German connection

Print edition : November 03, 2006

The books under review showcase the reshaping and re-centring of the long tradition of German Indology.

THESE three anthologies comprising 40 essays providing us with rich contributions from scholars who have been instrumental in reshaping and re-centring the long traditions of German Indology. It is often said that German Indology confines itself to the study of Vedic language and literature. In Dr. Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, who travelled to India at least 35 times in a span of 27 years of active academic life at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, we find a scholar who was completely different. He was one Indologist who, under the inspiration of mathematician, archaeologist and historian D.D. Kosambi, developed a deep interest in folk religion and mythology as well as the regional roots of Indian cultural traditions. This had convinced him about these traditions, especially the ritual and mythology of Hinduism, being rich tapestries woven with varied regional, tribal, pastoral and agrarian elements.

In more senses than one, the three volumes being reviewed here centre around multifarious interests of this great institution builder - the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University has emerged as a major research centre in the past four decades. Sontheimer played a stellar role in building this image. He, along with Hermann Berger and Lothar Lutze, constituted the Heidelberg Indological triumvirate.

Essays on Religion, Literature and Law contains 14 selected papers in English, published originally between 1965 and 1991 by Sontheimer (he died in 1992), and follows up on his earlier volume King of Hunters, Warriors, and Shepherds: Essays on Khandoba (Delhi 1997). The articles chosen for publication here span a wide thematic and temporal range. The volume contains essays on the juristic personality of Hindu deities, the history and religion of pastoral groups in the Deccan plateau and the interdependence of folk and scriptural religion. The two volumes of Sontheimer's collected papers complement a memorial volume entitled In the Company of Gods.

The last decades of the 20th century witnessed an enlarged understanding of the notion of `text' as comprising not only written documents, but also rituals, artefacts and the like. Thereby, `texts' were brought closer to the social, religious or historical contexts that help to interpret texts. Scholars, divided traditionally in different disciplines that deal either more with texts (historians, philologists, and so on) or contexts (sociologists, anthropologists, and so on) became interested in the methods and perspectives of other disciplines. This has resulted in renewed interest in the theoretical issues implied in the notions of text and context. Text and Context is based on the presentations made at the conference held in 2000 under the "Orissa Research Programme" (ORP - a new avatar of the Orissa Research Project of the early 1970s) on Various Identities: Socio-Cultural Profiles of Orissa in Historical and Regional Perspectives.

The 16 essays included in Text and Context deal with the multi-layered interplay between texts and contexts in past and present Orissa and show how they influence and enrich research on South Asia. In dealing with the interdependence between texts and contexts, the essays provide fresh insights into the complexity and fluidity of cultural contexts that use text as stable points of reference. The traditions of Orissa are considered in their uniqueness as well as in their relationship to South Asian cultural contexts on a larger scale.

Heinrich von Stietencron (awarded the Padma Shri in 2004, the only foreign scholar to have received this honour), one of the finest exponents of classical German Indological scholarship in modern times, was Professor of Indology and Comparative History of Religion (1973-98) at the University of Tuebingen. He has devoted many years to field research in Orissa. Hindu Myth, Hindu History is the first in a series of three or four books that will follow as anthologies of Stietencron's numerous seminal essays. Drawing upon various sources and currents - folk, tribal and the multi-layered Sanskritic tradition - he offers, in this volume of 10 contributions (published between 1969 and 1995), major insights into the complex cultural history of Hindu religious traditions. Starting from the centuries preceding the Common Era and continuing through the Gupta period up to the 11th century, Stietencron traces continuity and change in religion and art within the formative period of what we know today as Hinduism.

Coming to the specifics, Essays on Religion, Literature and Law has as many as seven articles (with about a hundred photographs) dealing with the history and religion of pastoral groups (Dhangars, Gollas, Kurubas in the Deccan, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka) and the interdependence of folk and scriptural religions. Sontheimer identified the worship of heroes and satis as an important element of folk religion. In "Folk Deities in the Vijayanagara Empire: Narasimha and Mallanna/Mailar" (1985) Sontheimer tests his own notion of the typical folk deity and its rise under particular historical circumstances by extending his study to Narasimha as a popular god of the Vijayanagara empire and subsequent Nayaka kingdoms. It is regrettable that V.S. Agrawal, who did phenomenal work in identifying folk cults and traditions (on biras, gahas palhaya and so on), especially through a journal called Janapada in Hindi in the early 1950s, does not figure in numerous writings of Sontheimer.

"Hinduism: The Five Components and their Interaction" (1989) is Sontheimer's most comprehensive statement of his view of Hinduism and has, therefore, been placed at the end of the book. Existing theories/concepts of M.N. Srinivas (Sanskritisation), Robert Redfield and Milton Singer (`Little Tradition' and the `Great Tradition'), McKim Marriott (universalisation and parochialisation) and Paul Hacker (`Inklusivismus') are found wanting. Instead, seeking sustenance from A.K. Ramanujan's notion of `reflexivity' for the interactions between different Indian literatures, oral and written, Sontheimer looks at the multiplicity of textual traditions (oral and written) and perspectives and of actual Hindu religious practices by distinguishing five components (The Work and Teachings of the Brahmans; Asceticism and Renunciation; Tribal Religion; Folk Religion, giving us a tasteful glimpse of many terms in regional languages forming an unwritten inventory of folk cults; and Bhakti). The approach here is not to work out any monolithic conceptualisation, but to distinguish different layers, currents or, as Sontheimer calls them, components, and to treat each of them in its own right - not as watertight compartments but rather as presenting a continuum and as interacting among themselves in a fluctuating process over thousands of years.

Sontheimer demonstrates the applicability of his model through an analysis of Khandoba, the folk deity of Maharashtra, which also has its equivalents in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Finding several structural and diagnostic identities between Rudra and Khandoba, he regards the Khandoba cult as a `Mirror of Hinduism' and stresses: "Rather than postulating a unilinear development from the Vedic Rudra to a puranic Siva and eventually a parochialised Khandoba we are led to see a persistent continuity of folk religion."

There are several meeting points between Sontheimer's view of Hinduism and almost all essays (except the one on Emperor Akbar's religious policy) included in Stietencron's Hindu Myth. Both German Indologists focus on: (a) comprehensive look at multifarious texts - oral, written, sculptural and other art remains, and of course, field work; (b) Hinduism as we know it today being a construct of Western colonialism; (c) the real character of Hinduism being extremely multi-layered (with distinctive contributions from tribal and folk elements) rather than monolithic; (d) the need to retain the label Hinduism even when it is distinctly shown that it does not come near the definition of `religion' in the Western sense; and (e) the construct of `Hinduism' (read `Hindutva', referred to as `Syndicated Hinduism' by Romila Thapar) forged by the Hindu Right in India since the 1980s contradicting the essential pluralistic character of Hinduism.

Sontheimer's exposition of the first component, namely, "the work and teachings of the Brahmanas", also reminds us of Stietencron's 1977 essay: "Orthodox attitude towards temple service and image worship in ancient India" (page 51-64), where "the process of change from the Vedic altar to the Hindu temple and from moving celestials to stationary images was accompanied by bitter feuds between traditionalists and innovators" has been unfolded. Orthodox Vedic Brahmins called the latter devalaka (earlier used for Shudra custodians of images) and patita, that is, fallen from the rank of Brahmin to that of Shudra.

There are, however, two major points of departure between Sontheimer and Stientencron. First, while the former is against splitting Hinduism into distinct though related religions, the Professor from Tuebingen makes a very strong and convincing case of doing so and goes on to underline that the historian of religion must see what is held in common, but must not suppress the differences separating distinct systems of thought. The essential "multiformity of Hinduism" has been extensively shown through critical textual analysis of the Somashambhupaddhati (11th century). The "Hindu" self-perception that it reflects shows that Saivism is conceived of as an independent religion and not as a part or sect of any larger entity that we might wish to call Hinduism. Stietencron draws parallels between the attitude of the North Indian Vaishnava community in the early part of the 20th century and that of the present-day Vaishnava community propagating its main religious tenets as "essentials of Hinduism" in order to arouse religious emotions for political ends, leading to communal conflict. In a somewhat prophetic tone, he suggests: "Maybe Hindu fundamentalism today would lose some of its threatening aspects if the communal multiformity of so-called Hinduism were better known" (page 250).

Second, Stietencron expressly regards Hinduism as "a civilisation" (cf. page 237, 268). This would certainly please the modern-day Hindu Right in India. Sontheimer, however, is somewhat reticent on this, and perhaps rightly so.

Apart from the aforesaid contributions on Hinduism, Stietencron's anthology displays his two other concerns, namely, socio-political environment of the artist (the first essay looks at the rationality of choosing one out of many possible themes for sculptural representation on a temple wall or in a rock cave and underlines that religious art in India is not altogether removed from worldly affairs) and varied facets of Puranic myths (studies on Bhairava, Kaliyuga and chronology of the Buddha). Occasionally, the links of the two are also explored, for instance, in the fascinating study of Durga Mahishasuramardini, which is remarkable for showing the aesthetic and theological transformation of Mahisha from an asura (demon) to a Shakta (devotee of the goddess). Since Stietencron has been an indefatigable field worker in Orissa, he is also able to shed light on the process of Durga's instrumentality in `Hinduising' tribal goddesses. This aspect can also be seen in Cornelia's study of Patkhanda in Text and Context (pages 273-305).

Finally, the essay on Akbar's religious policy is somewhat misplaced in a volume on Hindu myth. However, its accent on careful planning of the policy and its parallels with contemporary land reforms and the mansabdari system are noticeable. Equally laudable is his concluding observation: "No ruler in sixteenth century Europe tried as consistently to implement the rule of reason in the framework of an absolutist order as did Emperor Akbar in India."

Of the 16 essays in Text and Context, three (1, 15 and 16) deal with theoretical issues. The thesis of the "readability of cultures" is taken up by Dietrich Harth: "Are Cultures Readable? Reconsidering Some Questions of Method", which highlights the difficulties involved in the task of translation. Recognising the boundaries of language as the boundaries of culture, translation and its synonym, that is, `interpretation', are seen as crossing borders. A lot of translation has to be enacted. Neither text (something mute and absent) nor context is a `given' phenomenon, they are selected and validated by the interpreter. "The interpretation changes the text, the changed text calls forth a new interpretation, and so on and so forth." Cultures perceived as readable become portable cultures and this mirrors the fact that cultures in our times are losing their centres and show more and more the features of migrant and interlacing performative patterns.

Georg Pfeffer in his "Tribal Society of Highland Orissa, Highland Burma, and Elsewhere" invokes Leach's classic on Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954, a milestone in anthropological theory) to conclude that the study of `tribal societies' in Orissa shows the limitations of post-modern notions of `negotiation' and `agency', since one deals with people who, against all odds, live and act in the context of `existing understanding of their cultural order'. Further, tribal societies resist established structures on several levels: their concepts are different not only from the neighbouring Hindu caste system, but also from the values that dominate modern Western society. Some caustic remarks (pages 432-33) of Pfeffer, such as :

"... Westerners, Delhiites, or the outstanding `Green Card Holders' of the discipline, in spite of their impressive anthropological knowledge and intellectual versatility, seemed to lack access to tribal India. The `primitives' did not qualify for their sociology, or the very existence of the tribal category was ignored' do invite special attention.

"Linguistic turn, performative turn, cultural turn, and - most recently - pictorial turn - one gets dizzy with so many turns and seems to lose one's orientation."

And yet, Axel Michaels is not tired of proposing `cultural turn' ("Indology and the Cultural Turn - In Memory of G.D. Sontheimer"), which means that when reading texts one must also consider those who are not within the text. Texts are written not only as a passive storage of information but also for reasons of power, influence, honour, prestige and so on. A broadened concept of texts, inclusive of school books, pamphlets, Internet sources, texts communicated by mass media, anthropology of films, and maps is introduced for incorporation into Indology. It is alleged that an important outcome of the cultural turn in the humanities has been the stress on a collaboration of philologists and anthropologists. Michaels calls it `Ethno-Indology' and argues that Indology need to become more bare-footed, both orally and socially.

`Interplay of texts and contexts' of regional traditions and different communities of Orissa, and that too through the field of experience and performance, constitutes the major concern of more than 50 per cent of the contributions (2 to 10) of this collection. The Ranapur Rajavamsha Itihasa attracts the attention of a historian (H. Kulke) as well as a professional architect (Niels Gutschow). Other case studies include Bhima Bhoi's Stutichintamani on Mahima Dharma; institutionalisation of the textual practice of mantra in the Chaitanya tradition; Mangala Puja in Southern Orissa showing how women create `performative texts' while conducting rituals for `their' goddess; and finally, Danda Nata, a tradition of popular theatre in Southern Orissa that also constituted a `performative text'.

Finally, four essays (11-14) take up issues of the formation of regional identity and consciousness thereof. Archaeological sites, dance traditions, inscriptions; micro-analysis of Jayadeva's Gitagovinda; several Oriya texts from the 15th to the 17th centuries; and autobiographies of three important political leaders of Orissa (Fakirmohan Senapati, Godavarish Misra and Gopabandhu Das) have been used in order to fabricate a referential framework for `Oriya-ness'.

Broadening the notions of `text' is welcome but are not some of the theoretical interventions not much ado about something which has already been in practice for decades, of course sans semantic jargons? What is this great fuss about reading/translating/interpreting cultures and "interplay of texts and contexts"? Haven't generations of undergraduate students in history been told that "facts" do not speak for themselves and it is the historian who makes them speak? Haven't historians of the last numerous generations endeavoured to make them speak by looking beyond and reading between the lines of their sources (sorry, we forgot that `text' is more in vogue!), and by analysing the background and milieu (including class biases, which post-modernist practitioners are often shy of exploring) of `authors' and their `agencies'? How are the parameters of Michael's `cultural turn' and `Ethno-Indology' different from those of D.D. Kosambi's "Combined Methods in Indology" (with its special accent on combination of textual studies and fieldwork) and "Living Prehistory", which the latter had worked out in the 1960s? Kosambi is not even acknowledged by Michael. Ironically, his essay is "In Memory of G.D. Sontheimer", who was never tired of admitting that D.D. Kosambi was his mentor and a major inspirational force.

May we share some other misgivings as well. Even noticing that Stietencron does not regard "the end of the twelfth century as constituting an absolute caesura in Hindu religious life" (pages 251-252), his use of `pre-Muslim period' (at several places), `period of Upanishads' (page 52), `Hindu India' (page 7) and `Hindu History' (in the title) is jarring, to say the least. It certainly smacks of communalised periodisation. Further, generations of historians who have known the eighth century invasion of Sind by the Arabs are now being told that it was an `invasion of the Indus Valley by the Muslims' (page 37). Similarly, though recognising that "definite knowledge about the religion of the Indus civilisation is rather scarce", he still writes that: "continuation of elements from the Indus culture period into much later times could be shown to have existed" (page 232), which is questionable.

The production qualities of the three works are uneven. Hindu Myth has a consolidated bibliography. The other two have notes and/or references listed at the end of each essay. Similarly, while the volume of Sontheimer's essays has an extensive index, the other two leave us with very sketchy indices. The publishers of the Essays and Text and Context have done a competent job - the latter showing very rare typos (Andre Beteille becoming Brteille, page 432). The same cannot be said about the production of Hindu Myth. Footnotes often get shifted and italicisation of authorities (Panini, Patanjali, Kautilya) is not the common practice and should have been taken care of at the editing level.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History, University of Delhi.

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