Breaking new grounds

Manu Devadevan’s book, A Prehistory of Hinduism, is a rare combination of deep scholarship and sharp insights

To the great dismay of atheists, sceptics and rationalists, who had declared religion dead, religion has re-emerged as a great force to reckon with all over again. The triumph of science and technology has not lessened the lure of faith. Whether we believe religion a malady or medicine, we cannot wish it away. Whether the resurgence of religion frightens or fascinates us, the need of the hour is to understand it dispassionately and objectively. Though religious experience is subjective, it also exists objectively in society and politics.

The name and nature of Hinduism has become an arena of violent debates and contestations in India in the global context of resurgence of faith. The best of minds both Indian and non-Indian have been giving widely different and conflicting definitions and analyses of the phenomena. Some of them all too broad like Gandhi’s view of a good Hindu also being a good Muslim or Christian. The same can be said of the characterisation of Hinduism as ‘a way of life’. It begs the question: how is it different from other ways of life. Most of the existing literature on the subject identifies Hinduism with a specific set of sacred texts, practices and beliefs. If that is so, how come there are communities within the Hindu fold which do not recognise these as sacred? Equally reductive are the radical slogans like those that equate Hinduism with Manuvad. Scholarly attempts were also made to deny the problem altogether. The great Kannada scholar Sham. Bha. Joshi in book after book argued that the word ‘Hindu’ has no ontological basis for it is not mentioned anywhere in ancient Indian texts.

Breaking new grounds

To this area where confusions abound, Manu Devadevan’s book brings light and clarity. It is a rare combination of deep scholarship and sharp insights. While distancing himself from prevalent views on the subject, he observes that there are broadly two types of positions on the subject: constructivist and primodialist. The former considers the appellation of Hinduism constructed during the period of orientalism and colonialism. The latter holds that Hinduism as a phenomenon antedated the colonial period.

Further, they accuse the constructivist of giving too much importance to outside forces. Devadevan steers clear of both these positions as he finds them essentialist. He therefore undertakes to trace the emergence and evolution of Hindu identity in concrete context of materialist history. He ends up building and evolved an impressive narrative based on enormous historical and textual data. In order to give his account a greater focus and precision, he concentrates on Hindu identity formation in the region of Deccan in Karnataka, though he approaches the subject an understanding of developments in other parts of India and the world. This is essential because in pre-modern India geographical boundaries did not have the same boundaries accorded to them today.

According to the author, the word ‘Hindu’ was not used as a marker of religious identity till the 18th century. Neither were other existing identities like Jaina and Buddha applied to non-renunciates of these orders. The emergence of a powerful merchant class and culture facilitated the rise of religious identity among householders. This is depicted powerfully in the 13th century Kannada poetic work, Somanatha Charite by Raghavanka. A certain merchant called Adayya falls in love with Padmavati, a beautiful girl during his journey. After an intense period of courtship, they decide to marry. But he discovers that she is a Jaina by religion. A militant Shaiva, he refuses to marry her. The marriage happens only when Padmavati consents to convert into Saivism. This is the earliest record of religious identity looming large in the life of lay people. The rise of the Shiva and Vishnu temples and the order of monks supported by kings and the newly victorious merchant class as a powerful institution gave rise to Shiva and Vaishnava identities. The reason why the 12th century Sharana poets – more popularly known as Virashaivas – were alienated from temples was that they had become the haunt of the rich. The artisans constituting the majority of Sharanas either considered the body itself a temple or their own manual labour (kayaka) as sacred. The increase in material production and independence of powerful classes weakened the ascetic orders and gave rise to the monastic orders based on the strong support of royal and mercantile bounty. This is when religious identity assumed importance in the lives of lay people. The apotheosis of guru – which has assumed scary proportions in the present-day Hinduism – also emerged as a sacred value during this period in a big way.

Another important development that Devadevan depicts in his book is the rise of siddha and dasa institutions post-Vijayanagara period. The first is typified by the coming of an intriguing figure Kodekal Basaveshwara, a poet, philosopher, merchant and warrior. He modelled his life down to the last detail after Basavanna of 12th century. Though initiated into esoteric practices by his guru Sangamanatha, he was not an ascetic.

Influenced by contemporary Sufis he produced a complex religion which combined spiritual, political and economic engagements. He was also an expert in ‘sending to Shiva’ whoever opposed him. His children and disciples developed along the same line, particularly Manteswami who became a cultural hero for Dalits and backwards in South Karnataka. A great oral narrative was composed on his life by anonymous dalit bards. Other two important Siddhas who established monasteries were Fakireshwara of Shirahatti, Savalige Shivalingeshwara and Sharanabasappa Appa of Gulbarga.

They attracted rural peasantry who became the backbone of their monasteries. One of the ways they served society was through dasoha (feeding the poor and needy). Khwaja Bandenawaz, a great poet and author of spiritual texts, developed a similar mini, spiritual kingdom in Gulbarga. Such institutions built by Siddhas became the mainstay of underprivileged castes. Though they promoted social harmony, they also built up peasant armies whom they supplied to petty kings for a fee. Dasa institutions constructed by Vaishnava monks were based on different principles. In spite of being great travellers, Siddhas became rooted in specific places as suggested by their names. Like some of the Virashaiva Mathas which also rose with the Mathas, represent what the author calls Brahmin Landlordism. Because they were not economically strong like Siddhas, they preached a passive piety based on bhakti and surrender.

Breaking new grounds

For lack of space, I am summing up at the cost of oversimplifying Devadevan’s rich and many-layered narrative based on hard research and field study. The significance of this book is consistent with well-researched narrative and it builds the genealogy of diverse religious identities which make up what is now called Hinduism. However, Hindu as a religious identity, according to him, is a development coeval with colonialism. It was produced by upper caste reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda. The tradition of Hinduism they constructed was selective, arbitrary and based mostly on Anglo-German Orientalism which saw Hinduism as a combination of Brahminical texts to the exclusion of other strands. This has become the core of present-day Hinduism. The continuing erosion of hereditary labour, the rise of a secular society, urbanisation accompanied by migrations to cities created an amorphous mass who needed some kind of religious identity. The hegemonic version of Hinduism produced by the anglicised upper-caste intellectuals was what available to them. A result of widespread scenario of alienation and dispossession escalated by modern civilization, according to the author, necessitated this. For new and more inclusive Hinduism to be born, this should change first.

A must-read for the learned and the laity, this book has broken new grounds in our understanding of the past and its presence.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 3:21:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/breaking-new-grounds/article27013058.ece

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