The meat of the matter

Print edition : September 01, 2001

ALTHOUGH under pressure over his recent questionable policy innovations, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi is quite equal to any challenge. Recently at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, he chose to take on criticism of his decision to introduce graduate studies in astrology in universities. There was no need for India to be apologetic about its great traditions, he said. Rather, Indians should learn to regard their own pioneers in the astronomical sciences, such as Aryabhatta and Varahamihira, with the same respect that they have been according Copernicus and Galileo.

Dwijendra Narayan Jha, Professor of History at Delhi University-SANDEEP SAXENA

If familiarity with the classical texts and their authentic interpretation are signs of respect for tradition, then Joshi's confederates in the brotherhood of Hindutva evidently have poor credentials. They shower Varahamihira with praise, but display ignorance of the content of his work. If a recent book by Dwijendra Narayan Jha, Professor of History at Delhi University is accurate in its citation of historical texts, then Varahamihira's dietary prescriptions are likely to excite antipathy within Hindutva orthodoxy. Indeed, in his unapologetic advice to the sovereign of his day that he should partake of the "ceremonial eating" of the meat of buffaloes, cows and bulls, among other animals, Varahamihira was seemingly offending against one of the central canons of religious orthodoxy. But since his texts, notably the Brhadsamhita, are beyond the reach of the contemporary censor, Jha's work has begun to attract the attention of the Hindutva thought police.

Jha is one of the seniormost historians in Delhi University, with a record that stretches back over three decades of publishing serious research on ancient India. He had a contractual commitment from a Delhi-based publisher for his recent work, Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions. But in a curious change of mind, the book was pulled off the presses at the last minute. Jha's subsequent quest for an alternative publishing arrangement proved futile, until a group of friends set up a publishing house for the purpose of printing and distributing his book.

Released early in August, Holy Cow was the subject of a brief but animated discussion over the Internet. Parts of this discussion reached the pages of an English language newspaper published from Hyderabad. Cultural vigilantes were soon in action. The Jain Seva Samiti in Hyderabad petitioned the city civil court, pleading that the book be banned for causing injury to the religious sentiments of their community. On August 7, an injunction was issued restraining the author and the publisher from the printing, sale and distribution of the book. By then a number of copies were in the market.

The challenge to Jha's work of historical interpretation has not been confined to the courts. Ghuman Mal Lodha, former Member of Parliament and now chairman of the Animal Welfare Board, called for administrative action against the book and its author. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad called for the arrest of the historian. And unmindful of the quality of research that has gone into the book, anonymous callers have been proffering the advice that Jha should not proceed with publication if he valued his life.

By any criterion, Holy Cow is a work of serious historical scholarship. It runs to 183 pages, of which over 40 are devoted to detailed explanatory footnotes and 24 to a bibliography. Among the authorities it cites are P.V. Kane and H.D. Sankalia. Kane was a Sanskritist whose five-volume History of the Dharmasastra is a work of formidable scholarship; it earned him the Bharat Ratna. Sankalia is an archaeologist whose knowledge of scriptural sources was unrivalled.

If Jha's work is to suffer the censor's scrutiny, then it is logical to assume that Kane, Sankalia and even Varahamihira could soon be similarly honoured. That would really be the logical reductio ad absurdum of the Hindutva lobby's zealous pursuit of historical orthodoxy.

Organiser, the weekly tabloid of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, recently put a novel construction on the Hindutva attitude towards the heterodoxies of history. The commentator was dealing with a recent Delhi High Court ruling which held that a 1993 ban imposed on an exhibition depicting different traditions of the Ramayana was illegal (Frontline, August 17, 2001). The purpose of the exhibition, in the charged aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, was to highlight the multiple traditions within which the Ramayana featured and to challenge the monolithic construction that the Hindutva lobby had sought to put on received legend. But for Organiser, the centuries long existence of these diversities was proof of Hinduism's innate sense of tolerance. The assertion now, however, brings out the long-suppressed anger of the Hindu. The Buddhist tradition of the Ramayana may have long been tolerated despite its heterodoxies. But bringing it into the public discourse today would invite well-deserved retribution.

By any criterion, this is an argument for suppressing scholarship and reasoned debate through the simulated rage of offended religiosity. It is a religiosity which is untrue to its own sources and inattentive to the requirements of historical authenticity. The essence of the so-called Hindutva culture, it has frequently been pointed out by serious historians, is its patently counterfeit character.

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