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Pankaj Mishra-Another Incarnation

Pankaj Mishra-Another Incarnation

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Published by: shahidac on Feb 18, 2014
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The Penguin Press,779 
 pp., $35
Review: Pankaj Mishra, ‘Another Incarnation’ The New York Times – Sunday Book Review 
, April 24, 2009[zie Opmerking
Douwe Tiemersma 
 onderaan]Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day celebration of Lord Krishna’sbirthday. This first encounter with devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled.“There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from HinduIndia, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam. Describing themuezzin’s call at the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard;it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons.”Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effectin his novel “A Passage to India,” was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions oforder and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices. The British Armycaptain who discovered the erotic temples of Khajuraho in the early 19th century was outragedby how “extremely indecent and offensive” depictions of fornicating couples profaned a “place ofworship.” Lord Macaulay thundered against the worship, still widespread in India today, of theShiva lingam. Even Karl Marx inveighed against how man, “the sovereign of nature,” haddegraded himself in India by worshipping Hanuman, the monkey god.Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to inventwhat we now call “Hinduism,” complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirelyof Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In fact, most Indiansin the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, theyremained unaware of the hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads thatthe German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early Indophiles solemnlysupposed to be the very essence of Indian civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting “Om,”the Beats were closer to the mark.)As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in herstaggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaoticpolytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit over locallanguages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a “unifiedHinduism.” And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars andtranslators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented traditionsborn around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has continued to find many takersamong semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparentlymore successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power,stand in a direct line of 19th-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving
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a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-casteand middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of“Hinduism.”Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India that escaped theattention of British scholars flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, ritesand legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a majority of Indians. Goddesses,as Doniger writes, “continue to evolve.” Bollywood produced the most popular one of my NorthIndian childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic wishes of newlyurbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless superstition, popular religious legendconveys a darkly ambiguous view of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, thecharacters of the great epics “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” can be regarded as villains inanother. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in a complex cosmic order that wouldmake little sense to the theologians of the so-called war on terror.Doniger sets herself the ambitious task of writing “a narrative alternative to the one constitutedby the most famous texts in Sanskrit.” As she puts it, “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, theGita.” It’s also not about perfidious Muslims who destroyed innumerable Hindu temples andforcibly converted millions of Indians to Islam. Doniger, who cannot but be aware of the politicalhistoriography of Hindu nationalists, the most powerful interpreters of Indian religions in bothIndia and abroad today, also wishes to provide an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu historythat they tell.”She writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition, an ecstatic and radically egalitarianform of Hindu religiosity which, though possessing royal and literary lineage, was “also a folkand oral phenomenon,” accommodating women, low-caste men and illiterates. She explores,contra Marx, the role of monkeys as the “human unconscious” in the “Ramayana,” the bible ofmuscular Hinduism, while casting a sympathetic eye on its chief ogre, Ravana. And sheexamines the mythology and ritual of Tantra, the most misunderstood of Indian traditions.She doesn’t neglect high-table Hinduism. Her chapter on violence in the “Mahabharata” isparticularly insightful, highlighting the tragic aspects of the great epic, and unraveling, in theprocess, the hoary cliché of Hindus as doctrinally pacifist. Both “dharma” and “karma” get theirdue. Those who tilt at organized religions today on behalf of a residual Enlightenmentrationalism may be startled to learn that atheism and agnosticism have long traditions in Indianreligions and philosophies.Though the potted biographies of Mughal emperors seem superfluous in a long book, Doniger’schapter on the centuries of Muslim rule over India helps dilute the lurid mythology of Hindunationalists. Motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism, the Mughalsdestroyed temples; they also built and patronized them. Not only is there “no evidence ofmassive coercive conversion” to Islam, but also so much of what we know as popular Hinduism — the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, the network of pilgrimages,ashrams and sects — acquired its distinctive form during Mughal rule.Doniger’s winsomely eclectic range of reference — she enlists Philip Roth’s novel “I Married aCommunist” for a description of the Hindu renunciant’s psychology — begins to seem toodeterminedly eccentric when she discusses Rudyard Kipling, a figure with no discernibleinfluence on Indian religions, with greater interpretative vigor than she does Mohandas K.Gandhi, the most creative of modern devout Hindus. More puzzlingly, Doniger has little to sayabout the forms Indian cultures have assumed in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji, even as shedescribes at length the Internet-enabled liturgies of Hindus in America.
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