Essay: Hindu nationalism’s censorship of the gods

Updated on Aug 03, 2022 02:26 PM IST

The limits of sensory representation of The Divine is an Abrahamic, particularly Islamic dictum, and bringing these strictures to the representation of Hindu gods is to misrepresent Hinduism itself

A 17th century illustration for the Mahabharata from the British Museum. (Print Collector/Getty Images) PREMIUM
A 17th century illustration for the Mahabharata from the British Museum. (Print Collector/Getty Images)
BySaikat Majumdar

How should God be represented? How about the word of God? Without these two fundamental questions, neither religion nor literature would have come into being.

The study of literature and language is the secular version of the classic human search for the meaning of the word of God. God is The Great Absent -- some faithful scribe took down Their words atop the Hill, but what do those words really mean? The attempt to read the scriptures gave birth to the field of hermeneutics -- be it the Talmud, Bible, Koran, or the Vedas -- a field that later lent its essential mechanism to secular literary or linguistic study. Don’t trust the surface; true meaning is always hidden. Along the centuries, God came to be replaced by the literary Symbol, and trying to make sense of them gave birth to entirely new disciplines. God or author, dead or immortal, earthly or divine?

A bronze bust of Homer on the Greek island of Ios, where he is believed to be buried. (Shutterstock)
A bronze bust of Homer on the Greek island of Ios, where he is believed to be buried. (Shutterstock)

So much for (wo)man’s search for meaning, but do different religions inspire different kinds of narrative representation? In a famous book of literary criticism called Mimesis, Eric Auerbach tells us the difference between what he considers the two fundamental modes of Western narrative realism -- one coming from the Greek epic poet Homer, and the other from the Bible: the former is externalized, sensory, digressive, while the latter is more abstract and obscure, directed towards a single goal. While Homeric epics take erotic delight in the senses and lie and equivocate as they feel, biblical stories claim an absolute, singular Truth. “The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s,” Auerbach writes, “it is tyrannical -- it excludes all other claims.”

The Hindu epics -- and its roster of gods -- resemble the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration far more than they resemble the Biblical insistence on Absolute Truth. Both humanise gods as playful, alternatively noble and petty, jealous and generous. Amit Chaudhuri has reminded us of the way the recently deceased Peter Brook, in his dramatised version of The Mahabharata, showed a serious, metaphysical Krishna as a giver of The Bhagavad Gita, consigning the cunning, diplomatic, playful, erotic Krishna to the status of folk aberrations. The moral ambivalence of the latter would have bewildered an Anglo-Protestant audience.

Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushassana in Peter Brook's Mahabharata. (HT Photo)
Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi with Georges Corraface as Dushassana in Peter Brook's Mahabharata. (HT Photo)

If Catholicism retains sensory, Protestantism is intellectual and abstract. The Abrahamic religion that has the most rigorous dicta about representation is Islam.

**************

Hindus become Islamic in their behaviour when they resent playful representation of their deities. Just the way today’s Hindu nationalists become stern Victorian Christians when they try to limit the endless range of human sexuality to the heteronormative. The limits of sensory representation of The Divine is an Abrahamic, particularly Islamic dictum, not one that is Hindu in any way. Any attempts to standardise Hinduism runs counter to its plural, amorphous, and expansive spirit. In the land where versions of Ramayana run from the cheering for a Lanka-burning Hanuman to mourning for the slayed Ravana, nothing is more un-Hindu or un-Indian than the attempt to suppress a hundred -- or 300 -- Ramayanas.

A traditional Ramayana mural on the wall of the Wat Phra Keaw temple in Bangkok, Thailand. (Shutterstock)
A traditional Ramayana mural on the wall of the Wat Phra Keaw temple in Bangkok, Thailand. (Shutterstock)

But given the Abrahamic insistence on epistemological rigour and the Islamic strictures about representation, Muslims are within their right to resent divergent representations. Bringing these Abrahamic strictures to the representation of Hindu gods is to fundamentally misrepresent Hinduism itself.

Would Kali come to exist but for this mythical and regional plurality? It is not enough to be a Hindu to get her. One has to be a Bengali -- and who better than an outspoken female political leader? Does Kali eat meat, consume alcohol? Growing up Hindu Bengali in Calcutta, I’ve never seen her otherwise. She’s married to a guy who meditates with marijuana in crematoriums. She drinks blood, for Shiva’s sake.

Probably the greatest Kali devotee in the modern Bengali memory is Shree Ramkrishna Paramhansa, the guru of Swami Vivekananda. Anyone who knows anything about Ramkrishna’s ways of Kali worship know the richly ambivalent, even polyamorous relationship he practised with the goddess -- imagining her as mother, lover, daughter. Their play of love, hurt, devotion and anger was as deeply sensory as it was spiritual. In the intricate nature of his living relationship with Kali, he is one of Bengal’s great Bhakti poets -- as evinced by the earthy poetry of his gospel -- the Kathamrita. Ramkrishna ate fish, fowl, and mammal with great relish, and so do the monks of the order established by his followers, the Ramkrishna Mission. I spent six years in an elite boarding school run by the order in Narendrapur outside Calcutta, and every week, we eagerly looked forward to the chicken curry served to us, the teachers, and the monks for dinner on Fridays.

Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the Ramakrishna vedantic centre at Gretz, France. (Universal Images Group via Getty)
Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the Ramakrishna vedantic centre at Gretz, France. (Universal Images Group via Getty)

The great tradition of Bengali theatre in 19th century Calcutta would have been nothing without one of Ramkrishna’s greatest devotees, Girish Ghosh, also a great alcoholic. Ramkrishna never asked Ghosh to give up drinking (though Ghosh’s doctors certainly did). The mystic somehow came to acknowledge an inevitable relationship between Ghosh’s literary creativity and his dependence on alcohol. Ramkrishna’s moral attitude to alcoholism, a socially and politically sensitive subject for the bhadralok Bengali, however, was drawn from the culture of Kali-worship, where alcohol and other substances often played defining roles. “Take Kali’s name before you drink,” Ramkrishna told Ghosh, “the alcohol will become karon-bari”, naming the divine, tantric elixir. A simple and chaste man with childlike excitement about the simplest pleasures of life, Ramkrishna did not smoke or drink himself. But it is well-known that his famous disciple, Vivekananda, loved his hookah. It is the unconscious reluctance to share his hookah with a person of unknown caste that got his great social conscience going, eventually making him one of modern India’s greatest champions of caste equality, a fact conveniently forgotten by many who seek to reclaim a model of militant Hindu masculinity through the Bengali monk.

Author Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the subject)
Author Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the subject)

All of these eddies create the spiritual culture through which a regional Hindu goddess such as Kali must be understood. Shakti, indeed, takes on myriad and bewildering forms.

People protesting the eclectic representation of Hindu deities are bringing the rigour of Islam into the playfulness of Hinduism. But they don’t know that, do they?

Saikat Majumdar’s books include The Scent of God, The Firebird, and The Middle Finger. @_saikatmajumdar. The views expressed in the article are personal.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, November 29, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals