This wily ghoul — who, according to lore, perches on the shoulder of a king called Vikram, tells him stories and outsmarts him with riddles — has a temple devoted to him in my home village of Halarn, tucked away in a remote, sylvan corner of north Goa, unknown to the tourist horde. In my mother’s prayer nook, a photo of the old Betaal deity in Halarn, with the simple words “Betaal Prasanna (By Betaal’s pleasure)”, has occupied centrestage for half a century.
Think about it: Our God is a cackling ghost, who occupies a corpse, which hangs upside down from a tree. Betaal’s transition from blood-drinking, flesh-eating ghost to family God illustrates the strange, diverse and wonderful pantheon of divinity that constitutes the belief system of one of the world’s oldest religions.
It’s been said often, but it bears repeating that Hinduism is too ancient and varied a faith to be forced down a single road to salvation. Yet, that is just what self-anointed, bellicose modern guardians would have us believe. Coinciding with the great economic widening in the early 1990s has been a great religious narrowing, a concerted attempt to prune the wide, shady branches of Hinduism.
Consider Penguin India’s decision — after a four-year court battle — to destroy copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, a voluminous, if somewhat contentious, portrait of, well, us, the Indian majority, by Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor with two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies. The group that got Penguin to settle out-of-court is not quite as charitable. The Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement) accused Doniger — the author of six books on Hinduism and translator of The Rig Veda, Kamasutra and the Laws of Manu — of being disrespectful to their religion, misrepresenting the Shiva lingam as “erect male sexual organ”, and having a “sexual approach” to Hinduism.
Doniger’s book faced opposition from the branch-cutters in 2010, when it was being considered for the US National Book Critics Circle Awards. A group of excitable Indian-Americans that aims to recreate India as a Hindu Rashtra (nation), picketed the venue for readings in New York. A blog run by the Circle’s Board of Directors said: “For all its historical sweep, The Hindus is a surprisingly personal text, written with vivacious pluck and playful verve.”
Playfulness and joy, however, aren’t something that the branch-cutters like, especially if a foreigner is involved. The New York protestors alerted the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which two months later first objected to Doniger’s book in Bhopal.
“The Whole Hindu Society is angree (sic) to see Lord Krishna encircled by naked women and sitting on the buttock of naked women on the cover of the book,” said a statement from the group’s national committee in 2010. “All Hindu, dioties (sic), Gods and Goddess great persons and revolutionist are worstly (sic) insulted in this book, for unknown reasons.”
The cover image, produced by a company from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, depicts Lord Krishna, a playful, amorous God, on a horse formed by the interlocking bodies of the kind of women you see in the temples of Khajuraho. It is a common-enough image, but it does represent an uninhibited, complex Hinduism that the branch-cutters would like to hide. They prefer a Hinduism that fits into an austere, monotheistic slot that is convenient to modern sloganeering and politics.
That is why the leading lights of organisations like the Shiksha Bachao Andolan are affiliated to the RSS, which promotes a straight and narrow nationalist path for Hinduism. This view is gaining adherents and not necessarily from the loony fringe. Dinanath Batra, the convenor of the Andolan and first name on the petition against Penguin India, is a career teacher who once won a national teaching award. His comrade, OP Gupta, is a former Indian ambassador to, among other countries, Tanzania, Estonia, Tunisia and the Cayman Islands.
To these gentlemen, absurdities in arguments are irrelevant. For instance, the core of their arguments against Doniger revolves around a “Christian conspiracy”. It does not matter to them that Doniger is Jewish. Too many Hindus are becoming familiar with and supportive of Hinduism’s emerging interpretation, which, in its make-no-compromises approach, shares common ground with hardline Pakistani Islam, presently engaged in cleansing itself of supposedly ungodly variants, such as Sufism.
Hinduism may have deep-seated flaws, but it has always been a joyous religion, revelling in a love for colour, dance, music and, often, unconventional ways of prayer. On the fringes, we offer rum and meat to our Gods and celebrate alternate sexuality. It is not easy to censor these traditions, but the effort will grow.
The approach of messrs Batra and Gupta makes even right-leaning intellectuals uncomfortable.
“Very uneasy about Penguin decision on Wendy Doniger book,” tweeted Swapan Dasgupta, a right-wing writer (and former colleague). “Ideas and academic studies, however contentious, cannot be handled by censorship.” As he says, whether a Salman Rushdie or a Doniger, the principle is the same.
To force her view out is to create a Hinduism I am unfamiliar with, a Hinduism that might one day conceivably try to cleanse the Betaals from its midst.
“The kind of people whose texts I found throughout the history of Hinduism — open-minded, intellectually omnivorous people, capable of self-irony and generous to views other than their own — are still alive and well and living in India,” Doniger said in 2013 interview. “I do believe that the great strength of Hinduism — its openness to contradictory ideas — will prevail and carry it through this present danger.” I am not quite as optimistic. As Batra told Mint: “The good times are coming. Believe me.”
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
email@example.comThe views expressed by the author are personal