In the celebration of pluralist spiritual traditions, lie the roots of resistance against the hate rituals of the Hindutva brigade

Manisha Sethi Delhi

In the 14th century there lived a Kannada poet, Kumaravyasa, who gave up his plans to write yet another telling of the Ramayana because he heard that the combined weight of all the Ramayana poets was crushing the cosmic serpent which holds up the earth. Heeding the serpent's plight, he turned to other literary pursuits. In a delightful and erudite essay, AK Ramanujan, counts hundreds of Ramayana renditions in scores of languages across narrative and performative genres, each being shaped by the cultural context in which it developed, bearing the imprint of regional linguistic conventions and religious beliefs. The result was a remarkable plurality of script and cast: with the submissive, abandoned wife of Valmiki Ramayana substituted by a Ravana-slaying Sita in the Shakta tradition; the tragic figure of Ravana in the Jaina Padma Purana; Thai Ramakien's dashing casanova Hanuman and so on. 

When Ramanujan's ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas' was recently sought to be included in the History syllabus of Delhi University, it evoked a violent reaction from the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student's wing of the RSS/BJP. A cacophony of ‘insult', ‘injury', ‘hurt religious sentiments' was raised. For those who launched their political rise atop a Toyota ‘rath' for the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya - any allusion to diverse and indeed contesting narratives of the Ram story are repugnant. This multiplicity of voices threatens the purveyors of "one culture, one nation" which can brook no deviation from the iron narrative emanating from Jhandenwalan, where the RSS holds fort in Delhi.

And this was by no means an isolated incident. Are we then turning our backs to a more gentle, pluralist and heterogenous past - one which allowed a single story to be re-told from a multitude of perspectives - towards a homogenous, pre-mixed, instant version of religious and cultural traditions, where differences are erased, and people ‘different' from ‘us' eliminated?

Indeed, there has been a respected and dominant strand within students of Indian history and culture that the bounded religious categories that we see today were a product of, in the first instance, of colonialism and its related institutions. That pre-colonial India was characterised by fuzzy boundaries, a great variety of religious practices shared by peoples whom we would today mark out as Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs. A time and space inhabited by liminal identities - a virtual ‘secular' paradise, where populations were united by their shared customs and practices. This was when Islam reached Kashmir through the rishi-sufi mystics who expounded Islamic values and contents in a decidedly Shaivite idiom and vocabulary:


Nirguna, manifest Thyself unto me,

thy name (alone) have I been chanting,

Lord help me reach the acme of

my spiritual desires,

I do remember (with gratitude) How kind Thou art

Thou revealed Quran unto him ...

(Mohammad Ishaq Khan, The Rishi Movement as a Social Force in Medieval Kashmir in Lorenzen (ed.) Religious Movements in South Asia)  

Shaikh Nuruddin, founder of the Rishi movement, considered the Shaivite woman mystic, Lal Ded, his spiritual mentor, hailing her as an avtara, and beseeched, "O God, grant me the same spiritual power (as her)".

Such commingling was further complicated by the sheer diversity of beliefs and rituals within what is now designated as a single religion, Hinduism (the three hundred Ramayanas being a good representative of that). This argument holds that Orientalist scholarship, print capitalism and colonial administrative exercises, foremost among them the census, forced people into exclusive boxes of unambiguous religious affiliations, inherited from the West.

Harjot Oberoi, for instance, in his work on the construction of Sikh identity, shows how the worldview, modes of existence, and religious rituals in pre-British Punjabi society were governed by rules of the houshold, pind, biradiri, gotra and zat (caste), which often overrode religious loyalties. Moreover, the proliferation of gurus, pirs, babas, bhais and sajjada nashins, around whom congregated a body of followers, rendered the sampradayas or these traditions as the principal religious affiliations.

Thus the correct question to be asked of these people would not be: are you a Hindu, Muslim or a Sikh, but are you the follower of the Udasi, Nirmala, Khalsa, Nanak, Rama Raia, Kuka, Nihang or any other tradition? It was unproblematic for the same man (or woman) to worship idols in the morning and recite from the Sikh scriptures in the evening, and equally natural to visit a pir's dargah for the fulfillment of a wish. This ‘enchanted universe', argues Oberoi, was violated, battered and flattened by the roadroller of colonialism.


However, was the pre-colonial past such a haven of pluralism, where identities merged seamlessly into others? Can we deny the history of fierce conflict between Hindus and Buddhists and Jains, even between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, or the brutal suppression of some materialist doctrines such as the Charvaka? Indeed, the Jain Ramayanas and (yes, in the plural here too, for there are over a dozen Jain tellings of this story), could be seen as a kind of strategy to contain the growing influence of Vaishnavite devotional cults. Not for nothing are the Jain Ram and Krishna stories called counter-Puranas. 

Eknath, the 16th-century Warkari saint, reflected some of the hostilities in the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in his rather witty poem, ‘Hindu Turk samvada', where the Hindu and the Turk (meaning the Muslim here) mock the religious practices of the other. While the Turk attacks the Hindu for ritual bathing ("You leap in waters like duck"), the moral ambiguities of Hindu gods, idolatry etc, the Turk comes under attack for animal sacrifices and his refusal to believe that God is everywhere including in the stones, woods, trees and idols. It concludes with the following verse proclaiming that all Gods are equal:


The Brahman says, O yes Swami,

As a matter of fact, you and I are one.

This controversy grew over caste and dharma

When we go to God, there are no such things.

The Turk says, that is the truth.

For God there is no caste.

There is no separation between devotee and God.

Even though the Prophet has said God is hidden.'

(Eleanor Zelliot, A Medieval Encounter between Hindu and Muslim: Eknath's Drama Poem Hindu-Turk Samvad in Clothey (ed.) Images of Man)

Though it is ultimately resolved in the spirit of the syncretic mode of medieval Bhakti movements, it does attest to the identification of clear-cut religious boundaries, catalogues the points of contention, and ultimately the need to transcend these. While census and the panoply of administrative machinery may have crystallised and frozen the boundaries, the colonial State was not drawing lines on a blank sheet altogether. Identities, which had been hitherto localised, assumed a supra-local character for the first time perhaps, and the advent of communications and printing, which made possible mass circulation of scriptures, religious tracts and propaganda material, all added to the deepening of boundaries. Where earlier the conflicts centred largely on the politics of patronage, post-colonial electoral politics fore-grounded community and identity mobilisations like never before.

Every age is a kaliyuga in which the past appears as a golden period. Without romanticising the past - for oppression, inequalities, and conflicts over cultural and material resources were never absent in our history - can we retrieve at least those movements and moments of protest, dissent and shared traditions for forging a new culture of resistance against the one peddled by the hate brigade of the RSS? 

The writer teaches at Centre for Comparative Religion, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and is Consultant Editor, Biblio

1) Eknath's poem: Eleanor Zelliot, A Medieval Encounter between Hindu and Muslim: Eknath's Drama Poem Hindu-Turk Samvad in Clothey (ed.) Images of Man (1982).

2) Nooruddin's poem: Mohammad Ishaq Khan, The Rishi Movement as a Social Force in Medieval Kashmir in Lorenzen (ed.) Religious Movements in South Asia.