Over the last few decades in India, a denuded secular public sphere has been besieged by a sharply militarized Hinduism. Books were among the first things to get caught in the battle. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, a philologist’s history of the religion, has sparked a stormy response. Much attention has also gone to the book Why I’m a Hindu, by leading politician and public intellectual Shashi Tharoor, which takes pride in the syncretic and tolerant dimensions of the religion and places it at a distance from the truculent Hindutva that has increasingly taken over the Indian state.
The controversies surrounding these volumes — both of which feature the word “Hindu” in their titles — takes me back to a slim book published in 1996, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Why I Am Not a Hindu. Declined by mainstream publishers, the book was released by the Calcutta imprint of a small press. Under a Communist-led government, the city used to be a safe place for such books — as opposed to Bombay (which also housed an imprint of the same press), where, the writer says, the book would have certainly caused violence and anger among the ruling right-wing government.
Indeed, Shepherd’s book has not so much suffered neglect as it has fought a long battle of suppression. Given where India stands today, the battle is clearly a losing one.
As the critic Susie Tharu has pointed out, Why I Am Not a Hindu has a lot in common with Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It is a vitriolic account not only of oppression and the infliction of suffering, but of something far trickier for the privileged to grasp: exclusion. Complete oblivion. The very opening lines strike this numbing note: “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus … My illiterate parents, who lived in a remote South Indian village, did not know that they belonged to any religion at all.”
The volume manages to achieve a remarkable number of things. What is perhaps the most striking is the way it constructs a Dalitbahujan identity — Shepherd’s syncretic name for Hinduism’s caste-oppressed communities — for social groups at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and even those excluded from it. This identity stands in stinging contrast to the Brahminical Hinduism that has been the dominant image of the religion, now weaponized by the current political regime.
Brahminical Hinduism establishes itself as a transcendental faith that enshrines elite forms of knowledge and practice, from priesthood to statesmanship. The Dalitbahujan religion comes to life as earthbound, thethered to the soil tilled by its practitioners, and to the health and livelihood of the community. Morality and immorality in this culture, Shepherd writes, “is not based on a divine order or a divine edict,” but rather understood “in terms of the harmony of the families.” Brahminical Hinduism believes in the karmic ladder of lives after death; for Dalitbahujans, “life is a one-time affair.”
This makes for a curiously worldly religion, rooted in skills valued in the community: “A Kurumaa man would have discovered new areas of sheep-breeding … A Kurumaa woman would have added to the skills of spinning wool.” Indeed, “for a Dalitbahujan body, labour is as habitual as eating is to the stomach,” and were it not for the joy their minds derive from the labour, “Dalitbahujan bodies would have died much earlier than they do.” Small wonder, therefore, that the most popular Dalitbahujan goddess in Andhra Pradesh (where Shepherd is from) is Pochamma, who cures diseases and occupies an intimate and quotidian place in the villages.
The figure of Pochamma offers a sharp contrast to the pantheon of gods and goddesses in Brahminical Hinduism — the subject of Shepherd’s most revolutionary critique. Brahminical gods, he argues, thrive on violence, often targeted at demonized Dalitbahujan bodies. The most celebrated narrative is that of The Ramayana, where the Lord Rama becomes the agent of destruction of Ravana, whmo Shepherd reads as a “Dravida Dalitbahujan ruler.” The violence is upheld by the dominance of Brahminical patriarchy, which makes a mockery of the powerless goddesses who symbolize virtue without any real agency. Thus Saraswati, the goddess of art and learning, does not create any art or thought herself, nor does she ever speak of women’s education. “How is that,” Shepherd asks, “the source of education is herself an illiterate woman?”
So much of what seems venerable or beautiful in this world remains underwritten by violence. Myths, Roland Barthes wrote, make such violence invisible. Shepherd’s reading of the divine iconography of Hinduism is a radical revelation of historically effaced violence. It remains the best answer to a question forced upon him by Indian power elites: why is he not a Hindu?
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). He has taught at Stanford University, was named a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.