The Monstrous Feminine

Durga_Mahishasura-mardini,_the_slayer_of_the_buffalo_demonDurga

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

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

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

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

431px-Kali_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma

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

Lilith

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

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

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

320px-Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)

Lilith by John Collier

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

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

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

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

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

Medusa

Medusa

Medusa

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

***

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

The Tale of Nagavalli

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

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

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

manichithra

Shobhana in Manichitrathazhu

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

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

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

Is a new myth in the offing?

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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 “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

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

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

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

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

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

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

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

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

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

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

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

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

He gushes on:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radha and Krishna

***

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

On the caste system:

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

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

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

On the status of Indian women:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A depiction of ‘Sati’

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

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

Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!

 

The Post-Truth World

post-truth

adjective

  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief:

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

The above is from the web version of the Oxford dictionary.

I was not very sure of what this meant until I had an argument with a young man in my office.  This guy, intelligent and balanced in all other respects, shocked me by turning out to be an ardent Trump fan.  On further discourse, however, I found that he hated Hillary with an unbelievable passion, which he claimed was due to her dishonesty: but I suspect that it arises from a strong misogynistic streak in him, something which is buried in the shadow side of his personality (to borrow from Jung).

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders at the National Urban League in the Manhattan borough of New York

He kept on barraging me with the “evidence” of Hillary’s crookedness; but when I pointed out that most of these were of doubtful veracity, and a lot of similar allegations existed against Trump, he was at pains to point out to me that while most allegations against Hillary were “true”, those against Trump were “false”!  In short, he was doing exactly what the first example quoted in the above definition of ‘post-truth’ was trying to illustrate: cherry-picking data to come to one’s desired conclusion.

This brought up another unwelcome thought in my mind: aren’t I, a left-wing liberal, also guilty of the same thing?  We only have to look at Facebook to see that all and sundry keep on justifying their political stands on extremely shaky data.  It seems that if we look closely enough, we can always find something to “prove” just about anything.  So logic and reason have absolutely no say in human discourse any more – sadly, neither does truth.

***

This had me ruminating on the concept of “truth” itself.  I remember having this discussion on the Joseph Campbell fora (now sadly all but defunct): what, exactly, is “truth”?  Well, there are the indisputables: it is the truth that New Delhi is the capital of India, and that The Da Vinci Code was written by Dan Brown.  Only the severely delusional individual will dispute these, as we have concrete evidence to prove the same.  But what about, say, evolution?  The scientifically minded individual would say that it is the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence we have at hand, but it could hardly be called “the truth” as all said and done, it is a conclusion drawn by the mind.  So in our discussions, we decided to call the indisputable truths “facts”, and the proof for the same, “evidence”.  Truth was confined to the twilight zone where it was largely dependent on individual interpretation of evidence.

Things really became interesting in that particular conversation thread when someone said that the heliocentric universe was “only a theory”!  On the face of it, this claim was silly: but as the discussion went on, we found that this particular scientific “truth” was not as robust as those facts which I stated above.  I mean, we have ample evidence to show that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, but have any of us verified it first hand?  It could be that the whole scientific establishment is playing a massive fraud on us – in fact, this is what the Flat Earth Societies believe.

We have to accept that there are various shades to scientific truths also: while the heliocentric universe is on a relatively safe wicket, the theory of evolution is on more unsure ground.  And when we come to something economically and politically loaded like global warming – Al Gore aptly called it “An Inconvenient Truth”! – it seems that truth has become what we want to believe.  With science also influenced by politics nowadays, the fabled scientific method has become a tool for arriving at our desired conclusion.

***
Which brings us to politics, and how it permeates every thread in the fabric of human discourse in the current globally connected era.

Before TV became so popular, one had to take an effort to know the news – it was possible only through reading.  And it required some effort.  Reading the newspaper was almost and educational activity during my childhood; both our parents and teachers encouraged us to do it. I remember that in those days, news was more heavy on content and less on sensationalism – there were no colour pictures, no controversial statements which were highlighted in the headlines and much less of opinion pieces (if at all there were, they were clearly tagged as opinion).

The advent of television changed all that.  Now we had a movie screen in the house to watch the news as it happened, and it was much more exciting (also, it required much less cerebration).  I think none of us noticed how much it took away from the advantages of reading the newspaper.  Because as we read, our mind continually analyses the information and forms conclusions – when we watch it on the screen, the thinking mind is largely dormant and we react emotionally to the visuals.  We were getting dumbed down despite ourselves.  And when cable TV debuted, we had a multiple set of viewpoints barraging our audio and visual sensitivities.  News suddenly became big-time entertainment.th

But the most decisive factor in ushering in the post-truth era is, I feel, the internet.  Now information was available literally at the touch of a finger.  To “google” something became an accepted verb.  Students doing school projects, instead of poring over heavy tomes in the reference section of their libraries, just opened Wikipedia, downloaded the pictures, copied the text, and aced their grades.  Everyone became an expert on various subjects due to their web browsing skills alone.

facebook-logoWhile this interconnectivity had its positives, it has its negatives too: the most obvious one being the loss of veracity.  Anyone with a good vocabulary and a smattering of knowledge can put up articles which would have a sufficient veneer of truth to hoodwink the gullible.  And with social media now ruling the roost, truth has gone for a toss.  The same syndrome is affecting the so-called “debates” on TV, which are nothing but shouting matches, each participants brandishing “facts” to support his or her viewpoint.

***

Is man essentially rational or emotional?

I remember discussing the “Rational Man Hypothesis” with my brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, some years ago.  This postulates that man essentially acts rationally, weighing all information objectively before reaching a conclusion and takes action accordingly.  However, enticing as this view is, it is utter poppycock: other than the half-Vulcan Spock nobody behaves in this way.  Man is essentially an emotional and instinctive animal even after centuries of evolution.  Reason is slowly mounting an attack on emotion, and gaining ground inch by painful inch, but it is still an uphill battle.

What social media and reality TV has done in the recent past is to reinforce this emotional quotient to an unprecedented degree.  With a world which is teetering on a precipice both politically and environmentally, it seems that mankind has retreated into its pre-enlightenment mentality, at least partially.  In a dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s every man for himself – I think the rise of the radical right can also be partially linked to this turbulent emotional environment where fear is the predominant emotion.

***

Is there a way out?

I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel in the immediate future.  However, recognising our basic irrationality might be a beginning.  Reading up on different viewpoints on the same issue, keeping one’s emotional reactions in check, is also a method of rationally approaching an issue.

The fact that “truth” is not one size fits all.  The concept of objective truth, borrowed from Western science, is essentially a chimera.  Truth may be different for different people – each of us has his or her own path.  According to the Isavasya Upanishad:

“hiranmayena pātrena satyasyāpihitam mukham

tat tvam pūsan āpāvrnu satyadharmāya drsṭaye”

(The face of truth is concealed with a golden vessel.  O sun, please open it so that I, who am truthful, may see)

The sun here, I feel, is the one that burns within the spirit.  One has to let it blaze forth so that the golden vessel of our prejudices may melt away… and we may see the truth finally in its entirety.

1

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 “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

(A couple of days back, the images of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai accepting their respective Nobel Peace Prizes were the toast of the majority of Indian news channels, a welcome relief from the grim news about terrorist violence in Pakistan and the menace of increasing Hindu fundamentalism in India. It made me think of this book immediately. The demon of intolerance and violence lies hidden inside all of us; it may escape its cage and take wing any day, then it may be impossible to cage it again. We need people like Malala to remind us of the fact – also that there are bright spots even in the darkest of times.)

*

All citizens must pray five times a day…

All men must grow beards…

All women must stay inside at all times…

No woman, under any circumstances, may show her face…

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Playing cards, playing chess, gambling and kite flying are forbidden.

Writing books, watching films and painting pictures are forbidden.

Cosmetics are forbidden.

Jewelry is forbidden.

Women will not wear charming clothes.

Women will not speak unless spoken to.

Women will not laugh in public.

Girls are forbidden from attending school.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you steal, your hand will be cut off.

If you commit adultery, you will be stoned to death…

Listen. Listen well. Obey.

Welcome to Taliban country.


What is the enduring attraction of dystopias? Why do we keep on reading about these hellish landscapes where humanity is long dead? Maybe it’s just the devil within, that makes many of us stop and stare at road accidents; maybe there is a cathartic effect, showing us that however bad things are, they could be worse. Or maybe it is the fascination of watching the human spirit soar above the inhuman universe. Most probably, it is a combination of all three.

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a dystopia with a difference: instead of being hatched in the brain of some gifted writer, it is one which existed, very near to us in time and space. For the second time, Khaled Hosseini trains his spotlight on his unfortunate home country-however, whereas in The Kite Runner it was only a plot device for the protagonist’s personal redemptive journey, here it is one of the main characters, this land of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

This novel is the story of two women, and through them, Woman in general; as she exists and endures in most parts of the world. Marginalised, a vagina in her youth, a womb in her womanhood, and a pair of hands for sweeping and cleaning in her old age. Created by God as an afterthought as a playmate to His star creation which He made in His own image.

Mariam is a harami, born on the other side of the blanket to the wealthy Jalil Khan and his housekeeper Nana. Nana accepts the fact they are outcasts, while Mariam doesn’t. She demands her share of her father’s love, which he is ready to give on the sly – the problem is, she wants it publicly. Her insistence on visiting her father at his town house ends in her mother’s suicide. Orphaned Mariam, an embarrassment to her father and his three wives, is married off at fifteen to Rasheed, an elderly widower… with whom she endures a loveless and abusive marriage. She is also an object of shame to him because she consistently fails in carrying a baby to term.

Laila is better off as far as family is concerned – she has an educated and loving father, a mother who is much more considerate than many others (even though she is slowly on her way to madness because of her missing sons who have gone off to fight the Soviets), and a charming friend, the one-legged Tariq, who is fast becoming much more than a friends as the children mature. However, her world slowly starts to unravel as Afghanistan’s war with the USSR is won and then the various resistance groups starts fighting among themselves. One of her best friends meets a horrible death, another friend is married off, and Tariq leaves for Pakistan with his family. Ironically, when her family finally decides to move to Pakistan, a stray missile lands on her home killing both her parents. The injured Laila is taken in by Rasheed; with ulterior motives, it is soon revealed. However, she has no option but to become the second wife of the lecherous old man as she is carrying Tariq’s illegitimate child: and the news of Tariq’s death has come from across the border.

As Afghanistan moves through the Civil war era to the Taliban era, the two women, initially hostile, form a bond. The bond is strengthened when Laila gives birth to a girl and loses glamour in the eyes of Rasheed, making her a fellow-sufferer with Mariam: and Mariam simply loves Aziza, Laila’s daughter, all the more because she is a little harami like herself!

Things slowly spiral to a climax when Tariq returns. It seems the story of his death has been manufactured by Rasheed. In a climax slightly reminiscent of a Hindi movie in the best Bollywood tradition, Mariam puts paid to her brute of a husband with a garden shovel, as he is trying to strangle Laila. Laila escapes with Tariq and her children, while Mariam confesses to her crime and receives the Taliban’s swift and brutal justice.

In the last part, we find Laila returning to the Taliban-exorcised Afghanistan, where she makes a pilgrimage to Mariam’s birthplace and unexpectedly receives the money left for Mariam by her repentant father. With it, she revives the orphanage and school where Aziza had been given shelter during the worst years of her life. We leave the story with the news of her third child growing inside her – whose name is already fixed (we can all guess what it will be!), should it turn out to be a girl.

*

Khaled Hosseini is definitely not a literary writer. His style is emotional: the story is given all importance, not the way it is delivered. There were complaints (rather justified, IMO) about the lack of dimension of the characters, especially the villain, in The Kite Runner: Hosseini was accused of playing up to the gallery by vilifying the Islamic world for the benefit of a largely Western audience. In hindsight, I have to reluctantly agree, even though I loved that book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is slightly better in the sense that all the characters are better drawn. The Taliban are shown as human beings, even though believers in a barbarian philosophy. Rasheed is unabashedly evil, however: but that has nothing to do with religion or geography – SOB’s like him are a dime to dozen in almost all third-world countries. However, the women protagonists are well-etched. Thankfully, they fight back even when the dice is loaded against them.

The novel follows a beaten path: there are very few surprises. The narrative structure is linear, and the author does not challenge the reader at any time within the narrative. The result is a story which flows at breakneck pace, loaded with emotion. We root for the good guys and boo the bad guys at all the appropriate places. And in the end, when Mariam cracks open Rasheed’s skull, we stand up and applaud. But I do not care if the emotion is cheap – I thoroughly enjoyed it. One needs to load up on junk food now and then!

The most noteworthy thing about A Thousand Splendid Suns is the way Afghanistan is portrayed: one weeps for the destruction of a beautiful country, gang-raped and mutilated by hordes and hordes of marauders. One wishes that the current tenuous peace holds, so that she can get back on her feet.

*

Once a taxi driver here in Abu Dhabi talked to me about his family back in Pakistan, on the hilly borderland near Afghanistan. These areas are still outside the police scanner and largely controlled by the Taliban. He told me how his brilliant daughter was forced out of school by armed men on pain of death. He had wanted to make her a doctor, and now she was confined to sooty pots and pans in the backyard. The poor man was almost in tears.

I remembered him when Mariam brought down the shovel the second time on Rasheed’s head. She was striking a blow for the taxi-driver’s daughter: and all such women, crushed under the iron boot of tradition which gives them existence only as man’s playthings and possessions.


You are fearsome: yet I bow to you, O Mother.

Conspiracies

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he’s expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: ‘Cause I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind — driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember — all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.

  • The Matrix

I do not think many of us would need an explanation where the famous dialogue is coming from: the 1999 movie “The Matrix” is iconic in the SF canon. The basic premise that nothing is what it seems: we are all puppets of an oppressive system which keeps us in blissful ignorance. There will be the occasional doubt, the flash of sudden clarity, gone before it can be clearly registered in the mind. You remain a slave unless and until you are ready to swallow the red pill (which itself has become a metaphor)

I was reminded of this movie the moment I picked up the book Debunked! by Richard Roeper, popular columnist from The Chicago Sun-Times. In this book, Roeper goes on to enumerate and systematically demolish various “conspiracy theories” – defined as “an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation” (Wikipedia). We have many, some truly momentous and global (“9/11 was an inside job”) and some of a more mundane nature (“American idol is fixed”).

The basic premise of a conspiracy theory can be explained in one sentence – “nothing is what it seems”. They usually highlight some arguably improbable aspect of a famous incident and try to establish that the incident did not happen in the way the official report of it goes. So why was it modified? Because some conspiracy is to be covered up. By whom? By “THEM” – the all-powerful establishment, corporate group, fifth column… and those who debunk the theory that such a conspiracy happened? Why, obviously they have been bought off – or frightened into submission.

The beauty of this scheme is that a conspiracy theory can never be disproved even if they cannot be proved; because all adherents will simply dismiss any evidence against it as manufactured. And since unusually powerful underground agencies are at work, nothing is beyond their power. Our only recourse is to swallow the red pill.

One of the most famous and enduring theories of recent times is that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed by the US Government itself, to provide them with a valid excuse to wage war with the Islamic world. Even though it takes a staggering leap of faith to believe that the government of a country would murder so many of its own citizens and destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property to build up a pretext for war, conspiracy theorists do so based on one flimsy piece of “evidence” – steel does not melt, so the twin towers could not have collapsed in on itself due to fire from external impact. It was the work of strategically planted bombs within the facility. This they will repeat, even after we comprehensively prove that steel does not have to melt, only deform for the building to fall down. But as Roeper says, no amount of common sense arguments will satisfy the conspiracy theorist – he will still hold on to the most tenuous of circumstantial “evidence” to substantiate his pet theory.

I did not find Roeper’s book earth-shaking – it’s funny and good to while away a few hours on a long haul flight or a boring wait at a doctor’s or dentist’s, that’s all – but it got me interested in conspiracy theories in general. Because with advent of the internet, they have been spreading like wildfire. India is no exception. One of the persistent ones is the one about Rajiv Gandhi being born a Muslim (Feroze Gandhi, his father, is Feroze Khan according to this legend) and a converted Christian. The story goes on make all kinds of accusations about Sonia’s family and ultimately hints that her whole idea of marrying Rajiv Gandhi was a takeover of India. (This is surprisingly paralleled by the urban legend of Barack Obama being a Muslim, and the Islamic takeover of America.)

Another legend doing the rounds is the one about the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalaya. According to this, there are locked chambers inside the building where the original Hindu idols are stashed. But God alone knows why the government wants to keep it hidden.

Why do we believe in conspiracy theories? Wikipedia discusses exhaustively on the subject. According to my reading, the main reason is a sense of insecurity. As W. B. Yeats said:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In an increasingly complex and frightening world, where there is no stability any more, we have a need to believe it’s not all just random. There are enemies, within and without. Hindus suspect Muslims, Muslims suspect Hindus, Americans suspect Arabs, conservatives suspect liberals… so when something goes wrong, it’s a plot: by the dreaded “THEM”. The faceless, nameless horde which swoops down on us in the darkness of night; the dark figures pulling the strings which manipulate the puppets who are running the government. It’s a classic case of shadow projection.

Conspiracy theories can be dangerous. For example, the Reichstag fire was used by Hitler to “prove” that communists were plotting against Germany and was key to the establishing of Nazi rule. Similarly, politicians have used isolated incidents worldwide as proof of conspiracy to cement their rule and as an excuse for ethnic cleansing.

A heady dose of common sense is the only way to fight against such nonsense. We have to swallow the red pill – but not in the sense Morpheus meant. The red pill here would help us to shine the cold, hard light of logic on the nebulous strands of vapid fancy which constitute such theories, and see them evaporate.

But then, they are always good for good science fiction story!

The Returning King

I could not do the usual weekly update of my blog last week as we were busy with the “Onam” celebration of our college alumni here in the United Arab Emirates. “Onam” is the main festival of the people of Kerala in South India. It’s a harvest festival of mirth and plenty, when people are supposed to forget all worries and celebrate four days with song, dance and feasting. We make the “pookkalam” (floral carpet), have a sumptuous “sadya” (feast) in the afternoon, and there are various traditional games. In the Middle East, due to the abundance of expatriates from Kerala, Onam celebrations go on for literally months.

Belief is that the legendary ruler of Kerala, “Maveli”, comes to visit his subjects on that day from his abode in the netherworld: and we have to show him that we all are living in the lap of luxury as we used to during his reign which is regarded as a mythical golden age. As the following famous song says:

“When Maveli ruled the land,

All people were equal,

All people were happy,

And all free from harm…

 

There was no anxiety or disease,

Child deaths were unheard of,

Evil people could not be seen,

There were only the virtuous on earth!

 

There was no deceit or cheating,

Not even a trace of lying,

All the weights and measures,

Were according to the norms…”

 


 

This local king is now strangely entwined with the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali, of Hindu myth who was humbled by Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar. According to the original myth, Bali was an Asura – one of the permanent antagonists of the Devas, who are the ostensible “good guys” in the Hindu pantheon (however, their “goodness” is highly questionable). Bali was the grandson of the virtuous Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His only negative personal trait was his pride. Bali conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the netherworld).

The Devas were distraught, and rushed to Lord Vishnu as usual to intervene. Vishnu was loath to proceed against his devotee; but the Devas had to be pacified. Also, the god was upset that his devotee was subject to the sin of pride. So he took the form of a Brahmin dwarf (“vamana”) and visited the Asura king during the Aswamedha Yaga (Horse Sacrifice) he was conducting to cement his mastery over the universe. Bali welcomed the Brahmin boy and asked him what he wanted as an offering, according to custom. Vamana asked for the land he could cover in three paces.

King Bali was amused and granted the boon, against the advice of his Guru Shukracharya: and Vamana grew to a massive size, and paced out the earth and netherworld with his first step and the heavens with his second. Then he asked the king for space to put his third step. Bali could now recognise the dwarf for what he was: his lord, out to kill the sin of pride in him. Humbled, the Asura removed his crown and asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.

Lord Vishnu was delighted at the grand gesture of his disciple. Bali became “Maha” (great) Bali on that day: and Vishnu raised him to the region of Sutala, where he could reign forever without pride.

Readings

This myth has been interpreted in many ways. It is a classic story of the humbling of a great person, thus rounding out his virtues – a staple of Hindu myth. It is seen as a symbolic retelling of the treacherous takeover of Dravidian lands by the Aryans through the machinations of wily Brahmins. In Kancha Ilaiah’s book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, there was even a very strange retelling where the Brahmin Vamana crushed the Dalit Mahabali’s head with an iron boot!

The classical myth has been appropriated by the Malayali, and the Asura king has been recreated as Maveli, the ruler of Kerala as mentioned at the beginning (maybe a symptom of the Keralite conceit that all three worlds are contained in his small fertile strip on the southern tip of India). However, the conclusion of the story has been modified and a tailpiece has been added. Instead of setting up Mahabali to rule in Sutala, Vamana kicks him down to Patala, the netherworld. Properly humbled, Maveli begs a boon of Vishnu – to be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, and see his fertile country. Vishnu agrees.

Thus “Onam” is born.

Of course, the country is no longer the egalitarian paradise it was earlier. But we should not let the monarch know that, lest we hurt his feelings: therefore we have to pretend. It is said that one should sell even his ancestral property to celebrate Onam!

The fact that Onam is actually the harvest festival of a bountiful country, and Maveli is supposed to come up from the netherworld, set a lot of mythical wheels turning in my mind. The first thing was the abduction of Persephone by Hades in Greek myth.

Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, was coveted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter did not want her daughter to go permanently underground, so refused marry Persephone off to Hades – and the Lord of the Underworld kidnapped her. The angry Demeter made the earth barren in retaliation. Hades had to return Persephone; but he tricked her into eating the food of the underworld before she came back to earth. Therefore, she had to spend part of the year underground – the winter months. Then she comes up along with the first shoots of spring.

This is an agrarian myth, developed around the annual cycle of the crops: and we can immediately see the parallel in Maveli, who comes back to visit his people during the harvest month of Chingom (August-September). The previous month, Karkidakam, is known as “drought-month”, when torrential rain pours down and many people would have starved in the era when the state was dependent upon the produce of the fields for its livelihood. So the golden sunshine of Chingom would have been seen as really divine – and the larders would have been full after a month of starvation.

I would also like to link this myth with the history of the immolated kings. Joseph Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Vol.I: Primitive Mythology, talks about kings among primitive peoples who were killed at the end of a certain cycle of years, as a form of ritual regicide (there is a curious story about the king of “the south Indian province of Quilacare In Malabar[!]” who publicly used to hack himself to death, but I take this with a pinch of salt). Campbell quotes from Leo Frobenius regarding the mythical significance of this gruesome act.

The great god must die; forfeit his life and be shut up in the underworld, within the mountain. The goddess (and let us call her Ishtar, using her later Babylonian title) follows him into the underworld and after the consummation of his self-immolation, releases him. The supreme mystery was celebrated not only in renowned songs, but also in the ancient new-year festivals, where it was presented dramatically: and this dramatic presentation can be said to represent the acme of the manifestation of the grammar and logic of mythology in the history of the world.

The dying and returning god is a motif which is as old as the hills. Krishna has promised to return every time Dharma weakens in the world. Jesus Christ is supposed to return, once and for all, at the end of the universe.

Our king, Maveli, returns every year to bless us with bounty. And as we Keralites spread out across the world, our king’s visit becomes more and more global.

Ultimately (who knows?) he may conquer the universe once again…

Some Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

I have been absent from the blogosphere for about three weeks now: this is what happens when life intrudes on the virtual world, where many of us who pursue the intellectual pleasures are more comfortable! However, we have to come down to earth once in a while. The reason for the hiatus was our College Alumni annual get-together, which took place on Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February: my wife and I were in charge of putting up two stage shows for this themed event (the theme was Love, as can be easily guessed). Most of my creative energies were channelled in that direction. Afterwards, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and their daughter visited Abu Dhabi for five days, and we were having great fun gallivanting all over Abu Dhabi and Dubai, so the blog took a back seat again.

I thought I will signal my return with some thoughts on the significance of Valentine’s Day. This is a controversial subject nowadays. In conservative theocracies (Saudi Arabia for example), Valentine’s Day is attacked with a ferocity which is surprising. Even in a country like India, where sex is traditionally celebrated as an art, both Hindu right-wingers and leftists have targeted this poor saint as being against Indian culture and a consumerist import from the capitalist West, respectively.

Why this anger against love, when it is an essential ingredient for the propagation of the species on earth?

Love is unconventional. It is against the status quo. It does not respect the state institution of marriage: as Joseph Campbell said (quoting the example of Queen Guinevere and Lancelot), the emphasis in mythology is on amorous love. St. Valentine himself is a legendary figure shrouded in mystery. Most sources state that his identification with romantic love was an invention during the Middle Ages. In my opinion, he is a product of the unlikely marriage of a mostly celibate Levantine religion with a pagan tradition rich in amour. This is why Valentine’s Day upsets the powers that be, the minions of organised religion and the totalitarian state: it allows the soul to rebel in its own mythical space.

So it was fitting in a way that the themed dance choreographed by my wife was based on Krishna, the ultimate rebel.

***

The image of Krishna is multi-faceted. Even though he has been appropriated by the Hindu establishment as a spokesperson, he is too mercurial a figure to be concretised thus. As M. T. Vasudevan Nair once said, Krishna is the child every mother wants and the lover every girl wants. Across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and psyche, this dark god with his mischievous smile strides like a colossus. The poet Yusuf Ali Kechery wrote: “Even though countless writers have dipped their quills into the inkpot that is you, you still remain full!” True.

Krishna is the ultimate lover: sixteen-thousand and eight wives, apart from the unnumbered gopis (cow-maids) whom he cavorted with during his teens. Most of these girls were in amorous relationship with him; some were elder to him and some were married. The Rasa-Kreeda (literally, “sex-game”) celebrated by Krishna and his loves in the sylvan landscape of the mythical Vrindavana is a Bacchanalian revel which has no comparison anywhere in world mythology. No wonder the puritanical West initially saw him as a lecher, a proponent of sin. No wonder the flower children of the seventies adopted him, in part at least. There is something heady about Krishna’s no-holds-barred sexuality.

But there is also something inherently spiritual about Krishna: I am reminded of the old story, told to me by mother, about the jealous Indra, who went to see Krishna cavorting with the gopis. It seems Indra saw a Krishna with each of them! Thoroughly confused, he looked again, and saw one Krishna in the centre, eyes closed in meditation. Apparently, this was the real man, aloof and untouched – the others were illusions.

The gopis’ love for Krishna, in metaphorical terms, is interpreted as the longing of the atman (soul) for the brahman (the universal soul): this is epitomised in Radha, Krishna’s favourite lover, whom he is always pictured with. Many a time, he is known as Radha-Krishna (contrast with Sita-Rama, where Sita is Rama’s wife). Radha loves Krishna with a careless abandon, expecting nothing in return; rather like the troubadours with their lady-loves, whose faces inspired them to hopeless battles. It is this giving without any intention of taking that gives love its spiritual strength: here, the boundary between the physical and the platonic is erased. This is the Indian tradition, where god is love in all senses of the term and nothing but.

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In Indian aesthetics, vatsalya (love of a child), prema (amorous love) and bhakti (love of god) are considered to be different forms of the same base emotion – Meera Bai, the sixteenth century devotional poet who sacrificed herself for the love of Krishna is thus considered an incarnation of Radha by many. Keeping this in mind, the dance was split into three parts – the first showing the mischievous child Krishna with his doting mother Yasoda, the second, the teenage Krishna in the company of his loves and the third, showing the starry-eyed devotee Meera singing a famous hymn to her celestial lord. It was well received, but I do not know whether we succeeded in conveying the whole message to the audience.

But a dance about Krishna on Valentine’s Day in an Arab country – being a fan of Joseph Campbell, I could not help feeling thrilled at the mingling of cultures and mythologies.