The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How an everyday bhakti rejects monolithic Hinduism

Indians in general and Calcuttans in particular must feel delighted by the news that Mother Teresa is shortly to become an official Catholic saint: for people here she has been a saint a long time already. The bureaucratic procedures that seem to be required for this everyday truth to become a Holy Truth within the Vatican may remind Bengalis of Kafkaesque castles such as the one in their midst, Writers’ Buildings. For there is a politics of holiness too, and the Church has its own hierarchy of officials who must take “due note” of alleged miracles before certifying their sanctity. Outside the kingdom of heaven, which vast institution has ever been able to bypass procedure' You might be saintly till you’re blue in the face, but for the “concerned authorities” to establish that you are indeed what the world has long recognized you as being, you had best be dead and buried a long while before they look at your file and give the nod to — as Harry Belafonte might have put it — your being in that number when the saints go marchin’ in.

Luckily, official affirmations of exceptional holiness are only pleasant cause for a little amusement within the majority. The idea of bhakti, of a devotion free of intermediaries, possesses a liberating catholicity that neither Catholicism nor doctrinal Hinduism nor theological establishments of any variety has really succeeded in displacing. The notion in Hinduism that godliness resides in the heart of the worshipper and can be freely attributed to diverse objects and human beings enables an emancipating anarchy of religious practices which, in contemporary India, retrograde militant organizations clothed in saffron are trying hard to stifle.

But there are other interesting points of view on what constitutes the essence of Hinduism, and some of these, buried within learned tomes written by academics for fellow academics, never reach the ears of the newspaper-reading public.

In a poem titled, “A Different History”, the poet Sujata Bhatt says, “Great Pan is not dead; /he simply emigrated to India. /Here the gods roam freely, /disguised as snakes or monkeys...” Expanding on this idea, Ashis Nandy argues in his essay titled, “A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods and Goddesses in South Asia” that the successors of the Hindu Mahasabha — the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad — feel “uncomfortable with the overpopulated Indian pantheon, its richly textured pagan personalities, its unpredictability, variety and all too human foibles...if you read the literature of Hindutva, you will find in it a systematic, consistent and often direct attack on Hindu gods and goddesses.”

If Nandy’s anti-secular views have occasionally made him sound like a traditionalist, his brilliant denunciation of xenophobic and insular Hinduism here is the finest proof we have that his defence of Hinduism is profoundly Gandhian. Hinduism, in this conception, is a broad church with room enough to take in Muslims and Christians, “foreigners” and “natives”, Lord Rama and Mother Teresa. According to Nandy, if a his- torical census of Hindu gods and goddesses were to be taken, this supremely incorporative faith would yield in the region of 330 million deities and avatars of various hues, many born outside the borders of India, some long dead, many alive and kicking with saintliness.

Some of these everyday deifications take cultural root within legend and folklore. Such folklore is, in turn, transformed by regional communities to serve as caste myths, or as tales of valour, or as cathartic drama, and so on. The American historian of Indian religion, Paula Richman, has edited two volumes discussing precisely such transformations of Ramayana stories. She demonstrates that Valmiki’s Ramayana is not the Hindu version of the Gospel. The Hindu gospel begins with a decidedly small “g”, for it is a various gospel continuously re-made to serve diverse social needs. Similarly, in “Gandhi as Mahatma”, an essay sometimes considered a minor classic of Indian history, Shahid Amin provides a fascinating examination of the reception of Mahatma Gandhi by Gorakhpur’s peasantry in the early Twenties.

Amin shows how pre-existing conceptions of the miraculous in rural Uttar Pradesh determined how Gandhi was perceived there. It was clear to Gorakhpur’s peasants even before he appeared among them that Gandhi was a miracle-worker, the God who would not fail to rid them of their immediate problems even as He went about waving the British out with His magic wand. Gandhi was accorded divine Hindu status immediately, and for immediate needs. Perhaps like many of India’s gods and goddesses, many of whom have been comprehensively forgotten and then revived, the contemporary rejection of Gandhian Hinduism by Gujaratis will prove a temporary phenomenon. Prophets are famous for never being honoured in their own country and Gujarat’s amnesia does not yet appear to be India’s.

Among these myriad Hindu incarnations, the strangest that I have encountered is one written of by the anthropologist, Sundar Kaali, in “Mythicizing the White Man: Colonialism and Fantasy in a Folk Tradition”. Kaali’s essay starts by discussing the deification of Europeans by colonized natives within their own traditional pantheons. It looks first at the apotheosis of Captain Cook in the Polynesian islands. Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1779 and, according to the available evidence, was accorded a ceremonial reception by the natives because they identified him with a fertility god whose arrival had been predicted within their legends. These legends also said that the white god would need to die for the earth to be fertilized, and this is a possible explanation for the subsequent killing of Captain Cook by members of his reception committee.

The unfamiliar white man was made to feel rather discomfitingly at home by being put into the family of Polynesian gods. (Had the locals been cannibals, one could not have resisted the wicked thought that the explorer ended up as Captain Cooked.) Kaali then analy- ses a similar apotheosis, much less renowned, within three villages near Kanyakumari, where a white man is worshipped as a deity called Velaikkaran, alongside Siva-Sakti and other local gods.

The reason for Hindutva’s discomfort with this uncheckable efflorescence of deities is obviously that its own ideal, so much more limited, is a kind of jihadi Hinduism. This is also ironic to the point of being grotesque, for a richly pluralist civilizational religiosity is sought to be tamed in favour of an idea of singular sacredness — the supremacy of Rama in Ayodhya. This is a notion that many academics have shown up as being similar to the monotheistic theologies of Islam and Christianity. Moreover, the warlike method of establishing this Hindu supremacy involves precisely an emulation of Islam’s most medieval acts of reckless iconoclasm: an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth. Hindutva’s fanatic Hinduism looks, from this perspective, like a Frankenstein Hinduism created by certain un-Hindu clones of un-Islamic mad mullahs.

The contrast between everyday deification on the one hand, and institutionally approved beatifications of the Vatican variety on the other, could not be greater than in the Indian context. In very loosely connected ways, these writings by Sujata Bhatt, Ashis Nandy, Paula Richman, Shahid Amin and Sundar Kaali implicitly suggest to us that Mother Teresa’s deification within the Hindu pantheon, as much as in the Vatican’s, is only a question of time, regardless of the VHP’s hostility to Christianity and of the BJP’s to “foreigners”. This is what academics might call “deification as defiance”. It represents the rejection by everyday bhakti of the impoverished and monolithic Hinduism which draws inspiration from the methods of Mian Musharraf instead of Mahatma Gandhi.

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