in ‘Creative Mythology’: “The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood.”

It is only by envisioning Krishna as the whole of space-time itself, can one understand how his teaching passed to Arjuna. From this moment onwards, he is no longer just the friend who is doing a favour by driving Arjuna’s chariot: he is the godhead that resides within the psyche. (I have explored this concept here.) And as such, he is not only discoursing to Arjuna – what we see is the process of enlightenment, the realisation of “thou art that”, taking place.

The Politics

The Bhagavad Gita is a controversial document. It has been seen as an attempt by the Vedic religion to unseat Buddhism, which was gaining tremendous ground in India, and reinstate the caste system.  Is this charge true? Looking at the Gita dispassionately, one has to say that the charge does have some merit.

Throughout the text, one can see references to “varna sankara” (the mixing of castes), and the undesirable outcomes arising out of it – in fact, Arjuna’s original worry about killing his kith and kin is that it will destroy the dynasty and give rise to caste-mixing! Also, time and again Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty as a Kshatriya.

All the imagery about sacrifices and oblations are Vedic in origin – and also the curious chapter 16, where Devas and Asuras are specifically mentioned, in contrast to the egalitarian teaching elsewhere, smacks of Vedic dualism. And the origin of Karma is specifically linked to the sacrifice and Prajapati, the first man of the Vedas.

Apart from all these, the following verses specifically advocate the promotion of caste.

9. 32 O Partha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of born of wombs of sin (papa-yonaya) -women, vaisyas as well as sudras -can approach the supreme destination.

(This concept of lesser and greater wombs, in relation to the birth-death-rebirth cycle, occur in many places.)

18.41 Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.

18. 42 Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness-these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.

18.43 Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.

18.44 Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labour and service to others.

18.47 It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions.

18.48 Every endeavour is covered by some sort of fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work which is born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault.

So it is clear – karma means carrying out one’s caste duties, and those ONLY.

Also, in this chapter, the Krishna who said earlier that “many people worship me in many different forms: ultimately they all come to me” changes tack and becomes as inflexible as the Levantine God.

18.66 Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto only Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

So there is no doubt about the intention here – it is the promotion of the status quo. However, the sharp difference between the first part and the last gives credence to the conjecture that the Gita may have been bowdlerised. The high philosophy and the dazzling imagery of the first part cannot descend to this level of preaching logically.

The Bhagavad Gita and Me

The question, as a reader, is: what do I take away from this text? I am an atheist: and even though the Brahman as a concept is intriguing, I am not a fan of speculative metaphysics. But the concept of nishkama karma (action without attachment) has always appealed to me in my chosen professional field – that of engineering.

I interpret it like this. My job is to do as perfect a job of engineering as I can, to see that the product of my effort is the best I can make it. That is, the perfection of the job I do is its own reward – I should not be bothered about the end result, or the rewards I am going to obtain. I can tell you that I have tried to follow this path throughout my career and it has paid rich dividends.

Not exactly Karma Yoga as preached by Krishna, but near enough… for Kali Yuga!

The Monstrous Feminine

Durga_Mahishasura-mardini,_the_slayer_of_the_buffalo_demonDurga

The festival of Navaratri – the ‘Nine Sacred Nights of the Goddess’ – has begun. All over India, the Goddess Durga will be worshipped for these nine days and nights. In Bengal, where it is the main state festival, it culminates with the immersion of hundreds of Durga idols in the sea.

Durga took birth to kill the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. She is an avatar of Shakti, the feminine power that pervades the universe. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva join together to get Shakti to incarnate herself as Durga, as the demon was undefeatable otherwise. Ten-armed with a weapon in each, riding a lion, she went on to meet the demon in battle. The demon fell in love with the goddess and asked her to marry him; enraged by his audacity, Durga slew him.

Durga (literally ‘impassable’) must be a version of the Mother Goddess, who according to most mythographers, predated the male gods. What is interesting is that in India, one of the most patriarchal societies you can imagine, the goddess still commands respect – sometimes even more than her male counterparts. But however, Indians have succeeded in deifying her, putting her on a pedestal, and going about their patriarchal lives quite comfortably: subjugating and abusing women to their heart’s content while extolling her as a goddess.

I find this motif of the fearsome divinity – which I call the monstrous feminine, the bogeyman that has lurked in the dark corners of Indian myth since time immemorial – ever present as an undercurrent in our popular myth and culture. As goddess, she is Durga and Kali, with her insatiable appetite for blood; she is present as the various rakshasis (demonesses) such as Tataka and Surpanakha in the Indian epics; and in my own homeland of Kerala, she used colour my childhood nightmares as the yakshi, the fearsome wood-sprite that ate men alive.

431px-Kali_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma

The she-monsters are always conquered, of course. The yakshis are tamed and imprisoned in trees; the demonesses are killed by mythical heroes; and the goddess is placated by daily rituals and oblations (which used to comprise sacrifices, even human, in yesteryears). But there is always a sense of unease; that the hidden power, the adi-para-shakti (‘primeval pervading power’ – as the infinite form of the goddess is known – will break out of her slumber and take over the world. This is what the male-centric society has always feared: and this fear is reflected in the current aggressive resistance towards many of the feminist movements across the world. As Steve Bannon fears, women may take over the world!

Lilith

I came to know of Lilith rather late in my mythical explorations. She is a part of the Jewish myth which has been expunged from the bible: and her story is extremely interesting because of its feminist overtones.

I have relied upon the Gnosis Archive for the following story:

This potentially blasphemous story has Adam trying to copulate with animals, and finding them unsuitable, asking God for a helpmeet. “God then formed Lilith, the first woman, just as He had formed Adam, except that He used filth and sediment instead of pure dust. From Adam’s union with this demoness, and with another like her named Naamah, Tubal Cain’s sister, sprang Asmodeus and innumerable demons that still plague mankind.”

320px-Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)

Lilith by John Collier

This “filthy” woman, however, was rather feisty. She refused to subordinate herself to Adam:

Adam and Lilith never found peace together; for when he wished to lie with her, she took offence at the recumbent posture he demanded. ‘Why must I lie beneath you?’ she asked. ‘I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal.’ Because Adam tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air and left him.

The “disobedient” Lilith was, unsurprisingly, punished by God: when she refused to come back, enjoying her free life with lascivious demons on the banks of the Red Sea, God cursed all her children to die. The belief is that she produces one hundred demon children per day, all of whom perish by night.

Lilith is feared as the seducer of sleeping men, the killer of babies and the spirit who causes abortions.

The subtext is clear – the independent woman is the demon, while the subordinate one made from the rib is the perfect helpmeet!

Medusa

Medusa

Medusa

The monstrous feminine in the Occident, I find perfectly embodied in Medusa. Though not especially marked as “evil” – the Greek myths are rather amoral – she is indeed the antagonist to the male hero, something he must vanquish on his quest. And it is interesting that Medusa is never really defeated face to face: even in death, her eyes can turn one to stone.

***

Here, I find it interesting to compare this metaphor across the traditions of the Levant, the Occident and the Orient. In the Biblical tradition, the monstrous feminine is unambiguously marked as evil and on the side of the devil; in the Occident, she is still frightening, and something to be vanquished, but her moral labelling doesn’t exist; while in the East, she has been deified and assimilated into the masculine myth in a masterful way.

The Tale of Nagavalli

The Malayalam film Manichithrathaazhu released in 1993 was a totally new phenomenon as far Kerala moviegoers were concerned. Shunning the popular themes of comedy, the family drama or the crime thriller (even though the film incorporated elements of all of these genres), it presented a tense psychological thriller with just a touch of the horror, and proved an instant hit. It also became a watershed film in Indian history, as it was remade in Tamil, Kannada, Bengali and Hindi. And it also won the National Award for Shobhana for her portrayal of a girl with split personality.

What was so special about the film? For one, it married the supernatural tale of spirit possession with modern pop psychology; at the same time, it fused the ancient art of sorcery with the science of psychiatry. Even though most of the theories Mohanlal as Dr. Sunny spouts in the film are unadulterated bullshit, they resonated with a populace eager to discover scientific principles in our ‘ancient wisdom’.

But most importantly, it was the character of Nagavalli, the long-dead dancer out for blood revenge on her tormentor, who stole the hearts of people. Shobhana, in a flawless performance, enacted the role of the city girl Ganga who believes that she is Nagavalli, to perfection.

manichithra

Shobhana in Manichitrathazhu

The story, stated very briefly, runs thus. Ganga and her husband Nakulan are staying in their ancestral home, which is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a Tamil dancer who had been imprisoned and later murdered by the head of the family. Ganga, who has got serious psychological disturbances, starts believing herself to be Nagavalli – and her husband to be her cruel captor. As her madness slowly progresses, the unconventional psychiatrist Dr. Sunny comes up with a unique way to cure her. In collaboration with the sorcerer and tantric expert Pullattuparambil Brahmadattan Namboothiripad, he enacts a ceremony where Ganga, in her Nagavalli avatar, is allowed to behead a dummy of Nakulan in the guise of her antagonist. The act done, she returns to her normal self – the “ghost” is “exorcised”.

Joseph Campbell has said that artists are the myth-makers of the modern-world: and this movie is a perfect example. The character of Nagavalli channels all female monsters hiding in the Indian psyche, as well as the avenging Durga (it is not a coincidence that she gets her sacrifice on Durgashtami, the eighth day of the Navaratri festival, very auspicious to the goddess): but most importantly, she is humoured, tamed and assimilated back into the pliant Ganga who practically worships her husband. And this has been done through an amalgamation of psychoanalysis and Vedic ritual. No wonder the movie was a hit!

***

So there she is, ladies and gentlemen – the monstrous feminine. Always in the background, always underneath the “civilised” facade of the “chaste” woman. Most of us in India, including women who follow tradition, do not prefer to acknowledge her; to accept the fact that the docility of woman comes at a great price to her psyche. And as woman goes through the avatars of Sati, Savitri and Sita, her inner Durga and Kali are chafing at the bit, struggling for release: the symptoms of which struggle are becoming more and more visible, day by day.

Is a new myth in the offing?

Where Women are Forbidden to Tread; or, the Mysteries Behind Menstrual Blood

Sabarimala_2All Indians, and people who have been following news from India, would know that our Supreme Court is taking far-reaching and, for what is essentially a conservative nation, revolutionary decisions regarding the freedom of the individual. They have been especially incendiary when they touched upon religious taboos. A case in point is the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, where women of menstruating age have been forbidden entry for decades: a constitution bench of the court struck down the ban as unconstitutional, as it is in violation of the right of men and women to worship equally.

This happened on last Friday (the 28th of September) and “believers” have not stopped foaming at the mouth. Since they can’t attack the court directly, their venom has been reserved for the leftists and progressives, who they feel, have somehow manipulated the judiciary to bring it about. And counter-measures are discussed in plenty: from the judicial (review petitions) to democratic (peaceful protests) to outright violence against women who plan to visit the shrine.

The left liberal contingent have also not been silent. In the intoxication of the all-too-few victories that come their way, they have trolled the right-wingers mercilessly, making them even more angry – with the result that all media including the social have become the scene of raucous name-calling and disgusting insults. There is no rational debate happening anywhere.

In this context, I came up on the post of a friend of mine on Facebook.  This lady, a feminist and a non-believer, was wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. She said she never wanted to visit the place, and assumed that most non-believers felt the same. And the believers will of course respect the taboo! So this verdict was, in her opinion, a non-starter and she was vehemently protesting people hailing this as a victory for women.

I disagreed with her and told her that even a symbolic win is crucial in the case of women’s rights – and it is especially important in this case. She was not convinced and asked for a lengthier explanation: which is when the idea of this blog post came to me. It would me more convenient for me to express myself here than on an FB post. And I will not be distracted by trolls!

To get to the root of this issue, I think we need to dig really down, all the way down to the bedrock of the human psyche, where myths are born.

The Origins of Myth

There are multiple theories on how myth originated. In J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, myth is seen as a concretisation of ritual – an opinion shared by Robert Graves, as his book The Greek Myths illustrate. Carl Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell, however, consider myth to be mostly springing up from the collective unconscious of humanity, with the narrative structured around a few key images. There are also theories of myth being the romanticised narration of history.product_thumbnail.php

I was a confirmed Jungian and follower of Joseph Campbell for years. But of late, I have come to believe that myths are made up of all of the above three. There are some primal images (which are relevant very much today in literature and art) which drive our subconscious narrative; there are rituals, passed down across the centuries, which have become our integral part – and there is the history of humankind, enshrined forever as beautiful stories in our myths and fairy tales.

In this context, I think we need to take a look at what Joseph Campbell called “The Four Functions of Myth.”

The Four Functions of Myth

 The Metaphysical Function

 The absolute mystery of life is beyond words and images. To capture this, one uses the myth as a metaphor: that is why most mythical images are absurd if one looks at them from a realistic point of view, but serve as invaluable sources for the mystical and artistic experience. One only has to look at the apparently absurd metaphors in many poems or the seemingly illogical narrative of magical realism to appreciate this.

The Cosmological Function

Before formal science made its appearance, myth tried to explain the world around us, its origins and the physical phenomena that affected our lives. This function has become redundant with the advent of science: but this is where the main tussle between religion and science happens in the modern world.

The Sociological Function

If societies were to survive, they needed to preserve a certain order. This was implemented through myth, by positing a divinely stipulated system. It is my opinion that this is where religion evolved; drawing from the Cosmological Function, rituals were established to preserve society in stasis so that the cosmic order was not violated. Over a period of time, this was taken over by the priests. This has direct bearing on our current issue.

The Pedagogical Function

This, according to Campbell, is the most important function of myth. As a person goes through life, he has to pass through various stages which are exemplified in myth as the “Hero’s Journey”. Closely related to Jung’s theory of individuation, this provides creative guidance in life and art.

Looking at the four functions above, one can see that the second and third functions have become rather redundant in today’s world. Science has taken over the Cosmological Function, while the civil code has taken over the Sociological Function in most democracies. And therein lies the root of the tussle between religion and science.

Most societies in the world are patriarchal, and have some kind of rigid, stratified layers of hierarchy within itself. Unsurprisingly, these are taken as “divinely ordained”, and priests hold the actual reins of power even though administrative power is with the ruling class. In India, this is exemplified in the caste system, with Brahmins calling the shot in almost all social matters, even after seventy years of independence.

This is maintained through the myths about the universe which have nothing to do with knowledge or science. Rather, a worldview which must have been dynamic at the time of its evolution is frozen in permanent stasis. Myths, which started life as vibrant metaphors, become concretised in time and become meaningless images. Yet these are manipulated by the priestly class to hold on to their unofficial power. The standard argument is that “these are beyond science”. (Of course they are, but not as a parallel reality but in the realm of subliminal imagery!)

Now let us have a look at the Sabarimala controversy in this light.

The Mystery of Menstruation

All the rites of passage of a person’s life are shrouded in wonder and mystery: birth, the attainment of puberty, marriage, death… consequently, we have rituals to cover them all.  Of these, the attainment of puberty in women is especially hallowed, since it also involves the discharge of blood: the blood of life, rather than the blood of death.

Kerala is a curious mix of the patriarchal Hindu religion and matriarchal tribal culture, probably because so-called Hinduism reached us very late. So side-by-side with the fiercely patriarchal Nampoothiri Brahmins, we find Nairs and Kshatriyas who even now, consider themselves matrilineal. Alongside “men-only” clubs like Sabarimala, we have festivals like Attukal Pongala where men are not allowed. We have women’s mysteries like Thiruvathira where ladies dance the night away in gay abandon, in celebration of their sexuality.

In earlier days, the girl on first attaining puberty was much feted; almost like a marriage (in fact, it is called thirandu kalyanam, “the puberty marriage”). And during the time of her monthly periods, she was kept separate. This was called theendari suddham – “the special purity of monthly periods”. (“Theendari” is literally derived from the sentence “theendathe iri” in Malayalam, which means “keep your distance”). It is my opinion that this was done out of a feeling of the awe of her power: the power of her uterus which produces the blood of life. During this exceptionally powerful period, men were barred from approaching her as they were interfering with forces beyond their ken.

Then somewhere along the way, the menstruating woman came to be seen as impure. I see this as part of the gradual takeover of myth by patriarchal religion. The woman lost her power along the way, as most of our goddesses were married of to the gods to take on secondary roles. Only a few such as the fearsome Kali could not be subjugated – and the male priests were happy to give her her token due, and preserve rites like the Pongala at Attukal where the officiating priests are, of course, men.

Lord Ayyappan and Celibacy

Ayyappan is an interesting god. Not part of the Vedic pantheon, he has nevertheless been grafted on to it as the son of Shiva and Vishnu in his female form as Mohini (“the temptress”). So Ayyappan is perhaps, the only god to be born of a homosexual union in world mythology.

Like most Indian deities, Ayyappan took birth to kill a demon, the fierce Mahishi. This demoness in the form of a water buffalo, was actually a celestial being under curse (as is the case with most Indian bogeymen), released (attaining “moksha”) by the god’s killing her. Once freed of her demon form, the celestial maiden begged Ayyappan to marry her – however, the celibate god promised to do so only the day when fresh pilgrims stop visiting his shrine at Sabarimala. He established her as his co-deity near the shrine, but they would never be seen together.

(The above story curiously parallels the celibate goddess Durga’s fight with Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon. The same undercurrent of predatory sexuality and celibacy forms the bedrock on which both these tales are built on. They are perhaps the leftovers of our tribal past, before classical Hinduism assimilated the narrative.)

Now the crux of the problem – Lord Ayyappan’s celibacy. The god is said to be a naishtika brahmachari – ritually celibate – so that the mere presence of nubile women is forbidden at his temple. Therefore, the entry of females between 10 and 50 years of age is not allowed at the shrine. Originally a social taboo, it was enforced by law later on.

This is quite understandable from a mythical viewpoint – many such taboos exist across the world. But current Indian society is in a churn. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are on the verge of becoming a really liberal democracy, where social restrictions are the ones that get first get challenged.

As happened with many social taboos of yesteryears, this ban also began to be questioned by women: and not by those who grew up steeped in the myth, but “non-believers” who saw unacceptable shades of gender discrimination. Naturally, this lead to outrage among the believers (women included) – who are these upstart feminists to question our faith? It is a matter of belief, and as such, above the law of the land.

The case ultimately landed in front the Supreme Court who perhaps, ruled in the only way they could. The ban was discriminatory, and as such, it had to go. And it was by no means a cut-and-dried verdict – we must note that the lone woman judge dissented. Apparently, she sided with the many women devotees of Kerala who believed in the taboo.

Why the Judgement is Important

Now we come back to the question my friend asked: why the hell is this important? For believers, no law is required to stay away from the shrine. For the non-believers, it is only a matter of principle, a token feminist victory over patriarchy, providing no real benefit.

We now come to the importance of the mythical metaphor.

If we look at the position of women in Indian society, we see her elevated to the position of goddess in principle and subjugated in practice. Poisonous codes such as the Manusmriti give religious credence to her secondary role. She is seen as a precious possession of man, but a possession all the same. The sacred feminine is a metaphor which has been bent to suit the patriarchal will. And as explained before, the very symbol of her fertility has been transformed into her impurity.

This judgement smashes the patriarchal bias, at the level of ritual. It tells the believers: “Fine! We acknowledge your belief, but when it goes contrary to the Indian constitution, it is unacceptable.” It places the secular constitution of India above centuries-old belief systems.

The Supreme Court has told Indian society in no uncertain terms that the sociological function of myth is no longer relevant in a secular democracy, if it comes into conflict with essential freedoms of the individual like gender equality. That is why this judgement has created a furore among the believers and the rebels that the genuinely irreligious people can never understand. For them, this is much ado about nothing – because the metaphor of menstruation has lost its relevance.

When Gandhiji initiated the march to Dandi, he was using salt as a metaphor to challenge the British hegemony. Here, the entry of women into a temple in the small state of Kerala at the southernmost tip of India, is the metaphor for redrawing the position of women within the Indian society – removing the so-called impurity imprinted upon her by patriarchal society.

(P. S. I am sure that the battle is far from over – our male chauvinist society will try its level best to prevent women from entering the shrine; and they may yet succeed in subverting the judgement. But the important thing is that the blow has been struck.)

The Ghost of Manu

Why I read the Manusmriti

A few months back, there was a debate on Facebook regarding the Manusmriti, the ancient Indian law book which was the basis of Hindu law during the British era, and which substantially influences Hindu attitudes today.  Having read parts of it in translation, I minced no words in denouncing it as a toxic document; whereupon a Hindu apologist took it upon himself to denigrate my views, saying that since I had not read the book in the original Sanskrit, I had no business trashing it. He himself claimed to have read it in the original and claimed that it had been misrepresented. Of course he was gaslighting, but I was in no position to call his bluff. So I decided that the only thing would be to read it in the original.

Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a Sanskrit-Malayalam dictionary, I set out to search for an edition of the book with a translation side-by-side. I chanced upon one immediately on the Internet Archive. Further research shows that it is essentially the same as the George Buhler translation (sans commentary) of the so-called Calcutta manuscript with the commentary of Kulluka, considered one of the authoritative texts by many scholars (though its authenticity had been questioned in postmodern times). Whatever be the case, this was the one in circulation since colonial times, so I decided to go with it.

The attempt here is to understand, from the original verses, what Manu said. However, Manu is a mythical character; and one must assume that the text must have been compiled across the ages by various people, as is the case with most ancient Indian texts. So my analysis here focuses on how this compendium of laws have impacted the Indian society, rather than whether it was officially “prescribed”.

The Influence of Manu on Indian Society

Indian society is caste-ridden and patriarchal. And Manusmriti is an instruction manual on how to implement the above. Throughout its verses, two things are reiterated time and again – the superiority of Brahmins versus the inferiority of the “lower” castes, and the total inconsequentiality of women as human beings. Even with all the internal contradictions, these two ideas stand out.

When I started sharing my reading experience on one of the reader’s groups on FB, a section of the members took fierce exception. It was their contention that as a leftist, I was intentionally maligning Hinduism based on a text that no Hindu follows; that the Manusmriti was a straw man of the left to tarnish the lofty ideals of Hinduism. Against this, my argument was simple. No doubt India contains much lofty thought (as laid out in the Upanishads) and the world’s greatest epics; but Indian society was and is one of the most non-egalitarian systems ever implemented in practice. Hardly a day passes without some report about upper-caste atrocities on Dalits (former “untouchables”), for the crime of willing to stand up to their social superiors. And this apparently enjoys the patronage of the Hindu Right.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the feeder organisation of the ruling BJP, was a staunch supporter of Manu’s laws. They vehemently opposed India’s secular constitution when it was implemented, through the organisational mouthpiece, The Organiser, on 30 November, 1949:

“The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it. The drafters of the constitution have incorporated in it elements of British, American, Canadian, Swiss and sundry other constitutions. But there is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it…in our constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

The RSS ideologue and the inventor of “Hindutva”, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was an unashamed apologist for Manu.

“Manusmriti is that scripture which is most worship-able after Vedas for our Hindu Nation and which from ancient times has become the basis of our culture-customs, thought and practice. This book for centuries has codified the spiritual and divine march of our nation. Even today the rules which are followed by crores of Hindus in their lives and practice are based on Manusmriti. Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law”

So the argument that Hindus do not follow Manusmriti do not hold water. They may not have read the text; but most orthodox ones do follow the caste laws as well as keep the patriarchal attitudes. And for the right-wing, it is the Bible.

Onward with the review.

Manu’s Laws

After going through text, I am sceptical whether these can be called “laws” – they seem more to be religious and ritualistic norms to be followed by communities. Since in ancient India, civil society was virtually dictated to by the rules of caste, these may have been followed either in full or part: we have no way of knowing. However, it does inform Indian sensibilities to a great extent today.

Chapter 1

The document comprises twelve chapters, each containing various number of verses. The first chapter is basically a creation myth, somewhat akin to what is mentioned in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda; about an omnipotent being who sacrifices himself to produce the universe. This being, called the Swayambhu (“Self-created”), is Manu himself; and he, in the original form of an egg, splits into two to produce heaven and earth, land and water, male and female, all corporeal and incorporeal beings as well as the mind and the spirit. This chapter is enjoyable and poetic, but one does suspect its presence here is to give mythic legitimacy to the caste hierarchy. The verse produced below which has resulted in most of the anger against this document, is illustrative.

1.31. But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds he caused the Brahmana, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.

1.88. To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying, sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).

1.89. The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;

1.90. The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.

1.91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.

The hierarchy is thus established: the supreme being himself creates the castes and assigns their duties. And just in case anyone has a doubt, the superiority of the Brahmin is reiterated later on.

1.96. Of created beings the most excellent are said to be those which are animated; of the animated, those which subsist by intelligence; of the intelligent, mankind; and of men, the Brahmanas;

1.97. Of Brahmanas, the educated; of the educated, the ones who have attained wisdom; of those, those who perform; of the performers, those who know the Brahman.

1.98. The very birth of a Brahmana is an eternal incarnation of the sacred law; for he is born to (fulfil) the sacred law, and becomes one with Brahman.

1.99. A Brahmana, coming into existence, is born as the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings, for the protection of the treasury of the law.

1.100. Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana; on account of the excellence of his origin the Brahmana is, indeed, entitled to all.

Thus it is very clear that the superiority of the Brahmin is by birth, and not by actions, as claimed by apologists – at least in the Manusmriti. And later he goes on to say that it is the duty of a Brahmin to go forth and teach these laws to everyone, thus endorsing the caste’s supremacy in social justice.

Chapter 2 – 6

These chapters are about the four ashramas of Hindu life: that of the student, called brahmacharya; the householder, called garhastya; the forest-dweller, called vanaprastha; and the ascetic, called sanyasa. It seems it applies mostly only to Brahmins living in northern India called “Aryavarta”, as the other castes are only mentioned in passing.  These chapters detail the rituals people are supposed to follow, and the dire consequences which will happen, if they don’t. It contains some good stuff regarding the respect one should give teachers and parents, the joys of simple vegan living, the need to respect guests, and the respect that must be provided women – spoilt, however, by blatant misogyny, contradictions and just plain silliness.

I really liked the following verses:

2.226. The teacher is the image of Brahman, the father the image of Prajapati (the lord of created beings), the mother the image of the earth, and an (elder) full brother the image of oneself.

2.227. That trouble (and pain) which the parents undergo on the birth of (their) children, cannot be compensated even in a hundred years.

2.228. Let him always do what is agreeable to those (two) and always (what may please) his teacher; when those three are pleased, he obtains all (those rewards which) austerities (yield).

2.229. Obedience towards those three is declared to be the best (form of) austerity; let him not perform other meritorious acts without their permission.

2.230. For they are declared to be the three worlds, they the three (principal) orders, they the three Vedas, and they the three sacred fires.

See here that the mother is also included, as deserving of respect: at odds with Manu’s usual mistrust of women.

But in the self-same chapter we find:

2.213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this (world); for that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females.

2.214. For women are able to lead astray in (this) world not only a fool, but even a learned man, and (to make) him a slave of desire and anger.

2.215. One should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister, or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man.

Similarly, the famous verse which apologists quote, to show how Manu respected women:

3.56. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.

This is followed by a number of verses on the proper upkeep of women, keeping them happy, giving them dresses, jewellery and what-not – because:

3.57. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.

3.58. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.

However, this is all done because:

3.59. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes, and (dainty) food.

3.60. In that family, where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, happiness will assuredly be lasting.

3.61. For if the wife is not radiant with beauty, she will not attract her husband; but if she has no attractions for him, no children will be born.

Misogyny strikes again! Women, it seems, are honoured only as baby-producing machines. And it continues:

5.147. By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.

5.148. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.

5.149. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; by leaving them she would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.

5.150. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure.

5.151. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory).

5.154. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.

5.155. No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.

Even after the death of the husband, the widow is to remain faithful to his memory.

5.156. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.

5.157. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by (living on) pure flowers, roots, and fruit; but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.

5.158. Until death let her be patient (of hardships), self-controlled, and chaste, and strive (to fulfil) that most excellent duty which (is prescribed) for wives who have one husband only.

The man can, of course, remarry!

5.168. Having thus, at the funeral, given the sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, he may marry again, and again kindle (the fires).

I will not dwell further on these chapters. They are not “laws”, but rather, rituals and social etiquette Brahmins are supposed to follow. I guess the elaborate rituals of Brahmins for all ceremonies stem from this text, though being a non-Brahmin, I can’t say for sure.

I seriously doubt whether anyone would be able to follow the austerities prescribed for vanaprastha and sanyasa – I think they must have been practised rarely, if at all.

I will close my review of these chapters with one blatant contradiction which strengthens my belief that this text must have been edited across the years.

5.48. Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to (the attainment of) heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun (the use of) meat.

5.52. There is no greater sinner than that (man) who, though not worshipping the gods or the manes, seeks to increase (the bulk of) his own flesh by the flesh of other (beings).

Good stuff, isn’t it? Bolsters our idea of Hinduism as an essentially pacifist and refined religion. But then, we find this immediately afterwards…

5.56. There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.

A person cannot have such a change of mind in the space of four verses!

Chapter 7 – 8

These chapters enumerate the duty of kings – and here we do find something akin to the “laws” that all of us familiar with: about civil disputes and criminal proceedings. These chapters are quite detailed in how a king must settle land and domestic disputes; how much fines and levies he should impose; what punishments, corporal and otherwise, he must mete out. The instructions are as exhaustive and dry as a modern-day law manual.

The king is supposed to rule by an iron hand: the famed “danda-neethi” where fear of punishment ensures a just society. Manu writes:

7.18. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment (to be identical with) the law.

7.22. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find; through fear of punishment the whole world yields the enjoyments (which it owes).

The king is also supposed to be brave and warlike, and always ready to fight.  He should always be steadfast in battle.

7.103. Of him who is always ready to strike, the whole world stands in awe; let him therefore make all creatures subject to himself even by the employment of force.

Even though he wants the king to be a tough disciplinarian and warmonger, Manu wants him to stay away from all vices, be fair in battle, and never oppress his people.

7.111. That king who through folly rashly oppresses his kingdom, (will), together with his relatives, ere long be deprived of his life and of his kingdom.

7.112. As the lives of living creatures are destroyed by tormenting their bodies, even so the lives of kings are destroyed by their oppressing their kingdoms.

7.144. The highest duty of a Kshatriya is to protect his subjects, for the king who enjoys the rewards, just mentioned, is bound to (discharge that) duty.

So much for the good stuff. But throughout these instructions to royalty, one thing is reiterated again and again – Brahmins are the best among creation and they have to get preferential treatment, and must be protected at all times. Those who go against them must be dealt with very severely.

7.88. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honour the Brahmanas, is the best means for a king to secure happiness.

8.267. A Kshatriya, having defamed a Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred (panas); a Vaisya one hundred and fifty or two hundred; a Sudra shall suffer corporal punishment.

8.268. A Brahmana shall be fined fifty (panas) for defaming a Kshatriya; in (the case of) a Vaisya the fine shall be twenty-five (panas); in (the case of) a Sudra twelve.

8.270. A once-born man (a Sudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin.

8.271. If he mentions the names and castes (jati) of the (twice-born) with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth.

8.272. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their Dharma, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.

8.279. With whatever limb a man of a low caste does hurt to (a man of the three) highest (castes), even that limb shall be cut off; that is the teaching of Manu.

8.280. He who raises his hand or a stick, shall have his hand cut off; he who in anger kicks with his foot, shall have his foot cut off.

8.281. A low-caste man who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed.

8.282. If out of arrogance he spits (on a superior), the king shall cause both his lips to be cut off; if he urines (on him), the penis; if he breaks wind (against him), the anus.

8.283. If he lays hold of the hair (of a superior), let the (king) unhesitatingly cut off his hands, likewise (if he takes him) by the feet, the beard, the neck, or the scrotum.

While such are the stringent punishments for “low-caste” people for presuming to go against their betters, it is vastly different in the case of Brahmins.

8.379. Tonsure (of the head) is ordained for a Brahmana (instead of) capital punishment; but (men of) other castes shall suffer capital punishment.

8.380. Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he have committed all (possible) crimes; let him banish such an (offender), leaving all his property (to him) and (his body) unhurt.

8.381. No greater crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana; a king, therefore, must not even conceive in his mind the thought of killing a Brahmana.

However, here also Manu surprises with his contradictions. In one place, he says no one is free from punishment and even increases the punishment based on the caste!

8.337. In (a case of) theft the guilt of a Sudra shall be eightfold, that of a Vaisya sixteenfold, that of a Kshatriya two-and-thirtyfold,

8.338. That of a Brahmana sixty-fourfold, or quite a hundredfold, or (even) twice four-and-sixtyfold; (each of them) knowing the nature of the offence.

But there is no doubt about the social level of the Sudra:

8.413. But a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, he may compel to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmana.

8.414. A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?

8.416. A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property; the wealth which they earn is for him to whom they belong.

8.417. A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of the Sudra; for, as he can have no property, his master may take his possessions.

And the women? They have absolutely no voice in this society; they cannot bear witness; cannot even talk to a male without the charge of adultery being laid on them. They are little more than property. But it is the next chapter, which describes the relationship between man and wife, that wins all awards for misogyny hands down.

Chapter 9

Manu’s concept is that the male is the seed and the female is the field: and her only duty in life is to keep herself pure for receiving and nurturing the seed, and producing a fine (male) offspring worthy of his father. Here are a few verses to give you a flavour of Manu’s idea of “woman”:

9.2. Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.

9.3. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.

9.13. Drinking (spirituous liquor), associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping (at unseasonable hours), and dwelling in other men’s houses, are the six causes of the ruin of women.

9.14. Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; (thinking), ‘(It is enough that) he is a man,’ they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly.

9.15. Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded in this (world).

9.16. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation, to be such, (every) man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them.

9.17. (When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) bed, (of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct.

In all the verses that follow regarding nuptial laws and disputes, the status of the woman as a “baby-machine” is constantly stressed. I have quoted only a few choice ones above.

In the middle of the chapter, once again the sage starts rambling, talking about the duties of the king and how he must never ever cause displeasure to a Brahmin:

 9.313. Let him not, though fallen into the deepest distress, provoke Brahmanas to anger; for they, when angered, could instantly destroy him together with his army and his vehicles.

9.314. Who could escape destruction, when he provokes to anger those (men), by whom the fire was made to consume all things, by whom the (water of the) ocean was made undrinkable, and by whom the moon was made to wane and to increase again?

9.315. Who could prosper, while he injures those (men) who provoked to anger, could create other worlds and other guardians of the world, and deprive the gods of their divine station?

9.316. What man, desirous of life, would injure them to whose support the (three) worlds and the gods ever owe their existence, and whose wealth is the Veda?

9.317. A Brahmana, be he ignorant or learned, is a great divinity, just as the fire, whether carried forth (for the performance of a burnt-oblation) or not carried forth, is a great divinity.

9.318. The brilliant fire is not contaminated even in burial-places, and, when presented with oblations (of butter) at sacrifices, it again increases mightily.

9.319. Thus, though Brahmanas employ themselves in all (sorts of) mean occupations, they must be honoured in every way; for (each of) them is a very great deity.

This theme gets repeated again and again as the text progresses. And let there be no doubt – Brahmins are superior by birth, and not by karma! Though a Brahmin may lose caste due to bad karma, a Sudra will never get into a higher caste – other than in his next birth.

Chapter 10-11

These two chapters delineate the caste duties, and the various punishments one suffers in this world and the next, for not carrying them out, and also the penances for saving oneself: and also, the constant insistence on the excellence of Brahmins. It is quite interesting from another viewpoint, however – here Manu explains the origin of various castes, ostensibly created by the “mixing of the varnas”. It is an exercise in permutation and combination that sets the mind reeling by the time one reaches the second page.  For anyone interested in an enumeration, Dr. Ambedkar does a fine job in Riddles of Hinduism.

What interested me here especially was the description of the so-called “unclean” castes – mostly the forerunners of modern-day Dalits. The following verses were illustrative:

10.51. But the dwellings of Kandalas and Svapakas shall be outside the village, they must be made Apapatras, and their wealth (shall be) dogs and donkeys.

10.52. Their dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place.

10.53. A man who fulfils a religious duty, shall not seek intercourse with them; their transactions (shall be) among themselves, and their marriages with their equals.

10.54. Their food shall be given to them by others (than an Aryan giver) in a broken dish; at night they shall not walk about in villages and in towns.

10.55. By day they may go about for the purpose of their work, distinguished by marks at the king’s command, and they shall carry out the corpses (of persons) who have no relatives; that is a settled rule.

10.56. By the king’s order they shall always execute the criminals, in accordance with the law, and they shall take for themselves the clothes, the beds, and the ornaments of (such) criminals.

I am reminded here of the “Harijan Bastis” commonly found in North India, a space outside the village the Dalits are supposed to live, and not “pollute” the higher castes who reside there. This seems to be historical justification for their plight.

Chapter 12

The last chapter seems to be an attempt to create a philosophical underpinning to the law-book. It talks about the three “gunas” (qualities) which make up all beings on earth: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It also talks about the atman as the “purusha” pervading all beings. But this is “philosophy lite”, as the main aim is to declare the excellence of the Vedas.

12.95. All those traditions (smriti) and those despicable systems of philosophy, which are not based on the Veda, produce no reward after death; for they are declared to be founded on Darkness.

12.96. All those (doctrines), differing from the (Veda), which spring up and (soon) perish, are worthless and false, because they are of modern date.

Conclusion

The Manusmriti may not be a text that has any religious significance for a Hindu: in fact, it may not have been implemented in full or part any time. But in its hidebound casteism, its atrocious treatment of Dalits and women, it mirrors the mind of modern Indian society in practice. One only needs to scan through any Indian newspaper or one’s FB feed – through the stories of atrocities perpetrated on Dalits and women raped and humiliated – to see the ghost of Manu dancing gleefully on our sacred soil.

It is high time we exorcised it.

A Review of “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

A long time back, when I first became active on the fora of the Joseph Campbell Forum website, I downloaded a list of books which the renowned mythologist had given his students as required reading at Sarah Lawrence College. I found this book among them. But it was out of print at that time, and I could source a copy only now – with Rupa Publishers reprinting it.

Coomaraswamy’s metaphor of the cosmic dance of Shiva is well known to many, even to those who don’t know him: I first came across it during the late seventies, in Fritjof Capra’s seminal book on New Age science, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. At that time, to my teenage brain filled with grand ideas of the ultimate merger of Indian mysticism with higher physics, this was a revolutionary concept worth tripping on; you just close your eyes and meditate on all those atoms, protons, neutrons, quasars, planets, galaxies and whatnot dancing around the space-time continuum and – bingo! Niravana.

Well, I have been disabused of such naive imaginings as I grew older, and learnt more about Indian history and culture – and that it was not the one mystical love-fest the New Agers and the hippies made it out to be. True, India had a lot of great philosophical thought; a beautiful and colourful mythical heritage; and perhaps the world’s greatest epic literature. But the societal system, built on the strict hierarchy of caste, was horrendous: with the top layer existing parasitically on labours of the downtrodden bottom one. Which is why when I finally got around to reading Coomaraswamy, I was sorely disappointed.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

This book was first published in 1918 – and sadly, it shows. This was the time when the Indian pride was on the upswing as a reaction against foreign domination and its consequent westernisation. For the apologists, anything Indian was divinely sublime. It was not a question of accepting her, warts and all; but exhorting those same warts as the epitome of beauty.
This blind admiration of Indian culture runs as one of the main themes of this book – the other being the ‘divine’ nature of Indian art, where there is no separation of devotion, myth, and the artistic insight. While I largely concur with the second (Campbell’s argument that the artist is the myth-maker in modern society resonates with me), the ‘superiority’ of Indian (or Eastern) culture to that of the West is highly debatable.

The book comprises fourteen essays. Of these, seven deal in totality and one partially with Indian art; four are paeans to Indian culture; and one each is in homage to Shakespeare and Nietzsche respectively. The essays are of varying quality – from extremely well-expressed to boringly repetitive. Let me start with the key one, ‘The Dance of Shiva’.

Shiva needs no introduction to the well-read person. He is the God who dances. When he is happy, he does the ‘Ananda Thandava’, the dance of happiness – and in anger, he dances the ‘Samhara Thandava’, destroying the universe in totality. He is full of esoteric symbolism: he wears the moon and the river Ganges in his matted hair locks; wears serpents as garlands; wears cloths made out of tiger and elephant skins; and his body is covered with the ash from funeral pyres. In his avatar as Nataraja (‘The Lord of Dance’), he dances within a circle of fire, trampling on the demon Muyalaka with his right foot, the left one raised, drum in his right hand fire in his left. He is the patron god of dance.

Commaraswamy does a detailed analysis of the five types of dance Shiva does, with extensive and fascinating quotes from mythical literature. This fact itself makes it worth reading. However, it is when he comes to the metaphoric analysis of this dance that we understand how this essay has stood the test of time and influenced a number of people over the years.

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

Coomaraswamy sees it essentially as the interplay of the feminine Prakriti, matter, nature, symbolised by the fire circle – the dancing God, touching it at four points with his head, arms and foot, is Purusha, the masculine omnipresent spirit animating it. He writes:

The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

(For those of us who have had our tryst with mysticism in the post-Fritjof Capra era, this may be old hat. Shiva’s cosmic dance has been done to death across a lot of platforms – literary, religious and mystic. But it is when we realise the Coomaraswamy’s vision is from a century ago, that we begin to appreciate its originality.)

He gushes on:

How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

… In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.

Yes indeed. As a connoisseur of art, dance and literature, I will emphatically say that this image is worth tripping on!

***

Now, coming to the essays on Indian art and music: it would be tempting to analyse each one in detail, but the exigencies of time and space compel one to economise. So I would just elaborate upon the common thread running across them, so as to emphasise the author’s intentions.

One must bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this book, India was an area of darkness to the majority in the West: it was all “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” stuff. So Coomaraswamy is at pains to justify the beauty of Indian art, mostly abstract and non-representational, to a largely unsympathetic European audience (it is amusing in some cases, as in the essay ‘Indian Images with Many Arms’, where he is at pains to point out that these are metaphorical and not meant to represent reality: elementary school stuff nowadays, in the age of ‘Guernica’). Similarly, he points out the difference between Indian and Western music; the former is purely melodic while the latter is harmonic.

Similarly, Indian art is non-representational. There is no perspective, no attempt to render ‘reality’ as such; and ultimately, there is no individuality to the work of art, or the artist. This total self-effacement of the creator is peculiar to Eastern art because the artist is not important. He does not create, but just renders what is divinely inspired in him through meditation. He is just a conduit for the art to flow through; the source is the Brahman, the essential Godhead that exists within one and all.

Religion and art thus names for one and the same experience—an intuition of reality and of identity.

…When every ascetic and every soldier has become an artist there will be no more need for works of art: in the meanwhile ethical selection of some kind is allowable and necessary. But in this selection we must clearly understand what we are doing, if we would avoid any infinity of error, culminating in that type of sentimentality which regards the useful, the stimulating and the moral elements in works of art as the essential.

Coomaraswamy’s insights on the concept of beauty in art, linking with the rasa concept of Indian aesthetics, is also enlightening.

Only when we judge a work of art aesthetically we may speak of the presence or absence of beauty, we may call the work rasavant or otherwise; but when we judge it from the standpoint of activity, practical or ethical, we ought to use a corresponding terminology, calling the picture, song or actor “lovely” that is to say lovable, or otherwise, the action “noble,” the colour “brilliant,” the gesture “graceful,” or otherwise, and so forth, and it will be seen that in doing this we are not really judging the work of art as such, but only the material and the separate parts of which it is made, the activities they represent, or the feelings they express.

… Beauty can never thus be measured, for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika who enters into his experience.

There are no degrees of beauty; the most complex and the simplest expression remind us of one and the same state. The sonata cannot be more beautiful than the simplest lyric, nor the painting than the drawing, merely because of their greater elaboration. Civilized art is not more beautiful than the savage art, merely because of its possibly more attractive ethos. A mathematical analogy is found if we consider large and small circles; these differ only in their content, not in their circularity.

Another essay which was interesting was on the concept of ‘Sahaja’ – amorous love that transcends the physical, typically represented by Radha’s love for Krishna in Indian mythology. In his lectures, Campbell also talks at great length on this, albeit in a different context – the love of the troubadour for his lady. In the field of poesy, we can see this in the concept of the muse, exemplified by Dante’s obsession with Beatrice.

Radha and Krishna

***

Well, now for the negatives. Even with all these superb, pioneering insights into Indian art and aesthetics, I cannot love this book for its unabashed endorsement of the Indian caste system and the subservient role of women. The author sees the stratified Indian society as the epitome of social engineering, with the Brahmins at the top the equivalent of the philosopher kings envisaged by Plato. He feels that the Indian woman, whose career comprises solely of her husband and family, is the ‘ideal’ to strive for: for him, the emancipated western woman is an aberration. He considers the obnoxious ‘Laws of Manu’ as the absolute gospel. I will let Coomaraswamy speak for himself:

On the caste system:

The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others—it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi—but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.

…We must not judge of Indian society, especially Indian society in its present moment of decay, as if it actually realized the Brahmanical social ideas; yet even with all its imperfections Hindu society as it survives will appear to many to be superior to any form of social organization attained on a large scale anywhere else, and infinitely superior to the social order which we know as “modern civilization.”

…it can hardly be denied that the Brahmanical caste system is the nearest approach that has yet been made towards a society where there shall be no attempt to realise a competitive quality, but where all interests are regarded as identical. To those who admit the variety of age in human souls, this must appear to be the only true communism.

On the status of Indian women:

The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been perfectly comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite, and which is still very little removed from that of Roman or Greek Christianity, is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities—regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self. The industrial mind is primarily sentimental, and therefore cannot reason clearly upon love and marriage; but the Asiatic analysis is philosophic, religious and practical.

… It is sometimes asked, what opportunities are open to the Oriental woman? How can she express herself? The answer is that life is so designed that she is given the opportunity to be a woman—in other words, to realize, rather than to express herself.

…The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, but certainly an universal type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type. Nobility in women does not depend upon race, but upon ideals; it is the outcome of a certain view of life.

And as if this was not enough, he justifies arranged marriage, and even ‘Sati’ – where the wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband!

The industrial revolution in India is of external and very recent origin; there is no lack of men, and it is the sacred duty of parents to arrange a marriage for every daughter: there is no divergence of what is spiritual and what is sensuous: Indian women do not deform their bodies in the interests of fashion: they are more concerned about service than rights: they consider barrenness the greatest possible misfortune, after widowhood. In a word, it has never happened in India that women have been judged by or have accepted purely male standards. What possible service then, except in a few externals, can the Western world render to Eastern women? Though it may be able to teach us much of the means of life, it has everything yet to relearn about life itself. And what we still remember there, we would not forget before we must.

… The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertion of rights. Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism, therefore, leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest or a merely utilitarian demonstration of futility. We do not object to dying for an idea as ‘suttees’ and patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.

 

A depiction of ‘Sati’

I can now hear people saying: “Come on! You can’t judge an early twentieth century text by today’s sensibilities! Coomaraswamy was a man of his time, and we have to cut him some historical slack.”

Uh-huh. Nothing doing. This sugar-coating of the dark underbelly of India’s so-called ‘Arsha’ culture over a period of time – this refusal to call a spade a spade – has resulted in where my country is standing today, with atrocities against Dalits and women so commonplace that they are most of the time relegated to footnotes in the newspaper. Sorry, Mr. Coomaraswamy, I put you in the dock with other apologists for traditional Indian society. You don’t get even judicial mercy in my court!

A Review of “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History” by V. D. Savarkar

sixVinayak Damodar Savarkar is the philosophical fountainhead of Hindu ‘nationalism’ (I would call it fundamentalism or even fascism) and his works are supposed to be founts of wisdom, at least for the right-wingers: even among the general Indian populace, he has the sheen of a freedom fighter who has been unfairly blacked out for his ‘politically incorrect’ views. So even though I stand diametrically opposite to his philosophy, I decided that I had to read him, because criticism without knowledge is the failing of many an intelligent person.

I accordingly read his seminal ‘Hindutva’ – the guiding philosophy of the Hindu Right – and my impressions are already provided in my review, available on these fora. This is my second attempt, and it has prompted me to say “NEVER AGAIN!”

In the beginning itself, Savarkar says that this is not a book of Indian history but a critique of it, based on his own viewpoints on certain parts of it. I would say it is not a critique, but the selective distortion of history to promote one’s own agenda.

The six glorious epochs, according to the author are:

1. The reign of Chandragupta Maurya, ably assisted by Chanakya (and the Maurya dynasty in general up to Asoka, who is excluded for reasons we shall come to later);
2. The reign of Pushyamitra Sunga;
3. The reign of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya;
4. The reign of Yahodharma who fought against the Huns;
5. The age of the magnificent Marathas (who else?) who rid India of Muslim domination; and
6. The freedom struggle (only those who fought against the British using violent means, mind)

savarkarThe moment one gets into the book, one understands the author’s intent: to extol the valour of the ‘Hindu’ nation and denigrate everyone else. For this he uses clever twisting of words (for example, Alexander letting Porus go is not magnanimity, but cunningness; while Porus accepting the terms of surrender is clever strategy of biding his time), half-truths (Pushyamitra Sunga killing Brihadratha Maurya in a coup is described as a sort of revolution desired by the population in general) and outright lies (Buddhists being traitors and promoting casteism). Thus this so-called ‘historical’ book is utter drivel: however, it would have remained harmless drivel had it only been an attempt to create a historical fantasy. But Savarkar’s real agenda, which shines through in the chapters on the fifth glorious epoch (the longest in the book) makes it extremely toxic drivel.

For the agenda of the author is to enhance the otherness of all religions other than Hinduism, and to positively demonise Islam and Christianity – and to advocate the annihilation of Muslims and the rape of Muslim women.

I will let Savarkar’s words speak for him:

An effective way of liquidating the Muslim religious authority could easily have been availed of by the Hindus of those times, if they had but done what the Muslims had been doing in their hundreds of offensives against Hindu states. The Muslims went on slaughtering wholesale the Hindu population. Similarly whenever the Hindus gained an upper hand, they could have retaliated by massacring Muslim population and making the region Muslim-less ! Devoid of Muslims ! Even their ban on re-purification would not have prevented them from doing this. For in doing this there was no question involved of eating or drinking or of having any dealings with the Muslims! But—! But if not the ban on re-purification, the suicidal Hindu creed of religious tolerance was certainly a major obstacle! From the very ancient times, the Hindus had been boasting of their high ideals of religious tolerance, of the equal status they conceded to all the religions of the world, of preaching the sameness of Ram and Rahim, of allowing everyone to follow his own faith! This they considered to be the height of their religion!

Instead of massacring en masse the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who from time to time fell in their hands completely vanquished and utterly helpless, in order to avenge the untold wrongs and humiliation heaped by them on Hindus, the Hindus in their turn refrained themselves from doing the Muslims even the slightest harm because they were in minority, and belonged to another religion. On the contrary, the Muslins were allowed to enhance the glory and scope of their own religion without the least possible hindrance. Not only like the Hindu citizens, but even more leniently and with more facilities were the Muslims allowed, by Hindu states of those days, to enjoy the legal rights—a fact which is borne out by pages after pages of Indian history.

Is it necessary to add that these ‘cow-faced’ followers of Hinduism, proud of their utmost tolerance of other religions were not (in the least) likely to hit back the tiger-faced Muslims on religious grounds?

Religious tolerance! A virtue! Yes, It can be a virtue only where the other religion is tolerant of our own! But to tolerate the Muslim religion, the followers of which right from the Sultans like Mahmud of Ghazni and Ghori and others to the various Shahs and Badshahs thought it their religious obligation to massacre the Kafiir Hindus to celebrate their accession to the throne and had been carrying on horrible religious persecution of the Hindus for nearly a thousand years, was tantamount to cut the throat of one’s own religion! It was not tolerance towards other religions, it was tolerance of irreligion! It was not even tolerance, it was impotence! But this truth never dawned upon the Hindu society of those days even after the horrible experience of a thousand years or so. They on their own part went on tolerating even such a hideous religion as the Islam and considered it a glorious virtue of their own—a special ornament in the crown of the Hindu community!

O thou Hindu society! Of all the sins and weaknesses, which have brought about thy fall, the greatest and most potent are thy virtues themselves.

So ‘tolerance’ is the cardinal vice of Hindus – whole sale murder of Muslims is advocated.

And what about the women?

Savarakar keeps on ranting about ‘beautiful Hindu women’ being abducted and ‘living hellish life’ in the ‘prison-like homes’ of the Muslims – at the same time he laments about the ‘beautiful Muslim girls’ walking free. This is repeated again and again, ad nauseum, on page after page that I got a feeling that the author was harbouring serious rape fantasies. Especially when he writes:

Even now we proudly refer to the noble acts of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Chimaji Appa, when they honourably sent back the daughter-in-law of the Muslim Governor of Kalyan and the wife of the Portuguese governor of Bassein respectively. But is it not strange that, when they did so, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa should ever remember, the atrocities and the rapes and the molestation, perpetrated by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Alla-ud-din Khilji and others, on thousands of Hindu ladies and girls like the princesses of Dahir, Kamaldevi, the wife of Karnaraj of Karnawati and her extremely beautiful daughter, Devaldevi. Did not the plaintive screams and pitiful lamentations of the millions of molested Hindu women, which reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the country, reach the ears of Shivaji Maharaj and Chimaji Appa?

The souls of those millions of aggrieved women might have perhaps said, ‘Do not forget, O, your Majesty, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and O! Your Excellency, Chimaji Appa, the unutterable atrocities and oppression and outrage committed on us by the Sultans and Muslim noblemen and thousands of others, big and small. Let those Sultans and their peers take a fright that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women. Once they are haunted with this dreadful apprehension, that the Muslim women, too, stand in the same predicament in case the Hindus win, the future Muslim conquerors will never dare to think of such molestation of Hindu women.’

But because of the then prevalent perverted religious ideas about chivalry to women, which ultimately proved highly detrimental to the Hindu community, neither Shivaji Maharaj nor Chimaji Appa could do such wrongs to the Muslim women.

It was the suicidal Hindu idea of chivalry to women which saved the Muslim women (simply because they were women) from the heavy punishments of committing indescribable sins and crimes against the Hindu women. Their womanhood became their shield quite sufficient to protect them.

If one has any further doubt that political rape is being advocated here, the following passages may remove it.

The same law of nature is instinctively obeyed by the animal world. If in the cattle-herds the number of oxen grows in excess of the cows, the herds do not grow numerically in a rapid manner. But on the other hand, the number of animals in the herds, with the excess of cows over the oxen, grows in mathematical progression. The same is true of man, for at the core man is essentially an animal. Even in the pre-historic times the so-called wild tribes of the forest-dwellers knew this law quite well. The African wild tribes of to-day kill only the males from amongst their enemies, whenever there are tribal wars, but not the females, who are eventually distributed by the victor tribes among themselves. To obtain from them future progeny to increase their numbers is considered by these tribes to be their sacred duty!

Kill the men, capture the women to use as baby-making machines. According to Savarkar, it’s the natural law.

***

Savarkar’s view of Indian history is that of a continuous struggle of Hindiusm (by which he means the Vedic religion, ignoring all the diversity) which he considers the only legitimate religion of India against the demonic outsiders: the Mlechcha Greeks, the Christians, and the Muslims. A struggle which has to be through the use of arms with blood and gore aplenty – he denigrates the concept of ahimsa in the vilest terms. The emperor Asoka is seen by him as the root cause of the ‘decline’ of India, by enervating the populace through the Buddhist principle of non-violence.

There is no good Muslim. Being a Muslim is equivalent to being a fanatic. Even when Muslims do benign acts towards Hindus, it is seen as an act of low cunning: even Akbar is described as a fanatic! The exact opposite applies to the Hindu (means basically a Brahmin or a Kshatriya) – they are all the epitomes of chivalry and valour, and the atrocities committed by them arise out anger at continued oppression even in the face of extreme forbearance (ring a bell?)

In conclusion: a hate-mongering, lie-spreading, abomination of a book, which is extremely badly written to boot. Read it only to understand the venom of a racist mind.

The Magic of the Mask

joe-closeupAll who are familiar with Joseph Campbell would be aware of his massive four-volume work on mythology, titled The Masks of God.  In it, Campbell explores how myth is connected to our innermost core, wherever the world we are from – it is a comprehensive compendium of world myth as well as an in-depth analysis of its psychological roots and historical development.

In the very beginning, Joe gives us the lesson of the mask: where everyday reality is stripped away and we enter into the world of make-believe.  But this is not the delusional world of the mentally disturbed, but the fantasy land which exists within all of us; where the extremes of religious rapture and artistic ecstasy reside.  This is where we put on the mask and play at being God.

The Lesson of the Mask

Hansel-and-gretel-rackhamCampbell quotes Leo Frobenius about the “daemonic world of childhood”, about a child who plays with three matchsticks, imagining them as Hansel, Gretel and the witch.  After sometime, the child’s father hears her shrieking in terror.  When asked the reason, the child says: “Daddy, Daddy, take the witch away!  I can’t touch the witch any more!”

Frobenius goes on to say that this “eruption of emotion is characteristic of the shift of an idea from the level of sentiments to the level of sensual consciousness.”  The match was not a witch at the beginning of the game.  However, it becomes so at the level of sentiments, while remaining a match at the level of rational thought: “the phase of becoming takes place on the level of sentiments, while that of being is on the conscious plane.”

To quote Campbell:

This vivid, convincing example of a child’s seizure by a witch while in the act of play may be taken to represent an intense degree of the daemonic mythological experience.  However, the attitude of mind represented by the game itself, before the seizure supervened, also belongs within the sphere of our subject.  For, as J. Huizinga has pointed out in his brilliant study of the play element in culture, the whole point, at the beginning, is the fun of the play, not the rapture of seizure.

Yes indeed: playing at “make-believe”, as we say about childhood, little knowing that it points to some of the core needs of our mythical psyche.  The mask, while remaining a mask at the level of conscious thought, becomes God at a much deeper level.

How a Grove Became Sacred

20161229_164353.jpgPeople who follow this blog might remember an earlier post on a Sarpakkavu, a sacred grove for serpents, that my sister (an artist) created.  Though done in a totally secular manner, the “consecration” of the grove created a mythical atmosphere and our cleaning lady, a believer in the snake deities, went into a trance.  While discussing the matter, two viewpoints surfaced – the “rational” one condemning the ritualistic aspects, and the “traditional” one acknowledging the power of the deities.  Curiously, my sister and myself, both practically atheists, found ourselves in the minority by accepting both the viewpoints partially while rejecting their exclusivity.

To explain, I found myself taking up an analogy of a tennis court. On one side is the rationalist, and on the other, the believer.  For them, the net is real: as well as the match as they keep on hitting the ball into the other court, trying to score points in endless rallies.  The agnostic sits on the net, sometimes cheering one, sometimes the other.

For the artist as well as the connoisseur, however, the net doesn’t exist. The two halves of the court overlap in different dimensions of the mythical realm.  The match is an illusion, which is why it never ends – it’s “play”.

Playing at Make-Believe

All these thoughts came up afresh in my mind as I watched a series of plays as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) 2018, here in my hometown of Thrissur in Kerala. I watched plays ranging from the traditional ones presented on the proscenium stage (Palestine: Year Zero), plays incorporating elements of farce and epic theatre (Mundo Mozart, Bad City), a Chaplinesque comedy discussing the unbearable reality of refugee camps (Borderline), a couple of plays performed by single persons (My Body Welsh, Notes on Chai), a street-play of sorts by the children of sex workers (Red Light Express), a disturbing play from Manipur, depicting violence using a mix of dance and martial arts (Nerves) and a unique production without any noise based only on sign language (Say, What?). Diverse as they were, these plays had one thing in common: they were playing at make-believe.

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(Images courtesy: http://theatrefestivalkerala.com)

Campbell once said that the myth-makers of the current age are the artists, and I have to agree.  Nowhere is this more evident than in drama – no wonder we call a dramatic production a “play” (perhaps not surprisingly, my native language of Malayalam uses the same term – “Kali”, meaning play – for most stage performances of a dramatic nature). Also, masks are integral part of drama in many parts of the world – indeed, the iconic Greek masks of comedy and tragedy have come to symbolise drama in toto.

No play is ever realistic in the sense a movie is.  Even in the plays where the proscenium stage is used and the audience looks onto a set approximating a real-life setting through the absent fourth wall, the unreality is evident; in the modern play, even that semblance is not there.  In all the plays I saw, the set decorations were either minimalist or the stage was entirely bare.  The acting, in most cases, was stylised. The aim was not to make the audience feel that they were watching a real event – the aim was to emphasise that they were not.  The viewers were thus forced to move to a different plane of perception, to the “level of sentiments”, where the matchstick became the witch.

Drama and Ritual

Getting transported to a mythical level while watching a stage performance is second nature to us Keralites, because most of our plays are rituals, and our rituals, plays.  The highly stylised attire of the Kathakali dancers (Katha-Kali – “Story-Play”), the Koodiyattom artists and the Koothu performers are not much different in style from the ritual players who perform the temple arts of the Theyyam and the Thira. As Arundhati Roy says in The God of Small Things, even when the stories are known to everybody, we keep on watching these performances.  She says it is due to the greatness of the story.  While I agree, I feel it’s only partially correct.

The real reason, I feel, is the magic of the mask.  As we enter into the spirit of play, we willingly transport ourselves beyond the limitations of the reasoning mind into that magical realm where a matchstick can truly become a terrifying witch: where the rapture of artistic seizure awaits.

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