Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas

By GauravL 43 Comments
Annual Waari – Kalyani Bhogle

The pluralism in Hindu thought is often pegged back to the philosophically sophisticated एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति  from Rgveda – first mandala. While that message underlies a lot of Hindu thought as we know it, it’s often overstated as it sounds sophisticated to the scholars/amateurs studying it. On the other hand, some hymns from the family books, particularly the Rgvedic Hymns 7-82 to 7-89 give a fascinating peek into the mind of the Bharata purohit Vasishta after the Dasarajna Yuddha. The hymns which are very repetitive mostly praise Indra and Varuna for the help given to Sudas(Bharatas) and the Trstus in the Dasarajna where the enemies also worshiped Indra. The important point to glean here is the different functional roles for which these deities are evoked. Indra for war, Varuna for prosperity, Aditi for light, etc. Varuna who is often paired with Mitra or Aryaman, gets paired with Indra here – which scholars (RN Dandekar, Michael Witzel, etc) see as conciliatory.

According to Dandekar, it was out of this experience of bhakti that Vasistha became essential in the conciliation of the Indra- and Varuna-cults and especially in “averting a schism in the Vedic community” by demonstrating “that Varuna and Indra were not antagonistic to each other but… essentially
complementary. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules.”

It is fair to speculate that such a conciliatory approach would go on to shape interactions the mainstream Vedic thought would have with non-Vedic deities as these hymns are the victor’s recollection. This conciliation and integration (A) appear much more pragmatic and economic than abstract ideals (B) espoused by एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति or other sophisticated thought from Upanishads or Gita. For B to emerge and sustain, A appears essential. With A established, B in some form or other would follow as evidenced by other Eastern faith systems which also tend to be inclusive. It is fair to say a combination of A and B lays the foundation for the emergence of quintessential pluralism of Hinduism.

Let us segway into a short story: 

  • In a village in Vengurla (South Konkan), there was a local Saint/Warrior (non-Brahmin) who was extremely popular with the masses. 
  • He passed away and his devotees wanted to make a shrine/temple for him. A Kaashyap Brahmin who was a respected man in the village objected. His objection stemmed from the deification of a man (probably Shudra) and placing him on the same pedestal as the Devas. 
  • The Brahmin (who had quite a bit of clout in the village) opposed this Adharma with all his might but was almost overpowered by the “uncouth masses” in the story.
  • The landed or Kshatriya(ish) castes sided with the masses instead of the Brahmin and as a result, the Brahmin couldn’t prevent the deification.
  • Additionally, the humiliated Brahmin was expected to condone the practice and give the shrine his blessings.    
  • He couldn’t be part of this Adharma and hence left his lands, wealth, position, and went northeast and settled in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur preferring his descendants living in abject poverty over condoning Adharma.
  • The replacement Gaargya Brahmin was happy to support the deification of the Saint. His descendants flourish economically in the village with large lands and respect but suffer spiritually.    
  • The shrine/temple remains popular to this day and most villagers have forgotten about this tale around the origin of that particular deity. 
  • The spiritual suffering of the current Brahmin was removed by the forgiveness of the descendent of the Kaashyap Brahmin some years ago.
Ravalnath

This is the fanciful tale of my great-great ancestor as told to me by my Chachera uncle (first cousin once removed). The Gotras are not important to this piece but the emphasis and obsession on Gotra is a salient feature of Brahmanism which deserves some attention. This tale is not very atypical. There have been other documented cases of such squabbles between village Hinduism and Brahmanism. This tale echoes many other tales from South Konkan – those of Ravalnath, Betal, etc. I am unsure if the deity in the tale of my ancestor is Ravalnath or Betal or something else entirely. But the contours of the tale are very similar. In both the cases of Ravalnath and Betal, there was initial resistance to these deities from local Brahmins in the medieval times – especially due to local traditions that involved blood sacrifices and other things frowned upon by Brahmins, but over time these deities got wider acceptance – even among local Brahmins. BetalWhile Ravalnath is a Kuladevata for most Goans (all castes), Betal is a Gramadevata of some local communities. Vithoba, the popular God of Pandharpur( the annual Waari) is a very important figure of the Bhakti movement. Religious scholar and Sahitya Akademi winner RC Dhere who extensively studied Vithoba also hypotheses pre Vedic origins of Vithoba. Khandoba is another deity whose origins are similarly muddy with a range of theories explaining him as the fusion of earlier deities including Kaal Bhairav. Interestingly in the Puranic tale of Kaal Bhairav “his struggle for the atonement of Brahmanhatya” is central. Khandhoba of Jejuri remains a deity for not only the Sudra castes, but Brahmins, Jains, Lingayats, and even some Muslims including the patronage of comparatively tolerant Bijapur Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah. While it would be tempting to dismiss this as some tenuous Donigerish take, the sheer numbers of such stories spread across the country strengthen the hypothesis.

Coming back to the descendants of the uncompromising Brahmin from Vengurla. Today my extended family proudly worships all the Gramadevatas from Ichalkaranji whose origins may be very similar to the one whose foundation my ancestor had objected to. Ironically most of my paternal family follow a plethora of local Saints (in addition to the popular Bhakti Saints), whose tales of the origin have occurred within living memory and hence are far easier to negate. I would not go into rants about these Saints (esp Gajanan Maharaj) whose followers number in millions. While some traditional elite Hindus (especially Urban) are known to have disparaging views of Saints & local deities, mostly these distinctions have weathered away. It is not unlikely to find Hindus who fast on Mondays for Shiva also fast on Thursdays for some local Saint (who mostly claim intellectual or avatarish descent from Dattatraya).  Despite some initial friction, the Brahmanical thought has made its peace with such traditions. Most scholarship refers to this as – the local traditions (non-Vedic) being co-opted by Brahmanism. IMO this is an incomplete way of looking at it as it conflates organic integration which typically occurs over generations with the realization of some highly foresighted plan. Typically humans are not foresighted enough to pull off multi-generational machinations. From a multi-generation evolutionary paradigm, these would make sense but not if you take a snapshot at any particular moment in history.

With this background, we go into realms of pure speculation and come to the Post Vedic deities in Hinduism. The origin of some of these deities is highly contested – especially that of Shiva. While the Rgvedic Rudra is often said to be the precursor of Shiva, the meaning of Shiva is certainly in contrast with Rudra. Whether the Pashupati seal from IVC or other Proto-Lingas are Proto-Shiva or not will likely not be resolved till we decipher the IVC script, but these speculations seem very plausible. Even Parpola doesn’t dismiss them in his Roots of Hinduism. In addition, Parpola makes a good argument in the IVC origins of Durga with seals of Tiger riding goddesses from Kalibangan. Similarly, we can say the Dravidian Murukan and the Vedic Skanda gave rise to the Karthikeya we know today. We still don’t have any intelligent speculation about the origins of Ganesha (other than some references to Gajapati), buts it fair to assume the elephant-headed god is a pretty late addition to the Hindu pantheon. The aim here is not to discuss and speculate the origins of these deities but to guess the mechanisms of integration of these deities and customs into Brahmanism. Brahmins had a huge ritualistic/moral capital, but given the tenuous or conflicting relations they had with the Kshatriyas and other dominant castes (as seen through numerous puranic stories especially those of Parshuram) it is fair to assume Brahmins would not often get their way with subtracting traditions they found Adharmic or uncouth, yet they could continue to shape these traditions from inside with participation. Pressure both from the masses and Brahmins would’ve actively shaped the integration of these traditions for centuries to the point where it’s often hazy where Brahmanism ends and where “Non-Brahmanical” traditions begin. (This probably happened with Sramana or Proto-Sramana traditions competing with Brahmanism but that is a different discussion)

IVC goddess riding Tiger

While it is generally said Brahmanical thought absorbed the local traditions, it is equally or more appropriate to say that the village Hinduism made space for Brahmanism & tamed it – into the diverse and plural fold and this process was not complete for the entire subcontinent when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath. Scholars like to emphasize Adi-Shankara’s Advaita and Mutts, Upanishads, Rgvedic “एकं सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” as it appears sophisticated and intellectual. However, the tendency of humans to pragmatically negotiate the boundaries of their traditions (in absence of exclusionary universalist ideas) when they already have multiple modes of worship tends to be underemphasized as it appears uncouth or folk. Roman religion easily absorbed Isis and Cybele into the Roman fold but couldn’t absorb the God of Abraham. In contrast, when Christianity conquered Europe it absorbed the old gods into the Christian fold as Saints but kept them subordinate to the one true god. However, Shiva and Ganesh did not bow done to Indra, and by the time of the Puranas, the mighty Vedic Indra was reduced to an insecure and somewhat petty King of Gods.

Maybe the Brahmin elites & Sanskrit managed to maintain a cohesive identity-based on sacred geography only because they themselves were tamed in similar mechanisms by the natives of the geography. If yes, then Hindu Pluralism and Syncretism is as much a legacy of numerous lost stories as it is of the philosophical moorings of the Vedas, Itihasas, and Upanishads. 

Next up – Brahmanas and Sramanas;

Postscript:

I had been thinking along these lines since my discussion with Mukunda and Omar on the Brown-cast about the roots of Indian pluralism. While commenting please stick to the topic and be civil & constructive. I will delete off comments for this piece.

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Their Muslim Problem—And Ours

By Razib Khan 101 Comments


Every now and then there is a controversy on Indian-Twitter which bleeds over into my timeline that I have to notice.

Some quick observations:

– There are those who lambast the critics of this ad. Many of the critics are low-IQ vulgarians. So the criticism is not without foundation. But, most of the responses dodge the gendered nature of the objection. The fact is that in Islam it is understood that Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women. It is also tolerated for Christians and Jews to retain their religion after marriage. The children are considered Muslim. This practice in a patriarchal society was seen as a boon to the Islamic nation.

The advertisement plays into this Islamic trope. The converse of this is that most interpretations of sharia ban the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. Again, the rationale for this is straightforward: the children inherit the religion of the father, and therefore the children are lost to Islam. If the supporters of the beauty of the advertisement of interfaith marriage believe in this custom, then they should support more speech. In particular, they should support an advertisement where a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman in a Hindu ceremony to show that there is nothing wrong with this act so long as the people consent freely.

Continue reading “Their Muslim Problem—And Ours”

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Playing with fire ?

By GauravL 55 Comments

Unless you are living under a rock, you will have noticed the Babri demolition conspiracy verdict. All 32 accused including the firebrand Ashok Singhal and Uma Bharti were acquitted of the conspiracy charge. A conspiracy charge is notoriously difficult to prove in Indian court even with Political will, in this case from an objective perspective, the charge was unlikely to stick owing the excessive burden of proof required to prove conspiracy.

I came across this interview of Advani with Prannoy Roy from 2000.

After six years of Modi Shah, Advani appears like a fresh of breath air (to my liberal ears). Notwithstanding his role as the prime mover of the Ram Janmabhooni movement which left trails of blood across the country, Advani appears significantly liberal to my eyes in 2020. The willingness to talk to the enemy (as seen in a range of interviews given to aggressive media), comparatively more respect to democratic ethos and institutions, and an overall soft spoken-ness.

However, the interview leaves us with the question – Is Advani telling the truth?

There seem to be three potential chain of events which led to the culmination of the demolition of Babri Masjid.

  1. The aim of the Rath Yatra by Advani was always to demolish the mosque and the previous years were spent in raising support for the demolition of the mosque. This was the narrative the most far left and far right in India believe.  In other words, the whole movement was a conspiracy under a facade of Rath Yatra.
  2. The leadership of the movement – namely Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, and to a lesser extent Vajpayee under the umbrella of RSS (this included the current Prime minister) never really planned to break the mosque. Their aim was to mobilize the Hindu over and above their caste boundaries. The mobilization has political benefits as well as social benefits in response to Islam. However, during the movement, a small group actually conspired to break the mosque. That means if there was a conspiracy, either the top leadership was kept in dark or the top leadership turned a blind eye towards it. This seems to the claim made by Advani and Vajpayee where both of them on record called the demolition of the mosque as the saddest day of their life.
  3. The mass movement got carried away in hubris. After years of chest thumbing, for the karsevaks – this was the moment to go down in the history and they did.

If either of 2 and 3 is true, it is fair to say the BJP and Sangha Parivar leaders were playing with fire and when the fire got out of control it burned every one to a certain extent. Though today even if the fire was unintended, the fruits of the fire continue to be reaped.

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Brahmanism Versus Brahminism

By The Emissary 15 Comments

Yes – read the title twice.

Was inspired to write this due to Gaurav’s interesting post on Brahmanical Patriarchy. Note – I am a non-Brahmin Hindu.

I’ve always been pretty aware of the difference between Brahman – a word for the metaphysical supreme Godhead/substance in Hinduism and brāhmin – the priestly caste in the varna system. But many times, I see people using the 2 interchangeably as if they are one and the same. Ditto for Brahmanism and Brahminism.

Now if you’ve followed my writing, you know I’m pretty critical of academic takes on Hinduism and academia in general. I generally think both Brahmanism and Brahminism are frankly bullshit IYI terms coined by outsiders and unfortunately adopted widely nowadays.

However, Gaurav’s take on “Brahmanism” (all Hindu practices & rituals which have a basis in scriptures like the Vedic Canon, Puranas/Itihasa, Sutras/Shastras as Brahmanism) is a fair description to me of core Vedic or Hindu thought. A Hinduism rooted to the Upanishadic Brahman that contrasts (but more or less doesn’t clash with) many local or Agamic traditions. A tradition that really does bind the diversity of Hinduism together by common roots and cause. I’d prefer to call it Vedic Dharma or Vedic religion (because I don’t like the Brahman/brahmin casual mixing) but that’s beyond the point.

Onto Brahminism – now this is a term I loathe. To my knowledge, this term was coined by Jesuit missionaries visiting India to convert heathens to the one true faith. These days, the term is honestly just a cover for Brahmin bashing and even more so Hinduism bashing. Brahminism = Brahmanism = standard and core Hindu faith and customs. Basically, the shtick is, all of Hinduism is for and by Brahmins and is solely used as a tool for oppression. If that core description of Vedic (or according to them – Brāhmin) thought and ritual is scrapped away, the link of diverse Hindu traditions is gone and an ideological balkanization occurs. This is a very pretty picture if you’re in opposition to Hinduism. See the monstrosity that is Dravidianism for an example today.

A casual scroll through social media will have people criticizing innocent/non-harmful Hindu rituals and customs such as doing puja for a puppy or vegetarianism and label them as “Brahminical/Brāhmin OPPRESSION!” Yet many of these practices have nothing to do with Brāhmins in this day and age or even in the past (depending on time and geography of course).

While I agree that ending caste discrimination should be a paramount cause of Hindu sampradays and Hinduism in the present, the “Brāhmin Boogeyman” is increasingly just a cover for criticizing Hinduism as a whole and removing agency/tradition/history from non-Brahmin Hindus.

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What is “Brahmanical” in Indian Patriarchy ?

By GauravL 52 Comments

In December 2018, Jack Dorsey had a photo-op with a section Indian feminists (left-leaning) holding a placard that read Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy. Naturally, Hindutva supporters took umbrage to the reduction of Patriarchy in India to Brahmanism & “supposed” targetting of Brahmins. The “Liberals” appeared consistent with their ideological framework, though the framework can be accused of being myopic. Here are some essays from both sides of the ideological spectrum – Wire & Swarajya.

When words become labels, they tend to deviate from their original meaning and end up serving just their political purpose. The word Brahmanical is in danger of becoming a catch-all term on the left to not just to attack Hindutva but also to indulge in some masochism. Like all terms in Hinduism, Brahminism is difficult to define. For the purpose of this essay, I would refer to all Hindu practices & rituals which have a basis in scriptures like the Vedic Canon, Puranas/Itihasa, Sutras/Shastras as Brahmanism. (I would welcome any better definition of Brahmanism. It is often easier to negate a Hindu practice as Non-Brahmanical than the other way around)

Similarly, the word Patriarchy is likewise used loosely as an amalgamation of the words patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and male chauvinism. Patriarchy is a hallmark of human civilization, especially post the agricultural revolution. Just a handful of cultures have been exceptional. As a result, all strands of patriarchy in a society cannot be blamed on the predominant religious current of the culture unless there is a logical & direct link between the two – correlation is not causation. Coming to India lets focus on the different strands of Patriarchy present in the country and try to entangle each strand and investigate its potential origins in Brahmanism.

MARRIAGE

In Brahmanism, marriage is a sacred bond between man and woman(women) and hence unbreakable. As polygamy is allowed under Brahmanism, Men could move on to newer women without breaking the sacred bond and continue to lead a Dharmic life. Women had a lot of patriarchal restrictions placed on them. It is interesting to note that the Hindu marriage act of 1955 has transformed Hindu marriage customs in Hinduism. Hence wrt Marriage – Smashing Brahmanism would be equal to beating a dead ARYA horse in 21st century India. All these strands of “patriarchy” exist to almost the same extent in other native India “Panthas” in -Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism. No need to explain how Muslim personal law is way worse wrt marriage today and needs immediate attention from Feminists.

INHERITANCE

Brahmanism did not support the rights of women to inherit property, but the 1956 act meant that equal inheritance rights were awarded. On the other hand, Muslim women don’t get equal rights under Muslim personal law.

WIDOWS

The conditions of widows in Brahmanism was arguably worse than most other cultures. With Remarriage out of question (unlike Islam and Christianity), widows were treated inhumanely in Hinduism – especially in Brahmanical orthodoxy. The Brahmanical obsession with abstract concepts of purity and consequent “bad luck” blamed on the widow meant that widows were sentenced to social boycott in Hindu societies (social murder). The other option – Sati is also uniquely Brahmanical. (though its prevalence in olden times is debated). Even today, widow remarriage is less common than widower remarriage. A lot of regression and inhuman attitude towards widows continue to this day even among elite and liberal Hindus. Hence wrt Widows Brahmanical Patriarchy is still alive and needs SMASHING. 

Eg: Widows are still considered inauspicious. Even today a widow cannot predominantly partake Brahmanical rituals on her own, she always needs a male/couple (pure and auspicious) helping hand/s to carry out rituals. Typically Marriage/Upanayana/other rituals are carried out by the Uncles of her children. Though Hindu society has moved beyond the Social ostracization of earlier times, the position of widows is far from equal. 

Having said that, the overlap of these practices with Varna oppression isn’t wide. These practices are particular to the Dvija Varnas. Conditions of widows in subaltern castes & tribes were historically significantly better – with remarriage/separation allowed in many subaltern/tribal communities.

DOWRY

It is difficult to pin down the custom of Dowry on Brahmanism. By accounts of most experts, it is a sociological custom not unique to India.

FEMALE FOETICIDE

A Direct consequence of Dowry and Two child policy (along with economic hardships and some other factors) Female Foeticide – arguably the worst Anti-Female practice in India is also a deeply sociological practice with very tenuous or no links to “Religions”. (Though Christianity actively condemns all abortions and hence Female Foeticide has no existence in Christians)

RELIGIOUS ROLE OF WOMEN

All religions present in India are deeply sexist and Brahmanism (Hinduism) doesn’t stand out as a particularly bad. However, the impurity attributed to menstruation is directly an outgrowth of the Brahmanical obsession of ritualistic purity. From practices of untouchability for menstruating women to the temple entry conflict, these customs can be attributed to Brahmanism though other faiths aren’t doing a particularly great job. Even Buddha’s teachings and the role of women in Buddhist Sangha are not remotely equal. However, the position of women in a lot of Brahmanical rituals is secondary/inferior to men. One could make a logical argument from Brahmanism to the demoted the role of women in rituals. (same as other faiths)

Sabrimala – though people claim the issue in Sabrimala is due to the Celibacy of Lord Ayyappa & not ritual taboo of menstruation- the priests of Sabrimala carried out a purification ritual after the women visited Sabrimala.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE

No correlation. This problem is worse in India than some regions of the world but no coherent link between this and Brahmanism exists.

CASUAL SEXISM & MISOGYNY

Is a universal societal problem. There is an argument that some aspects this is an overreaction to the overreach of some aspects of feminism (from conservative POV- I don’t hold this view)

ENDOGAMY

While caste endogamy is often blamed on Brahmanical doctrines – and especially the notorious Manusmriti, on a deeper investigation of the texts, the link is found to be not very robust. While the DIKTATS against the mixing of Varnas is a very important part of Manusmriti (and other texts too), the jati endogamy practice in India doesn’t have many sanctions in Brahmanical texts. Getting deep into the nuances around Jati and Varna is beyond the scope of this essay. Given the fact that Varna is a salient feature of Brahmanism and Jati is an outgrowth of Varna in a sense, we can logically argue that the origins of Endogamy are Brahmanical.

However its sustenance in 21st century India is due to tribalism, pressures of families (larger caste groups) and Compatibility correlated with Jati.  

HONOR CULTURE

Honor culture is a salient part of most caste conflicts in the country, but given the preponderance of similar conflicts in other cultures (Islamic), this practice cant be blamed on Brahmanism.

CHILD MARRIAGE

The universal practice in medieval and early modern times. On the contrary Vedic canon advises post-puberty marriage for both sexes. 

EDUCATION AND OTHER FREEDOMS

Like most religions wrt education and other freedoms, Brahmanism was harsh on women. But it doesn’t stand out. Even though subaltern women faced harsh Brahmanical opposition (Like Savitri Phule), the same is true for upper-caste women reformers as well. Sub Altern women faced the double combo of Brahmanical Casteism and Patriarchy, hence the blame of this strand can be put mildly on Brahmanism wrt Christianity but not wrt other faiths.

MODESTY (PURDAH)

Practiced in North Indian Hindu cultures, but most experts believe these practices were imposed on women after Islamic Turko-Afghan invasions of 11th century.

There may be some more strands of “Patriarchy” in India which are not covered here.


Out of the 13 strands identified above a modest 5 practices can be partially blamed on Brahmanism. Even out of these 5, 2 are addressed legally and are inconsequential today with 3/13 Brahmanical strands remaining (though these aren’t the biggest problems for 21st century India). If the aim is to Smash All Patriarchy – smashing Brahmanical Patriarchy which achieves only a fraction of the aim, can’t logically be the primary objective. In other words, wrt Feminism in India there are bigger fish to fry.

Some have argued that “Brahmanical patriarchy is a conceptual framework” that has a wider meaning. But it has been a word (Brahmanism) which means something specific for almost over a century and its definition was never as broad or loose as Hinduism.

Another issue I had with the “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” was the lack of understanding in the general population of the term Brahmanism. Any political point being made has value only if it resonates with the masses for whom it is coined. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case here. As a result, such a sloganeering can be viewed by a considerable population as bigotry against Brahmins (As lots of people pointed out). Having said that, had the slogan been analytically watertight it wouldn’t matter IMO.

Next time there is ideological virtue-signaling – let us hope there is robust elucidation instead of attack with language meant as a catch-all for what one opposes. (Like calling your opponent fascists)


Ironically brahmin communities (mostly due to early exposure to education) are some of the least patriarchal communities of the country. Most women wouldn’t mind freedoms enjoyed by women in these communities (especially MH and WB). Though this would be explained as Brahmanical patriarchy which aims to oppress Bahujan women while emancipating Savarna ones. An incredibly contrived discussion arguing this can be found here with which I profoundly disagree – but that argument is for some other time.

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Browncast: Shrikanth Krishnamachary, “Traditional Hindu”

By Omar Ali 8 Comments

Another Brownpundits Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

In this episode Omar, Akshar and Mukunda talk to Srikanth Krishnamachary.  Krish is an active presence on Twitter at @shrikanth_krish and mostly tweets about Hinduism and Indian history, but has a variety of interests (his intro says he is   “a data scientist in financial services based out of New York City, whose interests include economics, political philosophy, Hinduism, American history, and cricket”). We asked him to define ImageHinduism and give us his opinion of what it was and what it is today. And of course, we asked him about caste. And we hope to have him come back in the future to touch on topics we did not get to today.

Krish also writes on various websites and some of his work can be seen at the following links:

swarajyamag.com/author/545613/ indiafacts.org/author/shrikan indictoday.com/author/shrikan firstpost.com/author/shrikan

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Are Hindu Atheists more Plural ?

By GauravL 19 Comments

Most Hindu believers don’t have problems with bowing down before the next idol/guru in addition to their existing ones. One only has to visit Goan Churches to see devout and traditional Hindus praying to Jesus with all their devotion without any dichotomy. There appears to be no conflict between going back to their traditional lives while asking favors/ paying respects to the supposed Son of God. The violent history of how Christianity got into Goa has very little bearing on how Hindus interact with Christian pockets of Goa in contrast with the case with Islam. (This may not be the case in other areas where there is more active proselytization). While this pluralism which is a salient part of Hinduism is often traced to the Rgvedic “एकम सत विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति” form the First Mandala. However, as Michael Witzel points out in his analysis of Rgveda, pluralism can be found even in the Rgvedic family books (mandala 2-7 which is often to be earlier texts, with scholars putting them as at least 1500BCE), especially the 7th Mandala attributed to Vashishta. Thus it’s safe to argue that Plurality is a quintessential attribute of Hinduism.

From ages 22-25 I was hooked with the New Atheism worldview – which rarely had the representation of Ex-Hindus or Hindu-Atheists. Even then I could not fully agree with New Atheist criticism of Eastern Faith systems (I found the chapter in Hitchens book to be a strawman). More reading of history and politics since then has meant that I have come out of what Razib Khan calls the Nerd understanding of Religion. While the number of Ex-Muslims in the New-Atheist movement was low in the early 2010s, by 2020 the Ex-Muslim movement has gained a lot of momentum with many names becoming popular. I had avoided the whole Ex-Muslim internet sphere which seems to have exploded these last few years as I did not want to enforce my own confirmation bias about the ills of Islam. However, this Armin- KaliMaa fracas has meant that I have followed the works of these Ex-Muslims a lot over the last week.

Having read and listened to these guys, I can’t ignore the glaring differences between Hindu Atheists like myself and Ex-Muslim or Ex-Christian atheists. While surveys point to less than 1% of Indians self designating as atheists, I really doubt the number as most Hindu atheists continue to identify as Hindu unlike atheists coming from other faiths. In my experience, Hindu atheists spend less time arguing in the abstract about belief in the supernatural or the validity of scriptures and are more focused on concrete problems – viz rituals/traditions which they find illogical or abhorrent. This may be a function of Hinduism, which is less scriptural and much more ritualistic (at least this is true for the Brahminism which I am most familiar with). Over these particular issues, there is only a minor difference between the positions of the Reformist yet believing Hindus and Hindu Atheists. On the other hand, the New-Atheist position is glaringly similar to the Monotheistic position – with all the certainty and condescension but no coercion and violence.

This difference could be for two reasons:

  • For most Hindus being atheist is not a big deal. There is very little penalty on being non-conformist as long as atheism isn’t confrontational. As a result, Hindu atheists don’t feel like aggravated victims and are reciprocally less confrontational. This neutral feedback cycle keeps most Atheists in the larger Hindu fold.
  • Being exposed to numerous faiths and worship systems since childhood, Hindu atheists like Hindus don’t find it tough to respect the behaviors of other believers (however ridiculous) which New Atheists condescend at much more polemically.

That being said, a lot of unnecessary condescension at Hindu practices does exist in India – particularly on the left. But even that doesn’t necessarily overlap with Atheism but with the Indian “Secular” framework. I don’t mean to imply that all Hindu atheists are plural or even liberal. But for most Hindus, atheism is an epistemological position and not an absolutist belief system. Finding a Hindu atheist being as confrontational as an atheist from Monotheism is rare thought there must be numerically significant exceptions.

I personally would rather spend most of my energies fighting Homeopathy than religion. IMO both are demonstrably false but only one of them pretends to be scientific.

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 3)

By London Observer 7 Comments

In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.

The Muslim Question

The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.

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Why Hindutva Worries me: Annual Onam debates

By GauravL 102 Comments

This is first in the series of blogposts I plan to write about my worries with Hindutva.

Every year on Onam, social media witnesses flame wars between Hindutva and Anti Hindutva forces. The point of contention often is the Hindutva assertion that Onam is Vamana Jayanti and the counter to that is Onam is a secular harvest festival of Kerala. BJP handles have been tweeting their versions of Onam ever since they have been active on internet. The level to which both sides are unwilling to compromise on occasions of festivals – which ought to reflect human community celebrations, is petty. This year Arvind Kejriwal, flush with his success as modeling himself as a Hindu (or Soft Hindutva), took to twitter with this. It was met with a reply from Shashi Tharoor which in turn was countered by ever growing internet Hindutva – including the widely popular TrueIndology. One cant expect these flame wars to subside anytime soon, given the interest people have been taking in history & hindutva these days.

For decades, liberals have critiqued the Hindutva project as exclusionary. The Hindutva response is – wrt Abhrahamic faiths – if that only these people (religions) connected with the culture on ground and accepted native customs along with their own customs, we wouldn’t protest. For the Hindutvavadis, the said project was always Indianize (not Hinduize they claim) these monotheistic faiths, so that these faiths are more integrated in the larger Indian society. By that train of logic the Hindutvavadis should be happy if Keralites Christians & Muslims celebrate Onam as a Secular festival. Couldn’t this be held as a beacon of syncretic Keralite culture which the country should follow ? For most times, festivals evolve and change with times, their origins though not irrelevant, tend to become less salient as time goes on. The origins of Christmas are testament to the fluid nature of festivals. Onam in Kerala is a truly spectacular festival full of dances, food, music, boat racing and many things, not unlike Diwali. Across the world, harvest seasons have festivals and religious significance because of the underlying material importance. Do contested origins of festivals matter or the human community experience of festivals matters?  Nowruz (whether that is an Iranian mirror of Holi is something that interests me) celebrated by the broader Iranian people, after a millennium of Islam is a testament to the longevity festivals rooted in culture. The insistence of always getting sole ownership of the Onam story comes of as toxic chauvinism & deliberately exclusionary IMO. Yet every year, there are the same debates around Onam with Keralite Christians and Muslims abused for trying to own Onam in a way they have come to define it. (Ricebags and other demeaning words are often used). 

The apparently ironic way the Hindutva movement is becoming very much like its primary enemy is not really unprecedented. VD Savarkar, the foremost and most intellectual ideologue of Hindutva was critical of Muslims and Christians putting their religion above the country. Sadly during the negotiations of princely states, Savarkar himself campaigned for independent Hindu Travancore against the plans of Sardar Patel. It can be alleged he put Hindutva before the country at that moment – exactly what he accused Muslims of for all those years. Yet Hindutvavadis have no qualms putting Patel and Savarkar in the same tent – while claiming Patel and Nehru had irreconcilable differences.

These flames wars were merely part of twitter for a few years but now they’re penetrating larger audiences via whatsapp. While this may be a symptom of taking trivial social media more seriously than it deserves, the point I am arguing is beyond the flame wars of twitter. There is a deliberate and uncompromising framing of Hindutva underway – which covers a variety of tropes from calling Jains/Sikhs Hindus to soft diktats against celebrating Christman/Eid. I consider these manifestations of the nascent ideological moorings, troubling. In  a weird way at times, I hope Hindutva remains REACTIONARY and resists ideological framing, for I am more wary of deep ideological movements than mere reactionary ones.

While its not my argument that their might not be any deliberate maneuvering by the liberals in framing of the Onam as a secular festival – I dont know and I dont care enough to investigate. If the world Hindu is defined as broadly as some do, everything east of the Sindhu will be Hindu & most festivals will have some connection to traditional Hinduism/native religions. At end of the day what matters is Onam is a harvest festival for Keralites.

Post Script:

I personally have tried to indulge in the so-called Dharmic/Indic arguments for India (Harsh Madhusudan& Rajeev Mantri are publishing a book i am looking forward too), put they also indulge in unnecessary labeling IMO. I find the use of these labels – Dharmic/Indic – churlish at times.

As usual all comments short of abuse are welcome.

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The Middle Path: Towards a Liberal Conservatism in India (Part 1)

By London Observer 27 Comments

I listened with interest to Brown Pundits’ recent podcasts with Gaurav and Tony on the current state of Indian politics. I could relate to some of their agonies and predicaments, although I profoundly disagree with some aspects of Tony’s worldview.  Slapstik’s recent post Indian woke wears saffron also contains some good insights on the nature and roots of the current Hindutva movement. In this post, I have picked on three strands of Slapstik’s argument: the comparison between Hindutva and woke culture, the genesis of the Bhakti movement and the nature of the leadership of the Indian National Congress both before and after independence.

While I share Slapstik’s assessment of the importance of the Bhakti movement, I do not regard the Bhakti movement as a radical rupture from the pre-Islamic Dharmic traditions. I also argue that by only highlighting the role and influence of the liberal modernist elements of the Indian political leadership in the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Slapstik overlooks the equally if not more salient part of the leadership that sought its inspiration from the country’s indigenous Indic heritage. In doing so, I seek to highlight the deep and abiding roots of India’s Dharmic consciousness that is characterised by cultural continuity.

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