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.)

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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 “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.

A Different Viewpoint on a Much-Maligned Monarch

Aurangzeb book coverAurangzeb has been cast as an unmitigated villain by the British, a myth which has been enthusiastically adopted by Hindutva apologists to further their agenda of projecting Muslims as cruel bigots and ruthless killers. The truth, as usual, is much more nuanced.

The casual reader and scholar alike, however, should be wary of what constitutes historical evidence and a legitimate historical claim. Individuals that claim to present ‘evidence’ of Aurangzeb’s supposed barbarism couched in the suspiciously modern terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict often trade in falsehoods, including fabricated documents and blatantly wrong translations. Many who condemn Aurangzeb have no training in the discipline of history and lack even basic skills in reading premodern Persian. Be sceptical of communal visions that flood the popular sphere. This biography aims to deepen our remarkably thin knowledge about the historical man and king, Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Thus concludes Audrey Truschke the book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, and we would do well to heed her words. So much of what we have been taught as history have been infected by politics: originally by the designs of our colonial masters, then by the political outlook of the “brown sahibs” who took over our country from them, and lastly by the strident (if illogical) claims of our aggressive Hindu right. Unfortunately, all three found it expedient to demonise Aurangzeb – the British to create the myth of centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict, the Congress to prove their historical role in solving that conflict and the BJP to to sustain the myth of the marauding Muslim and the tolerant and long-suffering Hindu. This is the myth that most of us grew up with, and this is the myth which still proves remarkably resilient.

No person is uni-dimensional (other than comic book heroes and villains). This is why narratives which run counter to the popular one are important; why articles describing Gandhi’s racism and Mother Theresa’s religious fundamentalism need to be read (though not necessarily agreed with). Only when we try to look at historical personages in all their complexity shall we be able to see the past in all its multi-hued glory – which in turn, will illuminate the present.

Audrey Truschke has produced a very readable book (though rather short on substance) on the Emperor which does a laudable job of debunking the myth. Though one expects a more detailed analysis, this book should serve as a starting point for any interested reader on the controversial sovereign.

Equestrian_Portrait_of_Aurangzeb.The charges levied against Aurangzeb are mainly two: (1) he was a bloodthirsty monster who treated his enemies savagely and murdered his kin to gain the throne and (2) he was a religious bigot who relentlessly persecuted Hindus and destroyed temples. The author shows that both of these charges are rooted in half-truths which are more dangerous than lies, because they can so easily fool the gullible.

As to the first charge: yes, Aurangzeb did that – but it was no more than any other Mughal prince would do. Wars of succession for a vacant throne was the norm in the dynasty. There was no primogeniture – the popular saying was ya takht ya tabut (either the throne or the grave). Although Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son has been treated very kindly by history, in the matter of squabbling for the throne, he was as good (or as bad) as the other three; Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. All four wanted the kingship and were willing to do away with their brothers. Aurangzeb was the one who won out.

There have been many recorded instances of Aurangzeb treating his enemies cruelly (Shivaji’s son Sambaji is the example which immediately comes to mind) – but then, there are other instances when he proved lenient. Again, there is no evidence to prove that he was more savage than any average medieval king.

Now the biggest charge – that of the religious bigot who systematically tried to wipe out Hinduism – has to be examined. Ms. Truschke provides convincing evidence to illustrate that he was no bigot: only a strict and pious ruler, obsessed with an idea of justice. Obviously he would have considered Islam the true religion and all others as false, but it is clear that politics trumped faith on most occasions. The author quotes Richard Eaton, the leading authority on the subject, to establish that the number of confirmed temple destructions is just over a dozen . And many of those acts had political roots. (We must bear in mind that even Hindu kings sacked and pillaged the temples in rival’s domain – the Shaiva/ Vaishnava conflicts are obvious examples.)

F1996.1There are also ample examples of the emperor continuing the Mughal system of patronage of Hindu and Jain communities. Also, Aurangzeb had a number of Hindu officials under him, some of whom enjoyed very high ranks. Hardly to be expected of a fanatic Hindu-hater! However, it is clear that he was no Akbar, as he reimposed the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) even though it is very doubtful whether the order was implemented in practice.

(Here I must say that I do not accept what the author says without a pinch of salt. I have read other believable sources, notably the Malayalam author Anand, who claim that Aurangzeb was more fanatical than most. Instead of swinging to one or other end of the pendulum, we must weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves.)

Ultimately, Aurangzeb was a strong king who ruled for more than five decades and who expanded the Mughal kingdom across a major part of the subcontinent. Instead of a cartoon villain, he was a complex character who was composed in parts of the good, the bad and the indifferent, much like all of us.

Aurangzeb nonetheless defies easy summarization. He was a man of studied contrasts and perplexing features. Aurangzeb was preoccupied with order – even fretting over the safety of the roads – but found no alternative to imprisoning his father, an action decried across much of Asia. He did not hesitate to slaughter family members, or rip apart enemies, literally, as was the case with Sambhaji. He also sewed prayer caps by hand and professed a desire to lead a pious life. he was angered by bad administrators, rotten mangoes, and unworthy sons. He was a connoisseur of music and even fell in love with the musician Hirabai, but, beginning in midlife, deprived himself of the pleasure of the musical arts. Nonetheless, he passed his later years in the company of another musician, Udaipuri. He built the largest mosque in the world but chose to be buried in an unmarked grave. He died having expanded the Mughal kingdom to its greatest extent in history and yet feared utter failure.

A complex character indeed – and one worthy of more attention than that which has been given.

The Hated “Other”

On the night of 28 September 2015, a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family in Bisara Village, near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The middle-aged head of the family, Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death: his son was critically injured.

dadri_8a9b1f94-6cc3-11e5-9358-ce0f694bc37c

Photo courtesy: The Hindustan Times

Instead of condemning the event immediately, the Prime Minister kept his silence. Encouraged by this kind of tacit acquiescence, leaders within the BJP began to make provocative statements.

Six Outrageous Things BJP Leaders Have Said About Dadri Murder Over Beef

Ever since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office at the centre, Hindu fundamentalists of all sorts had been rattling their sabres with increasing ferocity, always finding some issue or the other to keep communal tensions alive. This murder seems have acted as a rallying point for them. Understandably, the other side – mostly left-wingers of varying colour from light pink to deep red, and the Indian National Congress – condemned the incident vehemently, accusing the BJP of direct complicity. The country went into emotional overdrive.

Confession: yours truly also reacted, dashing off angry posts on Facebook, and as usual drawing the ire of the conservatives. Over a period of days, however, after the initial heat has cooled down, I have started noticing a disturbing trend.

In olden days, such a dastardly act in India would have drawn universal condemnation from most Indians. But today, no BJP supporter is coming out to condemn the murder unconditionally. They always qualify it with statements about the sacredness of cows or how this is all a conspiracy to malign the BJP. Even the Prime Minister has made a roundabout speech, urging both Hindus and Muslims to preserve peace, as if both sides were equally faulty. On Facebook, even people from Kerala (where beef is eaten by the majority of Hindus) seem to take it as an “Us vs. Them” religious issue, with a pound of beef at the centre, rather than a straightforward question of the murder of an innocent man.

The polarisation of India on religious lines, which gained momentum during the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to have attained new heights. The “otherness” of Muslims has been established.

Now, it only remains to eliminate them.

We have seen this happening on a grand scale once in history – in Germany and the countries it conquered, during the Third Reich. Traditional anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe were inflamed by Hitler to dangerous levels which led to the torture and extermination of six million Jews. Hitler did not do this alone: many people abetted him while the world stood by and watched. Why? Because in the minds of most Europeans, the Jews were the hated “other”.

***

220px-HumanzoodesIn this context, I recalled The Human Zoo, a book by the anthropologist Dr. Desmond Morris that I had read in the early eighties. In it, Dr. Morris says that the human species has grown too fast so that he “does not fit his primate boots” any more: anthropologically, he is still a tribe member, but his tribe has grown to a “super-tribe” – humanity – a huge entity he cannot identify with.

So what does he do? Create “in-groups” and “out-groups” – tribes within the super-tribe. These groups may be divided on national, religious or linguistic lines. The common factor is that we are part of one group, competing with the members of the other group in the bloody game of survival. It is “us” versus “them”. In Dr. Morris’s words:

What is it that makes a human individual one of ‘them’, to be destroyed like a verminous pest, rather than one of ‘us’, to be defended like a dearly beloved brother? What is it that puts him into an outgroup and keeps us in the in-group? How do we recognize ‘them’? It is easiest, of course, if they belong to an entirely separate super-tribe, with strange customs, a strange appearance and a strange language. Everything about them is so different from ‘us’ that it is a simple matter to make the gross over-simplification that they are all evil villains. The cohesive forces that helped to hold their group together as a clearly defined and efficiently organized society also serve to set them apart from us and to make them frightening by virtue of their unfamiliarity.  Like the Shakespearean dragon, they are ‘more often feared than seen’.

Such groups are the most obvious targets for the hostility of our group. But supposing we have attacked them and defeated them, what then? Supposing we dare not attack them? Supposing we are, for whatever reason, at peace with other super-tribes for the time being: what happens to our in-group aggression now? We may, if we are very lucky, remain at peace and continue to operate efficiently and constructively within our group. The internal cohesive forces, even without the assistance of an out-group threat, may be sufficiently strong to hold us together. But the pressures and stresses of the super-tribe will still be working on us, and if the internal dominance battle is fought too ruthlessly, with extreme subordinates experiencing too much suppression or poverty, then cracks will soon begin to show. If severe inequalities exist between the sub-groups that inevitably develop within the super-tribe, their normally healthy competition will erupt into violence. Pent-up sub-group aggression, if it cannot combine with the pent-up aggression of other sub-groups to attack a common, foreign enemy, will vent itself in the form of riots, persecutions and rebellions.

groom applying sindoor in hair parting d5500abb6c1fb82e485462035a217c9b

In times of intense group rivalry, the subgroups start wearing their tribal colours aggressively, to mark them out from the others (think of our religious symbols or even, football club logos!). Usually, these groupings are temporary and artificial, and are taken off once the populace settles back into peace. However:

An entirely different situation exists, however, when a sub-group possesses distinctive physical characteristics. If it happens to exhibit, say, dark skin or yellow skin, fuzzy hair or slant eyes, then these are badges that cannot be taken off, no matter how peaceful their owners. If they are in a minority in a super-tribe they are automatically looked upon as a sub-group behaving as an active ‘them’. Even if they are a passive ‘them’ it seems to make no difference. Countless hair-straightening sessions and countless eye-skin-fold operations fail to get the message across, the message that says, ‘We are not deliberately, aggressively setting ourselves apart.’ There are too many conspicuous physical clues left.

Rationally, the rest of the super-tribe knows perfectly well that these physical ‘badges’ have not been put there on purpose, but the response is not a rational one. It is a deep-seated in-group reaction, and when pent-up aggression seeks a target, the physical badge-wearers are there, literally ready-made to take the scapegoat role.

The author is here talking about racial prejudice. But it is my contention that it can be religious too, especially in India – because in a caste-ridden society like ours, it is difficult to separate the individual from the faith which he or she was born into. For a religious minority, this provides a permanent sense of insecurity. What to do – disown the badges of religion and risk losing oneself in the mainstream, or wear them proudly and be the object of suspicion and hatred? It seems that the Muslim minority in India, for the major part, has taken the second route.

Unfortunately, this has pushed Hindus more and more into aggressive tribal displays. In the past few years, the Hindu religion which had been relatively private and individualised has moved into the public sphere. The symbols of religion (the vermillion spot on the forehead, the rakhee on the wrist) are brandished as objects of pride.

Maybe it’s only natural that, with the increased conviction of their religious identity, Hindus have started regarding Muslims as hostile to their very existence – aided by selected readings of history, carefully orchestrated by unscrupulous political ideologues. In such a situation,

A vicious circle soon develops. If the physical badge-wearers are treated, through no fault of their own, as a hostile sub-group, they will all too soon begin to behave like one. Sociologists have called this a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

It is at this point in the book that Dr. Morris sets out the fictitious example of the “Green-haired Man” who is racially profiled and targeted. This example has stayed with me for more than three decades now, so vivid was it: it was this which made me remember this book in the current situation.

Let me illustrate what happens, using an imaginary example. These are the stages:

  1. Look at that green-haired man hitting a child. That green-haired man is vicious.
  2. All green-haired men are vicious.
  3. Green-haired men will attack anyone.
  4. There’s another green-haired man – hit him before he hits you.
  5. (The green-haired man, who has done nothing to provoke aggression,
  6. hits back to defend himself.)
  7. There you arc – that proves it: green-haired men are vicious.
  8. Hit all green-haired men.

This progression of violence sounds ridiculous when expressed in such an elementary manner. It is, of course, ridiculous, but nevertheless it represents a very real way of thinking.  Even a dimwit can spot the fallacies in the seven deadly stages of mounting group prejudice that I have listed, but this does not stop them becoming a reality.

After the green-haired men have been hit for no reason for long enough, they do, rather naturally, become vicious. The original false prophecy has fulfilled itself and become a true prophecy.

Just meditate on the above passage, and think about the demonisation of Islam in today’s world – does anything ring a bell?

227355-gujarat-riots

A Review of “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes

Image courtesy: Cartoonstock

This book has been criticised severely (mostly by people who had not read it) for committing the sin of laughing at Hitler.  Since I love satire (coming from Kerala, the land of the Chakkiar Koothu, how can one not?), I found this argument ridiculous.Subsequently, I searched for similar instances of making fun of Hitler, and came across the book Dead Funny by Rudolph Herzog, where the author had posed the question of satire and the Third Reich.

One quote from that book stuck in my memory:

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

A very valid question (the portion I have highlighted).

Well, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes attempts to answer this question: and in my opinion, succeeds to a certain extent.  However, the answer is not at all palatable.  This may be one of the reasons why the book aroused such strong passions.

————————————————–

9780857052926This book is cutting satire which pulls no punches, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift – many a time you will flinch while reading it.  This is the way I believe that satire should work: while making one laugh, it should also make one uncomfortable, and make one question the very basis of one’s fondly held beliefs.  It did this for me.  I laughed out loud in very few places – but all the while, my inner demon was seething with evil laughter.

The premise of the novel is simple to the point of silliness.  Hitler is deposited into the middle of modern-day Germany (without any explanation whatsoever).  People take him for a flawless impersonator, while he is very sincere in his motives – to set Germany “right”.  While the country sees him as a comedian par excellence on TV, Adolf is using it as a means of propaganda to re-establish his philosophy in the minds of the Volk.  As the show and the showman become a runaway hit, he is wooed by different parties and gets a book contract – and at the end of the novel we realise with a shudder that Hitler is slowly re-emerging.

The juxtaposition of a historical figure with modern society is a common trope used in many satirical plays in India: it is a useful tool to satirise modern society in the light of age-old values.  However, here we find modern society evaluated in the light of Nazi values (celebrity culture and the ethics of journalism, for example), and we sometimes find ourselves agreeing with Hitler!  This is deeply disturbing, and forces us to question the values which we have become accustomed to – which is good, IMO, but which I suspect may get a lot of people pissed off.  A mirror is sometimes very difficult to look into.

Another disturbing fact Hitler’s popularity.  In the guise of “humour” (only for the audience-the Fuhrer is in dead earnest), so much of hatred for the “other” is tolerated, nay, even encouraged.  It made me question the limits of satire itself – for example, in a joke aimed at a particular community, are we laughing at the issue or the target community?  (For example, do we see a magazine such as “Charlie Hebdo” satirising society or insulting religion?) So while applauding Hitler as a comedian, is society tacitly putting the seal of approval on his dangerously eccentric ideas – due to its own ingrained racism?  Continuing in the same vein: is this what happened originally, when a little man with a ridiculous moustache was able take centre stage in German politics, after spending a long time on the fringes (frightening thought, that).

The novel is brilliantly written, in Hitler’s unreadable prose (I could recall my experience of reading <I>Mein Kampf</I>) which shows him up for what he was – a pompous ass with murderous ideas.  (I think this is the root of the criticism that the novel makes Hitler likeable.  It doesn’t.  It makes him silly.)  Such a man could not come to power, and commit murder on such a grand scale, without the active collusion of the majority – at least sins of omission if not those of commission.  In fact, Hitler only cleverly exploited European anti-Semitism to come to power, IMO.  By the time the world realised the depths of the depravity of this madman, it was too late.  The novel warns us that it is all the more possible in modern society, with the vastly improved means of propaganda at its disposal.

Finally: does this novel trivialise the holocaust and put Hitler in a favourable light?  In my opinion, it doesn’t.  What it does is that it diminishes Hitler.  It says: “Look, guys, this kooky idiot rode to power on your shoulders and once there, tightened his grip like a vice.  Such monkeys will come in future also.  Please don’t lift them to your shoulders and allow them to put a chokehold on you.”

Which is not a bad message, when one comes to think about it.

The Debt Trap

During the nineties, I procured my first credit card. Being a cautious socialist who distrusted private banks on principle, the card was from the State Bank of India. Initially I didn’t do much with it, but use it to shop at our local supermarket: the novelty was in taking it out and flashing it instead of a bunch of dirty notes. So things went on satisfactorily for a few months.

1-1204463487cJKyThen, the temptation of buying beyond my means was too much – I purchased something (I don’t exactly remember what) through my card which could not be paid off immediately. In addition to this, I took some cash advance on my card to take care of the expenses of my father’s sixtieth birthday celebrations.

Suddenly, the card had me by the throat. All that was left of my salary after monthly expenses was going towards the minimum payment on my card; however, the outstanding amount was decreasing only minimally. To put it simply, I was paying out interest while the principal remained largely untouched. Moreover, my card had become useless because the credit limit had been reached.

Well, I am glad to say that I caught on to the danger after only a few months, and took out a non-refundable loan from my provident fund to settle the amount on the card in full. After that incident, I started using a credit card only after I came to the Middle East in 2004 – and I am extremely careful settle the outstanding amount in full each month.

I had experienced the nightmare of the never-ending debt loop.

Usury

Matsys_the_moneylenderMoneylenders have always been a despised lot in history until modern times. Usury, the business of lending money at high interest rates so as to make a profit is condemned in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (though Jews are allowed to do so to non-Jews). Christ reportedly drove away usurers from the church with a whip: Islam even now practices a special type of banking without interest. Due to widespread anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, usury was the only profession allowed for Jews, thus giving rise to caricature of the covetous Jew a la Shylock: ironically, this became a vicious circle of hatred.

In India too, the moneylender (often caricatured in movies as a ‘Bania’ with his characteristic cap and strongbox, sitting cross-legged in his tiny office and fleecing villagers) was not a liked figure. Many people have been fleeced of their life savings and domicile by these rapacious characters. Debt bondage was also common in India, where people were forced work free of cost for generations in the service of the person who lent them money – the debt and interests keep on accumulating.Christ_drives_the_Usurers_out_of_the_Temple

It must have been with the rise of industry, banking and international finance that charging interest on loans lost its stigma as a malpractice. When the borrowed money is used to generate more money on its own, it seems only fair that the lender is compensated – after all, theoretically the profit would have been his, had he used it the way the borrower did. Anyway, except in the Islamic world, lending money on interest is no longer a shameful activity: rather, it is the backbone of the current market economy-driven world. If one is to listen to the bards who sing the praises of capitalism, this is the only sustainable model.

But is it? Since the recession of 2008, I have begun to have serious doubts.

Virtual Money

I am not an economist. In fact, even though I have taken a Post-Graduate Diploma in Financial Management, I am very weak in understanding the vagaries of international finance. Other than the basics of balance sheets, discounted cash flow and future value, I am lost.

However, there is one aspect of modern finance which I am sure is an ultimate recipe for disaster – virtual money, symbolised by the ubiquitous credit card.

Just think about how we do finance nowadays. Most of the money is just numbers on a computer system in a bank’s server. When you buy or sell something, the numbers are adjusted accordingly. And when you buy something on credit, the numbers readjust based on the assumption that you will be able to pay back. If you are not able to, the bank will come after you.

This system will work as long as the majority of the people play by the rules. But when the majority starts defaulting, that’s when things start to come unstuck.

Exploitation and the Myth of Infinite Consumption

“Exploitation” is the cornerstone of the capitalist world we live in today. Even communist ideology is dependent on the “exploitation” of natural resources. Now this is a key word: it creates the impression that exploiting anything and everything for one’s benefit is the natural way of things. This, coupled with the myth that there are infinite resources to go around, has created a covetous, rapacious, dog-eat-dog society where the aim is to get ahead, even by trampling down the one beneath you, paying scarce heed to the voices of reason saying that the current pace and direction of humanity is unsustainable. Social Darwinism, as promoted by Ayn Rand, has become the norm. Is somebody living a miserable life? Well, he deserves it for being too lazy to do better for himself! This is blaming the victim with a vengeance.

Socially conditioned rapacity coupled with the ability to consume beyond means – it was only a question when whole thing would collapse. Well, it has happened. Starting in 2008, we are seeing the beginning of modern society’s one-way roller-coaster ride to disaster.

Greece

Greek-Communist-Party-pro-005Greece is a fine example of what will happen when a government becomes beholden to moneylenders. When a country’s money is invested in “securities” provided by international financiers who know that they are based on subprime mortgages, and later, when these instruments fail and the money vanishes, the same financial vultures force the government to pay back huge amounts – this is nothing short of debt bondage. And the price to be paid? Austerity! Increased privatisation and reduction of government funding on public amenities. To quote a colourful metaphor from the website, http://www.filmsforaction.org:

If you are a fan of mafia movies, you know how the mafia would take over a popular restaurant. First, they would do something to disrupt the business – stage a murder at the restaurant or start a fire. When the business starts to suffer, the Godfather would generously offer some money as a token of friendship. In return, Greasy Thumb takes over the restaurant’s accounting, Big Joey is put in charge of procurement, and so on. Needless to say, it’s a journey down a spiral of misery for the owner who will soon be broke and, if lucky, alive.

(Read the full article, here.)

This is financial extortion on an international scale. Ironically, we find mainstream media blaming the Greek people for this catastrophe.

Even though Greece has voted emphatically against austerity, there is little hope that the vultures will leave off. The country will be squeezed and people pushed into unbelievable misery until these corporate bloodsuckers get their pound of flesh.

***

Unfortunately, we are all cogs in the wheel, and cannot escape the mammoth capitalist behemoth which controls society nowadays. We cannot do away with investments and virtual money. This is why leftists like me are called hypocrites many a time by conservatives, and they are right. All of us are culpable.

But is there nothing we can do? I believe there is.

At this point, I would like to quote the story of the squirrel, from the Indian epic Ramayana.

Legend has it that Lord Rama built a causeway across the ocean to connect India to Sri Lanka, to go over there with his monkey army to fight the demon king Ravana and recover his wife Sita, whom Ravana had abducted. As the mighty monkeys were throwing rocks into the sea, Rama spotted a squirrel running into the water, running back to the beach and rolling in the sand, then running into the water again. When asked the reason for this strange behaviour, the squirrel replied: “I am participating in the building of the causeway. The few grains of sand which stick to my back will also contribute, no?” It is said that Rama became extremely happy and blessed the squirrel.

The moral of the story is simple – nothing is too little. We all can contribute our mite to bringing down this corrupt edifice. Blood-soaked revolutions are not required, nor are they essential.

The first step is control our appetites. It will not be easy – but we can do it. Start slowly and in a limited fashion. Do you need to buy all those consumer products advertised in the TV? Is it required to use your petrol –drinking monster of a car for going that one kilometre? Is air-conditioning absolutely necessary in all rooms of your house?

The second step is to see ways of becoming self-sufficient and promoting self-sufficiency. Do you need to visit that international retail chain for buying vegetables, when your neighbourhood grocer may be able to supply the same? Can you not try to cultivate at least some vegetables in your backyard, or terrace garden? When equivalent brands are available, can you not choose a local one over an international one?

The most important step, in my humble opinion, is to never borrow beyond one’s means.

These are all suggestions and not diktats. I am also a person who is struggling to find ways of escaping from the clutches of the faceless corporations who have no caste, creed, colour or nationality. If we do not, I am afraid that soon sovereign governments may become history, and the world would be divided up among the financial Leviathans.

A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.

***

Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.

***

People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.

***

The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

Woundedknee1891
The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.

***

In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!

Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

France is seen as the seat of European culture, the temple of free speech: so when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by armed gunmen on the seventh of January and four famous cartoonists murdered in cold blood, international outrage was instantaneous. People took to the streets with placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a mark of solidarity: international leaders condemned the atrocity: and a massive rally was taken out in Paris on eleventh January where the leaders from forty nations participated. The attack was seen, rightly, as an assault against freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo rally

(Image courtesy: The Guardian)

The attackers were Islamic terrorists, and the reason for the attack was Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons purportedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda immediately. And predictably, the “Islam versus the West” debate started.

Most of the Islamic nations condemned the attack: some leaders even participated in the rally. However, the West’s tired old saw of “Muslims not doing enough to condemn and combat terrorism” started coming out in print, visual and social media. Muslims as a people were immediately placed in the dock and Islam as a religion was once again accused of fomenting terrorist ideas in its basic tenets.

Then, some interesting viewpoints started coming to light – interestingly enough from the liberal West, questioning the very sincerity of the protests. The first of this kind of article I read was about the “pencil cartoons”, a host of which appeared after the carnage. Many of them showed pencils regenerating after getting cut: pens and pencils in combat against guns and swords: and coming up trumps while weighed against guns and bombs. While these were not very offensive (though repetitive), there were others showing Islamic terrorists being bombarded with pencils, pens and brushes. The political theme of the second set was clear: “enlightened Western intellectual power” against the violent firepower of the “uneducated” Middle East. And in many of the cartoons, the terrorist was shown as a hawk-nosed, turbaned, scowling Arab – a familiar caricature in the West since the colonial times.

pencils

(Image courtesy: http://www.redflag.org.au)

Soon, another set of criticisms came up, about the participants in the Paris rally. Many of the nations expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo had notorious track records on free speech: Israel had jailed journalists in Gaza, Saudi Arabia had jailed and lashed a blogger for alleged blasphemy, and Egypt, Bahrain, Russia etc. also had less than pristine records on the right to free speech. Even USA had tried to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera and the case of Julian Assange is still alive as a huge embarrassment for America and Britain.

The third set of criticisms was about the magnitude of the outrage. The murder of twelve people in France created such a huge outcry, while the killing of around 2000 people in Nigeria by the Boko Haram was largely ignored. Inevitably, the Third World claimed that the skin colour of the victims was in direct proportion to the furore – that the killing of black and brown people did not matter.

The final set of criticisms was against the cartoons themselves. Charlie’s cartoons were meant to shock and disgust; they were grossly insulting religious figures and the religions themselves. Many people think that there is a limit to free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed it long back.

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I personally was also shocked to hear about the attack, and condemned it immediately in my own small way by posting a review on the Goodreads website.

I am usually not in favour of anything which purposefully harms religious sentiments. In India, we have so many religions so sometimes we have to walk on eggshells: and respect for all religions is taught from a very tender age. So when the purportedly anti-Islam cartoons were first published, I never paid much attention, except remarking privately it was in bad taste.

But now things are different. When the guns of intolerance are trained on artists, it is time for all of us who are interested in art and literature to take up arms – and by that I do not mean guns. The written word packs more power than a thousand guns – and when it is combined with laughter, the power increases hundredfold.

So let’s join in solidarity with the slain cartoonists, and ridicule these extremists and their dictatorial version of religion to death.

I have since then had the chance to view many of the cartoons. Most are in extremely poor taste; many are overtly sexual; and almost all of them are insulting to some degree to some group. But I have to say one thing – they are impartial. Charlie Hebdo has no sacred cows. They were not a Western institution insulting the East – they were irresponsible and arrogant mavericks making irreverent fun of anything and everything – including the French government.

I do not consider that Islam or Muslims in general are responsible for the terrorist attacks, any more than Jews in general are responsible for Israel’s war on Gaza or Christians for George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq.  I also do not agree that it is a question of “the intellectual West” against the “extremist Arab” – this is a simplified viewpoint which ignores the complex ground realities in the Middle East.

I do not endorse the French claim that their country is the centre of the freedom of expression – according to me, the French law prohibiting Islamic women to wear the veil is as restrictive as the one forcing all women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Racism and intolerance are not the sole province of the so-called theocracies and dictatorships; they are present in democracies also. However, the main difference is that in democracies, one has the freedom to criticise everything, including the powers that be – this is all the more true in Europe, and France is in the forefront of this freedom. And Charlie Hebdo is the shining example of that.

As a member of a democracy which leaves a lot to be desired in the department of the freedom of expression, I salute Charlie Hebdo.

As a member of a multi-religious nation, brought up on the sanctity of all religions and the importance of not insulting any religion, I condemn the cartoons insulting religious figures.

I do not agree to what Charlie Hebdo is saying, many a time: but I will defend to death, their right to say it.

The Darkest Chapter in the History of Secular India

A word of warning: if you are an adherent of the Hindutva philosophy espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the following review will disturb you.

The book: “Gujarat – Irakalkku Vendi Oru Porattam” (“Gujarat – a Fight for the Victims”) should be read by all secular Indians to learn how government machinery and police were ruthlessly used for ethnic cleansing – written by a former Police Chief himself.

On 27 February, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the city of Ayodhya was allegedly set alight by Muslim rioters in the Godhra railway station in Gujarat state in western India, resulting in the death of 59 people. Over the next three days, crazed mobs of Hindu right-wing fanatics went on a rampage all over Gujarat, mainly the city of Ahmedabad. The police stood by impotently while Muslims were slaughtered mercilessly. It was the vilest incident of a sectarian attack, after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.

R. B. Sreekumar was Additional Director General of Police in Gujarat at the time. In this book, he comes up with the shocking revelation that the riots were systematically engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-core Hindu component of the BJP, and they were blessed and abetted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who allegedly told the police chiefs that “there would be Hindu backlash, and they were not to interfere”.

The carnage that followed boggles the mind. From Wikipedia:

It is estimated that at least 250 girls and women had been gang raped and then burned to death. Children were killed by being burnt alive and those digging mass graves described the bodies as “burned and butchered beyond recognition”. Children were force fed petrol and then set on fire, pregnant women were gutted and their unborn child’s body then shown to the women. In the Naroda Patiya mass grave of 96 bodies 46 were women. The murderers also flooded homes and electrocuted entire families inside. Violence against women also included their being stripped naked, objects being forced into their bodies and then their being killed. According to Kalpana Kannabiran the rapes were part of a well organized, deliberate and pre-planned strategy, and that this puts the violence in the area of a political pogrom and genocide. Other acts of violence against women were acid attacks, beatings and the killing of women who were pregnant. Children were also killed in front of their parents…

…Children and infants were speared and held aloft before being thrown into fires. Describing the sexual violence perpetrated against Muslim women and girls, Renu Khanna writes that the survivors reported “that sexual violence consisted of forced nudity, mass rapes, gang-rapes, mutilation, insertion of objects into bodies, cutting of breasts, slitting the stomach and reproductive organs, and carving of Hindu religious symbols on women’s body parts…

…Dionne Bunsha, writing on the Gulbarg Society massacre and murder of Ehsan Jafri, has said that Jafri begged the crowd to spare the women, he was dragged into the street and forced to parade naked for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram”. He was then beheaded and thrown onto a fire, following this the rioters returned and burned Jafri’s family, including two small boys, to death. After the massacre Gulbarg burned for a week.



Sreekumar also had to stand by while the violence went on – he could not intervene without instructions from his superiors – but later on, he decided to go on a one-man mission to see that justice was done. Against the advice of his colleagues and superiors, he began filing honest reports. When the Justice Nanavati commission was set up to probe the riots, Sreekumar submitted an affidavit which proved to be political dynamite. The commission published the report. The Gujarat government tried to pressurise Sreekumar into disowning it. He refused, and submitted a second affidavit.

However, even with all this activism, nothing happened – the UPA government (whose main component was the Indian National Congress) at the centre, even though theoretically in the opposite camp of the BJP, was hesitant to take decisive action. The reaction of the Gujarat government was as expected: Sreekumar was harassed and punished – transferred to a sinecure post and his deserved promotion denied. But he did not stop, and along with the help of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, succeeded in bringing many of the perpetrators of violence to justice: but due to interference from the state government (controlled by Modi) and lack of will-power of the Central Government, only the lowest level of the criminals – the one who actually carried out the rape, murder and pillage – were brought to justice. Those who gave the orders at the top could use their clout to escape.

The picture Sreekumar paints of Gujarat is less than edifying, to say the least. Government machinery is used regularly to destroy evidence and subvert justice. The cops who side with the government – even convicted and jailed in some cases – are regularly rewarded, while the honest ones are punished mercilessly. Muslims are forced to live in abject terror as second-class citizens. Muslim youth are regularly done away with in “police encounters” which are little more than cold-blooded murders. The government – any government – is powerless as all the key posts in the bureaucracy are filled with Hindu right-wing sympathisers.

The million-dollar question: is it a true memoir, or is the author a paid lackey of the opposition Indian National Congress as the BJP alleges?

As far as I am concerned, the book absolutely exudes honesty. Also, if Sreekumar is a Congress lackey as the BJP portrays him to be, why was he not “blessed” by the powers that be who was in power at the centre from 2004 to 2014? His battles seem to be lone affairs, with help from only a group of mavericks like himself.

I do not know whether Modi is the veritable monster that Sreekumar makes him out to be – we are all human, and there can be prejudices – but there is no doubt that his government stood by and allowed Hindu fanatics to murder Muslims. In my book, this indictment of Narendra Modi is enough.

Well, that person has gone through and image makeover and is currently the Prime Minister of India. Promising good governance, Modi seems to be subdued nowadays on the Hindutva (hard-core Hindu right wing) rhetoric. He has made all the right moves since occupying the highest seat in the Indian polity. But the experience of history teaches us that the tiger does not change his stripes.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.