Another India (Simon & Schuster India, 2023) by Chandan Gowda is a journey through the multifaceted tapestry of India’s rich history and diverse traditions.
The book unveils the layers of the past, offering a glimpse into the intricate world of religious cosmologies and the plurality within Hinduism. Through many stories, it introduces us to obscure and celebrated figures, from Bhimavva to Gandhi, shedding light on their impact on the nation’s cultural evolution. The book paints a portrait of India’s cultural universe by weaving these narratives, emphasising the significance of creative dissent and the enduring values that have shaped this vibrant and ever-evolving society.
The following are excerpts from the book.
Protest in Indian Tradition
In the afternoon of December 26, 1810, around twenty thousand people deserted Benares and sat on a dharna outside the city. A new tax on houses and shops that the British had imposed on them, they had felt, was unfair.
A group of protestors had gathered a few days earlier but the British had dispersed them. The protestors’ resolve showed a different strength now. The various Hindu and Muslim communities took an oath to cease work until the new tax was lifted. The blacksmiths, the barbers, the weavers, the tailors, the palanquin bearers and boatmen, all of them stopped work. The effects were soon visible. Without the priests to do the cremation rites, for instance, corpses were being thrown into the Ganga.
The protestors berated and penalized those hesitant to join them. The police could do little to protect them. A few who withdrew from the dharna were ostracized from their communities.
The blacksmiths, who had turned up in large numbers, kept up the pressure. Their refusal to work made things difficult for a large number of farmers: new implements for cultivation and harvesting couldn’t be got or the old ones fixed.
Taking an oath not to disperse, the protestors sent a moral decree to every village in the province, asking all the families to send a member each to join them. Several thousand blacksmiths, farmers and weavers left their villages and joined the dharna.
Members of every community at the dharna joined in to help buy firewood, oil and other provisions needed to sustain the protest. They also raised a substantial sum of money to support those whose families depended on their daily work. Besides, the various religious orders did their fullest to keep the protestors united.
The protestors did not take to violence at any point. Being unarmed, they were certain that the British would not use violence against them.
Eight days later, the British succeeded in dispersing those sitting in dharna. The police seized the boats lying unused and made them government property. They cracked down on the traders supplying essential provisions to the dharna site and were especially brutal towards those recruiting protestors from the villages. Under pressure from the British, many landlords asked their farm labourers to return to their estates.
Shaken by the dharna—Patna, Saran, Murshidabad and Bhagalpur had also seen protests, albeit on a smaller scale—the British however exempted a few religious orders and the very poor in Benares from the new tax and did not impose it in new areas.
My retelling of the above episode draws from the British official correspondence at the time, which the Gandhian scholar, Dharampal, has compiled in his valuable book, Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition (1971). These documents, which he found during his research at the India Office Library, London, in the mid-1960s offered support for an observation found in Gandhi’s Hind-Swaraj (1909): “In India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us.” Besides Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy, whose influence is acknowledged in Hind-Swaraj, Gandhi’s philosophy of civil disobedience drew from his awareness of it as a living presence in Indian society.
The dharna that the British could only view as sedition, Dharampal notes, would have been morally intelligible to Indian rulers. Unlike the modern state, which only expects full compliance with the law and greets any non-compliance with penalty, the philosophy of civil disobedience sees the rulers and the ruled in a relation of continual mutual engagement and not in a frozen the-State-versus-the- People binary where the commands of the former are mechanically obeyed by the latter. It asks political authority to be sensitive to social suffering and stay open to revising its own conduct. Rather than a sign of weakness, this political attitude emanates care, creativity and wisdom.
The Scavenger of the Cosmos
Written in his mid-twenties, Kuvempu’s first play, Jalagara (The Scavenger, 1928), continues to hold out a special significance. An early enactment of his philosophical ideal of vishvamanava, the play also reveals the poet’s creative engagement with tradition. But, first, a quick outline of Jalagara.
The play opens with Mother Earth ushering in a glorious dawn. An untouchable scavenger is then seen at work in a village. His song of admiration for the splendour of the sun quickly reveals a mature, sophisticated mind. A farmer passerby asks him to accompany him to the fair being held near Shiva’s shrine. The scavenger declines to join him: the priests, he replies, wouldn’t let him come anywhere near the shrine. Enchanted by the scavenger’s songs from afar, two learned Brahmin priests withhold their applause however after discovering that the voice belonged to a low caste man. Poets, scholars, sculptors, singers and yogis, they smugly contend, can never be born among the Shudras.
In the evening, on his way back from the shrine, the farmer, who was ecstatic about the ritual pomp, has only coconuts, flowers, kumkuma and camphor to show from his visit. “Haven’t you brought back Shiva?” The scavenger is unimpressed.
Later, when the scavenger beseeches Shiva to reveal himself, the Lord appears in the guise of a scavenger. “You look human but seem to be superhuman. Your eyes shine brighter than the stars. Who are you?” Noticing the scavenger’s bewilderment, Shiva says, “Don’t be afraid, brother. I’m your relative.” He continues, “I’m of your caste (jati). I’m a scavenger. A scavenger of the world. I swallow the sins of the world.
Beauty flourishes in the world due to my scavenging work. The radiant moon, the roaring oceans, the clear rivers, the majestic forests, all of them are in my debt. They call me Rudra at times and Shiva at other times, but they are hesitant and afraid to call me a jalagara.”
“I had never heard this about you. Scholars and learned people describe you in other ways.”
“Their descriptions are imaginary and deceptive. My true form will terrify them. You are the only one to have worshipped me in my true form in your work. My dear brother, I’m not the Shiva found in the shastras and in poetry. I’m not the erotic Shiva who cavorts with Parvathi on a silver mountain. I’m the scavenger who climbs the heap of filth built up in the cosmos and dances on it. The true Shiva is a scavenger. I appeared unattractive to the learned scholars and priests. So they tried to change my looks. The priests don’t let me inside the shrine before placing a moon and Ganga on my head. The real Shiva is never ever inside a shrine!”
“Where else are you?”
“I reside in the hearts of the poor who keep the streets clean. I move alongside the farmers ploughing the land. I hold the hands of the crippled, the blind, the orphans and the suffering people and care for them. Come, my brother. You are my true devotee. You have become me. I have become you. You are Shiva!”
“I’m Shiva! I’m Shiva!”
The village scavenger merges into Shiva’s embrace.
Kuvempu’s style of invoking the figure of Shiva in his play does several things. As with his predecessors in the folk tradition, it releases Shiva from the dominant theological imaginations and makes him intimately available to powerless people. It shakes up the moral stupor of the powerful groups too in asking them to shift out of ritual worship and imagine their relation with God in morally daring and socially sensitive ways. Further, Kuvempu is working within the reality of God. His recomposing of the world picture—in order to both make theology open its eyes to the new demands of social justice and make the pursuit of God an individual act and not parcelled along caste, religion or any other community lines—does not proceed therefore in an iconoclastic manner, from a point outside religion.
The rhythmic verse form of Jalagara appears to place faith in the capacity of humans to replace an undesirable social order. Minor characters—an idealist youth who admires the tireless work of the sweeper, two young men who boldly dismiss religion as originating from an encounter between a thief and a fool but are lacking in sympathy for a starving beggar, a few boys who are blissful in their stupidity, among others—disclose the diverse currents within the social map, keeping the course of future events open.