HISTORY AND BELIEF - Academics can refute dogma by the daily practice of their profession

Read more below

By Rukun Advani
  • Published 8.12.02

The recent controversy over the French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s views on Islam, alongside the Miss World furore in Africa over a reporter’s frivolous comments on Prophet Muhammad, are both instances that have recalled Salman Rushdie, literally and metaphorically. The Rushdie affair is the first thing that comes to mind when certain sorts of Islamic sensitivities are outraged, and the novelist himself has popped out of his security cordon with a nicely Voltairean defence of the fundamental importance of free speech when those who oppose this democratic liberty are religious fundamentalists.

Now, of course, the writer is no longer alone in his war with Islamic militants: Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against an individual has given way to Osama bin Laden’s against a nation, and all three countries that Rushdie could claim as his own (India, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) have in a sense joined hands with him. It must really make Rushdie squirm to so suddenly have as his staunchest allies all the politicians that he probably loathes: George Bush, Bal Thackeray and L.K. Advani. But times are hard for writers who tangle with religion, and the strangeness of one’s bedfellows must seem a bearable problem if the payoff is succour from a couple of continents.

The West’s war with jihadic Islamists is, however, only the visible and celebrity version — or the tip-of-the-iceberg version — of an endless war lower down the iceberg. This war has gone on forever and will never end. It is the fundamental ideological war between Religion and History: between Those who Write History and Those who Believe. Much of the time, we never hear of this low-intensity battle because the people fighting it are not famous writers, nor celebrities, nor presidents of large countries. They are usually university academics in departments of history or religion.

The Bible tells us who begat whom and gives us a divine family tree, Islam provides us with a genealogy of those worthy of worship, and religions usually construct a holy lineage that the faithful must follow. Historians and academic people, in contrast, rely on something more informal, called intellectual history or the history of ideas, to perpetuate their traditions of empiricism and fact-finding, although if we were to emulate religion by personalizing their tradition into a holy tree, we might say that Copernicus begat Galileo who begat Newton who begat Voltaire who begat Darwin, and so on. In this large sense, academics who implicitly or explicitly undermine or refute religious dogma by the daily practice of their profession are all not so much Rushdie’s as Darwin’s children.

As someone who publishes books mostly by historians, it is my job to track the activities of this tribe, and some of my most interesting dealings have been with historians of religion. One of these is Paula Richman, a specialist in South India’s religious history, who teaches at Oberlin College in the US. Richman is better known, however, for two collections which she has edited, called Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas, both of which I was privileged to help produce some years ago. At one level, these books document some of the many variations that exist within India and abroad of the Valmiki Ramayana. Richman’s argument is that the various regional versions of Rama’s story are often as fascinating — and as important to those who believe in their truth — as the Valmiki version.

The best story within the Richman collections is told by A.K. Ramanujan to illustrate the fact that there are indeed many versions of the Rama story. According to Ramanujan, in one of these, Rama, when exiled, tells Sita it’s too dangerous for her to accompany him. Sita pleads hard with Rama, but when he remains adamant, she says to him in exasperation: “Hey Rama, there are hundreds of variations on your exile story. But have you ever heard of even one in which I don’t accompany you?” Rama is trumped by this plea. Sita accompanies him into the forest in this version too!

Richman’s books undermine the dominant tradition of Hinduism by revealing a plurality of competing and conflicting traditions, holy places and constructed texts, rather than anything singularly sacred. This is, in fact, what historians of religion usually end up revealing (or should one say “counter-revealing”), and it can be dangerous. One historian who got himself into a lot of Rushdie-ian hot water was Harjot Oberoi, whose brilliant (and only) book, The Construction of Religious Boundaries (1994), counter-revealed the fact that modern Sikhism was the creation of the Khalsa Panth, and there was really very little to distinguish a Sikh from, for example, a Muslim or a Hindu peasant even as recently as 200 years ago. Orthodox Sikhs severely persecuted Oberoi for his research. He has now given up Sikh history and has had to undergo therapy. The fatwa issued against him was in a sense deadlier by being silent and insidious, a mixture of acute harassment and outright ostracism.

Oberoi’s mentor is a historian I happened to meet most recently: Hew McLeod, the New Zealander, renown- ed for his work on the Sikh religion. McLeod has just written his intellectual autobiography, titled Discovering the Sikhs, and when it appears, it will continue the tradition of intellectual history which, even as it respects the idea of worship, undermines its basis. The most central feature of McLeod’s new manuscript is the author’s recognition that the phrase, “historian of religion”, is more or less a contradiction in terms.

In his earliest major work, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968), McLeod had written: “For no one is the injunction to tread softly more relevant than for the historian whose study carries him into regions beyond his own society. Should his study extend to what other men hold sacred, the injunction becomes a compelling necessity; the risk of giving offence is only too obvious.”

Treading on other men’s toes is hazardous at the best of times; when those toes have hardened into religious corns, you have to watch out for your own skin if you decide to press ahead. In these circumstances, many historians might have taken the soft option: moved into waters less troubled, written economic history, social history, subaltern history or sexual history. McLeod moved ahead. In one of his subsequent books, The Evolution of the Sikh Community (1976), he looked at the Khalsa Panth in 18th-century Punjab and underlined the difference between the doctrinal acceptance of tradition among adherents of Sikhism, and the dubious acceptability of this same tradition for the historian of Sikhism:

We find a clearly defined Khalsa Panth with formulated religious doctrines, a coherent code of discipline, and the strong conviction that it had been born to rule. To explain the creation of this Panth we have an extensive, and generally consistent, tradition. Confronting this, the historian finds in the 18th century sufficient conditions to call in question much of what has been passed down to us in the tradition.

The relevance of this perspective extends to Ayodhya and every other religious site where the conclusions of archaeology and history confront the wrath of those discomfited by such conclusions. The universal battleground behind these specific sites, however, comprises on the one hand large populations brought up on religion and its traditions — and nowadays often led by militants — and, on the other, select historians who brave the multitudes while investigating the “invention” of religious tradition and the methods by which faith is inculcated.

Naturally, therefore, the job of the historian of religion is an especially difficult one. Facing social hostility, the historian of religion must, paradoxically, himself become something of a militant — someone with an almost fanatically religious belief in his mission on behalf of historical veracity. In McLeod’s definition, this has meant living out almost his whole intellectual life “confronting tradition with history. Those who accept the standard account of Sikh history and religion normally follow the path of tradition [and are] traditionalists. Against this view of past events, history takes a firm stand. If the proven evidence clearly denies it, then tradition must be discarded.”

Rushdie and Houellebecq live on the iceberg’s tip. It’s thin ice there, but they manage to skate about. It’s people like McLeod and Oberoi who have for years been fighting the same war below the iceberg.