Against the grain

K.G. Nagarajappa’s first work sought to question the nature of Kannada’s literary past. His recent work, Anushreni Yajamanike, asks questions with greater depth

May 16, 2019 05:40 pm | Updated July 06, 2022 12:27 pm IST

Professor K.G. Nagarajappa was honoured with the Sahitya Academy award this year though he is not among those who seek popularity through proximity with the media. He has chosen to live and think boldly in self imposed obscurity, he has the grit and gumption to speak out unpalatable truths. Writing, for him, has never been a safe haven. His spirit, restless and questioning makes writing a great risk. He richly deserves this award.

Nagarajappa’s first work, Maruchintane (Reconsiderations), was the first salvo shot at the givens of modern Kannada literary establishment. It sought to question the nature of Kannada literary past. The then influential literary historiography had zeroed down on a handful of literary texts, selectively, as the best of a heritage. Nagarajappa’s critical imagination was able to perceive the splits, chasms, conflicts in this edifice. The widely accepted historiography of Kannada had highlighted the kinship of religion and literature. They spoke of the four ages of Kannada literature as being dominated by Jainism, Virashaivism, Brahminism, which was followed by modernism. Though it covered classical and bhakti literatures it had completely ignored folk and tribal dimensions. Further, it had turned a blind eye to the questions of domination, subordination, exploitation, expropriation and exclusion. This is precisely what Nagarajappa addressed. For example, he demonstrated that the excessive importance accorded to Virashaiva literature or Vachana movement was unwarranted. He argued, to the discomfort of the dominant Virashaiva establishment, that Vachana movement can be seen not as a pro-shudra and pro-woman movement but as a setting up of a new kind of hegemony. When I was exposed to these ideas nearly four decades ago, I could not resist the fascination of this disturbing revelation.

In his latest book, Nagarajappa, has restated his initial hypothesis with a greater depth and a broader understanding of texts, co-texts and contexts of expressions of Bhakti and Tantra. He approaches his subjects with knowledge of not just literary texts. His outlook is imbued with deep knowledge of Tantric, folk and tribal texts and practices in contrast with the bookish approaches of the literary establishment. Though it is difficult to trace a systematic theory or philosophy of history in his approach, he succeeds in building up strong arguments through quotes from both famous and little-known texts. The bottom line of his approach is how hegemonic forces went on changing their names and forms, but exclusions and expropriations continued. This makes his approach some kind of victim narrative or notes from the underground.

In his introduction, the author says that the inspiration to write this book came to him from a suggestion made by the publisher that he write a book on the exploitation of women not just in Vedic tradition but also in tantric tradition. However, the outcome of this suggestion has led to a book, which builds up a zigzag narrative of pre-modern Kannada literature, culture and religion. Though scenarios and actors change, the plot and action stay the same: the non-stop oppression of shudras, women, tribals and untouchables.

Nagarajappa rightly emphasizes the place of Tantra in the annals of Indian culture. He also emphasizes his relationship with the oppressed and underprivileged communities. The outlook that informs tantric values and practices are not otherworldly or transcendental. However, the hegemonic communities hijack these practices and impose otherworldliness on them. For instance, the sexual practices of primitive sahaja path, later become more and more esoterised and supplanted by other means. This distortion happens because of the interventions of otherworldly shamanic schools of asceticism and hegemonic worldviews.

Nagarajappa’s particular significances consists in arguing against the grain: bhakti cultures promise peace but promote conflict. They offer freedom and salvation but result in further subordination. The heroic age and classical literary cultures glorify patriarchal values of military and sexual prowess. Nagarajappa denies the view that bhakti brought a pacifist alternative to this. Nagarajappa shows how different bhakti traditions sowed new seeds of tension and violence. The monotheistic militancy of bhakti saints often led to violence between communities. In Karnataka, between thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, a lot of violence was unleashed between Virashaivas and Jains. The other acts of violence were against folk and tribal communities. Their deities and practices were condemned as non-sense and blind faith. Interfaith violence and hierarchic violence continued to make the scene a battleground. Nagarajappa makes a very important distinction between the Vachana tradition and later Virashaiva tradition that was shaped merely two centuries later during the Vijaynagar empire.

Without going into the complexity of the specifics the book elaborately discusses, I would like to conclude by saying that Nagarajappa’s book points out that the atmosphere of religious bigotry, intolerance and hatred that we find today has a history that goes back at least 2000. Nagarajappa’s sympathies are with sahaja path, which is a substratum of all spiritual schools. It is an outlook and a value system, which is body, centered. It does not exclude women as do shamanic paths and later theistic sects. It can be summed up in the words of Hevajra Tantra: “ Great knowledge is centered in the body, it is free from all mental constructs. It pervades all things. Though it inhabits the body, it does not originate in the body.”

This line of enquiry is worth exploring, once we are able to grasp the quintessence of a spiritual tradition, we may be able to discard the weeds which have confused us for several centuries.

The only problem I have with Nagarajappa’s predominantly rational and ethical outlook on culture is the de-emphasis on questions of aesthetics. Though he recognizes the kinship between rasa and tantra through the lineage of Bharata and Abhinava, he assumes that during the later stages of evolution, tantric aesthetics was appropriated by Vedic orthodoxy. But the truth is that rasa cannot be reconciled with other worldly outlooks of Shamanic religions and their vedic counterparts. Neither can we assume that physicality is the only test of authenticity in Tantras. Practices of primitive communities like Lei Haroba of Manipur and healing theatres of Kani tribes also transform the body into a network of cosmic networks. They are no less metaphysical than so called Brahminical practices.

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