Revisiting Vaishnavism

Print edition : May 25, 2018

Matsya avatar decoration on the image of Lakhsminarasimha at Yadagirigutta in Nalgonda district of Telangana. The author takes up the different versions of the "man-lion" legend and traces its evolution. Photo: SINGAM VENKATARAMANA

The Narasimha avatar of Vishnu is depicted in this sculpture at the Chengannur temple in Kerala. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A meticulous study of the evolution of religion, caste and gender.

PROFESSOR Suvira Jaiswal’s magnum opus, The Origin and Development of Vaishnavism, published more than half a century ago, broke new ground in the study not only of Vaishnavism but also of religious history as a whole in the country. It had brought out, within the framework of a materialist philosophy and with extreme fidelity to both sources and the method with which to analyse them, the way in which many cults and practices got coalesced and were appropriated in the making of a single faith. Suvira Jaiswal has since broadened the area of her inquiry to include problems such as caste and gender, staying firmly within the articles of faith that she adopted in her magnum opus.

The essays in the book under review are those that she has been publishing on these questions for the past four decades and more. The three factors that Suvira Jaiswal takes up—religion, caste and gender—are of particular relevance in our society today, what with the kind of obscurantism of some sections in trying to present a Hindu religion of a monolithic nature and seeking to wish away the tensions, contradictions and even outright violence within. The book is welcome for that reason as well, apart from for the substantial research that has gone into its making.

Suvira Jaiswal opens the book with a regulation survey of previous research on the subject of caste in its relation with class, ethnicity and power. Colonial understanding and its neocolonial glosses receive their attention and are promptly exposed. She examines the bases of such assumptions and shows that they are not valid going by the canons of historical research: neither do the sources warrant nor does sound methodology allow such formulations. The sinister and not-so-sinister implications of these are brought out well.

In an appendix to Chapter 1, the author demolishes the formulations of V.K. Thakur and R.N. Nandi, who, following a rather innocent remark made by the veteran archaeologist H.D. Sankalia, attack the non-pastoral, agrarian foundations of Vedic economy and society. Suvira Jaiswal rightly shows the less-than-mature ways in which Thakur and Nandi criticise D.D. Kosambi and Prof. Ram Saran Sharma for speaking of the nomadic and pastoral character of the Rig Vedic people, unmindful of the fact that it was these scholars who had underlined the process of transition to sedentary agriculture contained in the hymns of later Vedic texts. Suvira Jaiswal shows that the “paradigm shift” that Thakur and Nandi are boasting about is more imagined than real and in any case based on distortions and misrepresentations. Rounding out the discussion, she says that a threefold functional division, common to all pastoral societies, may have existed in Vedic India, too. But it was only towards the close of the Vedic period that a fourfold hierarchical stratification, based on the principles of heredity, crystallised. And an ancient myth of the ritual sacrifice of primordial man to fashion the cosmos from his dismembered body was remodelled to justify this social order.

Basing herself firmly on this solid foundation, Suvira Jaiswal proceeds to examine how caste, gender and ideology have worked in the making of what she calls “traditional India”. This chapter, which was originally given as the General President’s Address to the Indian History Congress when it met at Farook College, Kozhikode, effectively challenges the now fashionable statement that caste, after all, is a modern phenomenon, a product of British colonial rule and the apparatuses it created, including the Census reports, and that it has no links with the ancient, so-called “Hindu Period”, Purusha Sukta, Manusmriti and the like notwithstanding.

Meticulously tracing the development of the various defining features of caste, such as endogamy, norms of purity/pollution, hierarchy and professions in the texts starting from the Vedic literature, Suvira Jaiswal shows that it is an institution that evolved gradually, with considerable complexity, through the centuries in different parts of the country with considerable variations in the specificities.

Simplistic equations, such as race-caste and class-caste, will obfuscate rather than clarify the picture; nor can varna prescriptions or models of the mixing of varnas explain the phenomenon. Caste has reinvented itself over time to suit the needs of the social formation of the day. Simplistic equations do not help in understanding it, and the absence of a realistic understanding will vitiate programmes to overcome the disabilities imposed by it.

Another pillar that has supported the institution is the subordination of women. Even when there were possibilities of considerable social mobility, as in the case of Rajputs and Kayasthas, caste and subordination of women worked very well—particularly the control of the sexuality of women. And, both were legitimised by an overarching ideology that legitimised those who enjoyed the benefits of caste.

Historical materlialism

The chapter on the dynamics of social differentiation in early India is largely a tribute to Ram Sharan Sharma, Suvira Jaiswal’s mentor and arguably one of the finest historians that India has produced. Sharma was convinced that the past is accessed only theoretically; production of historical knowledge is impossible without the mediation of theory. He was also sure about the kind of theory to be used: it is historical materialism. He went to the extent of stating this, somewhat theatrically, in epigrammatic style: “no production, no history”.

Suvira Jaiswal sees this concern with a materialist interpretation of history from the very beginning of Sharma’s career as a historian—the very first paper he published (1952) was on “Some Economic Aspects of Caste System in Ancient India”. She reviews how Sharma’s understanding of the processes of social differentiation evolved and their causalities in the context of ancient India. She does not hesitate to mention it when she is uncomfortable with some of her master’s formulations on points of evidence or interpretation, but the overall tone and tenor is, naturally, that of agreement. In this exercise, Suvira Jaiswal also shows how social differentiation got defined and congealed in Indian society, with its expressions in caste, patriarchy and other features of domination.

Patriarchy in Brahmanism

Two chapters are specifically related to gender. One of them, on the evolution of patriarchy in Brahmanism, breaks new ground. Arguing against the position that the subordinate position that women came to be assigned in society was less a function of biology and psychology than a conscious cultural and social act, Suvira Jaiswal shows how women were more and more excluded from ritual, control of resources and social space. Examining literature from the Vedic texts onwards, she argues how institutions such as the state and caste were hand in glove with patriarchy in the suppression of women.

In another essay on “Female Images in the Arthasastra of Kautilya”, she produces an amazingly exhaustive (and rather exhausting!) inventory of the occurrence of women in the Arthasastra.

The wide variety of women and their experiences, told, of course, within the framework of the patriarchal world of Kautilya that Suvira Jaiswal lays bare, is interesting although it may raise a question regarding what the author wants to finally say with this massive evidence. Facts are one thing, making sense of facts is another; it is a very different activity of knowledge production.

The three final chapters are further elaborations of Suvira Jaiswal’s work on Vaishnavism. She takes up the question of avatars, or incarnations, a very effective means by which deities, worshipped by different sections of the population in different parts of the country at different points of time, were co-opted into the Vaishnava pantheon. The process, to be sure, was slow, uneven and extremely complex. The process of drawing the cult of non-Vedic/tribal deities within the vortex of Brahmanism had begun in the centuries at the cusp of the Common Era.

This was one of the answers to the threat that Brahmanism was facing from multiple sources. The case of Rama, who graduated (or deteriorated?) from human hero to god incarnate, is taken up for elaboration, with the various streams going into the making of the avatar running from different parts of the country mingling so inseparably with one another, a process that has been going on for centuries.

Another case of an avatar, which did not have the same reach as that of Rama, is of Narasimha. Suvira Jaiswal takes up the different versions of the legend of the “man-lion” and traces its evolution. One wishes she had mentioned the Nrisimha Tapaniya Upanishad, which claims to be attached to the Atharvaveda and which scholars such as Farquhar date to the seventh century C.E. This text is one of the ways in which the Narasimha cult, which was appropriated by Brahmanism, was authenticated with an unmistakable Upanishadic stamp.

The way in which the ambivalence of the horse-headed Hayagriva is treated in different texts is brought out with clarity, but even here one central aspect is lost. In many versions of the story of the fish incarnation of Vishnu, Hayagriva is the villain of the piece. He had stolen the Vedas from the faces of Brahma, and it took Vishnu in his incarnation as the fish to kill Hayagriva and redeem the Vedas for Brahma. It is surprising that Suvira Jaiswal makes only incidental mention of this. The very purpose of the Matsya avatar, according to the Bhagavata Purana, is this redemption of the Vedas.

With the meticulous research that has gone into its making, the book is welcome. However, apart from the matter of details mentioned above, there are a couple of points over which one may differ with the author. When attempts by scholars with persuasions different from one’s own are looked upon with suspicion, as resulting from some kind of controversy, the result is that it may get reduced to paranoia. Suvira Jaiswal does not have to look for a ghost in every corner.

Another problem that I see about the larger formulation is a lack of conviction in using the expression “Brahmanic hegemony”, which is part of the title. If this hegemony is to be demonstrated in caste, gender ideology, cults and practices, which Suvira Jaiswal has taken up, it will also have to be shown that the groups seeking hegemony had effective control over those whom the hegemony was sought to be exercised. Is it really the case? The book does not help us answer the question.