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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The Westernization of Hinduism and its Alienating Consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

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Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit

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Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)

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According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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Book Review: Yajnaseni- The Story of Draupadi

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Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray and translated by Pradip Bhattacharya is a retelling of the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Draupadi. In the original epic she is the wife of the five Pandava brothers, the protagonists. This book makes Draupadi into the protagonist, similar to “The Palace of Illusions”. Readers who are unfamiliar with the original tale will probably find this book confusing. The Mahabharata has a huge cast of characters and this book doesn’t thoroughly them all. It was written by an Indian for Indians, so it presupposes a base level of knowledge about the original story (remember, this was originally written in Oriya). The sentence construction is also obviously Indian, seeming imitative of the protracted, overly dramatic dialogue style of ancient texts. Before I rant against the core message of the book, I should note that I enjoyed reading it for its unique perspective on gender issues, which is rarely heard in the West. Also, while the dialogue may have been a bit stilted or odd at times, the descriptions of war, death, sorrow as well as of natural beauty, urban beauty, courage, and strength were quite lovely. I’m a sucker for descriptive prose.

Despite being a tale told from a female perspective, this is basically an anti-feminist work in my evaluation. Draupadi constantly endures hardship because of her gender, and the frankly unreasonable expectations, which the Pandava brothers have of her. Even accepting arranged marriages as a given social norm, she is forced into a polygamous marriage, which she is initially quite hostile to. Throughout the story she is forced to live in the forest, forced into a scheduled mating pattern with her five husbands, has her children killed in a war due to the actions of her husbands, is humiliated in court due to her oldest husband gambling her away as an article of property, etc. etc. etc. She bears all of this willingly, and even lovingly. She is the epitome of the “good Hindu wife”. She worships her husbands (particularly Arjuna) literally as Gods. Jai Patidev.

Now, it would be one thing if the story were written for us to read this and say “What a tragic character! She had to endure all of this abuse because of the faulty moral beliefs of her day. If only she could have broken out of that paradigm and seen her own enslavement.” But it isn’t written that way at all. It is written for us to admire her for her submission, and willingness to live entirely for her husbands’ sake and for Krishna. Her obedience and submission, i.e. her adherence to her wifely Dharma regardless of any consequences is supposed to be admired. This is precisely why the morality of the Bhagavad Gita if followed diligently (and God forbid, in conjunction with the moral goals of Manu Smriti) is pathologically self abusive. Thankfully, there is a much better moral model in the story: Karna. But before I get to that, here are some quotes relating to Draupadi to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Draupadi: “I have made an offering of my life to keep the five Pandavas bound together”

“Removing pride from within me, I pour out my femininity like an offering of flowers before my husbands, made fragrant by the water of desireless action. I try not to be envious under any circumstances…. I never eat or lie down before my husbands eat or lie down. I am up before they get up. I am never lazy in their work. If they return from a long journey, I keep seat, water, food, resting place ready for them. Despite servants being available, I keep watch on household chores. I cook their favorite food myself and serve it with my own hands. I do not burden them with my own worried and anxieties. Rather, participating in their concerns, I offer my views. I do not spend too much time on toilet, bath and dressing. If my husbands are far away, I refrain from decorating myself. I do not make interest in matters which they dislike. Without their having to tell me I am able to sense their likes and dislikes. I am never interested in arguing fruitlessly or in rolling about in meaningless mirth. The most important thing is that I never doubt them, nor do I ever shower them with unnecessary compliments. Similarly I never keep anything secret from them… I anticipate their wishes, even their commands to servants. I never describe the wealth, prosperity, luxury of my father’s house before my husbands… I do not mention any woman as more fortunate than myself. I do not feel it necessary to display my innumerable desires before my husbands. I do not spend time in private with another man. I avoid women who are of a cunning nature. In front of my husbands I try to appear fresh, beautiful, ever youthful.”

Raja Ravi Varma

The next quote requires some context. All of the Pandavas have barely escaped death, and Draupadi is clasping Arjuna’s feet in joyful relief that he has survived. Arjuna is the husband who she is most truly in love with, and she has just poured her heart out onto him:

“Arjun quickly removed his feet, ‘As a wife, all [the Pandava brothers] are your husbands. You ought to behave in the same manner with all… If we countenance injustice then the defeat of the Pandavas is inevitable. Draupadi, remove this mountainous burden of unjust love from me. That is all’ I thought my grief would provide Arjun with some encouragement. But lecturing me regarding justice, law, rules, he again turned me into an untouchable. My tears keep flowing, washing away the guilt and sin of loving my husband.”

Ok. After I read this book I checked to see what people on Goodreads were saying. Some were critical of Draupadi’s depiction, but some were not. Examine this user’s review of the book:

“I must admit that I have always had a sneaking fondness for the proud princess of Panchal. I have found in her a strength that is lacking in most other mythological heroines. Sita, I have always visualised as a doormat, but masculine culture will portray her as the womans softer side, while Draupadi is unabashedly and prominently a queen, with a womans pride, a sharp intellect and a strong will. Very few women in Indian mythology were strong enough to speak their own minds. Imagine then, my delight in coming across a novel in which Draupadi finally comes into her own.”

Even considering all of the above passages, this (presumably female and presumably Hindu) reviewer still considers Draupadi a strong and proud character. Clearly, the system of morality represented by Draupadi is alive and well.

Thank God Karna is in the tale.

karna

In my eyes, this retelling makes Karna into the greatest hero of the story. He is kind to those who treat him well, and spiteful to those who denigrate or abuse him for no reason. He is also supremely generous, courageous, and honest. The reader is supposed to think that he is deeply flawed because of his pride, egoism, and “arrogance”. However I see these as virtues, especially when compared to the slavish nature of Draupadi and the servile obedience exhibited by the Pandavas towards Krishna. Karna’s boldness in combination with his more traditionally “moral” traits (honesty, generosity, loyalty etc.) makes him a well-rounded character, and (almost) an ideal Man. He is the greatest warrior who has ever lived. He has reason to be proud. His greatest flaw is supposed to be that he relies on himself to achieve greatness rather than relying on Krishna. This is to me, his greatest virtue.

Perhaps Draupadi should take some lessons from Karna.

“Mocking, Karna said, ‘Lady! I acknowledge that your husband [Arjuna] is brave. But I fail to understand what sort of man he is. If I were in Arjun’s place and Ma [Queen Kunti] had ordered that the woman I had won in the svayamvar [contest to win a bride] was to be shared by other brothers, I would have left that kingdom…I do not consider blindly obeying improper directives as the sign of manhood. This is the only difference between Arjun and myself.

Karna is the best.

Again, while it might look like I’m highly critical of this book I actually really enjoyed it. Characters like Draupadi almost never exist in American books (outside of 50 Shades of Grey). Besides, if you have a more dignified, achievement oriented moral outlook there is always Karna to root for.