For starters, the practice of representing divinity in a sensory plenitude of forms is confusing to those who believe in a single, formless God. But the plot thickens as the gods and goddesses represented in polytheism often behave in ways that appear morally chaotic to the sterner moral authorities of Abrahamic religions. “I recall,” writes Amit Chaudhuri in his introduction to the Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), “some of the British critics of Peter Brooks Mahabharata noting in wounded tones the Machiavellian, unfathomable nature of the Hindu god Krishna.” It is scarcely surprising that, to British critics of Protestant or Anglican heritage (whether secular or religious), a god who conveys an important gospel, engages in ruthless statesmanship, and indulges in transcendental erotic play with thousands of women, all in the same lifetime, may come across as a bit much. It is hard to conceive of a similarly ambivalent and playful figure of central significance in the Abrahamic religions, which appear far more austere, abstract, and cerebral next to the sensual ambivalence of Hinduism — or, for that matter, Hellenism.
Until the Lions, the 2015 book of narrative poetry by the dancer and choreographer Karthika Naïr, retells the story of the Mahabharata in the voices of anonymous and outcast soldiers, abducted princesses, tribal queens, and a gender-shifting god. During a conversation, Naïr told me that such a retelling does not violate or overturn the original in any way, as the potential for violation is already latent in the text. Indeed, the Mahabharata creates the very conditions for that violation — one can go so far as to say that it encourages it. The character of Krishna tells us why. Peter Brooks depicted the classical, scriptural version of Krishna as the giver of the key gospel, The Bhagavad Gita, consigning the Machiavallian Krishna and the playful, erotic Krishna to the status of folk aberrations. I don’t know if that set-up helped soothe any moral injury among British critics, but it is quite far from true. The same character does all of these things, consistently, in all versions of his story. That generations of Indian poets, lyricists, and writers have been fascinated by such a character is natural and almost inevitable; the pioneering Bangla novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay has a famous essay on this subject: “Krishna Charitra” — the character of Krishna.
Krishna is an impossibly multivalent character both because and in spite of the fact that there are many Mahabharatas. I have come across a few myself in the course of growing up in Calcutta, mostly in Bangla but also in other Indian languages, in text and performance. In her 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Wendy Doniger busts apart the myth that oral texts are fluid and changeable while written texts are preserved in a singular form. “The Rig Veda was preserved orally,” she writes, “but it was frozen, every syllable preserved for centuries, through a process of rigorous memorization. There are no variant readings of the Rig Veda, no critical editions or textual apparatus. Just the Rig Veda.” The Mahabharata, on the other hand, was both written and oral. But, unlike the Rig Veda, “this text changed constantly; it is so extremely fluid that there is no single Mahabharata; there are hundreds of Mahabharatas, hundreds of different manuscripts and innumerable oral versions.”
But no matter which version I experienced, the fluidity of Krishna’s character was a constant. This moral complexity and ambivalence — chaotic perhaps, to certain value systems — extends to the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses in Hinduism.
In the famous chapter of Mimesis entitled “Odysseus’ Scar,” Erich Auerbach contrasts Homeric and Biblical narration: the former is externalized, sensory, digressive, while the latter is more obscure and abstract, directed unrelentingly toward a single goal. Unlike the Homeric epics, which take delight in sensory effect and lie and fabricate when necessary, the biblical stories lay claim to the singularity of an absolute truth. “The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s,” Auerbach writes, “it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims.” It follows naturally therefore that “the scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”
The Hindu epics — and, more importantly, the worldview behind them — resemble the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration far more than they resemble the biblical insistence on absolute truth. But that is only part of the story. The larger truth is that Hinduism is vast enough to contain multitudes; that something much like the Abrahamic insistence on a singular, abstract godhead and its ultimate authority is also part of Hinduism. Hinduism is both monotheistic and polytheistic, even though to Western eyes the polytheism overwhelms everything else.
Why does a devotee of God need both monotheism and polytheism? The poet Rabindranath Tagore offers the most beautiful answer: “I have dived into the ocean of forms to find the formless treasure.” In her book Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (2015), Linda Hess reminds us that a keyword associated with Kabir, the 15th-century Indian mystic poet who drew from — and criticized — both Hinduism and Islam, is “Nirgun,” which literally means “no quality.” “Nirgun” is the ultimate quality that cannot be concretized in any sensory form, much less visualized through language. Even though it expresses a negativity, Hess reminds us, “it simultaneously invokes emptiness and fullness.” Tagore’s invocation of the formless treasure, like Kabir’s “Nirgun,” seeks to go beyond the various beatific forms of polytheism and arrive at the formless divinity who eludes any kind of sensory representation.
Tagore’s poetry is defined by the mutual entanglement of the divine and the erotic, often depicting God as lover, as in the poetry of John Donne, whom he deeply admired. Here he offers the aesthete’s explanation of polytheism: the pantheon of gods, and the icons and images that represent them, matter because they offer concrete forms for imagining God, ways of becoming intimate with Divinity. Moreover, these forms are beautiful; the word “roop” in Sanskrit, as in modern languages like Bangla and Hindi, means “beauty” as well as “form.” It is the beauty of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, sitting with her book and her musical veena; the appeal of the blue Krishna, playing his flute and wielding his fatal weapon, the chakra; the terrifying beauty of the demon-slaying goddess Durga; even the violent rhythm of Shiva’s dance of destruction that earns him the name “Nataraj,” the lord of dancers.
Hinduism, and especially the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, has inspired much literary, performing, visual, and plastic art throughout the ages, ranging from the epics to temple sculptures and dance traditions like Kathak and Bharatnatyam. Like Kabir, another great mystic poet of the Bhakti (devotion) movement was the figure of Meera, a princess from 16th-century Rajputana who considered herself married to the Lord Krishna and ushered in a whole tradition of devotional songs, some of which are attributed to her.
Most of these artistic and musical figures are pre-modern, in spirit no less than in historical chronology. Modern Indian literary traditions — some might say literature itself as an institution — appears predominantly secular next to the various entwinements of polytheistic Hinduism with the arts during the classical and medieval periods. This secularization was spurred by the processes of colonial modernization that led to the rise of a small but influential urban bourgeoisie. Tagore was one of the defining figures of the Bengal Renaissance that gave modern India a unique social and literary identity. Colonial realities, such as the pervasive presence of the British, deeply inform his writing, but it is just as passionately engaged with Sanskrit aesthetics and medieval vernacular literary forms and idioms. Hailing from a distinguished family of the Brahmo faith, that ultra-liberal sect of Hinduism that denies polytheism and its iconography, the poet has no trouble praying to — and playing with — the gods and goddesses. “Death,” he writes in one of his popular songs, “to me you are like Krishna.” His idiosyncratic personal engagement with God is at once intense, passionate, becalming, and erotic.
What does a serious literary engagement with polytheistic Hinduism look like in the clear light of modernity? A more recent example is Arun Kolatkar’s poem-cycle Jejuri (1976). The bilingual poet (“My pencil,” he wrote in a poem, “is sharpened at both ends / I use one end to write in Marathi / the other in English”), who died in 2004 of cancer, has left us this remarkable series of poetic sketches coming out of a day spent in Jejuri, a site of pilgrimage in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The voice belongs to someone much like Kolatkar himself, a secular Bombayite who records his wanderings among the temples of this holy town.
I’ve taught this remarkable book many times in my literature classes, but recently, teaching it in a creative writing course, I became doubly attentive to its playful, ambivalent voice. This voice is both irreverent and affectionate, telling poetry in a simple diction, often cast in narrative form. The poem brings out the peculiar mix of faith, commerce, greed, and sincerity that makes up the ecosystem of any pilgrimage site in India. Much like a Benjaminian flâneur, the narrator makes his way through ruined temples and abandoned cowsheds, past avaricious priests and scheming tourist guides. He addresses idols with humor and intimacy, recalling the stories of stubbornly local gods, the contours of their bodies and the colored stones that make them up:
Come off it
said chaitanya to a stone
in stone language
wipe the red paint off your face
I don’t think the colour suits you
I mean what’s wrong
with being just a plain stone
I’ll still bring you flowers
you like the flowers of zendu
I like them too.
The most striking thing about a polytheistic, idolatrous religion, for this narrator, is its sensory beauty. For the secular artist, the difference between a stone and a god is moot; what matters is that it’s a beautiful stone:
What is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
and every other stone
is god or his cousin
scratch a rock
and a legend springs
Identifying religious faith with conservative, even reactionary positions is a knee-jerk response for many on the secular left, but this instinct is wrong. There have been many progressive religious thinkers, even among those canonized as prophets. Writing in 2002, Ruth Vanita made a curious but pointed observation: unlike the Islamic left or the Christian left, which collaborate with the secular left in different parts of the world, there is no Hindu left-wing in India, none left anymore — the pun is unavoidable. Marxist thinkers and writers flock to Durga Puja celebrations on the streets and pray to shrines at home, but very few have tried to integrate leftist and religious thinking in the context of Hinduism. Thinkers like Ashis Nandy and Ramchandra Gandhi, who attempt to do so, are a tiny minority.
Why this lacuna? The reasons, Vanita argued, has much to do with the shame heaped on polytheistic Hinduism in the 19th century. This was essentially the work of British colonialism, which successfully labeled idol worship as savage and backward. The British were confounded by Hinduism, which they found harder to understand than Islam — which, like Christianity, was monotheistic and based on a single text. Hinduism, with its textual and iconographic plurality, was much more like the ancient Greek and Roman religions that Christianity had wiped out centuries earlier. Though Hinduism, which proved resilient through many centuries of attack on its temples and idols, was not to be wiped out easily, the modern method of attack was quite insidious: it took the form of shaming English-educated Indians regarding Hindu rituals, especially those relating to idol-worship. “The best evidence of this shaming,” writes Vanita, “is the way new Hindu organizations, such as the Arya Samaj, who rightly embraced such causes as women’s education and the eradication of untouchability, felt compelled to also renounce polytheism and idol-worship.” Liberal and educated Indians continued to internalize the shame of polytheism; not long after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, whom Vanita calls the last left-wing Hindu, the Hindu left got lost between the stridency of the Hindu right and the shame felt by the secular left regarding Hindu polytheism.
The literary intelligentsia, especially as it has been forged through colonial modernity and the resistance to imperialism, has gradually moved further and further away from religious iconography, donning a secular mantle. The disenchantment with faith that in Europe energized the Enlightenment and forged the secular form of the novel found its way to India too, through anticolonial movements no less than through movements of colonial modernity. From the Bengal Renaissance to the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu, Hindi, and other north Indian languages, this disenchantment has gained pace, nowhere more so than in the English-language literatures of India, produced almost exclusively by the urban, English-educated bourgeoisie.
As a writer who has inherited both the polytheistic splendor of Hinduism and the colonial modernity that has tamed and rationalized its spirit, I feel restless with that modernity today. It is not so much a restlessness with narrative realism in literature — which, as Amit Chaudhuri has argued, does not have the same hegemony within Indian culture, where the classical epics as well as other genres of music and performance have deep, organic relations with the real — so much as with the larger worldview of secularism that gave rise to realism in modern Western culture. The non-modern elements of religion that got lost or subdued in the transition to modernity — the ritualistic, the communal, the performative, and, most powerfully, the polytheistic — were fascinating, morally and politically no less than aesthetically, and their depletion is a profound loss. The very emergence of literature as an epistemological category is inseparable from this loss, rather paradoxically so.
The reason why Jejuri moves me so deeply is its admittedly half-serious (and more moving for that) engagement with religion. Many Indian writers have entered the domain of the religious or spiritual with powerful intensity: Tagore is a rich example. One does not necessarily have to hark back to the lyrics of Meera or the cadences of Sufi poetry to experience the soul-blowing aesthetic power of religion. But still the very idea of literature, and its practice on the whole, remains rooted in the experience of secular modernity. Yet, whatever else they have achieved, the majority of writers and intellectuals, by disowning the aesthetic and affective power of religion, have surrendered it to forces that have fanned its passion into unholy flames. A crop of popular novelists has arisen that is eager to commercially exploit the narrative power of Hindu myths but remains unwilling to confront the moral complexity and ambivalence of polytheistic Hinduism.
Is it possible today for literature and the arts to engage with the affective power of polytheistic iconography and its ambivalent morality without celebrating the repressive dimensions of religious orthodoxy? It is of course sheer madness to deny the emotive, social, and artistic potential of this iconography. Literature — indeed, all forms of art — has long been enlivened by the beauty, emotion, mystery, and terror of religion, at least until secular modernity pried them apart, as the varied examples of Tagore, Kolatkar, and Karthika Naïr reveal. If, as Vanita argues, the Hindu left died from the relentless shaming of polytheism, can a sustained artistic engagement with the aesthetic and affective powers of Hindu religion serve to revive it? And, if it does, will the secular left recognize its language?
Saikat Majumdar’s most recent novel is The Firebird, published in the United States as Play House. A new novel, The Scent of God, and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur, are forthcoming in 2019.