Common section


1950 -

One day, sitting in the Adi-Dravida street, I tackled a group of older
Pallars on the subjects of death, duty, destiny and rebirth of the soul.
In my inadequate Tamil, I asked them where they thought the soul
went after death. . . . The group collapsed in merriment—perhaps as
much at my speech as at the question. Wiping his eyes, the old man
replied, “Mother, we don’t know! Do you know? Have you been
there?” I said, “No, but Brahmans say that if people do their duty
well in this life, their souls will be born next time in a higher caste.”
“Brahmans say!” scoffed another elder, “Brahmans say anything.
Their heads go round and round!”

Kathleen Gough, in 1960, writing about the Pallars,
a caste of Adi-Dravidas (“Original Dravidians”),
a South Indian term for formerly Untouchable
castes known elsewhere as Dalits

The subtitle of this chapter might be “Whatever Happened to . . . the Veda, the Ramayana?” Where the previous chapter traced the historical background of the political situation of Hindus in contemporary America, this chapter considers the relevance of history to the political situation of Hindus in present-day India. It demonstrates how alive the past is in present-day India, how contemporary events rebound off the wall of the past. We have noted, throughout, the intertextual links, the way that stories told in the Vedas and Brahmanas are retold, with variations, in theMahabharata, and the Puranas, and vernacular traditions. The heads of the Brahmins “go round and round” as the meanings of the ancient texts are ignored, or inverted, or, in some cases, followed to the letter. And the diversity of Hinduism extends also to the diversity of the ways in which the past is used in the present.

I’ve taken the contemporary instances not in any logical order but following the chronological order of the historical periods described in some (though not all) of the previous chapters, beginning with the Vedas; in all other ways, they are in a random sequence. There is no consistent direction in which events from the ancient past exert their intense influence on the present moment. In some cases there is a transformation; the ancient myth or ritual takes on entirely new meanings or even new forms in the present. In other cases the past clings to its ancient, sometimes now incomprehensible or clearly irrelevant form and resists any change. Women and Dalits gain new powers but are still in many cases shackled to ancient, repressive forms, just as Hinduism in the contemporary period simultaneously reaches out to a new inclusiveness and new possibilities of equality for those who were oppressed in the past, while Hindu nationalists grow in their power to oppose that very inclusiveness. The new myths of women and Dalits may be unearthings or reworkings of ancient tales that were never preserved or entirely new creations, born of the events of our time.


The Veda lives on in revisions of the sacrifice. Although a living animal was suffocated in the Vedic sacrifice, in some cases rice cakes were already substituted for the animal victim. The irony is that now throughout India generally only the lower castes perform animal sacrifices (as the Vedic people did), while Brahmins perform vegetarian versions of Vedic sacrifices, often not just for the reasons that we have noted but also precisely in order to distinguish their sacrifices from the village buffalo sacrifice or chicken offered to the goddess—rites, associated with “carnivorous low castes,” that they regard as “popular” and “barbaric.”2 Privately performed sacrifices may include real animals, while publicly sponsored sacrifices are less likely to do so.3 But the flesh-eating Vedic god may still cast his shadow on the vegetarian sacrifice; the whole coconuts that the deity fancies bear a suspicious resemblance to human heads (a resemblance that is sometimes explicitly mentioned in the accompanying liturgy and in myths about human sacrifice).

The Brahmin priest often sacrifices a goat made of dough and papier-mâché, as Madhva advised his followers to do, and several ritual texts allow.4 In Kerala, Nambuduri Brahmins use rice wrapped in a banana leaf.5 Often the rice cakes that are used in place of the goat are wrapped in leaves, tied to little leashes, and carefully “suffocated” before they are offered. At some soma sacrifices, pots of ghee are substituted for the animals. A Vedic ritual in Maharashtra in 1992 was largely transformed into a puja, with a strongly Arya Samaj flavor; the sponsor was the guru, taking darshan before the image of the god, but a famous Muslim sitar player performed the music.6 And when a Vedic sacrifice was performed in London in 1996, there was not even a vegetable substitute for the sacrificial beast; the beasts were “entirely imagined.” The priest didn’t walk around the imaginary victims or tie them to a (real or imaginary) stake, as one would do with a live animal, but he did mime suffocating them and sprinkled water where they should have been. In place of the omentum (which the sacrificier usually smells but does not eat), they used the large wheat rolls called rotis.7 The transformation of a real ritual into an imagined ritual echoes a process that we have noted in the history of Tantra.

In the combinatory form of Hinduism that remains a basic format in India to the present day, the two forms of sacrifice may be performed together. When a Vedic sacrifice was performed in India in 1955, and public protest prevented the sacrificers from slaughtering a goat, another sacrificer protested the revisionist ritual by offering the same sacrifice—with animal victims—on the outskirts of town.8 Sometimes, “as a concession to mass sentiments,” sacrifices using Vedic mantras and rituals are preceded by popular rituals to local deities.9 Sometimes the distinction is spatial rather than temporal: The deity in the center of the Hindu temple (an aspect of Shiva or Vishnu or a goddess) is often a strict vegetarian who accepts no blood offerings, only rice, or rice cakes, as well as fruits and flowers, while there may be another deity, outside the temple, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Sometimes the vegetarian deity in the inner shrine is a god, and the carnivorous deity outside is a goddess. Similarly, the shrines of goddesses with an identificatio brahminica are generally inside the village, while those of mother goddesses who lacked such connections are outside the village.10

This arrangement in the structure of the temple translates into a spatial configuration—from outside to inside—what originated as a synchronic opposition (animal versus vegetable sacrifice) and developed into a historical, diachronic transition (vegetables replacing animals). In the outer markets of the temple, one can purchase an image of the deity, or a postcard of the temple, perhaps a cassette of the songs, bhajans, sung to the deity, but also entirely worldly things, cassettes of (pirated) versions of the Rolling Stones, sandals, saris, embroidered shawls, brass pots, statuettes of couples in Kama-sutra/ Khajuraho positions (thus once again uniting the sacred and the sensual), anything. The ideological conflict endures, in transformation, through both space and time. It also often endures in a linguistic bifurcation, as worshipers gather in the temple to hear someone read a Sanskrit text; some recite it with him; the storyteller or tour guide will then gloss it in the local language, Telugu or Bangla or whatever, and then explain it, perhaps discuss it with them. Then he will read another verse in Sanskrit, and so on. The rich mix of life on the outskirts of a temple is yet another example of the real periphery that the imaginary Brahmin center cannot hold.


The Vedic idea of a nonviolent sacraifice also affects contemporary attitudes to cows.

The cow is a central issue for the Hindutva faction, whose influence upon all branches of Indian life is sometimes called Saffronization (on the model of Sanskritization), a term with strong echoes of the renunciant branch of Hinduism, whose members wear saffron- or ocher-colored robes. In recent years, some members of the Hindu right have argued, in contradiction of abundant historical evidence to the contrary, that the ancient Indians never ate beef until the Muslims brought this custom to India; they have persecuted Hinduslh who have defended the historical record on this point,11 and they have attempted to use the alleged sanctity of the cow to disenfranchise Muslims, some of whom eat beef and others of whom slaughter cows, both for the Muslim ritual of Bakr-Id and for the many Hindus who do eat beef. The belief that Hindu cows are sacred is supported by no less an authority than the OED, which defines the term as, primarily, designating “The cow as an object of veneration amongst Hindus,” and cites an 1891 reference from Rudyard Kipling’s father (a vet in India), already in the context of Hindu-Muslim conflict: “The Muhammedan . . . creed is in opposition to theirs [sc. the Hindus’] and there are rankling memories of a thousand insults to it wrought on the sacred cow.”12 The term became globalized as a metaphor, indeed a backhanded anti-Hindu ethnic slur. In U.S. journalism the term “sacred cow” came to mean “someone who must not be criticized,” and in American literature, “An idea, institution, etc., unreasonably held to be immune from questioning or criticism.” The term designates precisely the sort of fanaticism that characterizes the methods of those who, in the cow protection movement under the Raj and again in India today, have insisted that all cows are sacred.

But are cows sacred in India? Or is the idea of a “sacred cow” an Irish bullli (the old British chauvinist term for an ox-y-moron)? People often perform puja to cows, and at many festivals they decorate cows and give them fruits and flowers, paint their horns beautifully, and place garlands around their necks. Cows are in many ways special animals. Certainly they are not publicly killed in India, for it is against the law to kill a cow in several Indian states and frowned on in others. Cows already in early Sanskrit texts came to symbolize Brahmins, since a Brahmin without a cow is less than a complete Brahmin, and killing a cow (except in a sacrifice) was equated with killing a Brahmin.13

But “sacred” means a lot more than not to be killed and is, in any case, a Christian term that can be, at best, vaguely and inadequately applied in India. Few of us kill, or eat, our children, but no one would argue that they are sacred. There are few, if any, Hindu cow goddesses or temples to cows.lj Hindus do not always treat cows with respect or kindness; cows are sometimes beaten and frequently half starved; Hindus will often treat cows in ways that sheltered Americans, who eat beef that comes neatly wrapped in plastic, regard as cruel. The conflicting attitudes of reverence and skepticism in the Gujarat peasants who did, or did not, drive the buffalo cow out of their houses persists in contemporary India. Hindus who would not dream of eating beef often sell old cows “to the village,” ostensibly to let them out to graze on good grass for a happy old age; but this is often a euphemism for handing them over (surreptitiously) to a middleman who eventually gives them to someone who kills them and eats them. Sometimes beef, sold as mutton, is eaten by Hindus who may well be aware of the deception and simply look the other way. But cows are, officially, not killed or eaten by traditional upper-caste Hindus.

When their owners set the cows free to wander and forage about the streets after they are milked in the morning, cows contribute to the menageries in the middle of great Indian cities, though the mélange of cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and other animals accounts for the bulk of the problem. On the streets of a town like Jaipur one can encounter (in addition to cows) monkeys, pigs, chickens, goats, peacocks, bullocks, water buffalos, dogs, and some old horses, all roaming freely on a single block. Animals and humans are part of the same spectrum, all more important than cars, which have to get out of the way for them. There is total freedom, and therefore total chaos. The whole country is still one big farm, even in the big cities (except on the main roads); people feed the birds and also the cows and sometimes even the dogs. If cows are sacred, then, so are goats and horses and dogs. Or, by the same token, as one non-Brahmin caste argued, dogs and cattle are equally polluted, “the South Indian scavengers par excellence.”14 The more relevant distinction is between these free souls and freeloaders, on the one hand, and, on the other, more valuable animals, such as better horses, camels, and, occasionally, elephants, which are, by contrast with the street animals, carefully tethered and never abused or, of course, eaten.


Dogs, by contrast with cows, are supposed to be treated badly and, as we have seen, usually are, but on many occasions, beginning with the myth of Sarama told in the Rig Veda, dogs are, perversely, honored. One of those occasions today is the Tantric worship of Shiva in his aspect as Bhairava, who often has the form or face of a dog or a dog as his vehicle. There are Bhairava temples all over India,15 where people offer puja to both statues of dogs and living dogs. In the temple to Kal Bhairava in Varanasi, there are images of Shiva astride a big white dog, as well as black plaster statues of dogs, paintings of dogs, metal dogs, and real live dogs who sleep and wander inside and outside the temple. Pilgrims to Varanasi worship the dogs and decorate them with garlands of Indian doughnuts and other things delicious to dogs, which the dogs of course immediately shake off and eat. All this is evidence either that (some) dogs are more sacred than cows in Hinduism or, perhaps, that Hindu views of animals are far too complex to capture by words like “sacred” or “impure.” Other people’s zoological taxonomies look bizarre only to people who view them through their own rather ethnocentric lenses.

A number of casteslk take hounds with them during their long expeditions when they graze their sheep in mountain forests. They regard dogs as forms of their god, Mallanna (or Mailara), whom hounds follow in his expeditions and who also takes the form of a dog on occasion. In rituals, the priests (or, sometimes, the householders) enact the roles of dogs and drink milk that they regard as fed to Mallanna.16 Kal Bhairava may be a Sanskritized (and Tantricized) version of this folk god.

The worshipers of the Maharashtrian horseman god Khandoba (a form of Shiva, often assimilated to Mallanna and called Martanda) sometimes act as his dogs and bark in the course of his rituals, as Bhairava is said to have told them to do. These devotees are called Tigers in Marathi and Kannada; it is said that they originally were tigers, but that through the darshan of the god Martanda their bodies became human,17 a fascinating inversion of the Mahabharata story about the dog who got into serious trouble by trying to become a tiger. Forest-dwelling Maharashtrian tribal groups like the Warlis worship and propitiate tigers as the “sentinel deities” or guardians of the village boundaries, but the word for tiger can also denote certain fierce domesticated animals—watchdogs, sheepdogs, or hunting dogs of the kind that attend Khandoba.18 The mixing of “tiger” and “dog” is chronic in myth, ritual, and art; Bhairava’s vehicles are occasionally the dog and the tiger or two animals each of which is a mixture of both.

Two pro-dog stories appeared in the news in November 2007, one about Nepal and one about Tamil Nadu. The first reported on a police dog training school in Nepal that trains dogs for rescue and search, for tracking criminals, explosives, and drugs, and for patrol. There are fifty-one dogs, some born on the premises, others from outside. For most of the year the dogs are not well treated, and many are left (like most animals in Indian towns) to forage for themselves and feed on scraps, but for one day a year they are honored and garlanded (presumably with edibles). The article began: “According to the Hindu scripture, the Mahabharat, dogs accompanied Dharmaraj Yudhishthir on his journey to heaven. There is also a Hindu belief that dogs guard the underworld.” Aside from giving Yudhishthira more than one dog, this was a good, historical approach, and the article concluded: “It’s recognised that no animal has a closer relationship with people.”19 The compassion here is limited to some dogs, some of the time. But it’s a start.

The second story, carried by the Hindustan Times and CNN from New Delhi is worth reporting in its entirety:


A man in southern India married a female dog in a traditional Hindu ceremony in a bid to atone for stoning two dogs to death, a newspaper reported Tuesday. [Picture: “P. Selvakumar, left, garlands his ‘bride,’ Selvi.”] The 33-year-old man married the sari-draped dog at a temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Sunday after an astrologer said it was the only way to cure himself of a disability, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported. P. Selvakumar told the paper that he had been suffering since he stoned two dogs to death and strung them up in a tree 15 years ago. “After that my legs and hands got paralyzed and I lost hearing in one ear,” the paper quoted him as saying. Family members chose a stray female dog named Selvi who was then bathed and clothed for the ceremony. The groom and his family then had a feast, while the dog got a bun, the paper said.20

Again the special moment of compassion is balanced by a memory of more typical cruelty. And that cruelty endures: Just a few months later officials of the Indian-administered part of Kashmir announced that they had poisoned (with strychnine) five hundred of the hundred thousand stray dogs in Srinagar and intended to kill them all, saying that the dogs posed a risk to humans and made urban life unbearable. When animal rights activists threatened legal action, the officials said they would merely sterilize the dogs, not poison them with strychnine.21 Sure.


The quotation from Kathleen Gough with which this chapter begins reveals a more widespread disregard for moksha, indeed for the entire problem of rebirth and transmigration for which moksha is said to be the solution. Villagers in 1964 “stubbornly refused to claim that they hoped for, desired, or did anything deliberately to get moksha, even in the context of pilgrimage,” and one of them challenged the interviewing anthropologist by saying, referring to the tirtha shrine as a “crossing place”: “Have you ever seen mokshaat any crossing place?”22 Chamars (Dalit leatherworkers) in Senapur, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1950s claimed to know nothing about the fate of the soul after death or other ideas related to karma;23 the Chamars in Chattisgarh, in central India, ignore the more general householder/renouncer opposition.24 At the other end of the caste spectrum, E. M. Forster, in 1921, recorded a more ambivalent position in the raja of Dewas: “As a boy, he had thought of retiring from the world, and it was an ideal which he cherished throughout his life, and which, at the end, he would have done well to practise. Yet he would condemn asceticism, declare that salvation could not be reached through it, that it might be Vedantic but it was not Vedic, and matter and spirit must both be given their due.”25Throngs of pilgrims come to Varanasi to die because they believe that they will immediately attain moksha. But at the same time, many women on pilgrimage seek not (or not only, or not primarily) Release from the wheel, but a better life and, almost as an afterthought, a better rebirth. For most of them, moreover, moksha is something that by definition you can’t want; if you want it, then you can’t get it.26



To say (as I do) that the Ramayana tells us a great deal about attitudes toward women and tribal peoples in the early centuries CE is a far cry from saying that someone named Rama actually lived in the city now known as Ayodhya and fought a battle on the island now known as Sri Lanka with a bunch of talking monkeys on his side and a ten-headed demon on the other or with a bunch of tribal peoples (represented as monkeys) on his side and a proto-Muslim monster on the other, as some contemporary Hindus have asserted. Rama left no archaeological or inscriptional record. There is no evidence that anyone named Rama did or did not live in Ayodhya; other places too claim him, in South India as well as North India, for the Ramayana was retold many times, in many different Indian languages, with significant variations. There is no second Troy here for a Schliemann to come along and discover. Or, rather, there is a second, and a third, and a nineteenth Troy for anyone to discover.

Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors who lived at various times, and shows how the human imagination transformed the actual circumstance of the historical period into something far more beautiful, terrible, challenging, and elevating than the circumstances themselves. Indeed one of the advantages of tracing the variants of a myth (such as the flood myth) is that when we encounter it presented as a historical incident (such as the submerging of a causeway to Lanka), we can recognize it as a myth. Texts reveal histories, but we need to find out about those histories and ground them in solid evidence to read against, not into, the texts’ narratives. Reconstructing the ways in which human authors constructed the fictional works, in reaction to earlier texts as well as to historical circumstances, reveals their texts as works of art rather than records of actual events.27

Yet in a case that began in 1987, a judge in Dhanbad, in Jharkhand (bordering Bihar and Orissa), issued Rama and Hanuman a summons to appear before the court, since the villagers claimed that a 1.4-acre site with two temples dedicated to them belonged to the gods (“Since the land has been donated to the gods, it is necessary to make them a party to the case,” said a local lawyer), against the claim of the Hindu priest who ran the temples, who said that the site belonged to him since a former local king had given it to his grandfather. The summons to the two gods was returned to the court as the address was incomplete. Undeterred, the judge issued another summons through the local newspapers.28 Nor was this a unique incident. Some Hindus assume that the deity enshrined in a temple is the owner of the temple, that a Hindu statue stolen by a non-Hindu will take action against the thief, and that a statue can sue. A famous case involved a statue of Shiva dancing (Nataraja) that sued the Norton Simon Museum in a U.S. court in 1972-1973.29“I can only say that Lord Nataraja himself won the case appearing before courts in the form of the idol,” said a Tamil Nadu state official.30


For many years, some Hindus have argued that Babur’s Mosque (also called the Babri Masjid) was built over a temple commemorating the birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya, the city where, according to the Ramayana, Rama was born.31 During the 1980s, as the Hindu right rose slowly to power, Hindu organizations began holding rallies at the site of Babur’s Mosque, campaigning for the “rebuilding” of the temple, despite the absence of any evidence to confirm either the existence of the temple or even the identification of the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor. Then the Ramayana was broadcast on Indian television in 1987-1988, adding fuel to the mythological furor over the Ayodhya mosque. In 1989, during a judicial procedure that resulted in allowing Muslims continuing access to the mosque, against the plea of Hindus who wanted to lock them out, it was said that “a monkey sat atop the court building and when the order was passed it violently shook the flagstaff from which the national tricolour was fluttering.”32 The monkey was presumed to be Hanuman, who has become the mascot of the RSS, the militant wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and whom Forster, in 1921, already referred to as “the Monkey God (Hanuman-who-knocks-down-Europeans).”33

In 1989, as a response to the growing agitation over Ayodhya, a group of historians at the Center for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) released a pamphlet entitled The Political Abuse of History: Babri-Masjid-Rama-Janma- Bhumi Dispute.The pamphlet marked the direct intervention of historians in the debate over Ayodhya and was eventually published as an edited volume.34 The essays all argue that the case for a Rama temple under the mosque is based on myth rather than history.

In 1990 L. K. Advani, the BJP president, put on the saffron robes of a renouncer (or, nowadays, a right-wing Hindu) and posed with a bow and arrow on top of a truck decorated to look like Rama’s chariot. He was arrested as he was heading for Ayodhya.35 Two years later, on December 6, 1992, as the police stood by and watched, leaders of the BJP whipped a crowd of two hundred thousand into a frenzy. Shouting, “Death to the Muslims!” the mob attacked Babur’s Mosque with sledgehammers. As the historian William Dalrymple put it, “One after another, as if they were symbols of India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy, and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.”36 In the riots that followed, more than a thousand people lost their lives, and many more died in reactive riots that broke out elsewhere in India, first in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the mosque, then intermittently, and then very seriously again in 2002. Litigation over the site continues. On the site today (as of 2008) nothing but vandalized ruins remains, yet there is intense security (and there have been several attacks to justify such security). Visitors to the site find, in a dark corner of the large, empty space, a small shrine, like a family puja closet, with a couple of oleograph pictures of Rama, where a Hindu priest performs a perfunctory puja. Nearby, in a BJP tent, is a model of the new temple they intend to build. Whether or not there ever was a Hindu temple there before, there is a temple, however makeshift, there now.


Another, more recent example of the political use of the Ramayana myth was relatively bloodless but deeply disturbing. It concerned the proposed dredging of a canal through what is called Rama’s Bridge, an area of limestone shoals and shallow water between southern India and the north shore of the island now known as Sri Lanka.ll In a favorite episode in the Ramayana, retold over the centuries, an army of monkeys, led by Hanuman and Rama, build a causeway (or a bridge, though the description sounds much more like a causeway, piling up stones and mortar) over the water to Lanka, a distance said to be a hundred “yokings”lm (about a thousand miles)ln (R 4.63.17). Rameshwara, a place of pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu, claims to be the place where the causeway was built.

On September 12, 2007, BBC headlines read, HINDU GROUPS OPPOSE CANAL PROJECT, and they told this story:

Protest rallies have been held across India by hard-line Hindus to campaign against a proposed shipping canal project between India and Sri Lanka. Massive traffic jams were reported in many places and trains delayed in many parts of the country. Protesters say the project will destroy a bridge they believe was built by Hindu God Ram and his army of monkeys. Scientists question the belief, saying it is solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana. The Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project proposes to link the Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka by dredging a canal through the shallow sea. This is expected to provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula. Once complete, the canal will reduce the travel time for ships by around 650 km (400 miles) and is expected to boost the economic and industrial development of the region. Hindu activists say dredging the canal will damage the Ram Setu (or Lord Ram’s bridge), sometimes also called Adam’s Bridge. They say the bridge was built by Lord Ram’s monkey army to travel to Sri Lanka and has religious significance. Scientists and archaeologists, however, say there is no scientific evidence to prove their claim. They say it has never been proved that Lord Ram’s monkey army existed at all as described in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Archaeological Survey of India says the bridge is not a man-made structure, and is just a natural sand formation.37

As the historian Romila Thapar pointed out, “All this uncertainty is quite apart from the question of the technical viability of building a bridge across a wide stretch of sea in the centuries BC.”38 There are also other issues here—ecological, economic, sociological, and practical. The Indian Supreme Court determined that the “bridge” was not man-made (or, presumably, monkey-made). West Bengal’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee argued that the Ramayana was “born in the imagination of poets,” but Nanditha Krishna, the director of the C. P. Ramaswami Anjar Foundation, countered that the Ramayana was not fiction. Advocates for the monkey bridge have cited, in evidence, NASA photos suggesting an underwater bridge (that is, a causeway) between India and Sri Lanka,39 yet another instance of our old friend the myth of the submerged continent.

Two days later the headline read, REPORT ON HINDU GOD RAM WITHDRAWN, and the BBC news ran this story:

The Indian government has withdrawn a controversial report submitted in court earlier this week which questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram. The report was withdrawn after huge protests by opposition parties. . . . In the last two days, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a scathing attack on the government for questioning the “faith of the million.” Worried about the adverse reaction from the majority Hindu population of the country, the Congress Party-led government has now done a U-turn and withdrawn the statement submitted in court. . . . In the meantime, the court has said that dredging work for the canal could continue, but Ram’s Bridge should not be touched.

But how are they to avoid touching the mythological bridge?


Another major issue here is the question of who has the right to say what the Ramayana is and is not. The arguments about this in many ways parallel those about what Hinduism is and is not. The question of when Sita ceases to be Sita is one that different people will answer in different ways. One of the qualities that allow great myths to survive over centuries, among very different cultures, is their ability to stand on their heads (indeed, to turn cartwheels), to invite complete reversals of the political stance taken by the interpretation of the basic plot.40

This is certainly true of the political uses of the Ramayana, which has been constantly retold in literature and performance throughout India, most famously in the version of Tulsidas in the sixteenth century, which to this day is performed in Varanasi during a festival that lasts for several weeks each winter. Repressive tellings of the myth use the mythological moment of Ram-raj (Rama’s reign), as an imagined India that is free of Muslims and Christians and any other Others, in the hope of restoring India to the Edenic moment of the Ramayana.

But many subversive tellings cast Ravana and the ogres as the Good Guys (as some of them are, in some ways, even in Valmiki’s version) and Rama as the villain of the piece (as he certainly is not, in Valmiki’s version). Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-1873), a Bengali poet who converted to Christianity, wrote a poem, “The Slaying of Meghanada” (1861), based on the Bengali Ramayana of the poet Krittibas, but Datta made Ravana the hero and Ravana’s son, Meghanada, the symbol of the Hindus oppressed by the British, whom Datta equated with Rama, the villain.41 Equally subversive was the Ramayana that Tamil separatists told in South India in the early twentieth century, casting Ravana as a noble Tamil king who was treacherously murdered by the forces of the evil Rama coming from the north. Both North and South Indians often identified Rama with the north and Ravana with the south, but the north demonized the “Dravidian” Ravana, the south the “Aryan” Rama, through the composition of explicit “counter epics.”42 In a Dalit telling, Sita, on behalf of the ogres, rebukes Rama for killing innocent people.43

The Ramayana monkeys were already mixed up in colonial history in ways that still resonate. In the nineteenth century some Hindus in North India made monkeys of the British, calling them “red monkeys,” and Orissan narratives still depict them as monkeys. Others say that Sita blessed the eighteen million monkeys who had helped Rama, promising them that they would be reborn as the English. A North Indian folktale tells us that two of the monkeys were rewarded with a “white island” in the far west (that is, England, replacing Lanka). From there, it was prophesied, their descendants would rule the world in the Kali Yuga, the dark age that is to end the world,44 a time when barbarians (i.e., the British) will invade India, the old political myth distilled from the many actual invasions of India by foreign powers. According to a story told in Maharashtra, when one of Ravana’s ogress wives befriended Sita, during her period of captivity in Ravana’s harem, Sita promised her that she would be rewarded by being reborn as Queen Victoria.45

One device used to accommodate multiple versions of a story is by reference to multiple eras of cosmic development. One Purana refers explicitly to this technique: “Because of the different eras, the birth of Ganesha is narrated in different ways.” On another occasion, the bard recites a story in which a sage forgives his enemies; the audience (built into the text) then interrupts, saying, “We heard it told differently. Let us tell you: the sage cursed them in anger. Explain this.” And the bard replies, “That is true, but it happened in another era. I will tell you.” And he narrates the second version of the story.46 Another Purana introduces a second variant of another story by remarking, “The Puranas tell it differently.”47

There has always been a Darwinian force that allows the survival of some tellings rather than others, determined in part by their quality (the ones that are well told and/or that strike a resonant note with the largest audience survive) and in part by their subsidies (the ones with the richest patrons survive). Money still talks (or tells stories), but mass media now can pervert that process; the tellings that survive are often the ones that are cast or broadcast into the most homes, greatly extending the circle of patrons. Amar Chitra Katha comic books have flooded the market with bowdlerized versions of many of the great Hindu classics, in a kind of Gresham’s law (bad money driving out good) that is not Darwinian at all but merely Adam Smithian, or capitalist.

Over the past few decades the growing scholarly awareness of the many different Ramayanas opened out all the different variants, only to have the door slammed shut by Bollywood and television and the comic books, so that most Hindus now know only one single Ramayana. The televising of the Ramayana (78 episodes, from January 1987 to July 1988) and Mahabharata (108 episodes, a holy number, from 1988 to 1990, on Sunday mornings) was a major factor leading to the destruction of Babur’s Mosque in 1992. So powerful were the objections to the proposal of Salman Khan, a Muslim (though with a Hindu mother), to play the role of Rama in a 2003 Bollywood production that the film was never made. On the other hand, though the televised Mahabharata was based largely on the Amar Chitra Katha comic book, the screenwriter was a leftist Muslim, Rahi Masuma Raza, and the opening credits were in English, Hindi, and Urdu—Urdu for a presumed Muslim audience. Lose one, win one—and the Mahabharata was always more diverse than the Ramayana.

The Internet too has facilitated the mass circulation of stories that substitute for the storyteller’s art the power of mass identity politics. Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, imagined a private version of radio, a magic ether by which the children born at midnight on the day of India’s independence communicated. Now we have that in reality, the Web site, the chat room, the LISTSERV, the blog from outer space. A self-selecting small but vociferous group of disaffected Hindus have used this Indian ether to communicate with one another within what is perceived as a community. This accounts in large part for the proliferation of these groups and for the magnitude of the reaction to any incident, within just a few hours; it’s more fun than video games, and a lot more dangerous too. Another radio metaphor comes to mind, from two American filmslo in which a bomber pilot is instructed to turn off his radio as soon as he gets the command to bomb, so that he will not listen to false counterinstructions. It is this tendency to tune out all other messages that characterizes the blog mentality of the Hindu right.


The Hindu right objects strenuously, often by smashing bookstores and burning books, to versions of Hindu stories that it does not like, particularly of the Ramayana, more particularly to retellings of the Ramayana that probe the sensitive subject of Sita’s relationship with Lakshmana. Here is a version recorded from the tribal people known as the Rajnengi Pardhan at Patangarh, Mandla District, and published in 1950:


One night while Sita and Rama were lying together, Sita discussed Lakshman very affectionately. She said, “There he is sleeping alone. What is it that keeps him away from woman? Why doesn’t he want to marry?” This roused suspicion in Rama’s mind. Sita slept soundly, but Rama kept awake the whole night imagining things. Early next morning he sent for Lakshman from his lonely palace and asked him suddenly, “Do you love Sita?” Lakshman was taken aback and could hardly look at his brother. He stared at the ground for a long time and was full of shame. Lakshman gathered wood and built a great fire and shouted, “Set fire to this wood and if I am pure and innocent I will not burn.” He climbed onto the fire holding in his arms a screaming child. Neither of them was even singed. He left Rama and Sita and would not return, though Sita kept trying to lure him back.48

Lakshman then went down to the underworld, where he had many adventures. Here Lakshman, rather than Sita, calls for the fire ordeal to prove his chastity, and Rama’s jealousy is directed against him, rather than against Sita. The detail of the screaming child may have crept into the story from the traditions of suttee, in which the woman is not allowed to enter the fire if she has a child and is often said not to scream; here, where the genders are reversed, those tropes seem to be reversed too.

Right up until the present day, stories of this sort have been recorded and published. Then, in 2008, the Delhi University course on Ancient Indian Culture in the BA (honors) program assigned an essay entitled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” by A. K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), who had taught for many years at the University of Chicago and in 1976 had received from the Indian government the honorary title of Padma Sri, one of India’s highest honors. Now Hindu organizations voiced objections to the content of some of the narratives Ramanujan had cited, said to be derogatory toward Hindu gods and goddesses:

[Ramanujan] even sorts out a tale from Santhal folklore and puts forth the greatest outrage to Hindu psyche before the students of literature that Ravan as well as Lakshman both seduced Sita. No one on Earth so far dared to question the character of Sita so brazenly as Shri Ramanujan has done, though all through under the convenient cover of a folklore! . . . The Delhi University for its BA (Hons) second year course has included portions defaming and denigrating the characters of Lord Ram, Hanuman, Lakshman and Sita and projecting the entire episode as fallacious, capricious, imaginary and fake.49

The Lakshmana-Sita relationship was also the sore point in my egg-punctuated London lecture in 2003.

On February 25, 2008, a mob of more than a hundred people, organized by the All-India Students’ Council (ABVP), linked with the RSS, gathered outside the building of the School of Social Sciences at Delhi University. Eight or ten of them then went inside and ransacked the office of the head of the department of history, breaking the glass panes and damaging books and other objects in the office, as media and the police watched. The group threatened faculty members and warned them of dire consequences.50 The protesters also carried placards saying, in Hindi, “The university says there were three hundred versions of the Ramayana, not one”—indeed, indeed! In subsequent interviews, one of the protesters said: “These academics don’t understand that they are toying with our faith. They have this idea that it’s a written story, a literary text, so it doesn’t matter if you say there are 3000 versions of it.” Though he admitted the plurality of Hindu traditions, he proposed that “every deviant telling,” mostly tribal and Dalit, be erased.51 The bright side of this dark story is that other students organized massive counterprotests, and editorials strongly critical of the attempts to stifle free speech and diversity appeared in several leading papers. 52 One columnist remarked that Ramanujan was “a scholar who did more for Indian culture than all of the ABVP put together,” and added: “The violence around this essay was disturbing, as was the complete obtuseness of people who attacked Ramanujan.”53


Over the centuries, Sita’s ordeal has proved problematic for different reasons to different South Asians, from pious apologists who were embarrassed by the god’s cruelty to his wife, to feminists who saw in Sita’s acceptance of the “cool” flames an alarming precedent for suttee, and, most recently, to Hindus who objected to alternate Ramayanas that called into question Sita’s single-minded devotion to Rama. Some peasant retellings emphasize Sita’s anger at the injustices done to her and applaud her rejection of Rama after she has been sent away, while Dalit versions even depict Sita’s love for Ravana (“indicating perhaps that this may be a subterranean theme of even the orthodox version in which she is only suspected”). Maharashtra women praise Sita for disobeying Rama, going to the forest with him when he told her not to. In a folk poem from Uttar Pradesh, Sita refuses to go back to Rama even when Lakshsmana has been sent to bring her and instead raises her sons on her own.54

Sita has also been made, counterintuitively, into a champion of women’s rights. There is a Sita temple without Rama (far more unusual than a Rama temple without Sita) in a village in Maharashtra, commemorating the year in which Sita wandered, pregnant and destitute, after Rama kicked her out; the temple legend states that when Sita came to this village, the villagers refused to give her food, and she cursed them, so that no grain would ever grow in their fields. In recent years a reformer named Sharad Joshi urged the villagers to redress the wrongs that Rama did to Sita and to erase the curse that has kept them from achieving justice or prosperity, by redressing their own wrongs to their own women, whom they have kept economically dependent and powerless. He told them the story of the Ramayana, often moving big, burly farmers to tears, and suggested that Valmiki had introduced the injustice to Sita not to hold up Sita’s suffering as an example for other wives but rather to warn men not to behave like Rama. (“He could have made Ram into as perfect a husband as he was a son. Instead . . . Valmiki wants to show how difficult it is for even supposedly perfect men to behave justly towards their wives.”) Finally, he argued that they should not wait for government laws to enforce the economic rights of women but should voluntarily transfer land to their women, thus paying off a long-overdue debt to Sita. Hundreds of Maharashtrian villagers have done this.55 In contrast with the ambivalent practical effects of powerful goddesses with their shakti, it was Sita’s lack of power that seems to have done the trick here.

Sita’s curse was also felt elsewhere in Maharashtra, at an abandoned Sita temple in Raveri. “Rakshasas built it,” the villagers say. After Sita was driven out of Ayodhya, she settled in Raveri and begged for food, house to house, because she had two small babies and could not work. When the villagers refused her (on the ground that such an abandoned woman must be a “bad woman”), she cursed the village so that it could not grow wheat. Activists used this myth to get peasants to put land in the names of the women of their family.56


Shashi Tharoor retold the Mahabharata as The Great Indian Novel, in which the self-sacrificing Bhishma (the son of Ganga, in the Sanskrit text) becomes Ganga-ji, a thinly veiled form of Gandhi, while Dhritarashtra is Nehru, with his daughter Duryodhani (Indira Gandhi). Karna goes over to the Muslim side and becomes Jinna (where the original Karna sliced his armor off his body, this Karna seizes a knife and circumcises himself) and is eventually exposed as a chauffeur, the “humble modern successor to the noble profession of charioteering.” As Tharoor remarks, “It is only a story. But you learn something about a man from the kind of stories people make up about him.”57


Sita is not alone in serving as a lightning rod for Hindu ideas about female chastity; her Mahabharata counterpart, Draupadi, remains equally controversial. One Dalit woman’s take on the disrobing scene, in which Karna teases Draupadi, is skeptical: “Now, even with five husbands didn’t Draupadi have to worry about Karna Maharaj’s intentions?”58 Dalit women are equally dubious about Satyavati and Kunti: “One agreed to the whims of a rishi in order to remove the bad odour from her body, the other obeyed a mantra! What wonderful gods! What wonderful rishis!”59 And a popular song among lower-class women in nineteenth-century Calcutta imagined the objections that Ambalika might have expressed when her mother-in-law, Satyavati, insisted that she let Vyasa impregnate her:

People say
as a girl you used to row a boat in the river.
Seeing your beauty, tempted by your lotus-bud,
the great Parashar stung you,
and there was a hue and cry:
You’ve done it once,
You don’t have anything to fear.
Now you can do as much as you want to,
no one will say anything.
If it has to be done,
Why don’t you do it, mother?60

Despite Satyavati’s checkered, to say the least, sexual record, this possibility apparently never occurred to Vyasa (in either of his characters, as author of the Sanskrit Mahabharata or, within the text, as the grandfather of its heroes), for a very good reason that Ambalika seems to have overlooked: Satyavati is Vyasa’s mother.


The Mahabharata story of the burning of the five Nishadas in the house of lac undergoes a major moral reversal in a contemporary retelling by the Bengali feminist novelist Mahashweta Devi (1926- ):

After the war, Kunti retired to the forest to reflect on her past. One day a Nishada woman [a Nishadi] watched with her as the animals fled from a forest fire. The Nishadi asked her if she remembered the house of lac, and an elderly Nishadi and her five young sons, whom she had made senseless with wine while she escaped with her own sons. Kunti said she did remember, and the Nishadi said that the woman who had been killed was her mother-in-law; she was the widow of one of the five sons. She added that not once in all her reflections did Kunti remember the six innocent lives that had been lost because she wanted to save herself and her sons. As they spoke, the flames of the forest fire came closer to them. The Nishadi escaped to safety, but Kunti remained where she was.61

In Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Kunti does die in a forest fire, but she never does remember the Nishadi. It is the genius of the modern version to unite these two traditional episodes of a woman and fire, a theme with other overtones as well, to make an entirely new point.

The TV Mahabharata also expressed a belated sense of guilt on behalf of the Pandavas, taking pains to note that the Nishadas who burned to death in the house of lac had been its architects; that Duryodhana had planned to kill them, in order to silence them; and that the Pandavas knew this and felt that since the Nishadas were going to die anyway, there was no harm in killing them.


One particular Nishada, Ekalavya, plays an important role in the life of contemporary Dalits, who make Ekalavya do for them what the myths did not reveal him doing for himself: revolt.62 One Dalit poet says, “I am conscious of my resolve,/ the worth of the blood of Ekalavya’s finger.”63 A movement to gain water rights for Dalits on the Ganges River used the symbol of Ekalavya:

If you had kept your thumb
history would have happened
somewhat differently.
But . . . you gave your thumb
and history also
became theirs.
since that day they
have not even given you a glance.
Forgive me, Ekalavya, I won’t be fooled now
by their sweet words.
My thumb
will never be broken.64

Another poem, by Tryambak Sapkale (born in 1930), a railway ticket taker on the Dhond-Manmad railway line until his retirement, is a kind of extended meditation on an aphorism by the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes, about a lever and a fulcrum: “Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the earth”:

The round earth.
A steel lever
In my hand.
But no leverage?
O Eklavya,
You ideal disciple!
Give me the finger you cut off;
That will be my fulcrum.65

And a final example was composed by Surekha Bhagat, a widow, born in 1949, who is an Ambedkar Buddhist and works in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Buldhana, Maharashtra:


First he was flayed
then he took a chisel in his hand
knowing that each blow
would chisel a stanza
and so he learned it all
not needing any Dronacharya
using his own brain
to become Eklavya.

Since then no one knew
quite how
to ask for tuition fees
so the custom
of asking for remuneration
(in honeyed words)
stopped, but slowly.66

The televised Mahabharata made a big point of the Ekalavya story, playing it out at great length. There are Ekalavya education foundations in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. The Ekalavya Ashram in Adilabad, a northern district bordering on Maharashtra, on the banks of the Godavari River, is a nonprofit tribal welfare facility established in 1990. Run by people from the local business community, it serves underprivileged tribal people who cannot afford to educate their children.


The cross-dressing men of the Third Nature in the Kama-sutra may be the cultural ancestors of the Hijras of contemporary India, cross-dressing and sometimes castrated male homosexuals, often prostitutes, who worship the goddess Bahuchara Mata.lp Perhaps fifty thousand strong in India today,67 the Hijras descend upon weddings, birth celebrations, and other occasions of fertility, dancing and singing to the beat of drums, offering their blessing or, if they are not paid, their curse, which may take the form of lifting their skirts to display the wound of their castration. Their ambivalent ability to blackmail through a combination of blessing and curse eventually struck a resonant chord with some government agency charged with tax collection. As a result, in 2006 the Municipal Corporation of Patna, the capital of Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states, hired about twenty Hijras to go from shop to shop (later from house to house), asking the owners to pay overdue municipal taxes, which apparently ran into the millions. The new tax collectors met with considerable success from their very first day on the job, often settling the outstanding arrears on the spot; in lieu of salary, they received 4 percent of the amount they collected.68


Kannappar’s eyes, like Ekalavya’s thumb, lived on in later parables, entering Indian folklore, both northern and southern, as a symbol of violent self-sacrifice (though Kannappar is seldom invoked in Sanskrit texts, which generally prefer a more muted bhakti). An Englishman living in India told this story about an event in 1986:

A village temple was said to have lost its image of Kannappar; it had been stolen some years ago. Now the villagers announced that they planned to renovate the shrine, probably with a new image of Kannappar. But the thief came forward and offered to return the idol. He said that, in the years that had passed since he had stolen the statue, his eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he was almost blind. He knew the story of Kannappar and had attributed his near-blindness to the curse of the saint. Within weeks of returning the statue, his eyesight began to improve and apparently it eventually returned to normal. An iconographer who had heard about this village “miracle” came to inspect the statue and pronounced that it wasn’t a Kannappar statue at all. It was another god entirely, one who had no blindness stories in his CV.69

One might see in the mistaking of a non-Kannappar statue for a Kannappar statue the mischievousness of the god or the proof of a religious placebo effect, or simply the common confusion between one god and another. Twenty years later, in 2006, the chief education officer in a campaign in India to promote corneal replacements and other medical measures to avoid blindness “recalled that Kannappa Nayanar, a hunter-turned-saint, was the first eye donor.”70


Indian goddesses continue to evolve. At a festival in Kerala, in January 2008, the goddess Bhagavati got on her elephant and visited her “twin sister,” the Virgin Mary, at the church down the road.71 In South Indian rituals, when the goddess Minakshi marries Shiva (a gendered alliance of a local goddess and a pan-Indian male god) and her brother-in-law Vishnu comes to the wedding (a sectarian alliance of Vaishnavas and Shaivas), Vishnu stops along the way to the wedding to see his Muslim mistress (an interreligious alliance); the next morning he is in a much better mood, and that is when his worshipers ask him for favors.72 The Delhi High Court ruled that it was not plagiarism for a private citizen in Kolkata to use, for his float in Durga Puja, a gigantic marquee of the imaginary castle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school, built in canvas and papier-mâché, as well as statues of Rowling’s literary characters.73

And new goddesses spring full grown from the head of Bollywood. The goddess Santoshi Mata, first worshiped in the 1960s by women in many cities of Uttar Pradesh, has no base in any pan-Indian Puranic myth but suddenly crossed over into national popularity in 1975, largely as the result of a mythological film, Jai Santoshi Ma. The film depicted her birth (from the god Ganesha) and the origin of her worship; during screenings, the theater became a temple, and women made offerings, pujas of fruit and flowers, on the stage in front of the screen.74 The medium was certainly the message here. Now worshiped throughout India, Santoshi is propitiated by comparatively simple and inexpensive rites performed in the home without the intercession of a priest. She grants practical and obvious blessings, such as a promotion for an overworked husband or a new household appliance.


In 1914, a tax officer near Varanasi named Hariaudh published a long poem entitled “Sojourn of the Beloved” (Priyapravas), in which Radha rejects the sensuality of erotic longing for Krishna, undertakes a vow of virginity, and dedicates herself to the “true bhakti” of social service. Fusing elements of Western social utilitarianism, bits of Wordsworth and Tagore, and the monistic Vedanta of Vivekananda, Radha substitutes for each of the nine conventional types of bhakti a particular type of altruistic good works: The loving service she would have given to Krishna as his wife is now directed to the “real world”; the bhakti of being Krishna’s servant or slave becomes lifting up the low and fallen castes; remembering Krishna becomes remembering the troubles of poor, helpless widows and orphans, giving medicine to those in pain, and giving shelter and dignity to those who have fallen through their karma. Hariaudh sees Radha’s vow of virginity as a solution for the perceived problem of improving the status of Indian women without opening the door to the sexual freedom of “Westernized” women. His revisionist myth of Radha managed simultaneously to offend conservative Brahminical Hinduism and to insult the living religious practices of Hinduism.75 Not surprisingly, it did not replace the earlier, earthier version of the story of Radha.


In 1885, Jotiba Phule, who belonged to the low caste of gardeners (Malis), published a Marathi work with an English introduction, in which he radically reinterpreted Puranic mythology, seeing the various avatars of Vishnu as stages in the deception and conquest of India by the invading Aryans, and Vishnu’s antigod and ogre enemies as the heroes of the people.76 Bali, in particular, the “good antigod” whom the dwarf Vishnu cheated out of his kingdom, was refigured as Bali Raja, the original king of Maharashtra, reigning over an ideal state of benevolent castelessness and prosperity, with Khandoba and other popular gods of the region as his officials.

To this day many Maharashtrian farmers look forward not to Ram Rajya (they regard Rama as a villain) but to the kingdom of Bali,77 Bali Rajya: “Bali will rise again,” and he will recognize the cultivating classes as masters of their own land. Low castes in rural central Maharashtra identify so closely with Bali, a son of the soil, against the dwarf, the archetype of the devious Brahmin, that they regularly greet each other as “Bali.” Sometimes they burn the dwarf in effigy.78


In 1990, Pakistani textbooks used a garbled version of the myth of the Buddha avatar to support anti-Hindu arguments: “The Hindus acknowledged Buddha as an avatar and began to worship his image. They distorted his teachings and absorbed Buddhism into Hinduism.” A Hindu critic then commented on this passage: “The message is oblique, yet effective—that Hinduism is the greatest curse in the subcontinent’s history and threatens to absorb every other faith.”79 Vinay Lal’s delightful short book on Hinduism identifies President George W. Bush as the contemporary form of Kalki: He spends a lot of time with horses and is going to destroy the world.80


One advocate of Hindutva has argued, on the basis of absolutely no evidence, that the Taj Mahal, in Agra, is not a Islamic mausoleum but an ancient Shiva temple, which Shah Jahan commandeered from the Maharaja of Jaipur; that the term “Taj Mahal” is not a Persian (from Arabic) phrase meaning “crown of palaces,” as linguists would maintain, but a corrupt form of the Sanskrit term “Tejo Mahalaya,” signifying a Shiva temple; and that persons connected with the repair and the maintenance of the Taj have seen the Shiva linga and “other idols” sealed in the thick walls and in chambers in a secret red stone story below the marble basement.81 In 2007, the Taj was closed to visitors for a while because of Hindu-Muslim violence in Agra.82

On a more hopeful note, Muslims for many years participated in the Ganesh Puja in Mumbai by swimming the idol out into the ocean at the end of the festival. There are still many instances of this sort of interreligious cooperation, as there have been since the tenth century CE.


Let us consider the positive contribution of Arab and Turkish horses to contemporary Hindu religious life, particularly in villages. The symbol of the horse became embedded in the folk traditions of India and then stayed there even after its referent, the horse, had vanished from the scene, even after the foreigners had folded their tents and gone away. To this day, horses are worshiped all over India by people who do not have horses and seldom even see a horse, in places where the horse has never been truly a part of the land. In Orissa, terra-cotta horses are given to various gods and goddesses to protect the donor from inauspicious omens, to cure illness, or to guard the village.83 In Bengal, clay horses are offered to all the village gods, male or female, fierce or benign, though particularly to the sun god, and Bengali parents until quite recently used to offer horses when a child first crawled steadily on its hands and feet like a horse.84

In Tamil Nadu today, as many as five hundred large clay horses may be prepared in one sanctuary, most of them standing between fifteen and twenty-five feet tall (including a large base) and involving the use of several tons of stone, brick, and either clay, plaster, or cement.85 They are a permanent part of the temple and may be renovated at ten- to twenty-year intervals; the construction of a massive figure usually takes between three to six months. (Many of them have the curved Marwari ears.) The villagers say that the horses are ridden by spirit riders who patrol the borders of the villages, a role that may echo both the role of the Vedic horse in pushing back the borders of the king’s realm and the horse’s association with aliens on the borders of Hindu society. But the villagers do not express any explicit awareness of the association of the horses with foreigners; they think of the horses as their own.

A Marxist might view the survival of the mythology of the aristocratic horse as an imposition of the lies of the rulers upon the people, an exploitation of the masses by saddling them with a mythology that never was theirs nor will ever be for their benefit, a foreign mythology that produces a false consciousness, distorting the native conceptual system, compounding the felony of the invasion itself. A Freudian, on the other hand, might see in the native acceptance of this foreign mythology the process of projection or identification by which one overcomes a feeling of anger or resentment or impotence toward another person by assimilating that person into oneself, becoming the other. Myths about oppressive foreigners (and their horses) sometimes became a positive factor in the lives of those whom they conquered or dominated.

When enormous terra-cotta horses are constructed in South India, the choice of medium is both practical (clay is cheap and available) and symbolic. New horses are constantly set up, while the old and broken ones are left to decay and return to the earth of which they were made.86 Clay, as Stephen Inglis points out, is the right medium for the worship of a creature as ephemeral as a horse—“semi-mythical, temporary, fragile, cyclical (prematurely dying/transforming).” 87 Elsewhere Inglis has described the work of the Velar, the potter caste that makes the horses: “By virtue of being made, of earth, the image is bound to disintegrate and to be reconstituted. . . . The potency of the craft of the Velar lies in impermanence and potential for deterioration, replacement, and reactivization of their services to the divine. . . . The Velar, and many other craftsmen who work with the immediate and ever changing, are . . . specialists of impermanence.”88 The impermanence of the clay horses may also reflect the awareness of the fragility of both horses in the Indian climate and the foreign dynasties that came and, inevitably, went, leaving the legacy of their horses.



The impermanence of the massive clay horses is one facet of a larger philosophy of impermanence in ritual Hindu art.

In many domestic rituals throughout India, women trace intricate designs in rice powder (called kolams in South India) on the immaculate floors and courtyards of houses, and after the ceremony these designs are blurred and smudged into oblivion by the bare feet of the family, or as the women think of it, the feet of the family carry into the house, from the threshold, the sacred material of the design. As David Shulman has written:

The kolam is a sign; also both less and more than a sign. As the day progresses, it will be worn away by the many feet entering or leaving the house. The rice powder mingles with the dust of the street; the sign fails to retain its true form. Nor is it intended to do so, any more than are the great stone temples which look so much more stable and enduring: they too will be abandoned when the moment of their usefulness has passed; they are built not to last but to capture the momentary, unpredictable reality of the unseen.89

The material traces of ritual art must vanish in order that the mental traces may remain intact forever. If the megalomaniac patrons of so many now ruined Hindu temples smugly assumed that great temples, great palaces, great art would endure forever, their confidence was not shared by the villagers who actually did the building.


A Herd of Laughing Clay Horses from a Rural Temple, Madurai District.

The smearing out of the kolam is a way of defacing order so that one has to re-create it. The women who make these rice powder designs sometimes explicitly refer to them as their equivalent of a Vedic sacrificial hall (yajnashala), which is also entirely demolished after the sacrifice. Their sketches are referred to as “writing,” often the only form of writing that for many centuries women were allowed to have, and the designs are merely an aide-mémoire for the patterns that they carry in their heads, as men carry the Vedas. So too, the visual abstraction of designs such as thekolam is the woman’s equivalent of the abstraction of the Vedic literature, based as it is on geometry and grammar. The rice powder designs are a woman’s way of abstracting religious meanings; they are a woman’s visual grammar.90

Since the fourteenth century, the women of the Mithila region of northern Bihar and southern Nepal have made wall and floor paintings on the occasion of marriages and other domestic rituals.91 These paintings, inside their homes, on the internal and external walls of their compounds, and on the ground inside or around their homes, created sacred, protective, and auspicious spaces for their families and their rituals. They depicted Durga, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman, and other Puranic deities, as well as Tantric themes, a headless Kali (or, sometimes, a many-headed Kali) trampling on Shiva, or Shiva and Parvati merged as the androgyne.92

The women painters of Mithila used vivid natural dyes that soon faded, and they painted on paper, thin, frail paper. This impermanence did not matter to the artists, who did not intend the paintings to last. The act of painting was seen as more important than the form it took, and they threw away elaborately produced marriage sketches when the ceremony was over, leaving them to be eaten by mice or using them to light fires. Rain, whitewash, or the playing of children often destroyed frescoes on courtyard walls.93 To some extent, this is a concept common to many artists, particularly postmodern artists, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose temporary installations included Running Fence, a twenty-four-mile-long white nylon fabric curtain in Northern California. Such artists are interested in the act of creation, not in preserving the object that is created. But this ephemerality takes on a more particular power in the realm of sacred art, even more particularly in the sacred art of women, who, in contrast with the great granite monomaniac monuments of men, are primarily involved in producing human services that leave no permanent trace, with one great exception, of course: children.


Broken Clay Horses from a Rural Temple, Madurai District.

The impermanence of the paintings in Mithila came up against another way of valuing art when, in the aftermath of a major earthquake in 1934, William Archer, the local collector, inspecting the damage in Mithila’s villages, saw the wall and floor paintings for the first time and subsequently photographed a number of them. He and his wife, Mildred, brought them to wider attention in several publications. In the 1950s and early 1960s, several Indian scholars and artists visited the region and were equally captivated by the paintings. But it was not until 1966, in the midst of a major drought, that the All India Handicrafts Board sent an artist, Baskar Kulkarni, to Mithila to encourage the women to make paintings on paper that they could sell as a new source of family income. They became known popularly as Madhubani paintings.94

Although, traditionally, women of several castes painted, Kulkarni was able to convince only a small group of Mahapatra Brahmin and Kayastha (scribe caste) women to paint on paper. By the late 1960s and early 1970s two of these women, Sita Devi and Ganga Devi, were recognized as artists both in India, where they received numerous commissions, and in Europe, Japan, and the United States, where they represented India in cultural fairs and expositions. Their success and active encouragement inspired many other women to paint.

From the mid-1970s women of several other castes, most especially the Dusadhs, a Dalit community, and the Chamars, also began to paint on paper, along with small numbers of men. It is quite likely that they were already painting at the time of the Archers, who, for some reason, wrote only about the higher-caste women. But instead of painting themes from the Ramayana and the Puranas, the Dusadh women painted their own folklore, and their high god, Rahu (who causes eclipses of the sun and moon), and their culture hero, Raja Salhesh. Later they also created new techniques and new subject matter and eventually began to depict some of the gods of the upper castes (Krishna, Shiva). Gradually artists of different castes and genders began to borrow themes and styles from one another. Although the images were similar, women of different castes usually developed distinctive styles of painting.95 Over time, in part because of the greater diversity of people painting, the subject matter of the paintings expanded to include ancient epics, local legends and tales, domestic, rural, and community life, ritual, local, national, and international politics, as well as the painters’ own life histories.

Women of the upper castes eventually added to their repertoire various subjects of social critique, including dowry, female abortion, bride burning, suttee, terrorist attacks (such as a painting of the planes about to hit the Twin Towers), and even caste discrimination: A young Brahmin painter, Roma Jha, depicts upper-caste women refusing access to a well to a Dalit woman.96 The lower-caste women, who depend upon the paintings for their livelihood, generally stick to more traditional themes, but one woman, Dulari Devi, who is of the impoverished Mallah (fisherman) caste, has painted poor women being denied medical treatment, village headmen chasing away women who have come to complain of maltreatment, and rich families locking their houses and escaping from a flood, leaving the poor to weep over their dead.97

The paintings are still ephemeral in the lives of the painters, for like all successful art, they leave the atelier and go out into the world. But the paintings are now preserved in books, catalogs, and frames on the walls of houses throughout India and beyond; like the Marwari horses, they now belong to the world. There are troubling aspects about this transaction: Euro-American people have intervened in the lives and art of the people of Mithila, not only reversing the most basic understanding of what it means to them to make art—its impermanence—but changing the medium (encouraging them to use more permanent dyes, less fragile paper, and so forth) and influencing its subject matter. For capitalism inevitably raises its ugly head: The knowledge of what will sell in New York and San Francisco influences the subjects that the women in Mithila choose to paint, just as European standards of equine breeding influenced the choice of horses that were registered as pure Marwaris. This should give us pause, even before we acknowledge that many people besides the painters make money on these transactions. On the other hand, the painters have also made money, money that has freed them from degrading poverty. We may or may not judge that this gain justifies the possible loss of artistic integrity, but in any case it is what has happened and what is happening. At the end of the day the lives of the painters have been enriched by the income from the paintings, and the lives of everyone who has seen the paintings have been enriched by the women of Mithila.


The princess Renuka (also known as the goddess Mariamma), whose decapitated head took on the body of a decapitated Dalit (Pariah) woman, continues to survive as a goddess in the village of Chandragutti, 240 miles northwest of Bangalore, where a week-long festival dedicated to the Hindu goddess Renukamba (“Mother Renuka”) has taken place every year for centuries. The Chandragutti version of the story is that Renukamba’s clothes (instead of her head) dropped off as she fled for her life from her murderous husband, and she took refuge in a nearby cave, where she merged with a deity. Each year, thousands of Dalits have taken off their clothes to immerse themselves in the Varada River, then climbed two and a half miles with their clothes off to offer prayers to the goddess at the hilltop cave temple.


Medical Services Offered to the Rich but Denied to the Poor.
Painting by Dulari Devi, Madhubani, Bihar.

But police banned the nude pilgrimage in 1986 after devotees clashed with members of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS), a group advocating the uplifting of lower castes. DSS volunteers, claiming that the ritual was degrading for Dalits, were beaten when they tried to prevent pilgrims from undressing. The worshipers then attacked police and paraded ten police officials, including two women constables, naked along the banks of the river.98 Complex issues of sexual propriety intersect here with the rights of Dalits, as non-Dalits attempt to prevent Dalits, ostensibly for their own good, from indulging in their own rituals. No longer a question of heads versus bodies, the worship of Renukamba now expresses an ambivalence toward the human body itself, as well as the enduring tension within the social body of caste Hinduism.

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