‘The Religious Enterprise’ by K.M. Shrimali is a deep dive into matters of faith

The two volumes serve as a comprehensive history of religious traditions in early India.

Published : Feb 02, 2023 15:34 IST

A work dedicated to the history of religious traditions in early India has been a long time coming. Clearly the wait was warranted, as even a cursory look through the two volumes of The Religious Enterprise indicates, for it would have been impossible to undertake such a task without the expertise, developed after decades of painstaking study and research, demonstrated by Krishna Mohan Shrimali in this work.

The Religious Enterprise: Studies in Early Indian Religions (2 volumes)
By Krishna Mohan Shrimali
Aakar Books, 2022
Pages: 716
Price: Rs.3,500

There are 13 chapters in all, seven in the first volume and six in the second. Most of these essays were developed from lectures delivered at different seminars or published papers in the last four decades, and only three (Chapters 4, 5 and 9) were written especially for these volumes. With an exhaustive range of sources and a broad chronological and regional canvas, The Religious Enterprise provides a much-needed and accessible reference work for the serious student of history.

Harappan religion

The first two chapters focus on the Harappan context, and discuss the archaeological evidence found approximately across a million square kilometres and from over 1,500 settlements, and specifically certain monuments and objects such as terracotta figurines and seals that have allowed for a glimpse into the cultural practices of the people who created this civilisation.

Three major hypotheses about Harappan religion have highlighted: (1) the cult of a mother goddess; (2) the centrality of a male deity; and, (3) a cult that celebrated the male-female duality. Shrimali carefully sifts through the evidence to highlight that not all female images, available in terracotta, bronze, and on steatite seals, are necessarily that of mother goddesses, and some may indeed be seen as votive offerings.

The differences in representation, the find spots, and the site-specific regional variation are important considerations while interpreting the evidence. Secondly, he points out that male images are only found in seals, and that the identification of a seated figure surrounded by animals which has been declared as a proto-Shiva image, is misplaced.

It is the archaeologists’ bias that leads to a teleological identification of Vedic deities with the Harappan figures, where there is no corroborating evidence for it; interestingly, scholars have even questioned whether this is a male representation at all.

Largely, Shrimali is not averse to identifying a “male” cult, as he draws our attention to the repeated representation of the bull, a symbol of virility, in terracotta and seal images. Dismissing the arguments of John Marshall (1931) and Gregory Possehl (1994) that a duality of male/ animal and female/ plant cults existed, Shrimali nevertheless emphasises the importance of water and animistic beliefs as seen by the “Great Bath” at Mohenjo-daro and numerous depictions of flora and fauna, including animal sacrifices, on seals.

Ritualistic practices are identified on the basis of the Great Bath, amulets, geometric motifs, and burials that have been found. The 57 graves at Harappa indicate the body laid out with the head generally to the north, and placement of grave goods that included pottery, ornaments and toiletries; evidence of post-cremation burials is also available. Given the miniscule burials at Mohenjo-daro, it is postulated that cremation may have been the norm here.

A crucial question flagged by Shrimali is the use of religious ideology by the ruling elites, which has been given the status of an “intensifying factor” for the exertion of political authority by some scholars. While he ends the discussion cryptically with a “netineti (not this, not this)”, he draws attention to the diverse settlements, complex rural-urban integration, the agricultural and trade activities to substantiate his preference for a non-religious authority that may not have been centralised, but certainly coordinated and controlled the social and economic structures. A hallmark of Shrimali’s analysis of the earliest civilisation in the subcontinent is his rejection of attempts to identify the Harappans with the Vedic people by manufacturing evidence for the presence and use of cow and horse (page 15); or the over-interpretation of stone rings as yoni and cones as linga (pages 16-17). 

Vedic religion and culture

The next three chapters focus on the Vedic traditions, with the first of these comparing the Rig Veda and the Iranian Avesta, both dated to circa 1500-1000 BCE. Questions of a common homeland, cognate terms, religious and literary ideas, as well as the social basis for the composition of these texts are addressed. The ritual sacrifice, descriptions of gods, goddesses and demons, and the inversion of ideas as in the asura/ahuradeva/daeva juxtaposition in the Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan traditions are presented in a nuanced way.

In the next chapter on the Vedic millennium, the same ground is covered, although with a broader canvas of themes, and specifically, the assimilative aspect of Rig Vedic religion and culture, identified through names and practices as non-Indo-Aryan, have been highlighted. The subsequent chapter continues the discussion on the millennium by focusing on the later Vedic literature, consisting of the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, Upanishads,Sutras, and Mahakavyas. The material milieu of the time, the varna structure, slavery, patriarchal family and kinship on the one hand, and the monistic, ascetic, and theistic elements that rose to prominence at the end of this period are given attention.

The rise of Buddhist and Jaina philosophical and religious traditions forms the subject of a rather brief chapter. Essentially, the author draws our attention to the questioning of prevailing ideas regarding “truth” in a given context and the quest for causation in these two Sramanic religions. The last chapter of this volume is on the critique of the designation of post-Mauryan and pre-Gupta times as “dark ages” in terms of religious developments, as seen by the spread and prominence of Buddhism and Jainism, as well as the cult of the Bhagavatas. Both these chapters seem woefully inadequate given the vastness of the subjects, and especially in comparison to the rich discussion in the previous chapters.

History of Buddhism

The second volume begins with a discussion on Buddhism under the Palas of Bengal (8th–12th centuries CE) using the Tibetan account of the history of Buddhism by Taranath (circa 16th century CE) that is abrupt and not quite up to the standards of other essays in these volumes, and does not go into details of either Taranath’s historical context or that of the Palas.

A long discussion on the study of religion and methodologies that have been used particularly in the Indian context brings together insights from the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Levi-Strauss, and phenomenologists like Mircea Eliade (Chapter 10). Eliade appears again in the chapter focussed on the works and methodology of the influential scholar Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (Chapter 11), where the historiographical import of the latter’s influential works for the study of early India is underscored.

There is an interesting review of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, that goes beyond its remit and presents a critical academic assessment, while also offering a probing critique of the market for Hinduism within which this among other works may be placed, within which bracket we may add the latest offering for consumption on the “prehistory” of Hinduism (2016).

The idea of many Indias

The two substantive chapters in this volume are also the most thought-provoking, in terms of the range of issues they discuss. Focusing on the formation of religious identities in India (Chapter 11), the transformations, conflicts and assimilations of deities, ideas and traditions (Indra-Varuna, Shiva-Vishnu, Shramanic faiths, bhakti and tantra, Islam and Sanskritic idiom, sacred spaces and landscapes and so on), Shrimali argues that there is no singular idea of India, but many Indias that can be found in history. Like Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya and D.N. Jha, he argues that if at all we look for present-day identities in the past, we are bound to present a blinkered vision that suits our contemporary ideological predilection.

Thoroughly academic in its treatment, with interesting anthropological insights such as the legend of Bonbibi in the Sunderbans consecrated by Pir Ghazi Miyan along the imagery of Durga, or the celebration of Moharram by Lambada, Gond, and Pardi communities, or the famous Jagannath Rath Yatra which stops at the dargah of Salebeg, a Muslim poet-devotee, at Puri, this is a fascinating read for the manner in which it connects the dots. More importantly, it brings the self-reflexive element crucial to the historian’s craft that is aimed at presenting a source-based analysis rather than an “intuitive” understanding of history.

Spanning more than 100 pages, Chapter 9 is titled “Religio-Philosophic Landscape During the Feudal Centuries (circa 500 to circa 1300 CE)”. Colonial and nationalist historiography, as well as post-Independence writings (Kosambi, Andre Wink) have labelled this the “period of degeneration”. Shrimali starts with the hypothesis that the “feudal” centuries were marked by significant transformations in the material milieu, which, in turn, led to the religious developments that reflected diversity, absorption, assimilation, and integration.

The crucial historiographical debate on Indian feudalism as proffered by Chattopadhyaya is elided when Shrimali comments that “the problem cannot be solved by shifting attention from the so-called ‘core’ (‘centre’) to the so-called ‘periphery’ (‘region’)” and positing a holistic view of historical reconstruction.” For Shrimali, the most significant marker of a pan-Indian change, albeit happening at different time periods, was the system of land grants, and secondly the socio-economic complexity that accompanied agrarian expansion, development of trade, and the proliferation of urban centres, while other forms of subsistence such as pastoralism continued. This process defined the feudalisation or samanta-isation (sic) of the political and socio-economic structure.

The oeuvre of Shrimali as a historian of religions is best exemplified in his discussion of bhakti or devotional theistic worship and tirtha or pilgrimage as popularised by the Puranas; or when he is elaborating on the influence of Vedic Brahmanism, particularly with reference to the philosophies of Advaita, Vedanta and the commentarial traditions. He is impressive in his discussion of Tantric ideas and practices, specifically the Shakta tradition in the form of the Dasha Mahavidya concept, and in identifying the numerous instances of local cultic absorption into the Sanskritic brahmanical religions of Vaishnavism and Shaivism.

The Ramjanmabhumi project

A refutation of the so-called archaeological and historical validation of political agendas and distortions that have marked the Ramjanmabhumi movement is found in an appendix in Volume 1 on the excavations at Ayodhya (pages 264-89). Shrimali catalogues in an impressive manner the findings of three phases of excavations from the 1950s to the 1990s, and the (mis)representation of the evidence to claim a temple commemorating the deity Rama’s birthplace was located under the 16th century mosque, Babri Masjid. The author needs to be commended for forthrightly calling out the archaeologists who fabricated evidence on the basis of which substantiation of political claims and public dissemination of the Ramjanmabhumi project was undertaken, so much so that the blatant vandalisation of the historic 400-year-old mosque was sought to be legitimised.

It is almost impossible to cover all themes and aspects related to early Indian religions, and Shrimali makes it clear at the outset that it is not his intention to present a survey. Even so, he presents a comprehensive view of religious developments and their underlying contexts, especially in the first five chapters, the ninth and the eleventh. However, the transliteration style that has been followed, where the long vowels are rendered as a double (eg. Brahmana is Braahmana) and consonants are not accented, is an irritant; the exception is the last chapter and the dedicatory inscription of the book to his jīvansaṅginī.

One of the major drawbacks for this reviewer was the complete lack of images, which would have been especially useful when discussing artefacts and specific iconography and monuments. Nevertheless, there is no taking away from the immense value of these two volumes for the student of early Indian history as well as the engaged non-academic interested in understanding the rich, complex religious traditions across the long period covered by the author.

Dr R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Secretary, Indian History Congress.

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