Links with the past

Print edition : July 29, 2011

A bold attempt at interpreting the journey of Hinduism in the light of modern scientific findings.

THE subject of the book under review is the fascinating journey of Hinduism from its very beginning to the present day, and the story is told through its myths, customs and practices. Written with clarity, the book has its focus not on a spiritual interpretation of Hinduism but on establishing the links between contemporary practices and the past, on connecting history as revealed by the scriptures to modern-day practices of the religion.

According to the author, Hinduism is different from other major world religions in that it does not have a founder and is not based on a book. Hinduism is also unique because it did not emerge as a response to social or political upheavals. Since the time of the Vedas there was veneration of multiple godheads. Even though the importance of these Vedic gods diminished with the passage of time, they were replaced by other godheads. Plurality in thought has been an inherent feature of Hinduism it has absorbed ideas from different thought systems of different people, perhaps even from the collective memories of the earliest human migrations from Africa. According to M.K.V. Narayan, many tribal practices, witchcraft, magical ideas and incantations were incorporated into the Atharva Veda.

Vedic ideas and practices too proliferated, influencing the belief systems of the common people. The elite or the orthodox may have us believe that the Bhagavad Gita is the main religious text of Hindus but the author argues that the majority of Hindus are Saivite or Shakti worshippers or tribal ancestor worshippers who might not have even heard of the Gita.

While it is true that Hinduism began by interpreting natural phenomena and by inquiring into the nature of the universe, the author's argument that Hinduism is unique because of its pluralistic traditions can be said about all early religions. They were pluralist and polytheistic until new religions came to erase existing belief systems and impose their own through political means. This is at least true of pre-Christian and pre-Islamic societies. In India, this decimation of early belief systems did not happen to the extent it happened elsewhere. Hence Hinduism has always been a complex web of practices and polytheistic belief systems where even the oldest beliefs did not disappear completely. New layers were added on to existing ones.

The findings of Spencer Wells' Journey of Man project and genetic research have greatly influenced Narayan's understanding of the Indian past. On the basis of some of these new findings, he makes certain hypotheses, especially about the waves of human migrations from Africa to the subcontinent, where they could have settled, and so on. The conclusions he draws are interesting but not always convincing. There is much hypothesising but little evidence to match or corroborate the hypotheses so that the reader can come to definitive conclusions.

In the chapter titled Mythology of Earthly Life, the author tries to draw similarities between the avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu and Darwin's theory of the Origin of Species. That all life forms originated in the sea is what science tells us and Narayan tries to make out a case by equating this with Matsya avatar (Vishnu's first incarnation in the form of a fish). The amphibians and vertebrates that were first to emerge out of water such as frogs and tortoises in the evolutionary ladder are equated with the second incarnation of Vishnu as Kurma, or the turtle. Sadly, the similarities between the incarnations and Darwin's theory end with the fifth avatar. From then on Narayan's efforts to draw parallels seem too laboured.

The author makes light of the missing monkey in the list of avatars and tells us that the half human-half lion Narasimha avatar, which marks the great transition from the animal form to the human form, is enough to establish the animal-human evolutionary link. The author is aware that in mythology assumptions are too many, unlike in science where quite a few unproved assumptions are made and wider acceptance by scientists come much later. According to him, Indian mythology developed through collective thinking and the early intellectuals might have incorporated their intuitive deductions of the evolution story in the form of avatar myths.

In the context of the hypotheses, it needs to be said that India lacks well-written, factually unchallengeable and chronologically consistent and definitive histories unlike in the case of Europe or China. This has resulted in acrimonious debates among historians when interpreting India's past. Historians have rubbished as obscurantist assumptions, based on Puranic stories, that Indian history is several thousand years older than the period accepted by historians. This being so, Narayan does make a bold attempt to interpret Hindu myths in the light of modern scientific findings. One can only say that if scholars such as A.K. Ramanujan can arrive at acceptable interpretations of folk tales in understanding Indian society, perhaps it is time historians discarded some of their prejudices and fears in interpreting the past.

The chapters on rituals of the orthodox Hindu, Vedic symbolism, rites and rituals of the elites, rites and rituals of the common people, and iconography are some of the other interesting sections of the book. The Gayatri mantra, from the Rg Veda, had been a weapon in the secret armoury of mantras of the orthodox Hindu. Now that anyone can chant the Gayatri, we know it is nothing more than a beautiful prayer to the sun. Narayan says the Purusasukta, or the Hymn of Man, consisting of 16 verses and considered the most controversial part of Rg Vedic hymns, is recited by orthodox Brahmins every day. The author says these verses are controversial because they refer to the formation of Varnas, though it is believed that this was a later interpolation to seek justification for the caste system. He quotes the historian R.S. Sharma's opinion that Rg Vedic society was a tribal one. Another controversial part of the Purusasukta is the reference to human sacrifice and the detailed description of the dismemberment of the victim. Vermillion and turmeric, symbolically, have long replaced blood sacrifice in pujas. Fire rituals involving large gatherings of people have given way to individual forms of worship.

TEMPLE CULTURE

The chapter on temple culture is the most interesting one. It describes how simple forms of worship gave way to elaborate rituals officiated by priests and gradually to the building of temples. Collaboration of the priestly class with kings and feudatory chiefs contributed to the building of huge temples. The architecture of a typical temple complex in South India would include thousand-pillared halls for music and dance, grammar halls for discourses, drum platforms, entrance towers, galleries for circumambulation and separate shrines for smaller gods other than the one for the principal deity. The organisation of activities in the temples was such that a large number of people were needed to perform the daily rituals. It is not difficult to see why big temples became centres of power and also corruption. Narayan also tells us that this form of worship gave rise to rich musical and dance traditions and architectural heritage.

Priests were made huge grants, sometimes in the form of villages from which they collected revenue. Narayan tells us that Brahmins were the keepers of history and records for posterity. Scriptural sanctions against Brahmins prevented them from taking up any other profession and hence society was expected to support them economically. This might sound ridiculous now, and if modern terminology can be used to describe the situation, we could call it a kind of job reservation where the upper castes took up the jobs of their choice and prevented others from entering the field. The sad part of it, however, is that there must have been a large majority who were not capable of doing the professions imposed on them.

The chapter on Rituals of Aboriginal Tribes is sketchy compared with the other chapters. The author tries to bring in cultural and religious practices of many communities across India to analyse the subject of Hinduism. Narayan has tried to look at South Indian culture with frequent references to traditions in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh but he has not succeeded in looking at them authentically given the cultural diversities in each of these States. His intimate knowledge of the traditions and practices of the Tamil country makes the book rich with many details of Tamil culture.

But there is the danger of looking at other cultures in the South with Tamil as the vantage point. Here is one example from the chapter on Concept of God in India. . another example is the people of Karnataka and Andhra. The ancient tribes of these areas perhaps had their totem as monkey. They started calling themselves monkey people. In the modern Kannada and Telugu languages, the word for people is Mandi', which connoted monkey in archaic Tamil. In Kannada, mandi' became bandi' in due course. What bandi means, Narayan does not tell us. There is no single culture for Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. The subcultures and linguistic groups are far too diverse to lend themselves to such facile interpretations.

The author makes use of his reading where necessary from a variety of sources. He makes references to historians such as Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Devi Prasad Chattopadhyaya and A.L. Basham, and scholars on Hinduism from the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series and mentions articles from the Internet to substantiate his critical assessment of the development of Hinduism. Though many articles from the Web are cited, the author stays clear of the cultural nationalist views that have become the hallmark of Internet debates on Hinduism. This makes the book interesting to ordinary readers.

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