The reality for a novelist in India – I am speaking from my Kannada experience – is so complex as to disallow the comforts of either status-quoist acceptance or of revolutionary ruthlessness. RK Narayan can afford to say “India will go on” only as a comic realist in his inimitable low mimetic mode. But when his insightful Indian experience is translated into ideas in a polemical context, it is difficult to defend them. The same is true of VS Naipaul’s indictment of Indian reality. He can afford to speak angrily and ruthlessly, and plead for a thoroughgoing modernisation in India – only in a polemical context.

I wonder if he can maintain his position unambiguously in a novel where his imaginative sympathies are fully engaged. All of us share this dilemma. What we feel and what we think are often in conflict. Even while I am writing this I am engaged in a bewilderingly confusing discussion with my radical friends about an incident in Chandragutti, a village of my district 85 kilometres from Shimoga, where every year, in March, men and women of all ages offer naked worship to a goddess in fulfilment of a vow. Early morning they take a dip in the River Varada, wait in the water to get possessed, and then run four or five kilometres to go up a picturesque hill 800 metres above sea level to worship Renukamba. Last month, many young men and women belonging to radical and rationalist organisations went there, with the encouragement of the Social Welfare Department of the government, to plead with these “backward-caste” worshippers that nude worship was “wrong” and “inhuman”. This attracted wide media attention and journalists went there too, with their cameras.

Earlier, two weeklies run by rationalist and scheduled caste activists had also carried pictures of nude worshippers on their colourful cover pages. These weeklies published articles attacking what, for them, seemed an inhuman “superstitious” practice, while they also aimed at increasing their circulation with the nude pictures.

The encounter between the illiterate believers and the educated middle-class rationalists was both fierce and unexpected. The worshippers broke through the physical barricade of the rationalists who stood on the bank of the river pleading with them to wear clothes. And then they ran to the hill in frenzied possession. Some worshippers even turned violent. The deputy superintendent of police was stripped forcibly of his khaki uniform, and forced to go naked in procession with the worshippers. The women-police were also mercilessly stripped by the dancing priestesses, called jogithis. A policewoman, it was reported, felt so humiliated and helpless that she wanted to kill herself. The jogithis, with their matted hair and red-and yellow-powder-smeared faces, danced gleefully, waving police pants and helmets and iron trishuls.

The clothed devotees and pilgrims who had gathered in Chandragutti from far and near on foot, on bullock carts, buses and lorries ascribed the mass hysteria to the fury of the goddess Renukamba, even while they felt sympathy for the victims. Nobody seemed to have any sympathy for the photographers whose expensive cameras were smashed like the coconut offerings to the goddess.

In my political action – whatever little a full-time teacher like me can do – I have not wavered all these 30 years. I remain a democratic socialist. But with regard to cultural questions, I am increasingly and agonisingly growing ambivalent. Bharathipura was written about a decade ago, at a time which also saw the rise of activism among the Scheduled Caste radicals and rationalists in Karnataka. Some of my intimate friends, whom I respect and with whom, politically, I have a lot in common are among these activist groups and therefore my dilemmas cause me and also my friends bafflement and pain. They often feel very angry and also, naturally, intolerant with my dilemmas.

The papers are full of the Chandragutti episode, and we meet in a committee room of the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, under the auspices of a journal that I edit, to discuss the happenings. Our small group consists of two anthropologists, liberals of different persuasions, and a woman activist of great courage and commitment who has luckily come back unscathed from Chandragutti.

We are eager to hear the anthropologists and the woman activist. We already have some anthropological data regarding the Chandragutti worship. The Hindu, a solidly middle-class, even conservative South Indian paper with a Marxist on its editorial board, has published a report with the headline, “Were the volunteers over-enthusiastic?” (The Hindu, Monday, March 24, 1986). The report tells us that we have records of Chandragutti dating back to 1396 ce. It was an early stronghold of the Kadamba kings of Banavasi.

The mythological references of Chandragutti date back to the pre-Kruta Yuga days. This was the sage Jamadagni’s hermitage, according to legend. His wife Renuka went to bring water from the river as she did daily, but one day she failed to repeat the miracle of carrying water in a basket as she had lost her purity. She had seen a Kshatriya king bathing in the river, and she was for a moment attracted to him. Her husband Jamadagni perceived what had happened, and he ordered his son, Parasurama, to kill his mother. There are several stories about this. Parasurama obeyed his father, and from the pleased father earned the boon of getting his mother back to life, but had to wander round the world in expiation, vainly trying to wash clean the axe of his mother’s blood.

He also killed all the Kshatriyas and spared only Rama, who, like him, is an avatar of Vishnu. But the legend in Chandragutti is vivid and dramatic. As the son pursued Renuka to behead her, she ran recklessly and in the process lost all her clothes. She hid herself in the Shiva temple, naked. There is still a cave in Chandragutti below which is a rock shaped like two giant hips, believed to be those of Renuka. There is another legend linking Renuka with Matangi, who was Renuka’s maidservant. Parasurama, before leaving on his mission of killing Kshatriyas, entrusted his mother to the care of Matangi’s son, Beerappa. But he grows into a sex maniac and Matangi, moved by the plight of helpless women, provided them with clothes.

Even today, as the naked women come to the temple of Matangi, they are provided with new clothes. Many of these worshippers are also devotees of Yellamma of Saundatti in Belgaum District. The two are believed to be sisters. There is also a legend that Renuka of Kruta Yuga took the form of Yellamma in Kaliyuga. The radical activists are up against practices observed to propitiate Yellamma of Saundatti.

Young girls offer themselves as prostitutes in observation of a vow, and many of them nowadays find their way into Bombay’s flesh market owing to commercial exploitation. There are jogithis and khojas in the Yellamma temple, too. Some activists who went to Chandragutti associate the nude worship with the likely enticement into prostitution.

In our meeting, the anthropologists offer proper technical explanations: for the way in which Dravidian culture has interacted with the Aryan in Chandragutti, and for the unique survival of age – old practices like possession – worship, owing to the inaccessibility of the hilly regions of the Sahyadri range of mountains. And, of course, they ask what is the cultural significance of mother worship in general, and what it may mean to the lower castes in Chandragutti. And they offer guesses regarding the private psychological problems of the devotees and the therapeutic nature of the nude worship. They speculate on how some women offer their hair, some others their nudity – whatever is held to be most valuable to themselves, to the goddess. And so on.

And finally the anthropologists add: it is futile to attempt to stop a practice until you study in depth what the practice means to the actual believers. But change they must, some day – and their quarrel is only with the tactics employed by the over-enthusiastic activists. They concur with the first sentence of The Hindu report: “Can a deep-seated superstition handed down the centuries be eradicated overnight?”

The woman activist is impatient. We should make a beginning somewhere, shouldn’t we? In the name of culture and belief, do we tolerate untouchability and the practice of sati? Have we not legislated against such evil practices? She is also angry with the government that it did not take enough precautions by way of extra police force. Although she didn’t actually say so in the meeting, many of the activists are attacking the government that the police didn’t even burst tear gas shells, and they had rifles in vain. Some activists suspect the hand of Hindu revivalists in the attack, but one of them also acknowledges that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant revivalist organisation, had published pamphlets calling upon the devotees to give up nude worship.

The woman activist is still under shock from what she has seen, and one of the anthropologists tries to persuade her that the practice of untouchability, which is a social evil, should not be equated with nude worship. Yet he agrees with her that it must go, and that it will go, with education and civilisation spreading into the area. Another anthropologist speaks of the practice of hooking oneself up in the air on the back, and being turned round in the observation of a vow, and how the worshipper doesn’t even bleed with the hook pierced into the flesh. Such is the intensity of faith in some lower castes, and such is the power of possession.

Excerpted with permission from “Why not Worship in the Nude?” in The Essential UR Ananthamurthy, edited by N Manu Chakravarthy and Chandan Gowda, Aleph Book Company.