42.) Satī and Sāvitrī as Ideal Hindu Women

July 20, 2009

Satī and Sāvitrī are ideal Hindu women. Agreed. But are we identifying the correct ideal when we talk about them? Are we drawing the right lesson from their lives?

The first lesson one is told and taught to draw from their lives is that of love and loyalty for the husband. In the case of Satī, this is exemplified by her burning herself to death rather than witness the indignities being heaped on her husband. In the case of Sāvitrī, it is exemplified in her resolve to bring back her husband even from the land of the dead. This then is the kind of love and loyalty Hindu wives should display towards their husbands.

But is this all that there is to the story? Let us look at the way they acquired their husbands. In both cases, they chose their own husbands, and in both cases they chose them over the objection of their fathers. In the case of Satī, the father, Dakşa, had actually pronounced a curse on the would-be husband because he had not paid homage to father Dakşa on a particular occasion.

Meanwhile Satī grew up and set her heart on Shiva, worshipping him in secret. She became of marriageable age, and her father held a swayamvara, or own-choice, for her, to which he invited the gods and princes from far and near, except only Shiva. Then Satī was borne into the great assembly, wreath in hand. But Shiva was nowhere to be seen, amongst the gods or men. Then in despair she cast her wreath into the air, calling upon Shiva to receive the garland; and behold he stood in the middle of the court with the wreath about his neck. Daksha had then no choice but to complete the marriage; and Shiva went away with Satī to his home in Kailās.[1]

In the case of Sāvitrī, her father asked her to find a groom for herself, as people felt too intimidated by her for him to find a husband for her. Interestingly, Manu says that if the father cannot find a husband for her, the daughter should find one for herself. And she does.

This raises two points for us to consider: (1) Should not the ideal of Sāvitrī be construed as suggesting that women should be encouraged to choose their husbands for themselves, rather than let the parents do so, and (2) Is it possible to be so devoted to one’s husband as Satī and Sāvitrī were, if one does not choose one’s husband on one’s own?

[1] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita, The Myths of the Hindus and the Buddhists (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) p. 288.

41.) Begging the Question in Hindu Studies

March 25, 2009

It could be argued that I am begging the question by claiming that the questions are begged. So let me block the path to infinite regression by placing a few concrete examples at your disposal. Consider the following passage, in which the center of the composition of ṚgVeda hymns is placed around the Sarasvatī River rather than the Punjab, contra Müller, Weber and Muir.[1]

From these materials conclusions can be drawn only with much caution. It is easy to frame and support by plausible evidence various hypotheses, to which the only effective objection is that other hypotheses are equally legitimate, and that the facts are too imperfect to allow of conclusions being drawn. It is, however, certain that the Rigveda offers no assistance in determining the mode in which the Vedic Indians entered India. The geographical area recognized in the Saṁhitā is large, but it is, so far as we learn, occupied by tribes which collectively are called Āryan, and which wage war with dark-skinned enemies known as Dāsas. If, as may be the case, the Āryan invaders of India entered by the western passes of the Hindu Kush and proceeded thence through the Punjab to the east, still that advance is not reflected in the Rigveda, the bulk at least of which seems to have been composed rather in the country round the Sarasvatī river, south of the modern Ambālā. Only thus, it seems can we explain the fact of the prominence in the hymns of the strife of the elements, the stress laid on the phenomena of thunder and lightning and the bursting forth of the rain from the clouds: the Punjab proper has now, and probably had also in antiquity, but little share in these things; for there in the rainy season gentle showers alone fall. Nor in its vast plain do we find the mountains which form so large a part of the poetic imagining of the Vedic Indian. On the other hand, it is perhaps to the Punjab with its glorious phenomena of dawn, that we must look for the origin of the hymns of Varuṇa. The highest moral and cosmic ideal attained by the poets, may more easily have been achieved amid the regularity of the seasonal phenomena of the country of the five rivers.[2]

Should not one raise the question here whether Punjab had a dry climate at the time, rather than assume that it must have been so and rule out Punjab as the venue?

Similarly, A. L. Basham narrates a Hindu folktale.

A wealthy merchant, Ratnadatta, has no sons, and his only daughter, Ratnāvalī, much loved and pampered by her father, refuses to marry, despite the pleading of the parents. Meanwhile a desperate thief had been captured by the king, and is led through the streets to the execution by impalement.

“To the beat of the drum the chief was led

to the place of execution,

and the merchant’s daughter Ratnāvalī

sat on the terrace and watched him.

He was gravely wounded and covered with dust,

but as soon as she saw him she was smitten with love.

Then she went to her rather Ratnadatta, and said:

‘This man they are leading to his death

I have chosen for my lord!

Father, you must save him from the king,

or I will die with him!’

And when he heard, her father said:

‘What is this you say, my child?

You’ve refused the finest suitors,

the images of the Love-god!

How can you now desire

a wretched master-thief?’

But though he reproached her thus

she was firm in her resolve,

so he sped to the king and begged

that the thief might be saved from the stake.

In return he offered

the whole of his great fortune,

but the king would not yield the thief

for ten million pieces of gold,

for he had robbed the whole city,

and was brought to the stake to repay with his life.

Her father came home in despair,

and the merchant’s daughter

determined to follow

the thief in his death.

Though her family tried to restrain her

she bathed,

and mounted a litter, and went

to the place of impalement,

while her father, her mother and her people

followed her weeping.

The executioners placed

the thief on the stake,

and, as his life ebbed away,

he saw her come with her people.

He heard the onlookers speaking

of all that had happened,

For a moment he wept, and then,

smiling a little, he died.

At her order they lifted the corpse

from the stake, and took it away,

and with it the worthy merchant’s daughter

mounted the pyre.”[3]

He then concludes the account with the following note.

Stories such as this puzzle the social historian. If the texts on the Sacred Law have any relation to real life it is quite incredible that a girl of good class in the 11th century should have been given such freedom by her parents, or should even have thought of legally marrying a despised outcaste. The story probably looks back to a much earlier time, when social relations very much freer.[4]

The question is: should we not revise our view of filial relations in the 11th century rather than locate the evidence in a distant past, so that we don’t have to?


[1] A. Berriedale Keith, “The Age of the Rigveda”, in E. J. Rapson, ed., Ancient India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922) p. 79 note 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 79.

[3] A. L. Basham, The Wonder that was India (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1967) p. 429-430.

[4] Ibid.

40.) Spatio-Temporality in Hindu Studies

February 26, 2009

To say that Hindus did not or do not have a sense of history could mean that they substituted a sense of space for a sense of time, in the sense that they dwelt in a “single space,” probably a single mythical space. It also implies that they do not have a sense of change. They can sense a change within a space from one topos to another, but not a change from one moment to another.

It is important to keep these unarticulated assumptions in mind in dealing with the Western reconstruction of India’s past. For the West, the sense of history, or change from one moment to another is important, for that is what history is. What is more, the succeeding moment is often seen as an improvement over the preceding moment in Western culture and this of course constitutes the core idea of progress. As its flip side, one could also posit a concept of regress in other cultures.

The association of these somewhat dissociated meanings might make room for the suggestion that history involves periodization and the manner of periodization is bound to be affected by these loose, but not uninfluential, notions of time in the West. They have a double bearing on the process of historical periodization: (1) the tendency to assume that what is different must belong to a different period of time, for difference is seen to imply change and (2) that this difference either leads to a better or worse condition.

How these assumptions about the relation of temporality to heterogeneity may have affected the Western reconstruction of India’s past therefore needs to be taken into account. How the assumption that differences involve differences in time rather than differences in space might affect historical assessments is best illustrated with examples drawn from the history of Indian philosophy. There is this constant debate in Western histories of Indian philosophy about which school came first and which after, or which system preceded or succeeded which, at the expense of the realization that they may have co-existed, as they did, we know, for thousands of years. This tendency towards longitudinality as an explanation of heterogeneity, is one consequence of working primarily with a model of temporality to explain heterogeneity. The discussion, in the case of the Mahābhārata, of how the Vedic, Kṣatriya and Brāhmaṇa elements must have played a successive rather than a simultaneous role in the composition of the Mahābhārata provides another illustration of this point.

How the assumption of progress or regress affects historical assessments can also be similarly identified. Consider the following statement:

As we contemplate the long procession of Indian history it may at first sight seem little more than an unending procession, with the elephants of states and umbrellas of authority appearing at intervals, interspersed with trains of attendants and disturbed by the brawls of contending factions. An Amurath to Amurath succeeded, it would seem, with intervals of anarchy while one dynasty replaced another. Or it can be seen as a series of invasions, each adding some new element to the population, whose rule is displaced in turn by the next arrivals. Professor A.L. Basham, in a recent inaugural lecture, could see no thread of meaning running through the four and one-half thousand years of which we have some knowledge.[1]

Percival Spear goes on to say, however,

The dynastic and racial view was given its classical form by Mountstuart Elphinstone in his History, which ran through nine editions from 1841 to 1909. The Indian historian is inclined to see Indian history as a splendid Hindu creative achievement leading to a golden age in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., followed by the humiliation of Muslim conquest and domination, the British episode, and the glorious renaissance and revival of the past and present centuries. The Pakistani may see Indian history as a great Muslim creative achievement superimposed upon a corrupt pagan society and culminating in the Mughal period and the reign of Aurangzeb. The British were the darkeners of the light, the precursors of the modern Indian infidel state. British historians in the past have tended to see Muslim rule as a preface to their own, and their own as a restoration of ordered life in a decayed society and the introduction of fresh light from the West, and more particularly the Western isles.[2]

This concept of progress seems to be at work behind the statement that “British historians in the past tended to see Muslim rule as a preface to their own, and their own as a restoration of ordered life in a delayed society”. Ironically, the author himself ends up by viewing British rule itself in relation to India through the same prism![3]

The survey of the religious history of India points in the same direction. The point has not escaped attention, but it has not been accorded much importance. It lies sandwiched as a caveat between two slices of conventionally Western approaches in the following citation from Louis Renou.

The Upaniṣads are a particularly delicate case; the problem, stated in simplified form, has been whether the Upaniṣads were pre- or post-Buddhist. Their subject-matter and method of presentation have much in common with Buddhistic writings; the Pāli style seems, indeed, to be a diluted imitation of the Upaniṣadic style. The secular approach of the Upaniṣads is characteristic also of Buddhism and Jainism, those religions of princes. If we work on the presupposition that in India progress is from the simple to the complex, from brevity to elaboration, the Upaniṣads must be regarded as earlier. This is my own view.[4]

The point ends here and is followed by the remark:

But we must not be surprised to see that in India parallel streams of thought may exist side by side without any contact other than an unemphatic rivalry.[5]

But after momentary hesitation, the earlier flow of thought is soon resumed.

If, on the other hand, we believe that the Upaniṣads were only made through Buddhist influence, or, in other words, that ‘it was Buddhism that taught the Indians to philosophize’, we are losing sight of the fact that Vedic speculation is firmly established from the gveda onwards, not only in the tenth book, but even in what is known as the older gveda, for example, in iii. 54, 9: ‘I recognize from afar the ancient and immemorial one. We are descended from him, the great Procreator, the Father. The gods who do him homage, in their own vast, separate domain, quickly took up their positions in the intervening space…’ Here we already have a full formulation: the single original principle, and the realm of the gods lying between Man and the Supreme being. Religion and speculation go hand in hand from the very outset.[6]


In other words, Western assumptions of time and space can be potentially distorting when applied uncritically in an Indian context.


[1] Percival Spear, India: A Modern History (Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 1972) p. 465.

[2] Ibid., p. 465.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Louis Renou, Religion of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953) p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Louis Renou, Religions of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953) p. 7-8, emphasis added.

39.) More on the Critical Text of the Mahabharata

December 1, 2008

When nowadays people cite from the Mahābhārata they routinely cite from the critical text. I would like to challenge this habit now, not in an obscurantist but rather a stimulating way. After all, every impediment is an incentive and every obstacle a challenge in disguise.

We are all familiar with the so-called critical text, otherwise onomastically called the Poona text of the Mahābhārata, which claims to restore the text of the epic to the state it might have been in, towards the end of the Gupta period (or end of the fifth century A.D.) I do not wish to be construed as running down such a massive intellectual and editorial enterprise, of which the critical text is an outcome. I use it myself, why, some of my best friends use it and it is an interesting example of what might result, if the modern tradition of text-critical scholarship is applied to the Mahābhārata.

But should it have been so applied?

In deciding how to deal with a text, we must also bear in mind what the tradition itself has to say about it, or at least seems to imply about it. I would like to spell out three such implications which seem relevant here.

(1) According to tradition, recorded in the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇadvaipāyana Vyāsa, taught recensions of it to five of his disciples – Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila, Śuka (his son) and Vaiśampāyana. This is stated in verses 74-75 of the 57th chapter of the ādiparva, of course as per the critical text. When one turns to the second line of verse 75 one reads: samhitās taiḥ pṛthaktvena bhāratasya prakāśitāḥ. This leaves room for claiming that different (pṛthaktvena) versions of the epic were publicized.

If, then, to begin with, we have five versions of a text, then have we not, in preparing the critical edition, reconstructed something which did not exist to begin with? After all, the version of the Mahābhārata we have claims to be the version imparted by sage Vyāsa to his disciple Vaiśampāyana. This was presumably a unitary identifiable text. We are presuming here only such text of the epic. However, one can see the force of the skeptical thrust of the critique, which, moreover, also operates longitudinally and not just latitudinally. What about the other four?

(2) For the next point we focus only on the Vaiśampāyana version.

The introduction of the great epic informs us that Vyāsa imparted his poem first to his pupil Vaiśampāyana, who in his turn recited the whole of it at the time of the great snake sacrifice of king Janamejaya. It was then heard by the Sūta Ugraśravas who, being entreated by the Rishis assembled at the sacrifice of Śaunaka in the Nimisha forest, narrates to them the whole poem as he learnt it on that occasion. Even according this tradition, recorded in the epic itself, before it reached its present dimensions, it had passed through three recitations.[1]

There is the further tradition that the size of the epic grew with each recitation, in its threefold recitation as Jaya (8,800 verses); Bhārata (24,000 verses) and Mahābhārata (100,000 verses).[2]

Should it not then be proposed that in the Hindu conception, the Mahābhārata is supposed to grow and not diminish with time. The critical text reduces it from a size of approximately 110,000 verses to approximately 75,000 verses. Thus the telos of the text, as understood in the tradition, is at odds with the very goals of modern scholarship and to that extent, once again, the critical text, in rendering a great service to Indology has also done grievous harm to Hinduism. The critical blow can be softened however. It might be argued that the critical text is only an attempt at a snapshot at one stage of the growth of the text. It is not meant to question the growth of the text itself. So one can still hold a brief for the critical text against a traditionist critique of it, but although one might want to hold on to the belief one may also not want to cling to it.

(3) This brings me to the third point – not only is the text of the Mahābhārata multiple, not only is it dynamic, it is also oral. Here even modern scholars and not merely traditionists note that, in such an oral context, the concept of a critical tradition is perhaps

an artificial concept. Can there be a ‘critical edition’ of the kind of oral transmission that itihāsa represents? Similarly, it is futile to seek out ‘the original text’ of either epic. Critical editions of oral epics are the constructs of scholars; with variant readings and addenda as footnotes they give us an idea of the main story-line as it has developed over time in style and content. This has its uses as we shall see, but on a level which scared narrative often transcends.[3]

Here again the criticism could be softened. Arguably preparing a critical text of a work like the Rāmāyaṇa, on which the tradition confers the dignity of an ādikāvya may, makes more sense. But on the whole the argument has to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, then, what has happened with the preparation of the critical text is that yet another recension of the Mahābhārata has been produced, like the Southern, the Northern, the Kashmiri or the Javanese. Which may be called the Poona recension and which, along with the rest, will constitute the database from which some scholars might try to reconstruct the critical text of the Mahābhārata in the next millennium!


[1] M.A. Mehendale, “Language and Literature,” in R.C. Majumdar, ed., The Age of Imperial Unity (Bombay: Bharatna Vidya Bhavan, 1951), p. 246.

[2] For a slightly different version see Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 83.

[3] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 336, note 39.

38.) Does Varnasankara Make Any Sense?

November 18, 2008

Varṇa-saṅkara or admixture of castes, as it is commonly translated, was much on the mind of the Hindu law-makers. Thus

The continual injunctions to the king to ensure that ‘confusion of class’ (varṇa-saṅkara) did not take place indicate that such confusion was an ever-present danger in the mind of the orthodox brāhmaṇ. The class system was indeed a very fragile thing. In the golden age the classes were stable, but the legendary king Vena among his many other crimes, had encouraged miscegenation, and from this beginning confusion of class had increased, and was a special feature of the Kali-yuga, the last degenerate age of this aeon, which was fast nearing its close. The good king, therefore, should spare no effort to maintain the purity of the classes, and many dynasties took special pride in their efforts in this direction.[1]

It has therefore been duly noted that “as described in the law books, these four varnas [brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, śūdra] were closed groups, and intermarriage between them is forbidden.”[2]

Nor was that all. Just as one dimension of the caste system is represented by varṇa another is represented by jāti,[3] which is typically a smaller endogamous and commensal unit subsumed under the larger category of varṇa. Thus while Manu “mentions about fifty different castes, he lays stress on the fact that there were only four varṇas.[4] Although one usually encounters the expression varṇasaṅkara, the allied expression jātisaṅkara is also not unknown.[5] Often simply the word saṅkara is used by itself.

The question arises: why was varṇasaṅkara such an issue? It could well be that its connotation varies during the different periods in the history of Hinduism. If, as is sometimes suggested, the varṇa system itself originated in colour differences among different sections of the population,[6] then the fear of varṇa-saṅkara might have reflected the fear of loss of complexion bound to occur through indiscriminate intermarriage. Subsequently, when the basis of caste distinctions came to rest more on vocational and life-style patterns, varṇasaṅkara may have come to reflect the fear of the collapse of normative social and ritual mores, as in the case of Arjuna in the Bhagavadgītā. In still later times, when caste became increasingly defined in terms of endogamy and commensality, the fear of “loss of caste” may have found an echo in the concept.[7]

In sum then, in order to make sense of varṇasaṅkara, one needs to realize how the word varṇa itself made sense. For instance, should the word varṇa we used essentially as a classificatory category, varṇasaṅkara would mean a confusion of categories, or even a category-error!


[1] A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1967) p. 146.

[2] David R. Kinsley, Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1982) p. 123.

[3] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

[4] Percival Spear, The Oxford History of India (fourth edition) (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994) p. 63

[5] P.K. Gode and C.G. Karve, eds., V.S. Apte’s the Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Poona: Prasad Prakshan, 1958) Vol. II, p. 734.

[6] A.L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989) p. 26-27.

[7] Abbe J.A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936) pp. 38-39.