How Rammohan Roy Broke Into Liberal Discourse

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

The Problem

When entering the realm of European liberal discourse, Rammohan Roy was faced with a double sided problem. Firstly, liberal thought at the time considered India to be in a state of backwardness, and therefore inherently unfit for political autonomy. Secondly, it was thought that a culture lacking a tradition of liberty couldn’t produce individuals worthy of entering the public discourse. Thus, Roy had to simultaneously challenge liberalism’s notions of civilizational advancement and backwardness, and also convince his opponents to stop seeing him as a primitive who lacked the right to participate in the intellectual arena.

Roy’s solution to this (consciously formulated or not) was to create a new paradigm within liberalism based on some concept of “class” instead of race or culture. In this paradigm elites across cultures have more in common with one another, than they do with their respective sets of commoners. This is why elites everywhere practice forms of religion closer to monotheism, and also why idolatry and trinitarianism are practiced by the masses of ignorant commoners. Based on this logic, the British elites in India should support and cooperate with their Indian counterparts, as they constitute the same in-group. Educated and mercantile elements of both societies should engage in commerce and cultural interchange, and work for the upliftment of the ignorant underclass of both British and Indian populations. In this new model, the relationship of liberal upliftment is shifted from something akin to the “white man’s burden,” to something more akin to the “bourgeois monotheist’s burden.”

Liberalism was indeed universal in regards to the equal capacities of all human beings. However, liberals saw those who came from “despotic” societies as inherently primitive in social development, and therefore unworthy of political representation. Furthermore, liberals looked for certain social indicators, which would identify people as worthy of political inclusion, and deserving a voice in the public sphere. These indicators included language, dress, education, and religion which were easily recognizable as civilized by Europeans.1

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Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

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“I warned you once that

Duryodhana’s mischief

Would be the cause of

The annihilation of the kingdom.”

–Vidura in Mahabharata (207.30)[1]

This post will be shorter than normal.

I was shocked to discover that there didn’t exist online any approximate charting of the opposing alliances which fought at the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, according to the mythology. I’ve decided to fill that gap. This map is based on the information in F. E. Pargiter’s article called “The Nations of India at the Battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas,” and the “Races, Tribes and Castes” section of the Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata.[2] I used the map located on AncientVoice as the basis image.


Let me be clear that the position of several of these names, particularly those outside the subcontinent, and the “borders” themselves are speculative. Not to mention that the historicity of the war’s events are questionable, though the story is most probably based in fact.

The most useful section of Pargiter’s article lists the alliances as follows (unfortunately I could not include his diacritical marks):

“We may sum up these results in the following way, leaving out of account all the insignificant tribes which merely furnished contingents to the larger kingdoms, that were near them and that claimed some overlordship over them.

“On the Pandava’s side were these: ––

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Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response


Purchasable on Amazon

(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:

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Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

The theory goes as follows: magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the actual mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. It is worth experimenting with at the very least. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magical beliefs and practices into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes ossify into religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] These are likely magic rituals to induce crops, or protect cattle adapted into a theistic framework. Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” (In the case of the Rbhus, this is made explicit: being mortals they earned immortality”, RV, I.110.4) which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors, who were perhaps thought to be able to control physical processes from the next world. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals, not dissimilar from what we find in Tantra. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective in inducing samadhi states. In other words, early meditative practices can be thought of as successful early attempts at quasi-scientific experimentation with the human body and brain. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.


According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines


This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

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Duryodhana II: Hated by the World

“King Duryodhana was born from a portion of Kali, he of evil mind, of evil counsel, dishonour of the Kurus; he who, being a man of dissension, was hated by the whole world.” -Mahabharata1.16.60-81[1]

“The wise man beholds all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings; for that reason he does not hate anyone.” –Isa Upanishad [2]


Duryodhana showing his army to Drona. Image source: Wikimedia

This will be a relatively diffuse postscript to a prior post I made: Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate. Duryodhana is one of the more despised characters in Hindu mythology. This is a shame.

The basic message is this: While Duryodhana is clearly a villain, dismissing him wholly or decrying him as evil incarnate would be to miss the point of the text. The Mahabharata is nuanced, and represents an unresolved tension between on one hand, the counterrevolutionary, materialist, tradition upholding Kshatriya: Duryodhana— and on the other hand, the devotionalist Pandavas, who uphold a newer system of ethics rooted in idealism and theism rather than tradition and pragmatism. Just because modern Hindu discourse is permeated with devotionalism does not mean that always was the case, or always must be the case.

Bhasa’s Depiction of Duryodhana: 

Duryodhana may be hated by the world, but at least one respectable writer offered him a charitable representation as a consistent practitioner of Kshatriya Dharma. In Bhasa’s writings, Duryodhana’s virtues, particularly his earthly “master morality” are more pronounced than it is in the epic. Take the following line from the play Duta-Vakya. This is how Duryodhana responds when asked to return part of his kingdom to the Pandavas:

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Imaginary Indias

Today I’m taking a break from the more serious, intellectual type of thing I normally do. How about we explore some alternative histories which have struck my fancy as of late?

I’ll start this off with the most interesting, thorough, and beautiful alternative history scenario I’ve ever read:

Gurkani Alam


India in the year 2000. Click map for full size image.

Gurkani Alam (by Tony Jones) is premised on the historical theory that Aurangzeb’s incompetent reign was the turning point in Mughal history, which led to it’s decline and the ease of British domination starting in the 18th century. In some ways, the reality is more surprising than the alternative history. Aurangzeb was not Shah Jahan‘s chosen successor, and had to pull off a protracted coup d’etat in order to become ruler. His older brother, Dara Shikoh (who was killed at the conclusion of the coup), was extremely religiously tolerant. Shikoh had fostered a close relationship with the Sikh community, had 50 Upanishads translated into Persian under the title “Sirr-e-Akbar” or “The Greatest Mysteries” the “Kitab al-maknun” or “hidden book” referred to in the Koran, and authored a title called “Majma-ul-Bahrain” or  “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” which is an exploration of Sufi and Vedanta mysticism. In my estimation, Dara Shikoh’s religious pluralism outshines even that of Akbar.

To contrast, Aurangzeb’s leadership style diverged tremendously from prior rulers, especially in regards to religion. Akbar had established a set of policies designed to foster religious liberalism. He revoked the jizya tax on non-muslims, intermarried with Hindu kingdoms, and appointed non-Muslims to high administrative posts. Either out of the practical realities of ruling a mostly non-muslim population, or out of ideological sympathy, religious liberalism was largely retained by Jahangir  and Shah Jahan (with the notable exception of anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the former.) These policies were scrapped by Aurangzeb in favor of a cartoonishly evil theocratic Islamic approach. This combined with his overly rapid (and very expensive) conquest, undermined the stability of Mughal rule. The empire became a soft target for Sikh, Pashtun, Rajput, and Bengali revolts, as well as Maratha, and eventually British incursions.

Gurkani Alam departs from reality in 1644, with the unexpected death of Aurangzeb in battle. Dara Shikoh becomes emperor, and continues in the old liberal Mughal tradition, while not weakening the empire with reckless expansion. The more stable outcome is a long lasting Mughal state in the north, in which Sikhism plays a much larger role, an independent South Indian federation, and a subcontinent which, while highly prosperous is not particularly permeable to Western imperialism.

I won’t spoil the details of the universe for you, but check out the concluding world map:


Gurkani Alam in the year 2000. Click the map to see it full size.


Ok, so when I said “alternate history” at the start of this post I was using the term perhaps too loosely. Mughalstan is more of an alternate future for the Indian subcontinent dreamed up by Islamic nationalists, possibly in cooperation with Dalit nationalists. It is amusing for two reasons:


Most detailed version of Mughalstan map

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Hariti: Saraswati’s Persian Cousin


Hariti Relief Panel at Candi Mendut, Java. What is an Iranian deity doing in Java?

Hariti’s history goes way back. I’m taking pre-Vedic. Something like 2500 BC or maybe even earlier. At that time the Iranians and Indo-Aryans were still one people– the Indo-Iranians. They worshipped two classes of deities: Devas and Asuras in Sanskrit, or Daevas and Ahuras in Avestan. After the Indo-Iranians split into two distinct civilizations, Vedic civilization (eventually) adopted the Devas as Gods. The Devas were engaged in a perpetual war with the Asuras, which evolved into evil-ish demigods. Ancient East Iranian civilization did the reverse, deifying the Ahuras and demonizing the Daevas (hence words like demon and devil.) The reasons for this reversal is not entirely clear. I’d like to imagine there was a fascinating, but long lost clerical-political drama involved, but who knows. The mystery of this era is half the appeal.

To reiterate and simplify:

Vedic civilization: Devas- Good guys, Asuras- Bad guys

East Iranian civilization: Ahuras- Good guys, Daevas- Bad guys

Vedic civilization had a Devi, a fertility/mother goddess by the name of Saraswati. She was the personification of a main river of Indo-Iranian culture. Therefore, her Iranian equivalent, Harauhuti, or Hariti was a Daevi, and a fertility/mother demon as odd as that sounds.* Hariti was believed to be a highly prolific mother with hundreds of children. The problem is that she would also steal other peoples children in order to cannibalize them and feed them to her young. In practical worship, she was treated as a demon of pestilence who needed to be appeased, probably because disease was a big killer of children.

That was the story, at least until Buddhists came out of the core Indian subcontinent and into modern Afghanistan. The Buddhists modified the original tale to fit better into the Indian cosmology. For instance, they transformed Hariti from a “Daeva” into a Yaksha (nature spirit), and gave her a backstory involving reincarnation. More importantly, they also extended the original tale to include a fateful interaction with the Buddha.**


Hariti with children.”House of Naradakha,” Found in Shaikhan Dheri, Charsada, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This is a Gandharan piece.

According to the Buddhist legends, the childless victims of Hariti beg the Buddha to save them from her cruelty.*** To help, Buddha waits until Hariti leaves the house and traps her smallest child, Priyankara under his alms bowl. When she returns and cannot find her son she weeps and panics. She scours every city, village, mountain, lake, and forest on Earth. She franticly soars into the hells and into the divine realms in search of her son, even going so far as to demand entrance into the abode of Indra. After exhausting all other options, she too appeals to the Buddha for help. He points out that her suffering is minor compared to the combined suffering of all the mothers whose children she has killed. She agrees, and (although seemingly under duress) agrees to protect those who she formerly devoured if only Buddha renders his assistance. At that, Buddha lifts up his alms bowl and Priyankara hops out safe and sound. Thereafter Hariti converts to Buddhism, quits cannibalism, and becomes a spirit of fertility, childbirth, motherhood, and the protection of children (and also of healing in some areas, such as Southeast Asia where the top image is from.)

One might imagine that this was part of a marketing strategy by the Buddhists. Brand localization. Thats speculation. Anyway, from Afghanistan, Hariti was exported back to India, and the rest of the Buddhist world as a mother goddess and defender of children.

But isn’t this an odd progression? First there was an Indo-Iranian fertility deity which split into Saraswati and Harauhuti/Hariti. Two figures which are basically the same, only one is deified and the other is demonized. From the Indian point of view, Harauhuti is a reversal of Saraswati. Fast forward a few thousand years, the Indian Buddhists come back and adopt the reversed Saraswati, and reverse her once again into Hariti, a fertility spirit (Yaksha.) How many times can this character switch sides? Furthermore, now the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons have a duplication problem. They’ve got two deities with the same origin and function. Saraswati and Hariti both fertility deities based on the same river. I know I know, over time their backstories changed enough to be perceptibly different figures, but its still an interesting mythological duplication.


Saraswati with her veena. Over time she lost a lot of her more blatant “motherly” traits and became more associated with knowledge and the arts.


Hariti: Saraswati’s long lost cousin? You can see she’s crawling with children. Clearly the more blatant fertility/mother deity out of the two.


















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King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)


The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray

When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.


A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

(If on the main page, hit “Continue Reading” for more [theres pretty pictures ahead {do it}])

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