In historical terms, how should we characterise the expression of reasoned political dissent in India’s democracy? Within what tradition do we seek the antecedents of a Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, or Gauri Lankesh? And what is their cultural location vis-à-vis our contemporary state and society?
The standard account of modern intellectual dissent identifies it as the outcome of a particular history, one distinctively European in its origin and inspiration. The triumph of ratio (reason) over fides (faith) is held to be a characteristic feature of its early modern aspect, a feature that solidifies in the field of politics with the onset of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Political dissent then appears to be the product of a rationality embedded as the defining principle of the modern Western nation-state – with its separation of powers, ideology of political progressivism, the public sphere, and other concomitant features of European modernity. However, that last entry on the list should give us pause. Evidence is not in short supply, of modern European claims to rationality travelling hand-in-hand with intolerance, genocidal violence, and state repression. A recent critical observation holds that ‘reason and rationality have always played a central role in promoting prejudices against colour, caste, religion, sexuality, gender and other cultures’ and that ‘in this increasingly angry age … there are always good reasons to be a racist, colourist, communalist, casteist or misogynist. A decision not to give in to these prejudices is not a judgement of reason and rationality alone; it is also an ethical judgement which depends on how we allocate value to anything’ (emphasis added).1If truth is relative; if notions of ethics/morality and right/wrong are relative – subject to spatial and temporal contexts; would rationality/reason be relative, too? There is also the question of a tension between ‘rationality’ and ‘wisdom’.2A purely secular outlook is not ipso facto proof against tendencies towards bigotry, coercion, and misrepresentation – as evident, for instance, in the notion that the irrational thrives within the bounds of religion alone. Therefore, our understanding of rationality/reason must transcend the features of the modern nation-state.
Even at the risk of being too simplistic, rationality may be broadly seen as ‘the discipline of subjecting one’s choices – of actions as well as of objectives, values, and priorities – to reasoned scrutiny’.3 Developing a rational temper is learning to reason about what makes life worthwhile, what we should really care about. A sort of dialectical relationship may be postulated between ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’. While the former pertains to culture, the latter has more to do with practice. That is to say, rationality is a cultural characteristic, whereas reasoning is the practice which creates that culture (personal communication from Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya, August 29, 2017). Notwithstanding the complex relationship between these two distinguishing traits of humankind, it needs underlining that neither rationality nor reason is uniquely a product of the post-Enlightenment modern West.
From the Rigveda Samhitaa down to our times, Indian thinkers from varied social backgrounds have grappled with the nuances of some very basic questions of human existence: Who am I? How and why do I die? Is my action right or wrong? Why should I act at all? What’s more important – karma or bhaagya; dharma or artha? How far am I free or why am I bonded? Aren’t all human beings equal? Can fighting a war conduce to peace and harmony? Is there any ‘sacred language’? Is the earth flat or a globe? Who is a king? Who is ‘the Other’? The inter- and intra-sectarian as well as inter- and intra-religious dialogues and debates through several millennia are eloquent manifestations of vibrant Indian dialectical traditions.4 These enable us to see chinks in the notions of ‘cultural essentialism’ and the ‘fetishisation of cultural purity’ within any specific cultural/ethnic tradition. Questioning the prevalent social norms, expressing dissent, mocking at and even organising protests against symbols of power and authority sustain what Gramsci has called ‘organic intellectuals’. Be it the Buddha or Ramanuja or Jotiba Phule or the irreverent and irrepressible Periyar – every figure tends to blur the dividing line between the ‘thinker’ and the ‘doer’.
Reason, rationality and their various derivatives (as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) have a very rich vocabulary in our classical languages. Sanskrit lexicons provide a wide range of terms for the exchange and mutual confrontation of ideas: hetuvaada, hetuvaadii, kaaranavaada, hetudarshanam, tarkashaktikah, anumaanashaktih, anutarka, apoha, maniishaa, naiyaayika, nibandhana, tarkashaktih, taarkikah, uuha, vishamvad, vitarka, yuktam, yathaayuktam, etc. Comparable formulations in Pali are equally numerous. Some of the prominent ones are ahetuka, hetuvaada, nyaaya, nyaayaanugata, nimitta, sachetanatta, saviñnyaanaka, takkana, takkiishtakkin, uuhana, vichaaranasatti, vichaarasiilii, viimansii, yutti.
The section devoted to hetu-vidyaa (the science of reasoning setting out rules of debate) in the Yogaachaarabhuumi (largely available in Tibetan and Chinese translations) of Asanga/Rishyasringa (c.350-420 CE) begins with the question, ‘hetu-vidyaa katamaa (What is the Science of Reasoning)?’ and is succeeded immediately by the question ‘shabda-vidyaa katamaa (What is the Science of Words)?’ The initial question is answered, ‘pariikshaarthena yad vijnaanam vastu (the perception at hand by reason of careful consideration).’5
Long before Asanga, out of the four vidyaas mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthashaastra (I.2.1-12), aanvikshikii is ‘the light of all other disciplines, the methodology of all other practice, and the foundation of all moral virtues’. That it is the investigative reflective science which examines beliefs acquired through observation and testimony by the means of correct knowledge (pramaanaih arthapariikshanam) and critical enquiry, unquestionably proves that even the recognition of purposefulness of rational enquiry or action was part of a theoretical orientation of these ancient Indian thinkers.6
According to Akshapaada Gautama (first century CE), in order to achieve liberation you must have accurate knowledge of the means of knowledge, the object of knowledge, doubt, purpose, example, tenet, the components of a syllogism, hypothetical reasoning, the determination of a conclusion, truth-finding discourse, defensive debate, polemics, fallacies, tricks, retorts, and the conditions of defeat. There are very ancient words for the institutions of rational debate (vaada; the Milindapanha refers to siddhi as its synonym) and public problem-solving contests (brahmodyas, also called brahma-samsad or brahma-sabhaa; and shaastra-sabhaas). Pali texts are eloquent about kotuuhala/ kotuuhalasaalas in the Ganga valley in urban centres; rules for conducting debates and the ethics thereof, safeguarding the interests of both the puurva (prima-facie view) and the uttara (the rejoinder) pakshas; focus on inculcating contemplative culture through ‘pro’ and ‘contra’ arguments (uuhapoha, manana, yuktivichaara); and finally, Yaajnavalkya includes vaakovaakya in his list of subjects of study.7 Both Charaka, the savant of aayurveda, and Gautama’s sytem of Nyaaya not only use the term kathaa for debates and dialogues but also describe their ugly aspects such as jalpa (wrangling) and vitandaa (cavil) as two types of vaada. Dialogue conducted in accordance with the prescribed method of the Pali text Kathaavatthu is called a vaadayutti. It is as a rich account of presumptive reasoning in dialogue, and not so much for its ‘anticipations’ of formal logic, that the Kathaavatthu is a rewarding object of study.8 The twelfth century Maanasollaasa even includes shaastra-vinoda amongst chapters on recreation.9 In short, the popular Sanskrit saying vaade vaade jaayate tattvabodhah (true knowledge is acquired through multifarious debates) sums up the millennia old Indian dialectical tradition, which has been extensively documented.10
Notwithstanding its numerous nuances as a philosophic concept, as reflected in this rich lexical and definitional vocabulary, reason in the common people’s discourse stands for ‘application of argument and logic and the decision not to proceed with a priori premises as far as possible’.11 Persistent questioning, entertaining doubts about almost everything and seeking explanations or determining the causality thereof are condicionessine quibus non to exercise the faculty of reason.
Technologies of engagement
The familiar narrative of ancient Indian history stresses the rise of the heterodox sects in the northern plains, circa sixth century BCE onwards, as a watershed moment in the expression of dissent against brahmanism. Like the terminological richness in the case of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, ‘heresy’ and ‘heretics’ too have prolific forms and expressions in Sanskrit and Pali. These would include: michchhaamati; michchhaaditthika; annyatitthiya; paasanda/paasandika in Pali; and vidharmmah; apathah; mithyaadrishtih; mataantarapraveshah; devanindaa; naastikyam; paashandi; apathagaamii; vrishtih; svadharmmachyutah, in Sanskrit.
George Zito had lamented the neglect of a discussion of heresy in the sociological literature and some others too rued that the subject was ‘little understood’.12 Weber had once affirmed: ‘In the case of the Vedas the scriptural canon was established in opposition to intellectual heterodoxy.’13 In a way, this provides a structural definition of heresy, which got amplified in the following well-known passage from Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans: ‘Deviance is not a property inherent in any particular kind of behaviour; it is a property conferred upon that behaviour by the people who come into direct or indirect contact with it.14 The only way an observer can tell whether or not a given style of behaviour is deviant, then, is to learn something about the standards of the audience which responds to it’. If the reader substitutes the words ‘heresy’ for ‘deviance’ and ‘orthodoxy’ for ‘audience’, then this comment will illustrate the relational approach (and the lines of correspondence between the sociologies of deviance and heresy). Put simply (and tautologically), heresy is something that an orthodoxy calls heresy.15
The sect whose name is almost synonymous with heresy in India, the Chaarvaaka or Materialist, is guilty of no offensive behaviour, for it is simply a philosophical movement; but this philosophy condemns the Vedas as ‘a pious fraud’ [D.R. Bhandarkar, Some Aspects of Ancient Hindu Polity, Benares, 1929:4]. Their point of view is summarised thus in the Sarvadarshanasamgraha: ‘The Veda is tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology; the imposters who call themselves Vedic scholars are mutually destructive, and the three Vedas themselves are simply the means of livelihood for those devoid of wit and virility.’
The antagonism/contestation between the braahmana (Sanskritik/Vedic traditions) and the shramana (non-Sanskritik/anti-Vedic traditions) may be seen as a manifestation of the aforesaid structural relationship of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’/ ‘heretic’. Patanjali likened this to the proverbial rivalry between snake and mongoose. Contradiction of the Vedas remains the basis of heresy, from the ‘Hindu’ viewpoint. However, this narrative misses a more substantive issue, viz., the roots of ‘heresy’ lie within the Rig Samhitaa– the earliest and one of the most revered of Indian texts. There is long and persistent questioning within the Vedic tradition, sufficiently extensive to make us sceptical about there being a monolithic tradition at all.
Nearly four thousand years ago, the seers of the Rig Samhitaa envisioned a hymn (X.121) in praise of a deity called Ka. This hymn takes the form of a cosmogony and its refrain is a question: ‘Who is the god to whom we should do homage with our oblation?’ which is repeated in nine out of ten verses of the hymn.16 Similarly, the Naasadiiya Suukta, another famous hymn of the same text, usually characterised as the Song of Creation (X.129) is also seen as ‘one of the oldest surviving records of philosophic doubt in the history of the world,’ loaded with negations and questioning.17
In the Rig Samhitaa, there are pronounced indications of the existence of sceptics and freethinkers, voices that deny Indra’s very existence and disbelieve in his divinity; who mock at him; display some anxiety about the poet’s exclusive focus on Indra – ‘putting all his eggs in one basket’, as the English idiom has it – and mention his fear of Vritra (I.32.12, 14). A famous controversy over the sanctity of the Vedas appears in the Nirukta of Yaaska: ‘The Vedic stanzas have no meaning (anarthakaa)’, says Kautsa. ‘Moreover, their meaning is contradictory (vipratishiddhaarthaa).’ Kautsa appears in an ancient list of brahmin teachers and may have been a historical rationalist, says Max Mueller.18
It is generally in the area of internal disputes that religions expose both their cherished preoccupations and also possible inconsistencies in their structure.19 Early Jain heretics are known in Prakrit as the pavayana–nihnaga, ‘concealers of the doctrine’. Seven of these are listed at Thaanaanga Sutta 587 and several in the Suuyagada (2,6). According to tradition, they arose in Mahaaviira’s lifetime and the immediate centuries after his death, in fulfilment of the expectation that a continuing vein of dissent and contention would inevitably resurface at various times in the history of Jainism. This kind of mental budgeting for demurral and disputation may also be found within brahmanical literature, where safe channels for the expression and assimilation of controversion can assume ingenious forms. In the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad, brahmavaadinii Gaargii Vaachaknavii’s relentless questions tax Yaajnavalkya to the limits of his mental abilities and patience. When, finally, he snaps at her to be quiet lest her head fall off, his characteristically patriarchal comeback is a public testament both to the vigour of Gaargii’s questioning and his retreat into male prerogative. Similarly, Draupadii, in the midst of undergoing her traumatic disrobing at the Kaurava court, asks with a piercing cogency how she came to be staked on a game of dice by a man (Yudhishthira) who had already forfeited his own freedom and become a slave (Mahaabhaarata II. 60-61).
‘Who is a strii (woman)?’ The modern-day champions and adversaries of feminism may not easily believe that this simple sounding question of serious import was raised nearly two thousand years ago. Many Jain sects, including the Digambaras, Shvetaambaras and Yaapaniiyas incessantly debated the issues involved – especially the eligibility of women to achieve moksha or nirvaana (liberation). In the process, intensive discourse on the physiognomy of woman and questioning of stereotypes of comparative qualities attributed to men and women becomes available. Thus, seeing a woman in a man and vice-versa is made possible.20
Subversive viewpoints also gained admittance through the back door, so to speak. A reading of the Arthashaastra and the Kaamashaastra would reveal how these texts challenge dharma, justifying dishonesty, violence, and adultery, among other questionable conduct. They get away with it in two ways: first, by creating a thin veneer of respectability for their antinomian thoughts, with hypocritical praise of dharma at critical junctures. And second, by attributing many of their most diabolical suggestions to previous scholars (aacharyas), whose texts (if ever they existed) no longer survive.21
Gramsci had once postulated that the intellectuals, scattered throughout ‘civil society’, play a crucial role in stimulating consent.22 They tirelessly endeavour to inculcate the ideological imperatives of the hegemonic apparatus. And yet, he simultaneously raised the possibility of ‘mass heresies’ when he wrote, ‘many heretical movements were manifestations of popular forces aiming to reform the Church and bring it closer to the people by exalting them.’23 Since the structural relationship of orthodoxy and heresy stands on relativisation – that orthodoxy is what it is, through its relationship to heterodoxy, and vice-versa – the border between mass and intellectual heresies is, as Weber would say, ‘fluid’, and we should not discount the possibility of mass heresies led by intellectuals. Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s renunciation of the tag of ‘Hindu’, burning the Manusmriti publicly, criticising even basic tenets of the Buddha and, in 1956, leading the conversion of half a million dalits (former untouchables) to a Neo-Buddhism fashioned by himself could perhaps be called a case of such a ‘mass heresy’ in modern times.
The dogged strain of dissent
Ever since stratified social structures came into existence in India (from at least circa 1000 BCE onwards or maybe even earlier if contentions about the presence of varied and unequal social strata amongst the Harappans are accepted), there has never been any period in India’s long history of the last several millennia when the fundamental bases of such stratification have not been questioned. This questioning took various forms and manifestations – birth into a particular stratum, the denial of basic necessities such as education and learning to the shudras and to untouchables (dalit), the designation of cultural identity, access to social and political power, and above all, the need for recognition of social dignity. Voices of women questioning the drudgery of domestic life and oppressive patriarchal establishments formed part of this churning. Reflecting on the contemporary social fabric of India, one can spot uncanny similarities with these historical issues and the forces driving them. Be it the ever growing demand of women’s empowerment or the Lingaayats (in Karnataka) seeking a separate and distinct identity instead of being seen as a mere component of the broader ‘Hindu’ frame, or the demands of millions of people belonging to the historically deprived social strata (now variously classified and designated as Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Other Backward Classes, etc.), for an equitable share in material resources and opportunities, as well as the recognition of their labour and social dignity.
Among the earliest manifestations of a serious questioning of the ‘brahmanical’ social order is perhaps that of the Shatapatha Braahmana, in locating the identity of mlechchhas not in terms of birth status but their cultural differences (language and burial practices) from the ‘aaryas’ and ‘daasas’. Notwithstanding doubts raised about the alleged radical social changes brought in by the Buddha, and accusations that the caste factor entered his system through the back door, it would be difficult to deny that his contestation of birth as the basis of one’s location in the varna order was remarkable for his times.
Dissenting voices were not confined to the Buddha or the male members (theras) of his samgha. Theriis (bhikkhunis) also joined them. Some of them belonged to ‘high’ families, including wealthy merchants. They either preferred not to get married, or when they got married to suitors of their choice (even a convicted thief or a servant in her own household), did not hesitate to get rid of them and opted to join the Buddhist samgha– sometimes after debating with leaders such as Saariputta, Moggallaana, etc.24
‘We generally do not see in the Theriigaathaa any explanations of the social suffering that befalls women and the poor as due to the karmic fruits of previous actions on their part. On the contrary, the poems often make us sympathise with the undeserved suffering of women and this quality was surely part of why the Theriigaathaa had the appeal that it did for modern Indian social reformers, like Rahul Sankrityayan and for dalits (formerly, ‘untouchables’) in the twentieth century who were drawn to Buddhism as an alternative vision of society, as well as one offering the possibility of individual self-determination despite the oppressive social contexts.25
From Thiruppaan Alvar (c.8th/9th century), Nammaalvaar (c.9th/10th century – a shudra with brahmin disciples), Nandanaar (an untouchable, born in a Pulai community), Basavannaa (who was uncomfortable with his own brahmin roots and lamented that he had his birth in this ‘obnoxious caste’), Chokhamelaa (untouchable saint-poet of Maharashtra and avaarkari, i.e., devotee of Vitthal affectionately known as Vithobaa, the deity of Pandharpur), Jani or Janaabaai (the serving maid of Naamadev the tailor, 14th century), Bankaa (possibly brother of Chokhamelaa’s wife Soyraabaai), Soyraabaai (who called herself ‘Chokhaa’s Mahaari’), Nirmalaa (Chokhamelaa’s sister) Kabiir, Naanak, Dadu, Ekanaath, Kanakadaasa (of Karnataka), Tukaaraam, Ravidaas/Raaidaas (c.1400-c.1700), Jotiba Phule (1827-1890), down to Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar this chain of names represents a long and illustrious line of social dissenters.26 Almost all these came from low social origins or sympathised with socially exploited classes and stood for anti-orthodoxy, anti-brahmanism, anti-caste positions, ridiculed the vedic-epic-puraanic textual tradition and by and large represented non-Sanskritik thought currents.
The twelfth-thirteenth century Karnataka Viirashaiva/Lingaayat movement, with the phenomenal contributions of Basavannaa (born c.1125), focused on gender parity – women, no less than men, could worship Shiva and attain eternal bliss, irrespective of caste and community. Sacrifice of animals in the name of god was unacceptable. There was no hierarchy in society. The sacred thread was a symbol of insolence. Just as caste conferred no privilege, occupation inflicted no disability. Dignity of labour and an equal status for women were seriously advocated. This is Basava’s shivaachaara.27 The genre of writing called vachanas embody the essence of the Lingaayata tradition. Basava’s biting critique of the brahmanical social order and his recognition of the dignity of labour is reflected in the following vachana:
I will prefer the man carrying a dead cow on his shoulders
to one who is carrying a sacrificial goat.
Another vachana says: ‘The brahmin is the ass who carries the Veda as load.’28
Movement akin to that of the Lingaayats was undertaken somewhat later in the Tamil country by about a dozen poets known collectively as the Siddhas (15th– 17th centuries), who heralded antinomian trends. Of these, Civavaakkiyar was particularly inspiring for the Periyar whose iconoclastic anti-brahmanism and rationalistic appeals marked the Dravidian movement in the twentieth century. These Tamil Siddhas seem to be an offshoot of the pan-Indian Naatha tradition, which regrettably now is being defiled by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, through his unabashed espousal of exclusionist Hindutva.
Strong voices of social protest against the brahmin-dominated caste hierarchy, reminiscent of the Buddha’s exhortations, became quite pronounced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several writings of creative writers in Kerala were marked by harsh questions, pungent sarcasm and loud calls for action. The triumvirate of modern Malayalam literature notable for this social activism comprised of N. Kumaran Asan (1873-1924), Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer (1877-1949) and Vallathol Narayan Menon (1878-1958).29 Of these, Asan (born in the backward community of Ezhavas) was a disciple of Sri Narayana Guru (c.1854/56-1928), himself an Ezhava. Guru’s call for ‘One Caste, one Religion and one God for man’ provoked many thinking minds.30 Thus, Asan’s Durvasthaa and Chandaalabhikshukii (both composed in 1922) are marked by arguments, exhortations and indictments. Addressing the votaries of the Hindu shaastras, the poet warns:
Change ye the laws yourselves, or else,
The laws will change you indeed.
Seen against this background, the Ayodhya crisis (1980s and the early 1990s) is revealed for what it is: implacable opposition dressed up as a nativist uprising against what are in fact homegrown traditions of independent evidence-based reasoning. The protagonists of the ‘Ram Janmabhuumi’ (birthplace of Lord Rama) took the line that the matter concerned the ‘faith of the millions of Hindus’, and was not to be decided by the Nyaayaalaya (the Court, where the dispute had been pending since the 1940s). Incidentally, nyaaya has been one of the several terms in Sanskrit that stand for ‘reason’, and a distinct school of philosophy called navya nyaaya (New Reason) had come into existence in medieval times in India. A more recent example of nyaaya meted out by the highest court of the land and contested by fides (faith), would be the opposition to the Sabarimala judgement.
The great debate between the Jains and the Buddhists on the one hand and the Miimaamsakas such as Kumaarila (seventh-eighth century CE) on the other, centred around such questions as what constitutes knowledge? Was the source of knowledge or dharma revealed by direct experience, or was it revealed by itself and codified in the non-personal Veda? Was revelation personal or impersonal? Was it located within man or outside of him? Was it directly attainable through the non-activity (nivritti) of self-realisation (aatmajnaana) or indirectly accessible through a variety of [ritual and intellectual] activities (pravritti).31 It is significant that revelationists in India, unlike those in Christendom, were contested not by monotheists but by the so-called ‘atheists’, who championed the cause of human omniscience (sarvajnataa). Kumaarila decried them as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who were said to provide merely ‘the appearance of dharma’ (dharmaaabhaasa), and nothing more. To him, the Vedic tradition alone was the source of all moral knowledge and the Veda was apaurusheya (authorless), anaadi (without any beginning), and svatahpramaanya (of self-sufficient validity).32 Its language, therefore, was ‘sacred’. This didn’t deter the ‘naastika’ streams – placing objective reasoning above reverence – from taking head-on the stubborn insistence of the ‘aastikas’. Indeed, the medieval Jain philosophers go to the extent of countering that if there is a root language that is a primary identifier of meaning, that language is not Sanskrit at all, but Prakrit.33 The Buddhists were equally strong supporters of regional dialects.34 Not just that, Dharmakiirti argues in his Vaadanyaaya that all languages – Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsha, Dravidian, Aandhran – function in exactly the same way to make known their meaning. This is the rationale that licenses the flowering of bhaashaa (non-Sanskrit) composition in the second millennium CE.
The register of these fertile interactions was not always that of austere theorising among experts and philosophers. Down the ages, the one weapon that people seem to have exercised without any restraint or fear has been their ribald irreverence for the powers that be. No sphere of human activity was spared and no form of expression left untouched. The raajaa, raajakumaara, or a feudal lord, the darogaa, the mullaah, the pandit, the collector, or the modern-day politicians who masquerade as ‘representatives and servants of people’ have always been the butt of extremely sharp jokes, spoofs and caricatures. Satirical and sarcastic poetry, songs, dance and folk theatre in different languages have always been invoked by people to show their irreverence. As early as the Rig Samhitaa, the seers satirised brahmins who croak like frogs (VII.103.1-10) and priests greedy for gold (IX.112.1).
The Mattavilaasa-prahasana, a farce attributed to the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (early seventh century CE), was written with the object of holding up to ridicule the foibles and follies of Shaiva, Buddhist and Jain ascetics. The lampooning of these ascetics also makes for fascinating reading in another farce from this king, viz., Bhagavadajjukiiya. A Kaapaalika in the Mattavilaasa refers to the Jains’ useless and false philosophies and evil shrines, and he wishes to cleanse his mouth [with wine, anathema to an orthodox Hindu] for having mentioned them. In the Shankaravijaya, a Kaapaalika adopted the character of an ascetic as an excuse for throwing off all social and moral restraints.
In the third act of the seventh-century play Naagaananda (based on the Buddhist legend of the self-sacrifice of Jimuutavaahana) attributed to king Harsha, the viduushaka (a comic figure, generally a brahmin himself) and a vita (rogue, knave or bon-vivant), through their stupidity and vulgarity ridicule a brahmin. Raajashekhara’s viduushaka in his Baala-raamaayana stands out not only for his pointless jokes but also for tasteless antics. Apparently, the sophisticated society ‘did not disdain the shallow gaiety of the farce (prahasana) and the erotic monologue play (bhaana), which take for their characters debauches, rogues and vagrants and for their subjects shady and coarse acts…’35
In Kerala, the Chaakyaarsalmost terrorised rulers with kuuttu and kuutiyaattam performances. The Mahishashatakam by Vaancheshvara Diikshita alias ‘Kuttikavi’ (meaning ‘Boy Poet’), a kaavya of about one hundred verses ostensibly in praise of a buffalo, but in reality a political satire with clearly identifiable spatio-temporal specificity (Thanjaavuur in the late 18thcentury) is an example of political criticism. Most of the problems raised here – corrupt bureaucracy, decadent society, declining educational values, debauchery in the court, nepotism – almost everything sounds very contemporary.36 He has only contempt, bordering on intolerance, for institutionalised religion. The meaninglessness of sacrificial rites, pilgrimage and various yogic practices is the subject of one verse (v.36). The way in which Vedic scholars made a fetish of their experience (v.54), Maadhvaachaarya (v.55), Shriivaishnavas (v.57), the ways of yoga (v.56), the activities of a yajamaana in a sacrifice (v.58) – all this is subjected to the poet’s ridicule. Though a work of exceptional literary quality, it goes much beyond frivolous cynicism. As a serious political [kings of his time are called vidyaayaam vishabuddhayo hi vrisalaasabhyah – ‘vulgar urchins, who look upon knowledge as just poison’, (verse 3)] and social critique, it also looks like a work of a grand intellectual of the time who was perhaps playing the additional role of a political activist.
Given the long dialectical legacy, the history of Indian philosophy is seen as the history of the elaboration of different systems conditioned by an ongoing critical questioning from their rivals, and by the confrontation with other issues that threaten their internal coherence.37 The participants in the great variety of debates taking place across the centuries deployed every rhetorical gambit without restraint – tarka, vitarka, kutarka, chhal, jalpa, vitandaa–everything is on display. The identity and meaning of paashanda/ paashandin(the most common term for a ‘heretic’) kept on changing. If the Buddhists were paashandas to the Vaishnavas and Shaivas at some stage, the Shaiva became the main adversaries of the Vaishnavas on another occasion.38
John Cort’s anthology, Open Boundaries – Jain Communities and Cultures in Indian History (1998), presents a complex history of ‘otherness’ in western India. Further, in an attempt to construct specific religious identities, it asks provocative questions: Who is a Jain? What is Jainism? Like the modern-day Lingaayatas in Karnataka, Jainas are also refusing to be bracketed with the ‘Hindus’ much to the discomfiture of ‘Hindu Nationalists’ in the garb of ‘Cultural Nationalists’. Numerous contributions in Cort’s volume bring out contested Jain identities of ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’. Focusing on Jain interactions with non-Jains, including Muslims and Europeans, it demolishes the myth of Jains constituting a monolithic entity. Within the two broad divisions into Digambaras and Shvetaambaras that have been known for more than two millennia, there were sects within sects.39 The Muurtipuujaks, Sthaanakavaasiis, and Teraapanthiis emerged within the Shvetaambaras, as did a sense of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ along caste lines (Osval Jains claiming Rajput status) – the linguistic dyad of Jain and Jainetara (‘Jain’ and ‘non-Jain’) also got formed. And like the shifting paasanda/paashandin, the frontiers of the Jainetara also could not remain constant. Thus, in twelfth-century Gujarat, we no longer see a strong sense of Buddhists as the ‘other’; they have been replaced by the Shaivas, in particular, Paashupata Shaivas, who vied with Jain mendicants for influence over the Chaulukyan kings. This religious rivalry with the Shaivas continued for many centuries. In the fifteenth century, Munisundarasuuri, the leader of the TapaaGachchha, mercilessly satirised the uneducated buffoonery of Shaiva clerics and monks who were a prominent feature of rural Gujarat in the 15th-16th centuries, in his Bharataka-dvaatrimshikaa, indicating that at the time the Shaivas were still the Jains’ principal rivals for popular support in Gujarat.40
Very few pre-Islamic Indian religions have left any significant understanding of ‘Muslims’ or ‘Islamicate’ sects. Jains were perhaps an exception. And yet, expectedly perhaps, following the legacy of British colonial history, especially the James Mill type construct, Hindu-Muslim interactions in medieval and early modern India have been mostly studied in monolithic or antagonistic terms. The present-day Hindu nationalists have not deviated from this track. Unlike the responses of Indian religions to the coming of Islam, the response of the latter towards Indian religions in general and the ‘Hindus’ in particular has a long history. Leaving aside Arab geographers’ accounts of India going back to the 8th/9th centuries, there have been numerous accounts on this aspect from the eleventh century onwards. Presently we are not concerned about constructions of the theme of ‘Influence of Islam on Indian Culture’ on which several monographs exist (e.g., from Tara Chand’s work of that title in 1922 to Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters and Manager Pandey edited Mughal Badshaahon ki Hindi Kavitaa in 2016). However, the trend of followers of Islam reflecting on their perceptions of Indian religions and philosophies began with al-Biruuni (c.973-1054 CE) and continued for almost eight centuries. Al-Gardiizii (circa early eleventh century), Amiir Khusraw (1253-1325), Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) and the Naqshbandi Sufi, Mirza Mazhar Jaan-i Jaanaan (1698-1781), all made rich contributions. Some of these are very keen and conscientious attempts, some are quite vitriolic and some others (particularly those of DaaraaShukoh) make a sincere effort to produce ideas that create a synthesis of Sufi and brahmanic philosophic thoughts. In this long chain, the Dabistaan-i-Mazaahib has carved out a special niche for itself.
The Dabistaan– by an anonymous author, variously named or identified as ‘Mobad’/ ‘Mubed’, Muhsin Fani, or Mirza Zu’lfiqaar Beg or Kaikhusrau Isfandyaar – is a phenomenal Mughal-period text (completed in, or a little after, 1653) on comparative religion, apparently written with painstaking research. ‘Based not only on textual readings but also on personal “field work”, this work is unique for its time, both when we consider its author’s avowedly impartial approach and his anxiety to be not only detailed but also precise and accurate.’41 Its tenth section (ta‘liim) ‘On the system of those who profess the doctrine of Tark’ [Mubed, 1843/1998: 203-210] is especially striking for its extremely detailed spelling out of what is called the science of dialectics. The author enumerates sixteen parts of Tarkashaastraas pramaana, pramiti, samshaya, prayojana, drishtaanta, siddhaanta, avayava, tarka, nirneya, vaada, jalpa, vitandaa, hetvaabhaasa, chhala, jaati and nigraha and also provides lists of their sub-divisions. It is evident that Imaam Arastu who related these to Mubed, was himself familiar with ‘an old treatise upon logic’ (possibly Gautama’s). There are interesting hints about the trek through which this science of dialectics got dispersed among the Persians in the time of Alexander’s conquest.
The objectivity of the author is indicated in its delineation of the ibaadat-khaanaa discussions : ‘In the “discussion among Religions”, which is apparently based on some text reporting Akbar’s ibaadat-khaana discussions, the debate ends in favour of reason, with the kinds of arguments that had been raised in Akbar’s court circle, with almost no touch anywhere of the ishraqi or illuminative mysticism of the Sipasi sect, to which the author of the Dabistanbelonged. It is difficult, then, to argue that in reproducing such a document our author was pursuing any agenda of his own.’42
Scientific temper and the bright dawn
Mahatma Gandhi was a deeply religious humanist, a practicing Hindu with an abiding faith in God. He advocated reason over blind obedience in a myriad of instances, of which here are two: ‘Let us not deceive ourselves into the belief that everything that is written in Sanskrit and printed in Shaastra has a binding effect on us. That which is opposed to trained reason, cannot be claimed as Shaastra no matter how ancient it may be…’[Gandhi, CW: XXXV, 1969, pp.8, 98-99]; ‘It seems to me that we must test on the anvil of reason everything that is capable of being tested by it and reject that which does not satisfy it even though it may appear in ancient garb’, and, ‘to me it is as plain as a pikestaff, that where there is an appeal to reason pure and undefiled, there should be no appeal to authority however great it may be…’ [Ibid., XLI, 1970, pp. 468-69], and so on.
There has for long been a school of historical thought in India, which has relentlessly sung paeans to the glorious ‘Hindu’ period of Indian history that extended from the earliest times to the coming of the British in the 17th century. The ‘medieval’ for them is all ‘Muslim’, ‘an inferno’ in the language of Max Mueller, and to be eliminated. All scientific and technological advances were made during the several millennia of the ‘Hindu’ period. Relying on mythological allusions in the epics and the Puranas, fantastical claims have been put forward to suggest that the ancients knew about aeroplanes, plastic surgery, test tube babies and cloning. Dealing with a case involving the death of twelve peacocks, a judge of a High Court in India (2016) pronounced, on the alleged evidence of the Bhaagavat Puraana, ‘The main characteristic of the peacock is his celibacy. The peahen gets pregnant by swallowing the tears of the peacock. The culling of such a bird is a matter of national concern.’ And all this, despite the Constitution of India expecting ‘every Indian citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform’ as one of the Fundamental Duties (Part IV-A, Article 51A (h) in the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution, 1976).
While we may not presume to speak for the outspoken ancient, medieval and modern questioners in this land – all the way from the Rig Samhitaa’s rishis and brahmavaadinii Gaargii Vaachaknavii to Gauri Lankesh – we should be able to recognise that the purportedly modern and ‘Western’ values of our Constitution reflect their questing spirit more closely than do the self-styled guardians and champions of Indian culture in our midst today.
This essay is an edited and abridged version of the General President’s Address delivered by Professor Shrimali to the 78thsession of the Indian History Congress, held at Jadavpur University, on 18 – 20 December 2017. Read the full text of the essay here.