Friday, January 27, 2012

Karma chameleon

It's one of the truisms of religious studies that "Hinduism" was a foreign invention. Before the Brits, indeed before the Mughals, there was no such thing - no unified -ism, no religion. I stumbled on a rather cheeky variant of this in a pulp novel while in India called The Immortals of Meluha, the first book in a trilogy about Shiva. (The second volume, The Secret of the Nagas, is out, too.) Even the story of the book is exciting: outsider writer braves rejection by publishing business to achieve greatest success. The writer Amish Tripathi is not a subaltern, however, but a financial sector star from one of India's top management institutes, who used knowledge from the world of marketing unheard of in Indian English-language publishing to create a sensation. But in its way that makes it even more interesting! Amish is creating a usable past for India's new technocratic elite, supported by but still in some ways alienated from family religious traditions (most are brahmins). What he is able to imagine is that the great god Shiva was not, in fact, a god at all, but a man of a kind of all-around splendor which Indians know to be possible - or at least knew, before foreigners' judgments corrupted their understanding - before the invention of "Hinduism," I might add! I picked up a copy for the flight home, and, slow reader that I am, only just finished it. (It's a cliff-hanger, and I've ordered the sequel!) Well-written it is not, but fascinating nonetheless. In Amish's imagined 1900 BCE world, the prosperous and righteous Suryavanshi kingdom (founded by the great scientist Brahma and statesman Ram) faces an existential threat from its evil neighbors the Chandravanshi, who overflow with slums and decadent opulence and are trying to kill the Saraswati River whose waters scientists have used to keep the Suryavanshi forever young. Both are waiting for a savior, the Neelkanth, an outsider who will be known by a luminous blue throat. Our hero Shiva, who comes from near Mount Kailash in Tibet, doesn't believe in chosen ones or in faith in redeemers, but steps up to the plate when terrorists nearly kill his love Sati and destroy the central research compound of the Suryavanshi. The Suryavanshi unite behind him as their divine savior, but he knows that anyone can be divine.

Yet it's not quite the euhemerist story I was expecting. In one way it is a secularization of a religious tradition (and a secular vindication of it). In the system set up by Ram there are varna (castes), for instance, but they are meritocratically filled out in each generation - children are raised communally far from most adults, as in Plato's Republic, and in time choose the status which best suits them. Only the bending of these rules to allow the rich to raise their own children has corrupted what is essentially a perfect system. Other problems are also the result of deviation from the rationality of Ram's view. Shiva teaches them to reject the idea that misfortune is a consequence of crimes in a past life, and nearly shows them that faith in a supernatural savior is a superstition which hides their own capacities from them. (Feuerbach would approve!) And yet we've not quite demythologized everything. Shiva became godlike because of his karma...

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