India is (was?) essentially Shiv-bhumi if you consider that Kashmir had its own Shaiva darshan and the Dwadasha Jyotirlinga (12 ancient Shaiva sthals) are scattered from Kedarnath to Rameshwaram. So how did Rama and Krishna develop as such strong cult figures? Nor do the Puranas and epics mention Radha to my knowledge except as a fond aunt. How did she become such a big deal?
Given the chronology, it seems likely that this was Hinduism’s deeply internalised response to Islam. Not to the peaceful, friendly trade encounters that had existed since Arab seafarers discovered the mausim (monsoon) and rode its winds to our shores, but to the later invasions from the northwest that changed India forever. For is it not curious that though plenty of Hindu religious literature was produced right through the centuries of Muslim rule, a deathly silence prevailed on Islam, as if it had never happened?
It seems the Hindu mind turned its back, retreating into a deep, protective silence. Scholars may have analysed this but can you recall anyone telling the public? Since Independence, secular constraints have perhaps inhibited a free and open discourse on this topic, given the trauma of Partition and the unease that prevailed ever since, not forgetting the Left stranglehold on media and academia for decades between. That certainly did not permit objective and healthy thinking on such vital matters because everything Hindu was perforce seen through a class filter and automatically trashed as ‘Brahminical’.
Even AK Ramanujan, my un-met hero, did not or would not make the deep, prayerful connection between the Upanishads and the vachanas of Kannada protest poet Mahadeviakka (see Faithscape, June 10, to recall how she used exactly the same words as the Upanishads to describe God). Doesn’t it seem that a great historical opportunity was lost then, back in 1973, to publicly restore the intellectual and cultural dignity of ‘Hinduism’ when Ramanujan’s wonderful translations of Virashaiva vachanas first came out? They would have taken it from him, given his stature, scholarship and poetic skill. But alas, it was the high noon of the Left in India and no English-speaking ‘intellectual’ dared to own up to a connection with our disgraced scriptures. A crown lay in the gutter that was inevitably picked up and misused by politicians. It was left to them, knowing yet another generation of closet Hindus was simmering with resentment, to say, “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.”
It was at Maihar in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, some years ago, that I got a glimmer of what happened to Sanatana Dharma’s inner life. Sharada Devi’s temple crowns the town that is a beautiful witness to the spiritual amity achieved between many Hindus and Muslims. It was home to Baba Allaudin Khan, legendary guru to son Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), daughter Annapoorna Devi (surbahar) and Pandit Ravi Shankar (sitar).
Sharada Mai’s temple is venerated as the spot where Sati’s necklace fell when Shiva danced his terrible world-destroying tandava of grief with Sati’s corpse on his shoulder and Vishnu had to cut it to bits to stop him (mai-haar, that is, ‘mother’s necklace’). But near her temple, tucked in a tiny cave in a concealed fold of the Vindhyas is the amarjyoti, the eternal flame. “This is the real essence of the Devi and the flame has never been allowed to go out since hundreds of years. It had to be hidden here when times were unsafe,” said a villager euphemistically as we queued up for darshan.
Jayadeva’s vastly influential 12th century Gita Govinda first celebrating Krishna through Radha, Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas that radically altered the devotional life of north India or Siddhendra Yogi’s Kuchipudi songs adoring Krishna through Satyabhama, were either composed or gained ground during Muslim rule. As in Islam’s unifocus creed, these creations focused the entire history of faith on one central figure. Ferocious Shaiva-Vaishnava divisions had existed before, especially in South India, but these new scriptures did not divide in the old sense. They carried Sanatana Dharma in one leap of the heart into a new genre of self-expression through supplication and surrender. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, at concealed patterns of emotional response?
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