60 Minutes History & Culture

The temple was not a Vedic institution: Manu V. Devadevan

Manu V. Devadevan   | Photo Credit: Sreejith R. Kumar

Kannada poet, historian and political theorist Manu V. Devadevan’s most recent work, The Prehistory of Hinduism, received much acclaim. Devadevan, who teaches history at Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, specialises in the political economy of precolonial South India. In this interview, Devadevan talks about the factors leading to the formation of modern Hinduism — the unprecedented proliferation of temple-building between 1000 and 1200 CE, giving rise to inherited religious identities among the laity; the rise of the ‘guru’ as a central authority figure resulting in older texts and practices going out of fashion; and the emergence of popular Indian ‘godmen’, catalysed by private television channels and the Constitutional provision that confers on them the right to acquire and manage property in the name of religion. I also asked Devadevan about the recent controversy over Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey holding up a ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ placard and he speaks of the hollowness of terms like ‘brahminism’ in today’s political climate. Excerpts:

In your book, you posit two approaches to studying Hinduism: the ‘primordialist’ and the ‘constructionist’. Can you elaborate?

Until very recently, it was believed that Hinduism was one of the oldest religions in the world. Its beginnings were placed in mid second millennium BCE which is the date generally assigned to the Rig Veda. At times, its antiquity was pushed back to early half of the third millennium BCE, when Harappan urbanism began to develop. This view, which lays emphasis on Hinduism’s putative antiquity, is what I have called the primordialist position. It has lost little of its popular appeal. There are also a number of historians and Indologists who continue to endorse this view. Opposed to this, an interesting body of writings produced in recent decades argues that Hinduism, as an idea and an identity, is not older than the 19th century. This is the constructionist approach. The constructionists show greater awareness about the political and economic processes that enable or assist the making of religious identities. In their understanding, religious identities — such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian — are consciously constructed under specific historical conditions. They hold that such identities do not exist in any essential or homogeneous form for several hundred years. Informed by this historical insight, it has been possible for constructionist research to show that the making of a Hindu religious identity does not antedate the early 19th century.

You have argued that inherited religious identities only existed for specialist ‘renouncer’ communities and were non-existent among the laity before 1000 CE...

Constructionist research has made us sceptical of the claim that Hinduism is more than 3,000 years old. Nevertheless, historians have shied away from extending its insights to explore the emergence of religious identities per se in the Indian subcontinent. Not surprisingly, we come across a number of historical studies that wax eloquent on religious groups in India from the earliest documented times, as if a religious identity is intrinsic to human life. We are told of the Vedic religion, of the heterodox Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas, and of Shaiva, Vaishnava and other groups that are of Puranic and tantric origins. A close examination of the sources shows that these identities were monastic in nature before 1000 CE. Until the close of the first millennium CE it was possible to become a Buddhist or Jaina or Shaiva or Vaishnava only by initiation as a monk or nun. Religious identity was the preserve of a renouncer, and did not extend to the laity. It was not inherited. This changed between 1100 and 1200 CE in what is arguably among the most momentous of historical transformations in India. In these centuries, local elites — including peasant proprietors, merchants, chiefs, and warlords — began to associate themselves with religious life on a hitherto unnoticed scale. Temple building was the means through which this relationship found expression. By the end of the 12th century CE, the character of religious identities had changed beyond recognition. The laity now flaunted religious identities and bequeathed them as inheritance.

How did the sudden interest in temple building lead to the formation of separate religious groups?

The oldest written references to temples are from 300 and 400 CE, and the earliest surviving temple structures date back to 500 and 600 CE. The temple was not a Vedic institution. Its origin was intertwined with the evolution of pooja, a form of idol worship based on the agamas and tantras, different from the sacrifice-based worship of the Vedas. Not surprisingly, temple worship was met with resistance from the Vedic orthodoxy. It is for this reason that texts such as the Manusmriti are not favourably disposed towards temples.

Peasant proprietors and local elites were the earliest to build temples and set aside land for their maintenance. By 700 CE, the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, the Chalukyas of Badami, and other such monarchical states had begun to promote temple building. What happened between 1000 and 1200 CE was an unprecedented proliferation in temple building. I have been able to count as many as 170 temples built in these two centuries from a mere eight taluks in Karnataka. As a matter of fact, we do not know of a single city or town from this period that did not have one or more temples.

A major fallout was that the focus of religious life shifted to the temple. With inheritable land endowed for its maintenance, the temple became an economically autonomous institution, wielding great power and influence. It helped in cementing the agrarian and other economic relations of the day as well as in forging new ties of trade, kinship, matrimony and fealty. The making and consolidation of inheritable religious identities — Shaiva, Vaishnava, Jaina, etc., in their numerous forms — was part of this temple-centred process.

Your book looks at the growth of monasteries in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the guru emerging as an authority figure. What are the parallels, if any, with today’s godmen?

The guru emerged as a major figure at about the same time as the making of religious identities among the laity. The centrality of this figure is emphasised in a few earlier sources as well, as in the Buddhist Hevajra Tantra, for instance. From the 12th century onwards, we find him an indispensable part of religious life. As we reach the 15th and 16th centuries, our sources give the impression that all of religious life hinges on the guru. There is an intimate bond between guru and disciple, which lasts for a lifetime and spills over into the next birth as well. There is no knowledge without the guru, no release and redemption without him. The figure of the guru becomes the new source of authority. Long-standing texts and practices retain their significance only to the extent that they find endorsement from the guru. We must remember that for much of history, the masses were an unlettered lot. As late as 1901, the literacy level in India was just over 5%. Until the 10th century CE, complex ideas and doctrines that were part of a religion and its philosophy were systematically taught in institutions meant for the purpose, as was done in later times as well. But there was a greater preference in the earlier times for svadhyaya, i.e., learning without assistance from others. One of the instructions that a teacher gave the student at the end of his education was to never stray away from self-learning (svadhyayat ma pramadah). This mode of learning had to take a back seat in the changed circumstances when a religious identity was not anymore limited to a learned/ trained renouncer, but extended to the illiterate masses too. It is not unreasonable that erudite textual traditions made way for the guru as source of knowledge and deliverance.

I don’t think there are parallels in our times. There has, of course, been a proliferation of godmen since the early 1980s. This has a history of its own. These godmen have much to say on religion and ethics, but the experience of the divine they speak of is no match to that of saints from the recent past — Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Nisargadatta Maharaj. Our godmen have made a name not so much by religious experiences as through instructions in healthy living, stress reduction, fitness through yoga, meditation and pranayama, etc. They have a clientèle that’s mostly urban, middle-class, espousing neoliberal capitalism, and lamenting the death of tradition. The godmen serve as lifestyle management gurus for this class of clients.

At least two other factors have led to the rise of godmen. We know that godmen engage in a wide assortment of activities. The most important activity of godmen is real estate management. Article 26 confers upon them the right to acquire and manage property in the name of religion. This is a fundamental right. Another provision in the Constitution that recognised the right to property as a fundamental right was Article 31. This was repealed by the 44th amendment to the Constitution. Today, the only way to claim land ownership as a fundamental right is through Article 26. What this means, in historical terms, is that our godmen are progenies of Article 26 of the Constitution. The second factor is the emergence of private television channels since the early 90s, which helped many godmen to expand businesses exponentially. It also produced a large number of invisible clients for whom the godmen brought counsel into the comfort of their living rooms.

Your comments on the brouhaha over Jack Dorsey holding up a placard saying ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’?

I find such slogans very interesting for a rather bizarre reason. They embody a strange contradiction as it were, for they occur as value-loaded expressions even when they are semantically hollow. The word ‘Brahminical’ is reduced to a porous signifier that can contain anything and everything that a progressive mind abhors. It is in this sense similar to the shallow ways in which terms such as ‘feudal’ and ‘medieval’ are used as adjectives for anything that is authoritarian and undemocratic. Ask the placard holders what ‘Brahminical’ means, and you will either face an outburst of reactionary self-righteousness, or be accused of affiliations with Hindu fundamentalists. The more sober among the placard holders may present you with a poor summary of the Manusmriti and a poorer assessment of its advocates, as if there are people in India whose lives are modelled after the Manusmriti to the last letter. The time is perhaps ripe now for us to admit that progressive movements in India have not only used the word ‘Brahminical’ with little sense of awareness or discretion, but have dogmatised it beyond redemption, even by the standards of mediocre political rhetoric.

The interviewer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. When not travelling, he hangs out with his cats, toucans and pet iguana.

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