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In Defence of Secularism

discussion of the authorship of the In Defence of Secularism The Vedas, Hinduism, Hindutva by Kumkum Roy, Kunal Chakrabarti, Tanika Sarkar; Heinrich Boll Foundation and Ebong Alap, Kolkata, 2005; pp 126+viii; Rs 100.

distinct. A point Roy makes in her discussion of the authorship of the

In Defence of Secularism

texts is that most of these were by and

The Vedas, Hinduism, Hindutva

by Kumkum Roy, Kunal Chakrabarti, Tanika Sarkar; Heinrich Boll Foundation and Ebong Alap, Kolkata, 2005; pp 126+viii; Rs 100.


he relationship between Clio and politics has seldom been simple. Francois Furet’s bitter attacks on Albert Soboul did not merely involve the attempt to replace a dominant view of the French Revolution by a “revisionist” one. It was also the bitterness of an ex-Stalinist who had now become anticommunist. Several generations earlier, Albert Mathiez attacked Alphonse Aulard with as much venom and violence. Yet, in these battles, real historical advances were made, because the protagonists on both sides were serious historians. The matter becomes more complex when ideologically driven politicians try to impose their perceptions or even completely cockeyed constructs, on historians. Perry Anderson mentioned the case of the “nomado-feudal” mode of production, once compulsory for Soviet historians obliged to accept that the P-S-F-C (from pastoralism to capitalism) model. This has been the case in India, at a far worse level, since the rise of the Sangh combine. For a hundred years, communalist Hindutva ideologues have had a distinct agenda, and over the last few decades, this has been strengthened. So-called detoxification drives, a la Arjun Singh are quite incapable of meeting their challenge, because what these bureaucratic “secularisms” tend to do is impose things by fiat. It was, for example, quite in order to discontinue the Joshi-era textbooks pushed by the NCERT. But to imagine that this was anything more than a single skirmish, is to err profoundly. For decades, while professional historians have been seeking to write more and more for peer reviewed journals, or to produce heavily footnoted and thick volumes, communalists and other political groups have been producing books and pamphlets that appeal to the lay reader and produce a variety of pseudo-histories tailored to suit the needs of those political currents. Repeatedly, serious historians have raised their voices in protest, most notably at the annual sessions of the Indian History Congress and provincial organisations like the Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad. But they also have to respond by producing popular, clearly written, yet historically more accurate books. The range of subjects is very extensive. The Sangh combine has a clear view of history – Indian and global. Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, or Golwalkar’s books, both We, or Our Nationhood Defined, and Bunch of Thoughts, push a story of a monolithic Hinduism, its travails at the hands of the Islamic other, the glorification of fascism, and so on. We seriously need many books like the one under review if we really intend to combat fascist propaganda.

Defying Domination

One of the ways in which this mythical history has been pushed is by a totally historic exaltation of the Vedas. So it is useful when three noted historians get together to produce a book on the Vedas, Hinduism and Hindutva. It does not matter if all three agree either about all parts of the book, since each wrote a clearly defined portion, or if all had a common political aim. Kumkum Roy clearly has it in her mind to battle political agendas of patriarchal, brahmanical domination (p 55). Kunal Chakrabarti, by contrast, has gone on record subsequently, that his aim was not one of frontally combating the Hindutva forces. It is enough that he has sought to regain territory for historical discussions, when for years it was being co-opted to the supposedly unarguable truth that the Vedas are the foundation of all of India’s culture, or that Hinduism is one and indivisible and that it flows from the Vedas, or that political Hindutva is nothing but Hindu culture being reasserted.

Kumkum Roy’s contribution, ‘In Search of the Vedic Age’, takes the reader through a series of complex arguments. She takes the reader through a series of texts, all collectively called Vedic, but which are often quite for, specialists. This argument is fleshed out when she subsequently explains that the later Vedic texts are categorical in denying women and shudras, access to Vedic learning, and suggests that only the Dharma Sutras, which lay down norms to be followed by all sections of society, interested a wide audience. The rest were texts of restricted access, and often of interest only to specialists. This does not take away in any way the historic importance of the Vedas. But it definitely takes away the importance of the Vedas as the supposed foundation of all our past culture. The texts to which the majority had no access are hardly likely to have been texts that were the foundational texts for the culture of the whole of India.

Roy has a long discussion on the relationship between the Vedas, the Aryans, and the Indus valley civilisation. The issues are important, both because it is indeed important that we investigate more carefully the past history of south Asia, and because of the politically motivated obfuscations that have been launched. Roy clearly sets out the problem, and then proceeds to show, to any reader not already committed to the view that Aryans were Indians and Aryans created all worthwhile culture in ancient India. Roy shows that the term ‘arya’, though used in the Vedic tradition, was not the most important identity claimed. Moreover, it would be wrong to see an arya versus non-arya conflict as the basic social conflict for the Vedic age. Roy’s careful discussion also presents a solid argument in favour of not accepting the Indus or Harappan civilisation as being the handiwork of the Vedic people. The economy of the Harappan civilisation was not like that of the early Vedic tradition. The religious beliefs and practices of the Harappan civilisation were different. And she pours cold water on the fantasies about the Sarasvati as the nucleus of the Harappan civilisation. Above all, as she argues, we do not even know whether the Ghaggar-Hakra was indeed the river described as the Sarasvati in the Rigveda. It might as well have been a river in Afghanistan, another region the authors of the Veda were familiar with. The illustrations fit very well with the text, though purists and those

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 prepared in advance to oppose the book will find much to cavil at.

Feminist Critique of Vedic Age

What will offend not merely defenders of diehard obscurantism, but all shades of masculinity, is the application of feminist critique to Roy’s discussion of the Vedic age. There are many rituals we take for granted. Roy proceeds to unpack the patriarchal dimension of one of them, the “rite of passage” involved in the ‘upanayana’. She calls it the “curious ritual of the second birth”. It is indeed curious, because the male members of the three upper varnas – later on probably restricted to the brahmanas – were to be reborn from the priest. This indicates a hard fought battle to smash women’s right over everything, including their own reproductive power. Masculinists of all shades, not merely the Sangh variety, will be less than happy, and one expects Roy to be attacked by “ultra” or “post” modern varieties of anti-feminist scholarship as well. Indeed, certain spurious varieties of radicalism may well join hands with radical right communalism to seek to trash the book. It makes uncomfortable reading to recognise that “women were granted access to the ritual only as wives”, or that “the prejudice against the girl child is not a recent phenomenon” (p 41). This goes squarely against received wisdom, handed down from A S Altekar and combined with the views of Savarkar and Golwalkar, and still enshrined in the average school textbook where it is either openly stated or insinuated that women had a very exalted status in ancient India, and it was only “Islamic invasion” and the need for protection that led to restrictions on the rights of women.

If I have any objection, it is to Roy’s rather disparaging, offhand comment about the “so-called Vedic mathematics”. If we accept Roy’s broader definition of Vedic literature, the Sulba Sutras were part of it. And the mathematics they represent is good enough to be worth a better treatment. One need not be a devotee of the RSS or of any brand of ultra-patriotism to recognise that the history of science, as written by western historians, has often been terribly Eurocentric.

Kunal Chakrabarti traces the formation of Hinduism. The case that he wants to build is that it is misleading to search for the root of Hinduism in the Vedas. Presenting a story of social transformation from pastoralism to agriculture based order, from a relatively fluid varna system to a relatively more rigid caste system, an increasing polarity in wealth, and an ever growing complexity of the yajnas, he discusses a decline of Vedic religion.

Construction of Puranic Religion

The Upanishads and the Aranyakas, later Vedic texts, form the starting point of his discussion. He moves on through the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, the revival of brahmanism, to what he calls the construction of Puranic religion. This was perhaps the first time that the authority of the Vedas was invoked to protect something new coming in. From the Gupta dynasty onward, fortified by state patronage, brahmans sought to reaffirm their dominant role in opposition to the Buddhists by a policy of inclusiveness. They created a new set of texts, the Puranas, where their ultimate control was blended with partial recognition of local cults and rituals. All this was done in the name of the Vedas, since these were already very old and revered as the oldest Indian scriptures. A concept was floated, he argues, of the so-called fifth Veda. Innovations were to be legitimised by being given this title. At the same time, Chakrabarti does not altogether deny that there exists a link between the Vedic and the Puranic religions. Some of the Puranic gods are traceable from the Vedas. Thus, while his examination of the differences between Puranic and Vedic religion is valuable, the initial argument that it is misleading to search for the root of Hinduism in the Vedas, perhaps needs to be tempered.

Kunal Chakrabarti presents an excellent picture of how the Puranic religion emerged. It is uncertain whether there was a distinct age called the Puranic age and if so what its precise time span was. But the present reviewer is not a specialist in ancient Indian history, nor is it likely that a majority of the readers will be. So at one level adopting a popular term may not be too much of a problem. What is a bit more troublesome, though, is Chakrabarti’s presentation of a circular logic in the section entitled ‘Characteristics of Hinduism’. He begins by positing one religion called Hinduism. Then he suggests that there were problems posed by the absence of a historical founder and a canonical text. He then goes on to argue, “But no institutional religion can be effective without the certainty of a canon. And so Hinduism too had to eventually indicate its infallible book of instruction which happened to be the four Vedas” (p 88). To argue that a unified Hinduism was created by reference to the Vedas, even if the reference was purely rhetorical, and yet to suggest that even before that, a common Hindu religion existed, is perhaps stretching the argument too far, or getting involved in a kind of circular logic. I suggest this, because such types of logic, even if it is not Chakrabarti’s intention, can be and have been used to impose a “Hindu” identity on people who might not accept it. For example, the idea is often taken as self-evident that adivasis are Hindus unless clearly identified as Christians, etc, so that conversion of adivasis to Hinduism is labelled “reconversion”. So it could as well (or better) be argued that certain religious trends eventually coalesced to produce Hinduism.

Rather inexplicable is the two-page box on the Gita. A number of problems are raised, and then the author concludes by commenting about some things being features of Hinduism that defy explanation. If the author felt that a compressed popular essay could not deal with the work, he should have said so. To attempt a social history of religions and then to leave some aspects as defying explanation might suggest that in these cases faith must suffice!!

Hindutva and Hinduism

The final section, by Tanika Sarkar, clearly takes up the RSS and its Hindutva politics, arguing that Hindutva is not Hinduism. Sarkar explains very cogently that since we live in a country where Hindus are the majority, the aim of a majoritarian Hindutva ideology is to create a permanent majority based on supposed identity through religion. Despite the existence of communal rhetoric and fundamentalist perspectives among the minorities, there is no parallel or comparable political organisation as the RSS-BJP-VHP combine. The author tries to draw distinctions between Hinduism, Hindu-tinged nationalism, and what many would call fascist Hindutva. The distinction between Vivekananda and the RSS she tries to draw is a useful one. Vivekananda too often claimed that Hinduism was superior to other religions, and he could be quite opposed to Islam. But this did not make him a champion of communal riots or a proponent of the extermination of Islam. Hatred towards the non-Hindu other is by contrast the foundation of the Sanghist ideology.

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

However, the attempt by Sarkar to draw boundaries are not always very convincing. Any ideology that has been around for a century or more must adjust to changes. One needs to only look at the varieties of Marxism. Even those who neither succumb to bourgeois ideology nor remain frozen in their invocation of a non-existent socialism built by mass terror under Stalin or Mao have to look at the world and make fresh analyses. Sarkar’s own earlier works, as well as works by many other scholars, have shown the very important links between a wing of Hindu nationalism or revivalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. Similarly, given the nearly iconic status of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in much work on early Indian nationalism in recent years, it is not surprising to find Sarkar seeking to minimise the contributions he made to the formation of communalist Hindu politics. While the Ananda Math is the text Sarkar discusses, to try to play it down as “only a phase” is perhaps wrong. The project of building a Hindu nation runs through too many of Bankim’s novels and other writings to be shrugged off as “only a phase”.

Sarkar presents a view of the extreme communalist forces as conscious forces of reaction, opposed to the struggles of women, lower castes and exploited classes for security, welfare and equality. In these days when the ex-leftist intellectual is so eager to get rid of all markers that identify him or her as politically active, Sarkar’s approach comes as a welcome one. One can expect brickbats, not only those by the BJP and its camp followers, but also by those who would like to steer a middle path between fascists and anti-fascists, and therefore tar anti-fascists as being as intolerant as the fascists.

All the chapters, despite slight differences between the authors, are evidence of a combined commitment to serious history writing and an equally serious defence of secularism. At the same time, the style of presentation is excellent. The artwork by Soumik Nandy Majumdar, Parvez Kabir and Sanchayan Ghosh is integral to the essays. It is not possible to discuss their effects in detail here. The present reviewer’s first experience with combined texts and visuals was the Beginners’ series. The present book is somewhat different, but also very good. For example, a cartoon entitled Horseplay in Harappa succinctly sums up Kumkum Roy’s argument on why there has been a hue and cry over the presence or absence of horses in Harappa. The use of contemporary language may not always please the orthodox and the purist, but Dronacharyya telling Ekalavyya that he wants the latter to cut off his thumb “so that it is always thumbs up for the Aryans” likewise conveys the message with accuracy as well as a sardonic humour. Historians who want to combat the RSS-BJP falsifications would do well to ensure a wide circulation of this book and its translation into every Indian language. Ebong Alap and the Heinrich Boll Foundation deserve congratulations for publishing the book, as do the six creators for writing and illustrating it.



Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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