Posts Tagged ‘British’

Gandhi, bin Laden and the Global Chessboard

May 12, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.”  The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed?

Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention. (more…)

South Asia: In Search of Roots

January 21, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

 

There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.

Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. (more…)

Indian Women: A Paradox?

October 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf 

Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History:

Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle – mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess – driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male. (more…)

Hinduism – 6: Interactions in the Mirror of Sex

December 27, 2008

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims

The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here.

In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim.

We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude towards sex and is described largely in the words of William Dalrymple as they appear in his highly informative article (India: The Place of Sex) in the New York Review of Books (June 26, 2008). 

Dalrymple portrays pre-Islamic India using the art forms prevalent at the time of the Pallava dynasty (590-630 AD):

This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguishes one from the other. Queens, courtesans, and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips….

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled “The Description of Uma’s Pleasure,” which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple. The same is true of much of the secular poetry of the period….

Sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. It was looked upon as an essential part of the study of aesthetics: srngararasa—the erotic rasa, or flavor—being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu tradition, collected in the Rig Veda, begins with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, the gratification of kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma—duty or religion—and artha, the creation of wealth.

The explicitly erotic sculptures that fill the walls of temples such as Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex. In pre-colonial India the devotional, the metaphysical, and the sexual were not seen as being in any way opposed; on the contrary the three were closely linked.

Here is how Dalrymple describes the encounter of this world with Islam:

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to Eastern Christian notions—the environment in which so many early Islamic attitudes developed—and which divided the mind from the body, and the sensual from the metaphysical. Like much early Christian thought, Islam emphasized the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality, and, in extreme cases, the idealization of sexual renunciation and virginity. In Iranian literature, love is usually portrayed as a hazardous, painful, and dangerous condition: in the great Persian epic Layla and Majnun, Majnun is driven mad by his love for Layla, and ends up dying wasted, starving, and insane.

Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. The Kamasutra survived and in time even helped to convert to the life of pleasure India’s initially puritanical Muslim rulers. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late eighteenth century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice:

“She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum.”

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets’ desires: the beloved’s arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli—a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the center of a woman’s stomach, just below her navel—to the River Godavari. In this spirit, the Lucknavi Muslim poet Shauq (1783–1871) wrote a series of masnawis—or rhymed couplets—on amorous subjects entitled Fareb-i-Ishq, or The Wiles of Love. At the same time Islamic weavers struggled to produce not the heavy burkhas now worn by their Wahhabi-influenced successors, but ever more transparent and revealing cholis, or blouses, with weaves of wondrous lightness named baft hawa (woven air), ab-e-rawan (running water), and shabnam (evening dew).

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In eighteenth-century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsarases—the beautiful, heavenly sprites of ancient Pallavan stone sculpture—attend bejeweled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

And what transpires with the arrival of the British:

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India’s erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Responding to the evangelical diatribes about “Hindoo immorality,” a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to reexamine their own traditions. A movement arose advocating the banning of courtesans, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.

Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India’s history of sexual sophistication. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian AIDS crisis a few years ago, the health minister of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that “India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.”

Dalrymple traces this history partly to explain the prudishness of modern right-wing Hindu reformers. We will argue that their militancy can also be attributed to a similar process.

This is the essence of the story of India and its interactions with outsiders – how Muslims became Indians absorbed by the openness and informality of Hinduism; and how Indian elites (both Hindu and Muslim) became quasi-English impressed by the superiority of science and rationality.

This was also how Hinduism began to doubt its strengths and started to remake itself in the image of another faith. The details have to await the next post which will then set up an explanation for how two streams, Hindu and Muslim, merged into an Indianness only to diverge again with tragic consequences.

To be continued…

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Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion

October 16, 2008

Continued from Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?

It’s time to remove the quotation marks around ‘Hinduism’.

It just adds to the confusion when one argues in this day that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense religion is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is better to explain that ‘religion’ has a wider scope.

See how religion is defined in the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:

Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

If one starts with that definition it would be very hard to fit Hinduism into the mould.

However, one can take a modern perspective and understand religion as a “system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” In this perspective, Hinduism is a religion but with characteristics very different from those of a Judeo-Christian religion.

One can immediately see the big difference between Islam and Hinduism in this context. The former placed a lot of emphasis on the ‘true’ word of God, quarreling even amongst fellow Muslims on correct interpretations of the true word. The latter placed much more emphasis on the practices of everyday life with a lot more room for variations from any externally prescribed way.

One can also now understand the puzzlement of the British when they got ready to conduct the first major census in the Punjab in 1868. The presence of Muslims and Sikhs convinced them that Punjab society could only be understood through the lens of religion.  But when they attempted to define Hinduism they were stumped: “Primarily and historically, it is the antithesis of Islam. Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it is not, and never was.”

Denzil Ibbetson in the Punjab Census Report of 1881 wrote that “the books on Hinduism describe Hinduism as it ought to be, Hinduism as it once was, perhaps Hinduism as it now is among the pandits and educated Brahmans of the holy cities; but they do not describe Hinduism as it is in the daily life of the great mass of the population.”

And thus the rule that was adopted for the census definition of Hindus was “that the Native of India must be presumed to be Hindu unless he belongs to some other recognized faiths.”

This different nature of Hinduism as a religion was not trivial and one would need to keep it in mind as we proceed to explore its interaction with Muslims and the British in the posts to follow.

To be continued…

The definitions of religion are to be found in a thoughtful post in Religion Dispatches. The material on the Punjab Census is from In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007.

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