Contesting Symbols and Stereotypes

by Anirban Biswas

Frontier | Vol. 49, No.11, Sep 18 – 24, 2016

It is fact that the Hindutva brigade in India has been striving over the years to present a view of Indian history in conformity with their political objectives, and are making all sorts of fantastic claims in order to give this view a fairly reasonable appearance. It is also undeniable that over the last three decades or so, they have gained considerable strength. Although they more often than not prefer to impose their views on others by the force of sticks, knives and guns instead of trying to establish their propositions by means of logic and facts, there remains the need to unearth the various related aspects of India’s history and present them in their true light in order to beat back the nefarious schemes of the Hindutva brigade, and the brigade’s efforts to legitimize these schemes in terms of history by making all sorts of false claims.

The collection of essays under review edited by an eminent historian, is certainly an admirable source of enlightenment in this regard. The introductory article by the editor himself, Stereotyping Hindu Identity, attempts to trace the evolution of this Hindutva ideology in modern India. His brief presentations of the ideas of Dayananda, Tilak, Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar are excellent. On Swami Vivekananda, however, his analysis has seemingly missed one point. Vivekananda was a Hindu revivalist par excellence, but did not consider the period of Muslim rule an unmixed evil. On large-scale conversion of lower-caste Hindus to Islam, his firm opinion was that this was due to poverty and social neglect. His opinion regarding the conversion to Christianity in South India was similar. Yet as a whole, the article offers a good deal of useful knowledge. Jha’s next article, Eternal India and Timeless Horizon effectively demolishes, with the help of much evidence, the idea of Hinduism as an eternal and monolithic religion. But here too there seems to be a missing point. The Bhakti movement led by Sri Chaitanya was patently against the caste system and its impact on contemporary Bengali society was not negligible. Chaitanya was a martyr to religion, although he was subsequently transformed into a harmless icon by the protectors of the Brahminical order. The ideological descendants of the killers of Chaitanya, however, seemingly continue to live in the trinity of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajranag Dal.

The third piece Of Conflict, Conversion and Cow, also written by Prof Jha, contests the view that Hinduism, in contrast to others, was a tolerant religion. He presses into service a great deal of evidence, but perhaps it is fair to say that Gandhi, Nehru and others were motivated to check the wave of Hindu communalism in the name of Hinduism. The author’s reference to Prof Amartya Sen seems to be a bit misplaced. A careful reading of the first chapter of Prof Sen’s The Argumentative Indian makes it clear that Prof Sen tried to highlight the tradition of diversity in Indian thought, not to highlight the myth of Brahmanical tolerance. It cannot be gainsaid that the caste system and the institution of untouchability made Hinduism inherently incapable of tolerance, but not all Hindu ideologues were equally intolerant, and there are many instances of movements within the Hindu fold against caste discrimination and untouchability. The author provides much evidence regarding the conflicts among various sects even within Hinduism. He also forcefully demolishes the myth that Hinduism was a non-proselytizing religion. The current campaign of ghar wapsi reinforces the conclusion drawn by the author. On beef-eating, the author convincingly demonstrates that beef as an item of food was not alien to India before the arrival of Islam; the examples cited by him are well known but he has done well to present them here. Yet one question should be addressed: when and why did beef begin to be considered a taboo? Was there any economic reason behind it? K M Srimali’s article, ‘Trident Stridency’ (Reprinted from Frontline, May24-June 06, 2003) forcefully exposes the hypocrisy associated with the VHP-RSS programme of trisula diksa. The writer here discusses the ancient Indian literary and religious tradition and concludes that in this tradition, the trisula dikhsa of the Bajrang Dal and VHP stands nowhere. “Epic-Puranic mythology is replete with examples of Shiva giving his favourite weapons to divinities, devotees, and more often to raksasas…. none of these allusions mention trisula as Shiva’s weapons”. (p-96) He further raises a vexing question, ‘Singhals and Uma Bharatis swear by the name of Lord Rama. Shouldn’t bow and arrow would have been their natural choice then?’ (p-97)

An important contribution to this volume is Mahima Singh’s ‘The Swastika; Insignia with an Identity Crisis’. Written in the context of an appeal by a petition signed by about seven hundred people claiming that the swastika was of Indian origin and was appropriated by the Nazis, the author has brought much less known evidence of history, convincingly demonstrating that the swastika is found in many parts of the globe and the claim that it was exclusively Indian cannot be sustained. She also argues cogently that the condemnation by the petitioners of the Nazification of Swastika is hypocritical in view of M S Golwalkar’s exaltation of Nazism.

In her scholarly essay, “Historical Evolution of the Rama Legend”, Suvira Jaiswal points out the diversities in the concept of Rama and Sita in various versions of the Ramayana. Her analysis of the role of the two epics in disseminating the ideology of the brahminical and patriarchal social norms is interesting enough. She argues that during the post-Vedic era, the Vedic religious tradition was undermined by the practices of foreigners, e.g. Greeks, Scythians, Kusanas etc, who had invaded India and captured political power and adopted Buddhism and the cults of popular divinities. According to her, Brahmanical thinkers and social reformers met these challenges by shifting the emphasis from the Vedic ritual of sacrifice to devotional image-worship of popular deities identified as forms of Vedic gods and goddesses and made their brahmanized worship accessible to all irrespective of caste community and gender’. (p-129) The shift of emphasis nevertheless enjoined rigid adherence to the traditional functions and customs of one’s caste. The Rama of Valmiki, not the Rama of Dasaratha Jataka or the Rama of Kabir, was the great champion of this orthodoxy, which the BJP tried vigorously to project as a symbol of Hindu nationalism.

In the essay, Ramayana in the Counterculture, Nabanita Dev Sen points out with a number of examples how the ideas about Rama and Sita were inverted in various exercises of popular culture, including the sudra Ramayana, the songs sung by subaltern womenfolk describing the pains of Sita and the tribal versions of the Ramayana that tell a different story from that of what is known as the Ramayana composed by Valmiki. There is no reason to disagree with Dev Sen’s closing remark: ‘Such retellings of the Rama tale show how, in the hands of the excluded, even as commanding an epic as the Ramayana can become a tool to critique the value it projects. And how the disempowered-whether women, the low caste or the tribals-mould Rama and his story to fit their own space, reflect their realities and give them a voicc’ (p-145) Another important and rich contribution to the volume is James Hegarty’s The Plurality of the Sanskrit Mahabharata and of the Mahabharata Story. The author has gathered a large volume of evidence, reflective of an astonishingly erudite mind, in order to show how the Sanskrit Mahabharata is endowed with inherent plurality, and how in the different versions of the Mahabharata story, this plurality is reflected and how the Doordarshan televisual version of the Mahabharata, in contrast, tried to present a monistic view of the Mahabharata. One remark, made by the author after describing the story of the mongoose during the asvamedha of King Yudhisthira and the story of a trial by King Pralada, may be quoted here. The Sanskrit Mahabharata thus uses embedded stories to weave commentaries into itself. It furthermore exhibits a consciousness with regard to the plurality of interpretations that a given teaching, especially a moral one, is likely to receive”. (p-159) In fact it is this plurality that makes the  Mahabharata a nobler, although less popular, epic than the Ramayana. This is not a complete review of the book, and some essays have been left out owing to, inter alia, the space constraint. Yet it may be hoped that readers of Frontier, who will take the pains of going through it, will be interested in having this extraordinary volume for study.

Contesting Symbols And Stereotypes: Essays on Indian History and Culture
Edited by D N Jha
Aakar Books, Delhi 110091, 2013, 247 pages, Price : Rs 550

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