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Da Vinci?s Common Civil Code

Dan Brown is a bestseller in the Christian world but any Indian coming up with similar work would have to face brickbats, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2006 01:41 IST

I am not sure that you have followed the plagiarism case over Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code but my guess is that you’ve probably read the book: it is, after all, the best-selling novel in the history of the world. (Shame on you, world!)

The point of the novel -- and of the lawsuit that Brown won on Friday -- is that modern Christianity is a gigantic hoax. Jesus Christ was having it off with Mary Magdalene (either that’s her in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper or one of the apostles was a transvestite). The couple had a child on the quiet (I’m not sure I remember the entire plot but I seem to recall that even the Crucifixion is portrayed as a stunt: Jesus recovers and goes off to live with Mary Magdalene) and their bloodline survives to the present day.

The Holy Grail, subject of innumerable pointless quests by poor King Arthur and his hapless knights of the Round Table, was not a cup at all but a metaphor for Mary Magdalene’s womb from which sprang forth a whole line of Jesus juniors. This secret is protected by a shadowy and sinister society of Christian monks who turn up whenever the action flags to try and murder the hero.

If you’ve read any of Dan Brown’s other books, then you will know that this is par for the course. Catholic priests are nearly always portrayed as murderers. The whole of Christiandom seems to be composed of secret societies whose principal business is assassination. The whole Jesus legend -- as we know it -- is a myth. And the Pope, poor man, is usually cast in what we would call the Gulshan Grover role in Bollywood.

The plagiarism case was brought by the authors of a non-fiction (I use the term loosely) book called Holy Blood and Holy Grail who advanced roughly the same thesis about Jesus-Mary and all the little ones around 24 years ago. At the time they claimed that this was fact. But as I understand it, their argument now is that they made it all up (thanks for letting us know, guys) and that by incorporating elements of their ludicrous theory, Dan Brown plagiarised from their book. Naturally, the judge ruled against them arguing that if they had put what they claimed was a historical thesis in the public domain, then any novelist was free to use parts of this thesis in his work.

My concern today is not with the case or even with the Jesus-Mary-Happy Family theory (which is utterly absurd and completely unsupported by any evidence). It is with the success of Brown’s book which has not only outsold every other novel but is also the biggest bestseller ever in every single Christian country. By the time the Da Vinci movie (starring Tom Hanks in a role written for Harrison Ford) is released, the book will sell many more copies and its central thesis will be even more widely known and discussed.

Moreover, even the original Holy Blood and Holy Grail has become a bestseller all over again and the shelves are full of new Dan Brown clones who rework the Christianity-is-a-con hypothesis. I would go so far as to argue that the only reason why yesterday’s papers were full of the so-called Judas gospel -- with its controversial claim that Judas was a patsy and Jesus made him do it -- is because editors know that the Da Vinci fever has swept the world.

Now, close your eyes, think of The Da Vinci Code and transplant its central thesis to India.

It’s not so difficult. Think of the retelling of the Ramayana in which the relationship between the principal characters is portrayed in entirely different sexual terms. Think of the Krishna legend (which is pretty sexual in itself) and imagine somebody giving a completely bizarre twist to it. How about a secret society of murderous Hindu monks? What about portraying the Shankaracharya as an assassin? (Whoops! I seem to have read this already somewhere.) What about some speculation about Luv and Kush’s DNA?

How do you suppose we would react?

I’ll tell you. There would be riots in the streets. The offices of the publishers would be burnt down. LK Advani would go on television to rub his hands and declare that while he believed in freedom of speech, it should not be misused to hurt the sentiments of the long-suffering Hindu community. Praveen Togadia would allege that wealthy Gulf interests were behind the publication of the book. Distinguished editors would appear on television panels to declare that threats to public order demanded a strong governmental response. The book should be banned. The author should be arrested. His passport should be cancelled. His income tax returns should be re-opened.

The government would dilly-dally. Ministers would say different things to different television channels. The BJP would go in for the kill, alleging that an Italian-born Congress president could not be expected to understand the simple sentiments of such great Hindus as Prakash Javadekar and Balbir Punj. Arun Jaitley would ask for a CBI enquiry and a letter rogatory to Switzerland to trace the source of the funds that had made the publication possible. Two weeks later, after everything had already been burnt down, the government would announce a ban on the book. Official spokesmen would say that the Prime Minister had been kept out of the loop but that, of course, he was very concerned.

So, here’s my question: why do we react so differently from the West? How come Dan Brown is a bestseller in the Christian world when anybody who attempted anything similar in our country would be lynched?

Everyone I have asked has offered a theory -- but I have to say that none of these hypotheses has been convincing.

Theory one: India is a largely illiterate country, so we should not expect Indians to react as maturely as Europeans or Americans (this is a variation of the argument offered to justify Islamic protests over books and cartoons).

My problem with this is that I don’t regard Americans — and, especially, super-religious American Christians — as being terribly mature. These are people who want to teach creationism in schools, for God’s sake. Moreover, the illiteracy argument is double-edged: if people are illiterate then they can’t read the book and get offended by it. And finally, how do you explain the manner in which literate people respond to anything with a slightly offbeat religious subtext? Praveen Togadia is not illiterate (honest! I’m told he is a doctor), nor is the rest of the Sangh Parivar. But the responses can be shrill, intolerant and violent.

Theory two: Hinduism is the sort of religion that takes its gods very seriously (like Islam, perhaps?) and therefore the potential for offence is much greater.

In my view, this is so much nonsense. Hinduism is nothing like Christianity or Islam (in fact, those two religions have much more in common). We are not monotheistic (we have hundreds of gods to offend, the Christians only have Jesus). We have no organised clergy: there is no equivalent of the Vatican. Our religion is entirely personal: you don’t need to go to a temple to worship.

Moreover, our gods tend to be much more human than the Islamic or Christian version. There are huge areas of moral ambiguity in the Ramayana (the Sugriv episode; the provocation to Ravana; the treatment of Sita at the end etc) and even in the Krishna legend (Krishna’s role in the Bhima-Duryodhan battle, for instance; or the married Radha’s status in Krishna’s polygamous existence). So, we should be much more tolerant of any suggestion of divine deviance from traditional morality than Christians.

Theory three: It’s all become a political issue. Almost all the books that create a controversy in India are books that none of those who demonstrate against them have ever read. The Shiv Sena thugs who attacked Pune’s Bhandarkar Institute had never read the Shivaji book that had allegedly upset them. The people who want to kill Salman Rushdie have never read The Satanic Verses (and not just for the usual reasons: it’s not the world’s most readable book anyway). And the gangsters who announce rewards for the murder of Danish cartoonists have never seen the cartoons.

I am not sure if this theory fits all the facts. After all, long before political Hinduism became an issue, Jawaharlal Nehru banned Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold on the grounds that it might offend Hindus. In the 1970s, some foolish Jesuit priests demanded and secured a ban on the film of Jesus Christ Superstar arguing that it offended them.

So as tempting as it is to blame all the intolerance on the Sangh Parivar and the Muslim League, I suspect that the origins of our opposition to freedom of speech of religious matters date back to the early days of independent India. It may be true that political parties have exploited this intolerance for mass mobilisation but I don’t think that the narrow-mindedness is all LK Advani’s fault.

So none of these theories makes complete sense. The only observation I have is that all Indians, no matter what our religion is, regard three things as completely exempt from all criticism. The first is our armed forces (criticise the army and you are immediately dubbed ‘anti-national’). The second is our religion: our faith and our gods. And the third, of course, are our mothers.

Why should this be so? Perhaps we should ask a psychiatrist.