This is an excerpt from Confluences: Forgotten Histories of East and West by ILIJA TROJANOW and RANJIT HOSKOTE (Yoda Press, 2012). In defiance of the current tide of national and cultural neo-tribalism, the authors argue that the lifeblood of culture is confluence. No culture has ever been pure, no tradition self-enclosed, no identity monolithic. Employing a variety of approaches, ranging from the essayistic to the poetic, from rigorous historical analysis to the playfulness of fiction, they follow the journeys of stories, ideas, people and songs, and trace the umbilical connections between Europe and Asia, Zoroastrianism and Christianity, Western revolutionary thought and the annihilatory politics of Jihad and Hindutva. In this particular section, titled ‘Travelling Back in Faith’, history is presented through the prism of science fiction:
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is a powerful organization founded on the belief that the Hindu religion is eternal and unvarying, that it has existed in India for thousands of years (the VHP’s chronological estimates vary between 8,000 and 50,000 years), and that its essence has never been affected by any foreign influence or borrowing. Hinduism is unique to India, and India is a uniquely Hindu country: such is the logic of the VHP. And yet, occasionally, the VHP is assailed by a sense of doubt. It is all very well to thunder at Muslims and Christians in self-congratulatory public meetings, its leaders say to themselves, but it would be nice to have some proof with which to fight off the scoffing scientists. And so, as documents recently made available to researchers reveal, the high command of the VHP decided to sponsor a time travel project, sending a fact-finder back to the glorious Vedic age to collect evidence of how the ancestors of the Hindus performed their rituals, worshipped their gods, and conceived of their relationship to the Divine.
Thus a card-carrying member of the VHP, a Hindu of impeccable credentials, embarked on a pilgrimage through time, back to 1500 BCE. He must have been very excited at the prospect of seeing with his own eyes the Golden Age of his belief, when the tenets of Hinduism were still untainted by any alien influence. Landing on the banks of the Indus, he immediately sets out on a walk, eager to visit the temples of the area, to pay his respects to the gods, magnificently carved in stone, and to celebrate the sunset with the time-honoured ritual of the aarti. Our contemporary Hindu searches in vain. He encounters some herdsmen, but none of them has heard of his supreme god, Shiva. Vishnu does ring a bell, but only as one of the names of the sun god. He stumbles from one shock to another: the mention of the loving Krishna provokes anger, for Krishna, they tell him, is a cattle-raider, the enemy of their chief god, Indra. And when he asks about Ganesha, most popular of today’s deities, they nearly chase him away—that dangerous trouble-maker, they whisper, can only be appeased by tribal shamans from the forest on the far side of the river. Eager to mollify his new friends, the perplexed guest asks about their gods. The ancients rattle off a long list—Varuna, Mitra, Agni, Kubera and others—but to him these are vague names, shadowy figures, either forgotten or demoted, as in the case of Kubera, to goblin status.
I will find consolation in a temple, our time-traveller thinks to himself, but the locals do not understand his request. The word ‘mandir’ is foreign to them, as is ‘murti’. Where the heck are you from? they ask with growing suspicion. Are you one of us at all? After much to and fro, they lead him to a temporary altar by the river, around which several men are seated. But he can make no sense of their shamanic rituals of purification and praise; he does not know the guardian spirits and fertility goddesses that they are worshipping. In great inner turmoil, he proceeds to a sacrificial clearing in the forest, hoping at least to come across a familiar idol. But alas, there is not a single one there, only strange totems: instead of the mighty Shiva, he encounters a cobra; instead of the regal Vishnu, he finds a fish, a tortoise and a boar. And when the sun begins to set, he is all alone, and the locals give no sign of gathering for the congregational evening prayer that has been his daily spiritual fare for as long as he can remember. But the locals are hospitable, and after dinner (of which the less said the better), they sit around the fire with him, struggling to make conversation.
Seeking common ground, he narrates some of his most cherished myths as best as he can in his high-school Sanskrit, the story of Rama and Sita, the saga of the feuding Pandavas and Kauravas, the legend of the rival sisters Ganga and Parvati. His audience is entranced by such beautiful tales from foreign lands, not only because of his story-telling skills, but also because their ears have never been charmed by anything similar to this. Even the most central of Hindu concepts, which he idiomatically mentions in passing—the karma of his life—baffles his Vedic ‘ancestors’. But there is one comforting moment, when they invite him to a sacrifice: the yagna. With enormous relief he casts the mix of sesame, clarified butter and kindling wood into the fire, to the chanting of Vedic verse. But his relief is short-lived. He is scandalised that the priests hand around a brew they call soma, and shocked by the readiness with which both women and men drink it, transporting themselves into states of dream. He is eager to return home, for he might as well have landed on the moon.
But the VHP does not give up so easily. OK, they exclaim, so we exaggerated by a millennium here and a millennium there, but that doesn’t prove anything. Our researcher must have missed the great Hindu unravelling by a sliver of time—we just have to send him out again. This second journey falls under a bad omen right from the start. Bereft of hopes and illusions, our Hindu is mortified by the thought of what else he might find in this most alien land of all—history. Travelling ahead in time from where he left off, he labours on desperately. His patience is sorely tested. He has to overcome oceans of strangeness, to hack his way through jungles of disorientation. The forms of worship that he comes upon shock him with their earthiness and their lack of inhibition: the snake and the penis, the gnomes and goblins. Well, he says to himself, the temples must have been made of timber and brick, although he can’t quite imagine such constructions living up to the proclaimed greatness of
Ancient India. He reaches the 5th century BCE, the epoch of the great religious founders Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, who were born just a few miles apart in North India. The way he has been taught history, Buddhism and Jainism were offshoots of Hinduism, but he has not yet come across a Hinduism he can identify with, except for a few hymns and some rudimentary rituals. Branches without a trunk? He ponders over the puzzle, slipping further into the marsh of confusion when he realises that the very first monuments he stumbles upon—towards the 2nd century BCE—are Buddhist, the domed stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi. So if the Buddhists managed to build such impressive monuments in stone, why not the Hindus of that era? Soon after this, he comes across a glimmer of hope: a column, six majestic meters of sandstone, standing in Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh. It lacks any figural representation, but the eagle Garuda is perched on its top, a symbol of Vishnu, finally a sign that is known to our traveller. Reading the inscription he learns that the column is the gift of a prominent ‘Bhagvat’, a worshipper of Vasudeva. Vasudeva! That is, Vishnu, a properly Hindu monument at last. Our time-traveller exhales—he is home. Overcome by emotion, he bows down, and his eyes fall on the inscription. For God’s sake! The donor is a foreigner: Heliodoros, son of Dion. Our man sits down heavily, puts his head in his hands, and tries to understand this cruel blow of karma, this reversal of everything he has held holy. Apparently, this ambassador from the Greek kingdoms in the northwest (today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan) to the local court is the first documented Vaishnavite in history, the first known person to regard Vishnu as the Supreme God.
Heliodoros’ is hardly the exceptional case of an eccentric convert, as is proven by the coins dug up in the surrounding region. They are minted by Agathokles, an Indo-Greek ruler, and also dedicated to Vasudeva, the very first known image of this deity. Meaning ‘the Radiant God’, Vasudeva is a new kid on the block, a recent composite welded together from Pan, Dionysos and Indra. But our traveller must traverse another two centuries before he finally encounters a Hindu iconic image of any kind: In Gudimallam, near today’s Madras, he stumbles upon a truly magnificent sculpture. One and a half meters high, this icon is widely regarded as the ‘earliest depiction of Shiva in Indian art’ (Michell 2000, 40). Our traveller is further perplexed: the lingam is not an abstract symbol, but a rather realistic gigantic penis. The deity does not stand independently but steps out of the lingam, at the same time standing on the shoulders of a yaksha (a nature spirit), holding a water-pot in his left and an antelope in his right hand, an axe resting on his shoulder. Even more confusing, the figure is devoid of any signs which usually identify this God: the trident in his hand, the river goddess Ganga in his locks, the snakes around his neck, and the bull Nandi behind him—in one word, a depiction sorely at odds with all later depictions. Even the dating (1 century BCE), though widely accepted by scholars, may be open to doubt.
It emerges from the connoisseurial mystique of stylistic comparison, particularly imprecise when there is hardly anything to compare it to, conducted by T. A. G. Rao in 1914 (a period when even the datings recognised the prevailing nationalist necessities, and it wouldn’t have been patriotic to dispute a century or two). After some reflection, the traveller shakes his head in doubt. Is he really standing in front of Shiva? Only when he reaches the Kushan period, in the 1st century CE, does the time-travelling Hindu breathe a sigh of relief. In Gandhara he comes across an idol he can immediately accept as Shiva: he carries a trident and rides on the bull Nandi. In Mathura, he finds a sandstone sculpture of Vishnu; and in both Kushan centres he recognises Skanda, the war-god and son of Shiva, a popular divinity among the Indo-Greeks. In the icon of Govardhana-dhara—the young god bearing the mountain—he recognises his own Krishna at last! But for the most part, the images show Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, many of them with faces like firangis. He wonders if there is some malfunction in his time machine. Where has the rest of Hinduism gone? Is this really India, or has he been sent somewhere else by mistake, to some kind of Buddhistan? He wants to check with the VHP control centre, but the communication device has failed.
In a Kushan royal shrine, for the first time, he sees the now-popular icon of the goddess Durga locked in combat with a demon. Why do I see the Devi for the first time on my journey? he asks the Kushan custodian of the shrine. Well, says the custodian, I don’t know what you mean, you look and sound like a foreigner; but if you really want to know, this is our war-goddess Nanaia. We brought her with us from Inner Asia, and now the locals are very happy with her. They bring her flowers; they sacrifice goats on her big feast day. We don’t discourage it. And although we would prefer her to be shown killing a bull, the local artists have been experimenting with a buffalo. And we say, why not, after all it is closer to their experience in this monsoon country, so let them sculpt her killing a buffalo-demon.
Our present-day Hindu spends the rest of the day in a daze. He avoids entering the other shrines he sees, not knowing what further surprises lie in store for him. But never mind, he tells himself, he is the first living Hindu to have gone back to the past and seen what it was really like. He can make a career out of his stories. He relaxes a little at the prospect. When he finally makes it back to contemporary India, he presents his findings with great excitement to the VHP’s high command. He is promptly expelled from the organization and his papers are publicly burned. Not for telling things that are untrue—the VHP leadership can hardly assert this claim against his testimony—but because he has dared to state, openly, facts that cannot be tailored to suit the mythmachine. You do not have to be historically correct to be condemned as a traitor, but in today’s India, large parts of which are dominated by the ideology of Hindutva, it certainly helps.