HINDU MYTH, HINDU HISTORY: RELIGION, ART, AND POLITICS
By Heinrich von Steitencron,
Permanent Black, Rs 695
Heinrich Von Steitencron, one of the premier Indologists today, has several works in German on India and the Indian culture. The ten articles accommodated in this volume represent a handful of his published papers ' mostly translated from German.
Steitencron's concern in these articles is with the myth-making potential of the Hindu religion, or more specifically, with the 'political economy' of myth-making. This is contingent upon the power relations and the dominating impulse of socio-religious groups. In the first article itself ' titled 'Political aspects of Indian religious art' ' Steitencron shows how political upheavals and dynastic rivalry have been instrumental in causing steady or sudden shifts of motifs in the artistic representations of myths. Take, for example, the Gangadhara image of Lord Shiva or the Varaha incarnation of Lord Visnu.
'Calculating religious decay' is also an interesting article in that it demonstrates how kaliyuga, proclaimed in the Visnu Purana as the age of decay, serves as a 'problematic', eliciting dual responses (of sorrow and hope) from Bhakti cults.
Steitencron deals with the Bhairava myth, highlighting various 'facts' of this Hindu deity which kept changing, following the battle of supremacy between the Vaisnavites and the Shaivites. The myth of goddess Durga is explored in another chapter, with special attention to the historical evolution of the goddess' iconography over the centuries. Steitencron sedulously mines Puranic texts and examines rock reliefs and temple sculptures to trace the changing iconography.
The author also shows parallels between Akbar's syncretic religious policy and his political reforms, emphasizing that Akbar's eclecticism was informed with his non-radicalism in that he had never attempted to propound his din-i-illahi as the state religion.
The last three articles of the book chart out the long, eventful career of the term Hinduism. The author stresses that the word 'Hindu' (then spelt 'Hindoo') was coined by Europeans in the 19th century from Persian texts and Mughal administrative vocabulary to imply the heathens. Europeans blundered in presupposing Hindus as an integrated people, and Indian nationalists borrowed that flawed notion to further their nation-building programme. Steitencron in his lucid, jargon-free prose, projects Hinduism not as a religion in the European sense, but as a dharma, meaning a way of life. Synthetic if not syncretic, accommodative if not assimilative ' Steitencron analyses Hinduism with an authority which goes beyond intellectual pettifoggery.