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Six The Text in a Changing Society
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The Rise of the Eternal Religion

In examining genres of contemporary Manas performance, I observed that many of them developed significantly during the nineteenth century, acquiring wider audiences and benefiting from the proliferation of printed versions of the epic. To gain a better understanding of the enhanced role that the text acquired during this period, it is desirable to view Manas patronage and performance against the background of broader socioreligious developments—a task complicated by the fact that the relevant individuals and institutions have as yet received little scholarly study. The causes of this neglect of popular Hindu movements are themselves worth noting. The widely current notion of a "Hindu Renaissance" with its familiar sequence of reformers and movements— Rammohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, Dayanand Sarasvati and the Arya Samaj, Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission, and so on— reflects a model of religious change first formulated by John N. Far-quhar in his 1915 work, Modern Religious Movements in India . Though scholarly and informative, this study reveals its author's concern to justify the colonial and missionary presence on the Subcontinent. It divides the nineteenth century into an initial period of awakening, during which enlightened leaders like Roy, under the benign influence of the Christian message, campaigned against the decadent customs of popular Hindu-ism, and a subsequent period of counterreformation (1870-1913) characterized by an increasingly reactionary defense of the faith. Most of Farquhar's work is devoted to movements prevalent among the English-educated elite, which had imbibed the influences of Christian morality and Western rationalism. When, toward the end of his study, he at last turns to the movements championed by such "uneducated" leaders as Pandit Din Dayal Sharma—the dregs, in his view, of the counterreformation—Farquhar paints a grimly negative picture of their activities.[46]


Subsequent studies of Hinduism, if they discuss modern movements at all, seem implicitly to accept Farquhar's model, and so it is not surprising that scholars who take a more positive view of the tradition tend to avoid discussing the groups Farquhar branded "reactionary." In consequence, it is now possible to find whole volumes with such titles as Religious Ferment in Modern India that contain no reference to influential mainstream groups like Sharma's Sanatan Dharm Rakshini Sabha and its innumerable offshoots.[47] The notion of a Hindu Renaissance championed by a progressive elite, eschewing centuries of superstition and selectively rediscovering the best in its own heritage, has by now filtered back through the writings of academicians to become pervasively constitutive of the concept (though not the practice) of Hinduism held by large numbers of Indians. This trend of thought, as Agehananda Bharati points out, tends to blur the particulars and diversities of the tradition and replace them with a vague and generalized set of principles couched in "the neo-Vedantic diction of Renaissance thought."[48] It also contributes to the disparagement of traditional sadhus and teachers and to a disproportionate emphasis (again, more in theory than practice) on certain Sanskrit "great tradition" texts: "Indians and sympathetic occidentals alike have come to regard the Bhagavadgita as the Hindu Bible. No challenge against this notion has ever emerged from the spokesmen of the Renaissance, yet this claim is not part of an informed view about Hindu lore. The people who might challenge it are the ones that won't: the grass-roots scholars, the orthodox pandits, cannot participate in the give-and-take of the Indian Renaissance with its English language premises."[49] The conventional view of the Hindu Renaissance needs to be reexamined, particularly by scholars who have access to Indian-language materials. Even the supposed innovations of its leaders often revealed continuities with older traditions: Dayanand Sarasvati's reformist fervor coexisted with a deeper orthopraxy, and the allegedly Christian-influenced practices of the Arya Samaj reflected techniques of religious proselytization that had long bhakti pedigrees;[50] similarly, the neo-Vedantic homilies of Swami Vivekananda, which created such a


sensation at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, coexisted back home with a millenarian belief in the divinity of Ramakrishna and the fervor of a characteristically Bengali devotion to the goddess Durga. Moreover, the actual impact of such leaders on. popular practice is debatable. Their apparently high profile, especially in English-language publications, may be deceiving, like their visible canonization in "secular" India. Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Swami Dayanand—together with the Rani of Jhansi, Subhash Chandra Bose, and even Annie Besant—have become national heroes, but to most Hindus they are simply the newest faces in the teeming pantheon of religious poster art, joining Buddha, Shankaracharya, Tulsidas, Mirabai, and countless other divine and semidivine beings on the iconostasis of the tea stall and dry goods shop. They have been reabsorbed by the mainstream, if indeed they ever left it.

But the scholarly focus on the activities of a handful of reformers, based mainly in the Punjab and Bengal where foreign influence was strongest, has tended to overshadow the complex pattern of mainstream Hindu activity both in the same regions and in the vast, largely Hindi-speaking Gangetic plain. This pattern, exemplified by the activities of such traditionally educated publicists as Din Dayal Sharma, was characterized by attempts to formulate an orthodox Hindu identity, most often subsumed under the label Sanatan Dharm. As a subject for study, this tradition has suffered not only from Farquhar's criticisms but also, as C. A. Bayly has pointed out, from its very ubiquity and multiformity—it has been easier to write about the trees than about the forest: "However faction-ridden at times, the Arya Samaj was at least a definable organization with a common creed. . .. But Sanatan Dharmis professed no distinctive set of beliefs beyond a general concern for the propagation of 'orthodox religion,' and their organizations present a bewildering variety of formulations and reformulations."[51] In the continuing absence of a major study of the Sanatan Dharm movement—one that would utilize, for example, the voluminous tract literature produced during the latter half of the nineteenth century[52] 52—I must nevertheless try to identify some of its characteristic features and concerns, particularly as they relate to its enthusiastic endorsement and propagation of the Manas .

In theory, this was not a new movement at all. Its name implies an


adherence to patterns of behavior held to be eternal or immemorial (sanatan ) and believed to have their source in the revealed Veda, which is itself beginningless. The expression is of undoubted antiquity. The formulaic phrase "for that is the eternal dharma" (sa hi dharmah[*]sanatanah ) occurs several times in the Mahabharata and the Valmiki Ramayana[*] with reference to exemplary behavior such as the protection of a kingdom, obedience to elders, and hospitality to guests.[53] Nineteenth-century Hindus would no doubt have agreed that such acts reflected dharma, yet their use of the expression was essentially different. Indeed, given the contexts in which they used it, I am sometimes tempted to translate Sanatan Dharm as "old-time religion"; like the American Protestant expression, it was a self-conscious affirmation of religious conservatism in a perceivedly pluralistic context.[54] It was necessarily a vague label, as it had to be applied to vast numbers of people whose beliefs and practices displayed great variation; what was important about it was that it excluded others.

Like the Upanishadic Absolute, the adherent of Sanatan Dharm might best be described in negative terms—as one who was not an Arya or Brahmo Samajist, not a Christian or Westernizer and who did not advocate widow remarriage, the initiation of untouchables, or the abandonment of image worship. A designation of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, the term could encompass pan-Indian rites such as puja , arti , and pilgrimage as well as purely localized caste and kinship customs. For a sense of what a late nineteenth-century pandit meant by it, we might turn to Shraddha Ram of Ludhiana's condemnation (c. 1873) of a prominent fellow citizen who had established a Brahmo-type "Society for Moral Enlightenment":

Mr. Alakhdhari who is against sruti and smrti[*] and does not keep a knot on his head and does not wear the sacred thread which is essential for the Vaishya and who hates to have cow dung paint in the kitchen and uses a dining table and calls bhojan as khana and thinks all the caste system is useless, then how is it possible that Hinduism can spread and prosper through his efforts? He also has some ideas that to worship Krishnachandra,


Ramchandra and Brahma and Vishnu and to go on pilgrimage to the Ganges and other rivers is foolishness . . .. Then he wears shoes and he wants to listen to the preaching of the Vedas and sastras in front of Christians anti Muslims and he cannot tolerate a mark on the forehead of another person.[55]

Most of the elements of enduring concern to Sanatanis are invoked here: respect for a body of authoritative texts, a preference for traditional dress and adornment, reverence for the cow and its products, and (by the final decades of the nineteenth century) insistence on a Sanskritized Hindi vocabulary rather than an Urdu one.

A range of factors contributed to the articulation of the Sanatani identity. Christian missionaries were active in northern India throughout the nineteenth century and especially after 1857, when Crown Rule replaced that of the East India Company and evangelicals stepped up their campaign for intervention in Indian affairs.[56] The Brahmo Samaj, founded in Calcutta in 1828, and the Arya Samaj, organized in Bombay and Lahore in the mid-1870s, responded to the missionary challenge and at the same time launched their own critique of traditional practices. Even though reformist and orthodox positions diverged sharply on certain issues (especially image worship, widow remarriage, and the interpretation of caste status), other highly volatile issues (such as cow protection, suddhi or the "purification"/reconversion of Christians and Muslims, and the agitation for the Hindi language and Devanagari script) tended to unite orthodoxy and dissenters under a common banner of "Hindu" identity.

The economic and social trends underlying these developments can be traced to the period immediately preceding the consolidation of British power—notably, to a growing competition between rising Hindu mercantile groups based in new cities and the older, rural-based landed aristocracy and service gentry, both Hindu and Muslim,[57] Other factors more directly related to the British presence were the introduction of print technology and the steady improvement of transport and communication, which facilitated the work of religious publicists. The tours and debates of Brahmo leader Keshab Chandra Sen in the late 1860s and Swami Dayanand in the 1870s are well documented, but other peripa-


tetic religious orators stepped up their activities during the same period; information on the identities of these wandering orators has rarely been preserved, but their ranks must have included many Vaishnava expounders who aired their views through the established channels of satsang[*] and Katha .[58]

Perhaps the most significant impact of the Arya Samaj, the most influential of the reformist societies, came from the organizational model it presented, which increasingly came to be emulated by orthodox groups. As a result, "personal campaigns in defense of tradition of the 1860s and 1870s gave way to new organizations with all the techniques of modernity."[59] Among the earliest were the Sanatan Dharm Rakshini Sabha (Association for Defense of the Eternal Religion), formed in Calcutta in 1873, and the Hindu Dharm Prakashik Sabha (Society for the Promulgation of the Hindu Faith), formed in Ludhiana, Punjab, at roughly the same time. Organized Sanatani activity in the Gangetic plain did not begin until the late 1880s, culminating in the founding of Sanatan Dharm societies in Hardwar and Delhi in 1895, the Bharat Dharm Mahamandal in Mathura in 1902, the politically activist All-India Hindu Mahasabha at Allahabad in 1913, and numerous smaller organizations with similar names and objectives—according to Far-quhar, some six hundred local societies by the first decade of the twentieth century.[60]

The instigation for the founding of these organizations often came from specific and sometimes localized issues; thus, the agitation in eastern U.P. and Bihar in the 1880s for a ban on cattle slaughter, which resulted in the founding of numerous local Gaurakshini Sabhas (cow protection societies), reflected not merely the traditional veneration of cattle but also the declining economic circumstances of local landlords and their Brahman clients and the rising aspirations of the Ahir, or milkman, caste.[61] Similarly, the founding of organizations for the promotion of Hindi and Devanagari script, such as the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (Banaras, 1893) and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (Banaras and Allahabad, 1910 and 1911), reflected a growing association of script with religious affiliation, which in turn was related to intensified competition between upper-class Uttar Pradesh Hindus and Muslims for gov-


ernment jobs.[62] Although concern over cow protection and linguistic identity was shared by Arya Samajis, the most prominent spokesmen of the cow and Hindi movements in U.P. at this time were generally the leaders of local Sanatani organizations.

They were also the men who were liable to be active in Manas-pracar (the promulgation of the epic)—themselves dedicated readers, expounders, and promoters of what was increasingly hailed as the "Hindi Veda." Thus, the "chief religious adviser" to the Bharat Dharm Mahamandal in 1910 was Pandit Jvalaprasad Mishra of Moradabad, a Ramayani who compiled one of the most influential Manas editions of the period.[63] During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hindu revivalism developed into "Hindu populism," the most prominent spokesman of which was Madanmohan Malviya, whose public statements on the epic will be cited shortly. The son of a leading Brahman family of Allahabad with close ties to the city's conservative mercantile community, Malviya became the Sanatan Dharm publicist par excellence, the founder of three newspapers, and the champion of a campaign to create a "Hindu University" in the sacred city of Banaras. To Western observers, Malviya appeared simultaneously "reactionary" and "progressive" and thus epitomized the inherent tension within orthodoxy.[64] Also prominent in Sanatani causes beginning in the 1920s was the redoubtable Swami Karpatri, whom we have already met as the inspiration behind the Gyan Vapi Manas Festival and will soon encounter again as the founder of a political party that aimed to usher in "the rule of Ram."

A persistent problem for would-be Hindu reformers was their lack of accessible texts. The Arya Samaj rejected much of Hindu devotional literature, branding the Bhagavatapurana[*] , for example, an "immoral" fabrication. Yet Swami Dayanand's calls for the public preaching and exposition of the Veda never met with more than a lukewarm response, and his planned Hindi commentary on the Rg[*]veda remained incomplete after his death.[65] In theory, the text problem was to be remedied by universal Sanskrit education, yet later Samaj administrators had to accept that the clientele of their successful Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Col-


leges was more interested in the "Anglo" than in the "Vedic" component of the curriculum. Vivekananda and his successor swamis in the Ramakrishna Mission took a more catholic view of sacred literature but likewise tended to look to ancient Sanskrit texts, frequently citing the Upanishads and Bhagavadgita in support of their neo-Vedantic views. These texts had prestige but little popularity.

Sanatanis too invoked the "Veda" as their ultimate authority, but they tended to use this term loosely to refer to all revered scriptures. For practical purposes, however, they had a text that was both authoritative and accessible—in Malviya's words, "the living essence of the teachings of the Puranas, smrti[*] , and Veda."[66] Swami Karpatri gave this claim a more detailed theological articulation: "When that Parabrahma who is known to the Veda became manifest in the form of Ram, son of Dashrath, then the Veda too became manifest through the great sage Valmiki in the form of the Ramayana[*] . That same Ramayana[*] has been made manifest by Goswami Tulsidas-ji in the form of the Ramcaritmanas . In practical terms, the meaning of the Veda is the meaning of the Manas ."[67] As the most accessible Veda, the Manas was the Sanatani scripture par excellence—a devotional work that preached reverence for cows and Brahmans; offered a veritable catalogue of sacred rivers, pilgrimage sites, and popular rituals; presented a harmonious synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism; and in the minds of devotees managed at one and the same time to stand for religious egalitarianism, the maintenance of the social status quo, and (later on) even nationalism and swadeshi (the boycott of British products, especially textiles), since it offered an inspiring vision of a powerful and self-sufficient Hindu state. Moreover, unlike the Veda, which Sanatanis continued to insist could be taught only to twice-born males, the Manas was suitable for everyone. Statements to that effect, tirelessly reiterated, by (usually Brahman) spokesmen like Pandit Shivkumar Shastri of Banaras, sometimes bordered on paternalistic condescension; the Manas was morally unobjectionable, true, but also unlikely to make waves: "There isn't one religious book, Purana, epic, etc., which can be narrated from beginning to end before every sort of person. But this is one book you don't have to hesitate to expound to young and old, men and women, boys and girls, high and low, householder and ascetic, orthodox Vaishnava, Shaiva or Shakta—anyone at all." One must add, however, that the venerable


Shastri, who was much admired for his Sanskrit learning and his impressive library of classical texts, devotedly carried his own little gutka[*] edition because "after all, in this alone do I find peace."[68]

Malviya himself issued a stirring call for Manas-pracar : "Blessed are they who read or listen to Goswami Tulsidas-ji's Manas Ramayan. . . . But still more blessed are those who print beautiful and inexpensive editions of the Manas and place them in the hands of the very poorest people, thus doing them priceless service. At present, Manas-katha is going on in many towns and villages. But wherever it is not, it should begin, and its holy teachings should be ever more widely promulgated."[69] It was answered by, among others, Malviya's friend Hanumanprasad Poddar, the son of a Marwari business family, whose Gorakhpur-based Gita Press began churning out low-priced Manas editions of every size and description. Another friend of Malviya's, Mahant Bankeram Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Temple, organized the first annual Manas-katha festival in the mid-1920s, setting a precedent that others would follow.

A further aspect of the Sanatani self-definition remains to be noted: the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of opposition to both Islam and Western culture. In the communally tense Punjab (where Hindus were outnumbered by Muslims in many-districts), Dayanand had provided fuel for this campaign with his strident denunciations of Christianity and Islam—their doctrines, scriptures, and prophets.[70] His antidote to the "degradation" imposed on Hindus by foreign rule was a hearkening back to the remote golden age of Vedic civilization, when Aryan seers had crafted the perfect scientific civilization, complete with railways and airships. The vision was persuasive and remains influential to this day, but Sanatanis have generally preferred to find their locus classicus, airships and all, in the Treta Yuga days of Ramraj , when all the world was united under a divine Hindu monarch.

The articulation of Hindu communalism under the slogan of Ramraj is discussed shortly; here I note the modern tendency to communalize the Manas —to present its author less as a humble ascetic singer than as a crusading militant, heroically responding to a Kali Yuga characterized by the "foreign" domination of India. Whereas Gandhi and other advocates of Hindu-Muslim unity cited the age of Akbar as a period of communal harmony and pointed to the essential compatibility of Hinduism


and Islam, Sanatanis saw syncretism only as a more subtle form of subversion and viewed the composition of the vernacular epic as the vanguard of a militant Hindu resurgence:

The Manas was composed at a time when Bharat was being struck by the thunderbolt of cruel and intense Muslim oppression. Hindus were utterly frightened and distressed, yet they clung to their traditions. . .. The evil-hearted Akbar displayed a clever policy of tolerance, and in order to deceive the Hindus, released them from the jaziya tax. And mixing up the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi religions, he promulgated a new faith called Din-i-Ilahi and started treating all with equality and friendliness. As a result, simple-hearted Hindus, forgetting their own natural Indian social system, customs, and rules, began to unwittingly embrace the Muslim creed and eat and intermarry with Muslims. In this way the Hindu religion began to be absorbed into Islam. No Hindu could grasp this dark conspiracy of Akbar's and their religion was about to go under, when Goswami Tulsidas-ji looked at the situation and recognized Akbar's wicked stratagem. . .. He took refuge in Lord Ram and at his inspiration composed the divine Manas epic, thus rescuing the drowning Vedic religion.[71]

This reading of the past remains influential among Manas devotees and finds frequent articulation in the communally tense atmosphere of contemporary North India. In 1984 at a huge Katha program in Ayodhya— a city that has become a cause cèlébre of Hindu communalism—an elderly devotee seized the microphone during a break between speakers and, in a quavering voice, worked the crowd into wild cheering with a poem that opened with a mocking litany of Muslim dynasties (and incidentally, presumed a knowledge of history and geography that would have been unthinkable among the devotees of Tulsi's day):

The trickery of Ghuri, Ghazni, Slave, Khilji,
mixed with the spirit of Tughlak, Lodi, and Sayyid,
and the evil plot of the Mughal Akbar—
by the power of his pen, he bested them!
Blessed the wisdom and power,
blessed the poetry of Tulsi,
that even in a vile age toppled the unbeliever!
The Ramcaritmanas nourished people's hearts
and gave life back to Hindus.

Iran, Arabia, Russia, China, even up to Indochina,
the victory of Islam was everywhere proclaimed.


India's holy soil was imbued with Muslim ways
and customs were corrupted in city and village.
Tulsi Goswami perceived the anguish
and played such a tune,
comforting the hearts of great and small,
that there remained no taste for Koran,
sermon, and salaam,
and in every home arose the song
of the name of Ram![72]

If the activites and rhetoric of both would-be reformers and their orthodox antagonists reflected a single underlying mood, it was one of anxiety. The theme of "protection"—of cattle, of women, and of dharma itself—permeates their activities and suggests a worldview increasingly on the defensive. Even programs of social welfare seemed to be motivated by a kind of fear; funds for orphan relief during the terrible famines of 1896 and 1899 were solicited by Arya Samajis with the plea that if Hindus did not help the orphans, they would fall into the clutches of Christian missionaries and be lost to the faith.[73] Similarly, caste Hindu's solicitude for untouchables and willingness to consider admitting them to (usually low) varna[*] status seemed to reflect the fear "that there will not remain any 'low castes' at a not very distant date and the 'higher castes' will have to exert all their energies in protecting themselves from being pushed to the wall."[74] Social programs not underwritten by major fears—such as work for the uplift of women—took low priority in the agendas of religious activists.[75]

To be sure, there were valid reasons for some of this anxiety: the political and economic upheavals of the recent past, the smug cultural chauvinism of the colonial regime, the growing militancy of Muslims and the strident critique of Hinduism by missionaries all must have contributed to it. Yet the fact that tens of millions of Hindus rapidly became convinced that their way of life was in imminent danger of vanishing gives one pause to wonder if the root of their anxiety did not lie in something more fundamental. The Kali Yuga is, after all, more


than a chronological designation; although in theory it has temporal limits, they are effectively beyond the range of human experience.[76] Instead, like the Old Testament story of the Fall, the "Dark Age" is best regarded as a metaphor for the human condition, an expression of the inevitability of vitiation and decline and of the unending battle to retain purity and potency. As Shulman suggests (and Tulsidas realized), the enemy is within, even though he can readily be externalized to suit the circumstances of the day.

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