Monday, March 3, 2014

Does Wendy Doniger offend you? Please read Acharya Chatursen


Sunday Susurrations
By
Randeep Wadehra 



Several decades ago, Acharya Chatursen had been much more trenchant in his observations vis-à-vis “Aryan” purity and Brahamanical supremacism. Those of us who have read वयं रक्षामः (Vayam Rakshamah, or We Protect – the Ramayana character Ravan’s credo) and वैशाली की नगरवधू (Vaishali kee Nagarvadhu – The Town-Bride (courtesan) of Vaishali) find Doniger’s observations immensely polite. I personally feel that the likes of Chatursen and Doniger do much more good to Hindu Society than these self-appointed thekedars of my community.

History is often described as a collection of great men and women’s biographies. If the likes of Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet and essayist, subscribe to this view then the British historian John Robert Seeley looks upon history as politics in the past, while Voltaire describes it as a tableau of crimes and misfortunes. Off the cuff these remarks might well have been but it is true that history, or rather historiography, had more to do with kings and dynasties than with ordinary people living in different parts of the world. Doniger has preferred to write about the faceless mass of people that has, in fact, been vital to the very existence, and evolution, of states, societies & civilizations and, hence, the making of history. 

This narrative is devoid of the usual USPs of a chronicle. No grand gestures of megalomaniac potentates, no spectacular achievements of conquerors, no spine chilling intrigues and other such ingredients that make a narrative so spicy. Yet this book keeps you absorbed for days together as you go through the making of Hindu civilization as it exists today. The impressively well designed dwellings of the Indus Valley people, their mundane life – including religion sans much material/written evidence; their language that has yet to be deciphered, thus keeping us enthralled as to the possibilities of the “script” being actually decoded. Similar other well explained aspects, like tablets and other artifacts, makes for an absorbing opening.

Then the author takes on Sanskrit and speculates whether it is in fact the mother of Indian languages and dialects or, more probably, a refined version of various pre-existing dialects. Her argument that the refined Sanskrit language (the word ‘Sanskrit’ itself means ‘refined’) was never really a popularly spoken language and that it was probably more a language of elites and intellectuals does hold water. But, we do know that there have been entire villages – there are a couple still existing in South India – where everyone speaks Sanskrit even in their everyday life. Her puzzling over the absence/paucity of material evidence about their life and times left behind by the Vedic people is genuine. 

Refusing to repeat other historians, and yet not hesitating from citing them wherever relevant, Doniger delves into various scriptures and oral/written literature, rituals and traditions, myths and folklores etc in order to understand the Hindu religion which is not really a religion in the traditional sense; it is a civilization that has withstood the vagaries of time. Indeed, although Hindus have been around for millennia it has not been possible to define Hinduism in definite terms. It is akin to the Rubik’s cube in the uninitiated’s hands. If you try to solve the puzzle of its ethnicity based caste mix you are faced with the problem of castes going up and down the social hierarchies depending upon the changing times and topography; you try to establish the uniqueness of our mythological literature and soon are confronted with their similarities with diverse cultures elsewhere, you try to resolve its linguistic evolutions and you get to face its region-language based conundrums like whether it was Sanskrit that influenced the Dravidian languages or was it vice versa, or perhaps it was a multi-channel traffic. Indeed, you will find the various puzzles presented, be they in the form of the Hindu society’s myriad stratifications, of which the caste system is but one manifestation – or regarding its genesis, you don’t want to put down the book, which is voluminous but thought provoking and peppered with wit and witticism.

The late British churchman, Dean Inge, remarks somewhere, “What we know of the past is mostly not worth knowing. What is worth knowing is mostly uncertain. Events in the past may roughly be divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not matter.” Doniger’s tome has attempted to rectify this perception with remarkable success.

However, despite all the research done, no mainstream historian has ever mentioned that in Arabic dictionaries the term “Hindu” is used as a pejorative. One is not sure whether this omission is deliberate. But, how this term actually came to be used for the largest segment of the subcontinent’s population? We are good at taking potshots at genuine scholars, but when it comes to taking on real culprits we become a tolerant, secular society. The likes of Batra do not even know whether Wendy Doniger is a “Christian Missionary” or a Jew, but they must manufacture a hurt and blackmail publishers. I have read Doniger's book from page to page but, as a practicing Hindu, I have not felt hurt at any of her remarks. In fact, several decades ago Acharya Chatursen had been much more trenchant in his observations vis-à-vis “Aryan” purity and Brahamanical supremacism. Those of us who have read वयं रक्षामः (Vayam Rakshamah, or We Protect – the Ramayana character Ravan’s credo) and वैशाली की नगरवधू (Vaishali kee Nagarvadhu – the Town-Bride (courtesan) of Vaishali) find Doniger’s observations immensely polite, relatively speaking. In fact in Vayam Rakshamah Acharya Chatursen has depicted all the characters of the epic mythology, Ramayan, as ordinary mortals belonging to different ethnic groups/tribes. Although he traces the origins of different tribes one really wishes he had followed the western tradition of mentioning the sources/records that he must have accessed to come up with this interesting book, which tries to demythologize one of our epics, which the devout Hindu worships. In fact, in the Valmiki Ramayan there are references to Lakshman’s rebellion against Dashrath’s decision to exile Ram. The words he uses for his father, and his suspicion of Bharat’s intentions, appear pertinent for the occasion. More important, it humanizes the divinity. Similarly, in Vaishali kee Nagarvadhu, apart from the main plot there is rich material provided that indicates the changing equations between the “pure Aryans” and hybrid (mixed race, the term used by Chatursen is "sankari" or "hybrid") ethnic groups. Chatursen’s works need to be studied in detail and understood. In his time, he was not exactly a darling of the Hindu Right. But what made him such a respected intellectual was his ability to stand up to the threats of physical harm and worse. Something the likes of Penguin need to emulate. 

I personally feel that the likes of Chatursen and Doniger do much more good to Hindu Society than these self-appointed thekedars of my community. 

All attempts to Talibanise Hinduism need to be resisted. How can such self-destructive, primitive cretins be the role model for a community that has had such a glorious past and has contributed so much to the progress of humanity over the millennia? Just think. Hindu Civilization stands for intellectual growth, for interaction among civilizations and exchange of ideas with others. It has always been a tolerant, catholic and constructive entity. Has not our credo been Tamso ma jyotir gamaya (take us from darkness to light)? Then why succumb to the forces of darkness? They need to be routed right now before it is too late.

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