Why should there be an Indian retelling of this lore? The primary reason is to draw attention to the structural difference between monotheistic lore on the one hand, and lore based on the doctrine of rebirth that informs Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, faiths that originated in India on the other. This difference is the root of many unnecessary misunderstandings that continue to plague the study of non-monotheistic belief systems around the world. This difference is clearly demonstrated by the following folktale.
Once, a Jain monk narrated the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But his retelling was different from the retelling of the Hindus. So the local king demanded an explanation. The
Jain monk said the world goes through cycles of creation and destruction. In each cycle, the tale recurs, with minor differences.
In one cycle, Ram killed Ravana and in another, Lakshman killed Ravana. In one cycle, the Mahabharata war is fought between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in another, the war is fought between Krishna and Jarasandha. Hindus speak of one cycle, and Jains of the other. The doctrine of rebirth thus enables co-existence of multiple truths. This is not possible in monotheistic faiths that state you live only once, and you must live that life the right way, or suffer eternal damnation.
This book also draws attention to the monotheistic template that became the benchmark of religion in the nineteenth century, forcing Hindus to reframe their complex faith. Reformists consciously distanced themselves from what was called “idolatory” even though temple worship was the popular expression of Hinduism. Greater emphasis was laid on Hindu philosophy such as the Vedanta, and Hindu mythology was presented as Hindu history.
Academics argued that Hinduism institutionalised inequality and oppression through the caste system. Forced to defend their faith relentlessly, exasperated Hindus came to believe that reform and anti-caste movements were essentially covert operations for destroying the foundations of Hinduism.
This has led to widespread popularity of an aggressive nineteenth-century political ideology called Hindutva that seeks to defend Hinduism, restore pride in Hinduism, unite all castes to a common political fold and establish India as a nation for Hindus. In the process, it homogenises Hindu customs and beliefs, and disregards its very essence, its diversity.
This book spotlights how the same lore has different retellings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Instead of creating standardisation and homogeneity, the obsession with one truth has generated inter-religious rivalry, intra-religious rivalry and rivalry between religion and science, with arguments against evolution and in favour of a flat earth.
Science, secularism and postmodern thinking have overpowered religion in many areas, but have not been able to provide the comfort religion does to the meek and the suffering. Religion, to regain ascendancy, pushes back and strives to be “scientific” but rationalists call out the obvious science-envy of religions.
Such trends are found everywhere, and they are tearing the world apart as everyone wants to be right, and finds glory in being intolerant. Listening to diverse lore helps us appreciate the insecurities that are common to all people and bring in some much-needed empathy to heal the wounds of battle.
- Prabhachandra’s compilation of biographies of Jain teachers, Prabhavakacharita, refers to the tale of conflict between Hindu and Jain retellings of the epics involving the twelfth-century scholar Acharya Hemachandra.
- While the word mleccha or impure barbarian was a pejorative term used for new immigrants of a different faith, the indigenous caste (jati) framework in India allowed various Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups to thrive so long as they practised endogamy (marriage within community) and respected local boundaries and hierarchies. The immigrants eventually became landowners (Kshatriya), landless labourers (Shudra) or craftsmen and traders (Vaishya). None became Brahmins, though many Abrahamic communities of India claim to have descended from Brahmins.
- The arrival of the Turko-Afghan warlords 800 years ago made Indians defensive about polytheism. This led to the emphasis on the bheda – abheda (dual – non-dual) philosophy of Vedanta from the thirteenth century onwards, which sought to see one God in many gods. It also popularized nirguni bhakti, or worship of the formless divine, over saguni bhakti, worship of the divine in the form of idols.
- The rise of the British Empire about 300 years ago introduced Indians to ideas of liberty, equality and justice. This was at odds with Hindu ideas of karmic bondage, caste and wheel of rebirths, and made the educated class defensive of Hindu customs and beliefs.
- The idea that Muslims destroyed Hindu civilisation was invented by the British, who positioned themselves as saviours of Hindu civilisation in the eighteenth century. The arrival of the Persianate culture and monotheistic faith 800 years ago was similar to the arrival of Yavanas-Sakas-Pahalavas-Kushans (Greeks-Scythians-Parthians-Yuezhi) 2,000 years ago. Hinduism adapted then, it would adapt again.
- The popularity of science and history has led to mythological narratives being seen as proto-history. In this pseudoscience, biblical events in the Genesis and Exodus are historical events that took place 6,000 years ago, despite the lack of evidence. Similar trends are seen in all religions. In India, people insist that the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are historical events that took place 7,000 and 5,000 years ago respectively. The matter evokes strong emotions and so is used by politicians to gain power.
- Exposure to Abrahamic mythology via trade routes explains why the concept of a future messiah also manifests as Maitreya, the future teacher in Buddhist lore, and Kalki, Vishnu’s future avatar in Hindu lore.
By deliberately referring to Jewish, Christian and Islamic myths as “lore”, the title of this book draws attention to monotheism’s unresolvable yearning for Truth, with a capital T.
In the sixteenth century, the University of Cambridge stated that their charter came from King Arthur. Today, we know that is fiction. Or rather a legend, a quasi-historical belief that legitimises an institution, for Arthur was chosen by God to lead England, and so his charter legitimised Cambridge University. It is certainly not a fact.
It is only in the nineteenth century that evidence-based history emerged as a subject in European universities. This forced the separation of history from the memories of a people. Traditional stories of ancestors told by tribes of Asia, America, Oceania and Australia were deemed myths.
However, few dared to show that Christian lore was also such a cultural memory, a combination of parables (fictions with moral endings), legends (fictions meant to legitimise political claims) and myths (fictions that use metaphors to explain the origins of nature and culture). This was because imperial powers such as Spain, Portugal and England, that supported the universities, were legitimised by the Church.
Only in the twentieth century, following the World Wars and the collapse of colonial empires, was religion grouped along with polytheism as mythology. Atheism acquired the privileged position of being more scientific. But this privileged position was short-lived.
In the twenty-first century, post-structural philosophy and postmodern politics showed how
power operates through various belief systems – be it atheism, monotheism or polytheism; how language is used by the elite to corner power. Simultaneously, psychology revealed how people need subjective truth to grant their lives meaning and purpose.
It is now clear that myth is somebody’s truth, distinct from everyone’s truth, ie, measurable truth (fact) and nobody’s truth (fiction). Some myths like rebirth and God are traditional, inherited over generations. Others like the nation and human rights are contemporary and ideological.
Historians, for example, have reliable evidence of a historical Muhammad and a probable historical Jesus, but none for “Prophet” Muhammad or Jesus “Christ”. Notions of the “Chosen One” and “God” can never be historical; they remain matters of faith. This rattles believers.
Modern-day activists insist that they are more rational than religious folk. However, they too get rattled when reminded that justice and equality are also social constructs, hence myths, and not self-evident truths. Notions of justice and equality are different for different people – invariably somebody’s truth, not everybody’s truth.
For an outsider, Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem like branches emerging from the same Abrahamic tree. However, for the insider, it is not so. Adjectives like “Abrahamic” and “Judaeo-Christian” became popular only in the latter half of the twentieth century and are accepted rather grudgingly, but not by all.
For centuries, Christians hated the Jewish people and saw them as Christ-killers. This gave rise to anti-Semitism, a systematic and structural hatred of the Jewish people across Europe. But in the 1940s, the Holocaust or the genocide of six million Jewish people in Christian Europe by the Nazis of Germany during the Second World War shocked the Western world.
It forced them to confront their anti-Semitic ways and acknowledge the common root of Judaism and Christianity. Only then did the phrase “Judaeo-Christian” come into being. Earlier, it was used for Jewish people who were recent converts to Christianity.
A thousand years ago, Christians fought the Crusades against Muslims for the control of Jerusalem. The conflict took a fresh form nearly a thousand years later, when, after the Second World War, colonial powers, all Christian, took control of the Middle East from the Ottoman Emperor, seen by Muslims as the Caliphate of the Islamic world. Israel was handed over to the Jewish people, upsetting the local Muslim population.
Then, at the turn of the century, following the Gulf War and the 9/11 terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Centre in New York, old wounds were reopened. America declared its War on Terror, which was seen as a veiled attack of the Christian nations against the Muslim world, under the garb of secularism and democracy. To heal these wounds, more and more writers started using the adjective ‘Abrahamic’ to refer to the common roots of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.
Islamophobia, the structural and systemic hatred of Muslims, began with the Crusades, when Christians who saw sex as sin declared Muslims as heretics as they were comfortable with sensuality and even saw Allah’s heaven, .e, Jannat, as a sensual place full of fountains, gardens and beautiful fairies. Islamophobia has re-emerged in Europe and America as Muslim migrants find their faith at odds with the liberal values of the modern world that is based on equality, secularism, regard for a country’s constitution over Sharia (Islamic law), and human rights for LGBTQ+ people.
- In India, there are Malayali Christians who claim they converted under the influence of St Thomas nearly 2,000 years ago. There are Goans who converted under the influence of Portuguese Catholic missionaries since the sixteenth century. There are East Indians and Anglo-Indians who converted under the influence of the Anglican Church of England since the seventeenth century. Tribes in North-east India were converted mainly by American Protestant Evangelists such as the Baptists and the Presbyterians. These Christian groups see themselves as distinct from each other, their divisions following old ethnic, linguistic, tribal and caste divisions in India.
- In India, while there was no anti-Semitism, there was little curiosity about Jewish tales. Synagogues were often confused with the Parsi fire temples and mosques. In 1958, Sohrab Modi starred in a Bollywood film called Yahudi, or “The Jew”, which tells the story of a Jewish man who raises a Roman child and is persecuted by Romans.
- The Muslims of Sindh and Punjab never treated the Muslims of Bengal as equals, resulting in the splitting of Bangladesh from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. While Islam seeks to be a grand unifying force, it keeps getting split along ethnic and national lines.
Excerpted with permission from Eden: An Indian Exploration of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Lore, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin Books.