What is the role of violence in Hinduism? Towards whom is the violence directed? Suddenly, the air in which we breathe has thickened with a language that that has yoked Hinduism together with calculated, martial aggression that has turned around some of the stakes in the ongoing national elections in surreal ways. The awareness is not a new one – it has gained an especially dense reality in this country since 2014 – but the new language entwining Hinduism with terror has given it an urgency that has hit too close to home. It goes to show how urgently language shapes our reality – rather that the other way around.

It is one of life’s sharp ironies that I was at a moment of artistic fascination with the iconography of polytheistic Hinduism when I had a fateful engagement with Kancha Iliah Shepherd, especially his searing book Why I’m Not a Hindu. Suddenly, the spell cast by the ocean of imagery of gods, goddesses and myths that have created an entire universe around the arts was shattered, and the unbearable light of brutality lit in cherished shrines of faith, beauty and poetic fascination. Following an evening of intense conversation on the subject, I couldn’t help but bring up these questions with him, to which he provides characteristically passionate responses.

Saikat Majumdar (SM): It is common for urban, educated, upper-caste, Western-educated Hindus to identify themselves as secular and at the same time take delight and pleasure in religious rituals and festivals. In her essay “Whatever Happened to the Hindu Left,” Ruth Vanita speaks of Calcutta Communists migrating en masse to Durga Puja celebrations, and Marxist academics at Delhi University who regularly fast and perform Pujas at home.

I like to imagine such engagement as aesthetic, that is, displaying a celebration of form and structure without necessarily affirming the moral core of faith, or, as Vanita puts it, as purely personal, and somehow invisible next to public or professional positions. I too, identify as a nonbeliever who has begun to celebrate the affective range and beauty of Hinduism, particularly of its polytheistic iconography, as I’ve grown increasingly preoccupied with its possibilities for art, richly realised through history. I recognise this as a partial disengagement from my own secular, modernist legacy traceable to the Bengal Renaissance.

Reading your work on Hindu gods as they appear from the Dalit Bahujan perspective has fiercely disrupted this preoccupation. Hindu polytheistic iconography, in spite of the great traditions of their artistic celebration, now feels very troubling. Naturally, I’m deeply curious to know how the various aesthetic celebrations of such Hindu iconography have appeared to you, from the position from which you write. I’m thinking of the various musical and poetic celebrations, as well as those in different forms of visual art. Were they ever aesthetically pleasing or energising, or always disturbing?

Kancha Iliah Shepherd (KIS): The Vedic, Puranaic and other images like Durga, Kali, what I call the Brahminic god/goddess iconography, appears to be attractive for a certain cultural eye because they present a violent hero/heroinic self. If you look at the history of the Brahminic aesthetics it is colourful, kingly or queenly. But there is a serious element of dehumanisation in that iconography. Most of these images (except Saibaba and Tirupathi Venkateshwara) have weapons in the hands. Ravi Varma’s paintings have added to that aesthetics.

The Bengali brahminic intellectual insensitivity is so shocking. A violent Kali with her tongue thrust out while crushing a black human being under her feet, while killing him with a trishul, and having a garland of human heads around her neck is made a spiritual symbol. That is also described as beautiful. They never realised how this affects the mind of the children growing around that kind of violent iconography. Later in the process of growth the children take the caste violence as normal and part of Hindu dharma.

The shudra/Dalit god/goddess iconography unfortunately has not come into textual narratives. It remains around production and medicinal systems. This iconography did not appear aesthetically attractive because they remained in raw stone form with white and yellow colour paint. They are not in the image of kings or queens. There is no gold and silver around them.

For example, the Pochamma goddess in every Telangana village. The iconography is just a stone in a small temple mostly painted in turmeric with lots of neem leaves around (both turmeric and neem have medicinal value) her. More significantly, there is no sense of violence around them. There is no enemy image opposite to them. There is no narrative of wifehood around them.

Their role is assumed to be protection for all, curing of diseases. There are no colourful dresses around them. The culture of production and protection is part of their imagery. Similarly there is a god image named Beerappa, whose iconography remains in stone form under a tree. The story revolves around shepherding and growing the flock. Though the shepherd is a metaphor for god in all Brahminic culture, the shepherd is an untouchable shudra.

Spiritually, brahminic iconography and polytheism is an antithesis of the universal spiritual culture, which believed that worshipping violence is ungodly. But brahminism worships only violence.

SM: This helps us realise what should have been obvious all along but has never been. The upper-caste Hindu sensibility has been silently trained to accept and even celebrate this violence. The violence embodied by powerful Hindu goddesses is a particularly compelling case. The violence of Kali or Durga is so easily celebrated as a kind of positive feminine force, while forgetting the symbolism associated with those targeted by this violence.

The misleading symbolism of female energy diverts attention from the real issue – the complete disempowerment of women within the patriarchal system of brahminical Hinduism. As you write, Brahma’s wife, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is “an illiterate woman” and has not created any texts herself, as “brahminism never allowed women to be educated.” Nor does she ever speak of women’s education, say, in the way, say, Savithribai Phule, did in the mid-nineteenth century, someone in whom you see “real feminist assertion” as you never see in Hindu goddesses.

Likewise with the power relation between Vishnu and Lakshmi. It is undeniable that the codes of conduct embodied by goddesses like Lakshmi and Saraswati have shaped upper-caste Hindu women for centuries. How do you then explain the powerful symbolism of Shakti and the divine female energy associated with it? Is this another contradiction between the real and the symbolic?

KIS: The worship of violence vis-à-vis worship of production and birth have different implications for civilisations. The celebration of death in the form of festivals – Diwali as the day of Narakasura Vadha, Dasara as the death day of Ravan and so on – as against the birth of divine internalised so much violence among the elite as well. They never notice even in the great Indian tradition, as they call Buddhism, Buddha’s birthday is the biggest celebration.

By contrast, in brahminic civilisation there is no birthday celebration for Brahma or Vishnu, the only relief is Krishna’s Janmashtami celebration. Maybe because as Bheenaveni Ram Shepherd in an article titled “Hindu Rama, Indian Krishna” (Mainstream, December 23, 2017) said Krishna was a cattle herder god. At least in modern intellectual discourse, this violence should have been abhorrent to the spiritual theorists. But unfortunately celebration of violence and spiritual heroism is on the ascendancy.

The female symbolism that comes from brahminic texts is unusually antithetical to the global feminine spiritual cultural evolution. In the brahminic tradition women became goddesses of education and wealth without having the right to educate themselves and the right to own property in their name. This is a spiritual cultural paradox. If Saraswati and Lakshmi were prayed to for education and wealth in a real sense, sati, permanent widowhood and child marriages should not have come into operation amongst the priestly and ruling castes and communities.

There is no such educational or wealth source iconography among the productive caste cultures. There was also no wife-burning and permanent widowhood, as the pativrata culture was never so ingrained among them. Yet the Indian brahminic intellectuals never studied that cultural anthropology till a set of Dalitbahujan intellectuals emerged from the days of Mahatma Phule and Savitribai.

The first educated woman teacher of India did not come from Saraswati worshippers. Savitribai came from a gramadevata (village goddess) worshipping shudra family and caste. Why such contradicting and self-negating spiritual and moral cultures got institutionalised by the brahminic texts, and iconography constructed from that knowledge, needs a serious investigation. Why the available egalitarian spiritual-productive cultures from the same land did not become part of the Hindu canonical texts also needs to be examined.

Saikat Majumdar.
Saikat Majumdar.

SM: The ideological conditioning, as you point out, was not simply confined to brahminical or upper-caste Hindus. The polytheistic pantheon also sought to manufacture consent among tribal and other non-brahminical social groups. You talk about the possible tribal origins of the iconography of Shiva and Parvathi. Even more striking for me is the story you tell about Krishna – who grew up as a yadava but whose mature political role is essentially that of defending brahminism, and his justification of the use of terrifying violence in doing so.

This is fascinating to me as Krishna in many ways seems to epitomise the moral ambivalence of Hinduism to me – as the erotic aesthete who also gives the quintessential gospel of Hinduism. How does this ambivalence fit in with the image of Krishna as the lower-caste champion of brahminism and destroyer of Dalitbahujan people that appears to be the perspective you offer?

KIS: The consent system that the lower castes were subjected to was built with several strategies: 1) during the Sanskrit language operation phase the shudra/dalit masses were denied access to that language. 2) Over a period of time, when contestations from different shudra occupational groups surfaced, spiritual icons from those communities were co-opted into the brahminic polytheist iconography.

Textual adjustments or interpolations to the brahminic texts seems to have been done with a design. Shiva and Parvati do not seem to fit into the cultural realm of Brahma-Saraswati and Vishnu-Lakshmi. For a long time Shaivism seem to have operated outside the structural Sanskritic brahminic tradition. Once this sect was spread out among the tribal, shudra masses in different parts of India, the Sanskritic brahmin force seem to have co-opted it. Even after this, the conflict between Shaivite brahminism and Vaishnavite brahminism (in which the Brahma and Vishnu cults were included) were bitter and violent.

Perhaps after Adi Shankara’s Advaita school emerged, the conflicts were resolved and a polytheist Hinduism of the kind we see today was constructed with a consensual caste hierarchy with the hegemony of the brahmin. The Adi Shankara ideology not only unified brahminism, but it also vegetarianised it, starting with the South. This is now resulting in food cultural violence as Hindu-Hindutva ideology runs counter to universal multi-cuisine spirituality. Vegetarianism did not reduce violence but increased it.

As you said, Krishna’s status and symbolism is more paradoxical. He is said to be a yadav (cattle herder unlike other gods) and the author of the Bhagvad Gita, on which philosophical edifice brahminic Hinduism survives, as it taught some universal spiritual values. He leads a major war without personally killing anybody.

If the line catur-varnyam maya srstam is removed from the Gita there is no other reference to caste in the text. Krishna is erotic, playful around gopikas, and has eight wives. The famous Mathura temple of Sri Krishna or Gurvayyur Srikrishna temple of Kerala are under brahmin control.

The paradox is that there are no Sanskrit pandits or priests from among yadavs. Those who claim that they are descendants of Krishna are in the category of socially and educationally backward OBCs. There is no spiritual movement among yadavs claiming that they should control Krishna temples – including claims to priesthood.

Caste seems to have worked as opium, not so much as religion, in India. The Indian Marxist-liberal intellectuals never understood the role of this opium. When intellectualism is in the spell of opium, clarity is missing all the time. Ambedkar tried to stomach wash it, but it has become part of the brahminic intellectual DNA.

Hence, universally, while the shepherd, as the caretaker of the human flock, is a metaphor for god, here the killers of the Other became the metaphor. Hence the whole spiritual idiom has acquired a different character.

Saikat Majumdar’s most recent book is the novel The Scent of God. He is on twitter at @_saikatmajumdar.