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India : More than a homogenous, monolithic state, a Sacred Geography

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The fault lines inherent within religions and their dissonance with science and modernity are crucial for understanding of the civilizational conflicts. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ with ultimate triumph and universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of government is as exclusivist and totalitarian a category as any other from Abrahamic religions, for example Islamic concept of Ummah and even Marxism. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is more extreme (but not unlikely) reading into possible outcome. We would have to discount the role of ‘other’ civilizations in this mega clash, a role that appears artificial, forced and accidental.

The narrow-universalized-exclusivistic Abrahamic religious identity derives material benefits from science universals which by the way also questions the very identity itself. Man is now habitual of thinking in these terms of dissonance. The concern with the form or structure of governance, its primacy and the world order is a manifestation of conflict in self-identity and social structure.

Past broadly works on two levels – personal and collective. Together, these two levels constitute history. At personal level an individual needs the past and roots for identity, relevance and connection. The past, thus recorded in oral and written traditions, family hero exploits bardic tales, and folklore, genealogical database, and church records etc. more intimately connects the self to his identity; at collective level these things concretize in records of dynasties, kingdoms, sects, religions and so on.

There exists a complex relationship between the individual and societal historical narrative. Regions that have undergone long spell of politico-cultural dominion of other people (including those where native populations were converted to new cultural, religious and political thoughts) show tendencies, desperate attempts to cling to their roots. For instance Indian sub-continent, where the region’s social life had been greatly disturbed 6-7th century onwards due to constant invasions and later with establishment of political empire based on alien-antagonistic religious and cultural values lead to collapse of internal mechanisms society. The local historical narrative was also a casualty as the sanguine polity and culture came under severe strain. Even dynastic identities lost their socio-political importance in such a scenario. The alien and antagonistic foreign rule badly affected the complex, cohesive and interdependent order of the various communities of India. The ruling communities lost their power and were reduced to vassals and mercenaries; there was a general disincentive for education and Brahmin community, especially in region under more direct rule lost touch with sciences and other secular subjects. They turned to philosophy and rituals for sustenance. The result was a general decline in education across communities. Then social instability, introduction of slave trade, Jazia and pilgrimage tax etc. added to downfall of the socio-cultural life of the country.

Thus, for instance in 16th century, we come across the interesting incidence in the life of Shivaji, who by the way was attempting to reverse the trend by creating a Hindwi Swrajya on lines of ancient kings of the country. When wanted to establish such rule, his right to coronation was denied by Brahmanas, who questioned his Varna (Kshtriya) status and right to ascend a throne and rule. He had to hire services of a stalwart orthodox Brahmin of Kashi named Ganga Bhatt, who traced his links to the famed solar dynasty of the House of Sisodiya of Mewar. He convinced the opposing Brahmanas and cleared Shivaji’s path to coronation and title Chhatrapati.

In era characterized by failing states/dynasties, mass migrations; communities invented novel ways to keep track of their identities and roots. It was again the Varna-ashrama system that was summoned to rescue. (No wonder that all local kings irrespective of local situation took oath to maintain and strengthen the Varna-Ashrama system). Need of family genealogical records for Samskaras/rituals of life made Brahmanas to record the histories of their Yajmanas. It should not be forgotten that these rituals associated with birth, death and marriage etc. were repetitive in nature. (For importance of repetition in Indian culture Ramanujan’s essay ‘Repetitions in Mahabharat’ is a good introduction). It made the connection of an individual with the ancients’ sacred order instant and palpable. And thus in tortured times past and present, secular and religious, historical and Vedic/Puranic narratives grew together to complete the hologram called India.

I would hazard to guess that importance and function of Tirtha grew with weakening of Sanatana culture in general and Varna-Ashrama system in particular. Varna-Ashrama system failed to assimilate diverse peoples (tribes, communities, Jaatis etc.), their life style and culture etc. in the grand Sanatana Dharma narrative that joined the sacred with state. Ashwamedha/Rajasuyas Yajnas were losing their place in and the overall conception was also undergoing a change in sense that the difference between socio-political situation and sacred order was widening. Buddhism and Jainism, and later Bhakti, Nath movements etc. with overall decline of Vaidic tradition clearly lead to the divorce of the state and religion. Thus Jaati identity came to be another reality, perhaps stronger than Varna identity. The former was practical, accessible and flexible; the later was (Smriti-based) Shastric, inflexible but more codified thus amenable to politico-legal structure. Reasons for this could be like – inward and outward migration of people, evolution and proliferation of new Jaati identities, localization, introduction to new religious thoughts and so on. The religious identity of Indians is through Varna–Ashrama system and Jaati.

The genealogical records were necessary for ritual and mundane purposes. Brahmanas especially the Tirthas-panda and Tirth-Upadhyaya who were custodian of such ritual functions started maintaining family tree records of their Yajmanas. There is a huge genealogical database of Varnas, alive and growing in Tirtha Kshetras like Gaya, Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik etc. even today. This was not something that was taking place in Tirtha alone. Family priests and Bhats were also maintaining records of their patron families/communities since such records were necessary for marriages, shraddha and other Samskaras that Dharmashastras had enjoined for particular Varna. Even today Bhats from Jaipur, Rajasthan travel with their Vahees (record books) to their Yajmanas in remote villages of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh; sharing, updating and correcting records and receive gifts and money in return of these services. Their role was duly appreciated by the Jaati Panchayats.

In pre-British era also, Jaatis (communities) Panchayats held crucial roles within and without the communities. In absence of a local, sympathizing or understanding political order these Panchayats (which had traditionally provided support to the governance since Janpad days) took responsibility of socio-cultural affairs of their own community and relations with the others. This was convenient for the foreign rulers also who needed order and prosperity for their own survival. The British rule also recognized their importance and role in social fabric of the country. That was the reason decisions of such Panchayats especially in areas of personal law were always respected. The British were confounded by the diversity of people and that of the Dharmashatras. The that found such a great recognition in legal circles about the Hindu Personal law had scant following even among the most conservative Brahmin communities!

Now these Jaati Panchayats have lost their role and relevance. There are ubiquitous courts that administer justice in personal-family disputes based on the Hindu Personal Law. Now disconnects of the Jaati Panchayats within and without and with the wider Varna–system (represented by the Smriti-Dharmashastras) has lead to strange claims and myths. There is no scholarly tradition or control over these narratives. This leads to a mix up the traditional historical narratives with the half baked, often racist theories of colonial historians. The story gets further complicated by the constitutional sop of reservation and results are strange! These Jaatis claim connections with (1) Mythic dynasties/Heroes and Gods- like Surya Vamsha, Chandra Vamsha, Puranic characters like Sahasrarjuna, Vishwakarma, Agrasena etc.; Historical dynasties Maurya, Rashtrakutas, Kadambas, Pallavas, Hoysala (often multiple connections) and often many of them also claim for some constitutionally ‘backward caste’ status simultaneously. 

I would like to argue that such narratives of ‘history’ are more intimately related to the life of people as it gives an identity, sense of belonging and connection with the environment. The standard history book narrative taught in classrooms starting with Harappa–Aryan invasion, Maurya, Gupta period through sultanate-Mughal period to British rule and independence has more to do with the (nation-myth!) narrative. It lacks the existential worth.

But the unity of India is based in sacred tradition. This sacred-geography has now elicited scholarly attention in the West. But there was never any doubt about this in India. The concept of Indian landscape is glued by sacredness and the Order (rta), that has origin in Shruti texts. Pilgrimage, Yagna, Kumbha-Simhastha mela and events like wars, coronations etc. were set in the sacred connected cosmos. The much touted political, social and even cultural unity is but a by-product of it. The flow of ascetic and lay pilgrims over millennia to various Tirthas on auspicious astronomical conjunctions or seasons, under some vow, some holy men together have created what we see as India today. In this way knowledge, as in some delta region riverbed like network, has traversed across time, space and consciousness on tools like rituals, oral traditions, literature, language, Darshana and science. India has nothing equivalent to the concept of homogenous, monolithic political state that appears so easy and natural to the West.
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