In Pragati: Secrets of the cellars

(Flickr: jynxzero)

The 8th century CE was a period of Hindu resurgence in Kerala. Adi Sankara, who wrote about Advaita with literary force and philosophic depth lived during this period. The Tamil poets—Saiva nayanars and Vaishnava azhvars—created large volumes of influential devotional literature and triggered a popular mass movement. Economically these were prosperous times due to extensive external trade. Devotion coupled with wealth resulted in a spurt of temple construction; rulers and lay people considered the construction and protection of temples as an essential social responsibility and donated generously.
Though the original shrine may have been built in the 6th century, it is during this period that we hear about Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for the first time in Thiruvaimozhi of Nammazhvar. In ten verses Nammazhwar describes Thiruvananthapuram, one of the 108 sacred sites for Vaishnavites, as one which has “lots of trees, lots of fragrant flowers, and most beautiful gardens” and called it Ananthapura implying it was enclosed by walls. He also describes the idol of Vishnu as reclining on the venomous Adisesha, exactly the same way see him today.
Over the next millennia, Sri Padmanabhaswamy would see prosperity, war, and invasions—both domestic and foreign. Initially he was part of a small kingdom, but that small kingdom, under the leadership of a visionary king would grow to become one of the three major kingdoms of Kerala, encompassing not just South Kerala, but parts of Tamil Nadu as well. Eventually the kingdom would belong to him. He would also accumulate staggering amounts of wealth over centuries; a humbled Dutch captain and a powerful British Resident would among the many who would go before him with their offerings. The story of how this wealth came to be and how it was safely guarded by the priests and the royal family for all these years is inseparable from the history of Kerala.
Source of wealth

In Cleopatra, a life, Stacy Schiff recounts how Egyptian temples stood at the center of religious and commercial life with the temple priest also moonlighting as a reed merchant. Such a system did not exist in Kerala. Its temples were never known for odious extravagance or opulence. Many other ancient kingdoms accumulated wealth by invading and plundering their neighbours, but according to historians, Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s cellars do not contain war booty. Then how did the temple accumulate so much wealth?
After the mention of the temple in the 8th-9th century by Nammazhwar, there is not much information for another three centuries. Around the 12th century, Venad, a small Kollam-based kingdom became an independent entity and Sri Kotha Keralavarma (1125 – 1155 CE) started the reconstruction of the temple which would go on for another six centuries. During this period, we hear about donations to the temple for the first time: silver by a nobleman in 1183 CE and ten golden lamps by Parantaka Pandya. Veera Keralavarma, ruler of Venad (1344 – 1350 CE), donated vast amounts of land and about 3000 pieces of gold to the temple in response to him being responsible for the death of a few Brahmins.
The current wealth has been retrieved from some of the six cellars around the sanctum sanctorum. These cellars existed around 550 years ago and there is mention of ornaments being retrieved from the cellars to decorate the painting of the king of Venad during that period. In 1686 CE, the temple was gutted by fire and there was no worship for three decades but the priceless valuables remained safe in the cellar. Just two years before the fire, Umayamma Rani, who would later flee due to an attack by a Mughal invader, donated various ornaments and silk to the temple. It is mentioned that such donations were moved to the cellar for safe keeping. When various kings ascended the throne, they too donated gold and other precious stones to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
In the 17th century, the pettiness of the kings of small territories came quite handy to the Dutch who devoured Kochi, Kollam and various other kingdoms. Interfering in the internal affairs and exploiting the difference of opinion among the kings was the Dutch policy and by this they could eventually control the whole of Kerala and the lucrative spice trade. During this period, Travancore was whipsawed by a poor economy and constant conflict between temple administrators and noblemen.
This was a feud which had started at least a century earlier. Rules for managing the temples of Kerala were set as early as the 9th century when various noblemen met in Paravur. In 12th century, the committee which managed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple used to frequently get together to make decisions, but the relationship between the king and the temple administrators was not always cordial. In the 17th century, during the time of Adityavarma (1672 – 1677 CE), a group of eight noblemen under the direct supervision of the king was responsible for the temple management. The temple administrators divided the temple property into eight and gave them to Nair chieftains for revenue collection. Soon a feud started with with the king’s men on one side and the rest of the administrators on the other side leading to a brief closure of the temple.
All this leads to the resolute and brilliant Marthandavarma, the founder of the kingdom of Travancore as well the person responsible for the the current state of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. During this period of strife, Marthandavarma annexed the smaller kingdoms around Venad to create Travancore. He defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, sixteen years before the Battle of Plassey. For India of that period, this was a distinction of some weight. The Dutch agreed to support the king in his fight against other European powers and the commander of the Dutch forces, Eustachius De Lannoy, became the commander-in-chief of the Travancore armed forces. De Lannoy too made donations to the temple and it is possible that the Dutch coins and the Belgium cut-glasses came from him.
Marthandavarma also embarked on a construction spree at the temple. The repairs and the construction of the buildings around it started in 1731 and was completed two years later. The current temple structure and the sanctum sanctorum were built during his period. Some of the underground cellars were strengthened with the aim of keeping the temple wealth safe from fire. In 1733, the idol of Sri Padmanabhaswamy was reconstructed using saligram silas (Ammonite fossils) bought from Gandaki River in Nepal. The construction of the temple tower which had started in 1566 CE, reached five stories high during this period and would be completed during the time of his successor. He also made arrangements for the main festival to be conducted twice a year.
This visionary king in a unique historical and spiritual move surrendered all his riches and the kingdom he built to the family deity on January 3, 1750 CE; he and his successors would rule the kingdom with the official designation of Padmanabhadasa or devotee of the deity. That arrangement continues till today.
Donations would continue to flow even during the British reign with the Resident offering generously to the temple. In 1932, when Chitra Thirunal ascended the throne, one of his first acts was to open these cellars and estimate the wealth; it was calculated to be around one crore rupees. If the temple had so much wealth, how did it survive looting by the insiders and the invaders? Appropriation of temple wealth was considered as one of the five great sins prescribed by the Dharmasastras and it may have prevented the looting of the temple by the administrators.
Though Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughals and Tipu Sultan did not reach South Kerala, various Islamic invaders did attack Venad. In the 14th century, there is mention of Muslim invasion into the region and how it was spoiled by Iravi Ravivarma. Another successor, Adityavarma, who was responsible for constructing the Krishna temple and protective shelters for cows in 1374 CE too repelled such attacks. In 1690, a person referred to as “Mughal Sardar” attacked the southern border of Venad causing the regent Umayamma Rani to flee. Kottayam Kerala Varma who had come on pilgrimage from Malabar defeated this adventurer.
On record
Since it does not contain war booty, did all the wealth, found in the underground cellars come via offerings by various devotees, kings, queens, and traders? Besides the temple inscriptions and royal decrees, the most detailed records of the assets come from what is known as the ‘Mathilakam records’ which are about 100,000 palm leaves stored in thousands of bundles, in the Kerala Archives. Some of these records were published, but a vast majority of them remain unwrapped; an effort was launched in 2009 to publish the rest, but the plan was abandoned in 2011 as the government does not employ anyone who can read the ancient script.
This is disappointing, since the royals kept meticulous records and if we could read them we would know the source of the Roman and Napoleonic era gold coins, Venetian ducats and drachmas as well as the solid gold idols of Sri Krishna and Vishnu. It could also help solve another mystery: In 1766, the Zamorin’s entourage fled from Malabar to Travancore, presumably after emptying the Calicut treasury, to escape the pillage of Haider Ali. The Zamorin took his own life than surrender. It is possible that some of that wealth reached Travancore treasury. If the records don’t mention this, an inventory of the items would reveal if there is any truth to this.
The discovery of the the wealth has caused various experts to advance theories on its origins including some indulging in imagination. Usually absence of facts causes myth to be created, but in this case speculation and hoary propaganda is unwarranted since the source of the wealth is well documented. If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.
(The author wishes to thank Manmadhan Ullatil (for pointing out the Calicut link), Lakshmi Srinivas, Nikhil Narayanan, R N Iyengar and @NR_Tatvamasi for sharing information. This article was published in Aug 2011 issue of Pragati)

  • A Sreedhara Menon, ;A survey of Kerala history(Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society [Sales Dept.]; National Book Stall, 1967).

Marxists and Museums

Now that wealth of staggering proportions has been found in Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, various suggestions have come up on what to do with it. Some want it to be taken over and used for “social good” while others want it in a museum while there is no case for monetizing this treasure or confiscating it.
One point is missing in this debate: religion. The artifacts found in the cellars were offerings made to Sree Padmanabhaswamy by devotees and there is no reason to detach it and place it in a secular setting. In this Op-Ed piece P. Parameshwaran looks into why communists are obsessed with turning devotional items into museum pieces and where it has led them.

High profile Marxist academicians of Kerala have been taking very keen interest in the sensitive issue of the new findings in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Most of the party leaders have been prudently reticent, obviously for fear of public anger. What the intellectual giants want is to keep all the valuable articles found in the temple vaults in a state museum, for public exhibition. There is nothing unexpected about this, because for them religion, temple and spirituality are all meaningless and dangerous superstitions. Of course the large followers of the party are not with them in this anti-religious attitude. But the intellectuals are a different class. They hardly communicate with the masses, as they still live in an ivory tower of irrelevant theories and obsolete ideologies.
This is neither a new phenomenon nor something peculiar to Kerala or Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. This is inherent in the communist psyche all over the world. They have put in practice this ideology which prescribes places of worship and religious and devotional items to be exhibited as artefacts in museums. This has happened in the Soviet Union and communist China (both in the mainland and in Tibet). But, in the twists and turns of history in the communist countries the entire process has been since reversed and instead of sacred places turning into museums the party itself has become a big museum, while temples and churches have emerged more powerful than ever.[Marxists as museum pieces via Michel Danino]

Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.
At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.
The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

Indian History Carnival – 41: Vasco da Gama, Universal Hinduism, Ravi Varma, Babylon

The boy who wanted to kill Vasco da Gama
Poster of Urumi or The Boy Who Wanted to Kill Vasco da Gama (from Wikipedia)
  1. Koenraad Elst has a review of David Frawley’s Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010),
  2. In Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010), American scholar and Hindu convert David Frawley sets out to clear up this confusion. He takes the reader through the basic data that set Hinduism apart from the others, and specific Hindu schools from one another and from Buddhism. He also discusses what it has in common with the world’s eliminated and surviving Pagan religions, and sometimes with forms of Islam and Christianity too. In his typical kindly style, he gives every practice and every belief its due, but keeps his focus on the potential of Sanatana Dharma to heal modern society as well as to lead man to enlightenment.

  3. Anuraag mentions an Indian woman who ran an inn in Babylon in the 5th century BCE.
  4. Kish was the site of another intriguing find. A bronze chariot rein ring, which probably seems related to the African giraffe or a species of deer from Iran. Called Sivathere of Kish, it has been object of many studies – an unknown hoofed mammal of the Middle East. Initially thought to be related to the Sivatherium – a large, short-necked giraffid, originally described for S. giganteus from the Siwalik Hills of India.

  5. A major motion picture which is running to packed houses in Kerala is Santosh Sivan’s Urumi, set in the period when Vasco da Gama made his third voyage to India. The movie, it turns out, is not historical, but belongs to a category called alternate history. Arun Mohan writes about the historical inaccuracies in the movie.
  6. Likewise, the scriptwriters weren’t much aware of that, Guns and cannons were part of Kerala even when Portuguese first came to Kozhikode in 1498. Guns and cannons were introduced to Kerala, through Arab traders and Chinese. However the difference was, we had gun technology of 13th or 14th century even in 16th century as most of rulers didn’t invest much in improving new gunpowder technology. Rather focus and attention was developing on Kalaripayittu. In the movie, we are made to believe, Chirakkal Princess doesn’t know what to say for Gun and calls it as Thee Thuppi! Whereas the word Pirangi and Thokku etc were much in Malayalam dictionary even in 14th century. So why to use the word Thuppakki? In 1502, Zamorins had fired more than 1200 cannons against Portuguese ships. However the Portuguese had better range, more firing power and manuveourability which our cannons didn’t have that time.

  7. The event which sets the movie Urumi in motion is the massacre of 300 Muslims who were returning back from the Hajj. Maddy writes about the less mentioned violent streak of Vasco da Gama
  8. The meeting of the Portuguese armada and the pilgrim ship resulted in an event that can perhaps be called one of the cruelest actions in history, though it has been glossed over by people of that time and many years thereafter. Upon seeing the Meri, The Portuguese ships fired warning shots, but the pilgrim ship did not retaliate even though it had artillery. The ship was loaded with very rich people and 10 of the richest Muslims of Calicut were on board, led by Jauhar Al Faquih. Gama proceeded to negotiate with this man, who first offered money & spices, which was refused by Gama. He then offered Gama one of his wives, his nephew as ransom and offered to load 4 Portuguese ships with spices. These discussions went on for 5 days. He also offered to arrange friendship between Gama and the new Zamorin. Gama refused and demanded all the wealth on the ship. The proud Al Faquih responded by asking Gama to ask for it himself as he had taken over command of the ship. Gama did that and obtained much money and jewels and in return first provided five boats of food items. He then disarmed the ship and boarded it, ordering his men to set fire to various parts of the ship and after it had caught fire, sailed away. The valiant pilgrims somehow put out the fire, but seeing this, the Gama came back to finish it off.

  9. Sriram writes about how Ravi Varma made a name in Madras, based on Rupika Chawla’s book Raja Ravi Varma, Painter of Colonial India
  10. Ravi Varma became known to the citizens of Madras in 1874 when he entered his Nair Woman at her Toilette for display at the Fine Art Exhibition in the city. He was awarded a gold medal for this work and four years later, he arrived in the city, this time to attend the next Fine Art Exhibition where his Shakuntala Patralekhan (Shakuntala writing a letter) won a gold medal. The painting was also acquired by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who was then Governor of the Presidency. Buckingham was evidently very impressed with Ravi Varma’s work for two years later, he sat for a portrait of himself by the artist. He was now to be amazed by the speed with which Ravi Varma worked and noted “though he had given no less than 18 sittings to an eminent continental artist, he had not produced half so faithful a likeness as the Indian artist had done”.

If you find interesting blog posts on India history, please send it to @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on June 15th.
Thanks: kupamanduka

Yoga's Hindu Roots

The article which was e-mailed more than the WikiLeaks article or Thomas Friedman’s column on the The New York Times website yesterday was titled Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul. Over 15 million Americans practice yoga and it is a 6 billion dollar industry. What is taught mostly is Hatha Yoga, but without the “baggage of Hinduism“. The Times article describes the activism of second generation of Hindu-Americans and what it has achieved.
The HAF website has more information on the Take Yoga Back campaign

A piece in the LA Times, Bending yoga to fit their worship needs, quoting yet another yoga instructor denying any and all religious roots lead not only to a Letter to the Editor, but also to the publication of The Theft of Yoga, the beginning of what eventually became know as The Great Yoga Debate: Shukla vs Chopra on the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith site.  As HAF’s Dr. Aseem Shukla proudly brought to light yoga’s Hindu roots, Dr. Deepak Chopra penned his disagreement.  Shukla’s reply, Dr. Chopra – Honor Thy Heritage, was met with continued resistance from Chopra

Even months after the initial launch of this campaign, the issue remains very much alive.  On September 23, David Waters, the former editor of On Faith, quotes heavily from HAF’s stance paper in his piece “Should Christians practice yoga? Shouldn’t everyone?” And on October 3, Ms. Shukla once again voiced HAF’s stance in the “yoga debate” on air in a segment on Common Threads (click here to listen to Part 1 of the recorded segment and click here to listen to Part 2).

Apsidal Shrines

Last year there was news of discovery of a 2000 year old Shiva temple complex in Uttar Pradesh, one of the oldest in India. Besides the age, what was interesting was the shape: the temple was apsidal. It was widely believed that the apisdal shape had Buddhist origins and was used by Hindus later. Historians like Romila Thapar have argued that if Hindu temples had such shape, they were converted Buddhist chaityas or shrines
This theory, in fact, cannot be credited to Marxist historians; they evolved out of a colonial myth. Colonial archaeologists, who found that the written record of India was imperfect, resorted to studying the history of art. This study, they hoped, would give a better historical record as well help understand the relation between various Indic traditions.
This Marxist/Colonial explanation — that Hindu traditions replaced Buddhist shrines — actually makes sense if you follow a linear chronology. There is no dispute over the fact that there was a resurgence of Hinduism  inspired by bhakti and hence it can be logically argued that this resurgent Hinduism or traditions usurped Buddhist chaityas. Also, Buddhist shrines have been around since the 4th century BCE while Hindu apsidal temples make their appearance few centuries later.
There are three reasons why the Colonials and Marxists are wrong.
First, archaeology has disproved many cases. For example, one site where an apsidal temple was found was Barsi in Maharshtra. According to the British, a Buddhist shrine was converted to a Trivikrama temple, but later archaeological excavations found an apsidal brick temple with a wooden mandapa. The mandapa was not a later addition, but an integral part of the temple. A similar theory was proposed by the British for the Kapotesvaraswamy temple in Guntur and the Durga temple at Aihole, but both were disproved.
Second, this theory ignores another possibility – co-existence. In Nagarjunakonda valley, which was settled from third millennium BCE to sixteenth century CE, there is evidence of both Buddhist establishments and Hindu temples, both using the same plans in different areas. Besides this, Naga traditions too  used the same style. Between second century BCE and seventh century CE, there is a rise in apsidal Buddhist shrines in peninsular India. Hindus also constructed new apsidal temples. For example in Kerala, after 800 CE, numerous sanctums with apsidal plans were constructed, especially the ones dedicated to Ayyappa. All these show that  various branches of Hindu traditions shared style and space with a number of domestic and regional traditions.
Finally, a point regarding the origin of this style. The earliest elliptical shrines are seen in Vidhisha (second century BCE), Nagari in Chittor (first century BCE) and Etah, Uttar Pradesh (200 – 100 BCE). An apsidal mud platform was also found in Ujjain (500 – 200 BCE). That’s not it. At Daimabad (1600 – 1400 BCE), a complex with a mud platform having fire altars and an apsidal temple with sacrificial activity were found. Similarly at Banawali, a Harappan site on the banks on the Sarasvati bed, there were fire altars on an apsidal structure. Thus the elliptical shape had religious significance from a much ancient time and there is only tradition which still builds fire altars the way people in Banawali did.

  1. Himanshu Prabha Ray, The apsidal shrine in early Hinduism: origins, cultic affiliation, patronage, World Archaeology 36, no. 3 (2004): 343. (Thanks Ranjith)
  2. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010).
  3. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).

2000 Year Old Shiva Temple

Last year at a place called Sanchakot in Uttar Pradesh, archaeologists found evidence of a temple complex consisting of five temples. Four temples were dated between 1st – 3rd century CE, but one temple built for worshipping Lord Shiva dated to an older period: either late Maurya or early Sunga period. Till now it was believed that temples were constructed in India during the Gupta period, but this evidence changed that.
Now just five kilometers away we have discovery of another temple from the same period.

Interestingly, the site is called ‘twin temple’ because an octagonal temple structure was found to be superimposing an older apsidal temple. “It may be assumed that there was an older temple which was renovated by the rulers who succeeded the Sunga rulers,” said Prof Tewari. 
What makes the discovery of this temple more interesting is the fact that it housed a mysterious deity. “We are sure that the site was a Hindu temple… there is a proper entrance, portico, ardha mandap, mandap, transepts and a garbha griha…but we cannot claim which deity the temple housed,” said Sandeep, a team member. In fact the team prefers to stay silent on the issue till they get a concrete evidence.[Temples are older than you think (via IndiaArchaeology)]

Converting Tiger Woods

When it was discovered that Tiger Woods had a distributed harem, one of the issues that came up was his faith: Woods is Buddhist. Fox News anchor Brit Hume suggested that Tiger convert to Christianity and obtain “forgiveness and redemption.” The reason this conversion was needed is because Christianity offers a way for redemption from sin while Buddhism does not.
This can be quickly dismissed by blaming Hume’s ignorance of Buddhist philosophy, but that suppresses a larger issue hidden in that statement. To the question on if  Buddhism offers a way of forgiveness and redemption, the answer will always be no. According to Buddhist philosophy, there is no one to forgive you; you attain nirvana through spiritual practice without belief in constructs like Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
The issue here is not of theological difference, but of theological superiority and this argument has been made before regarding another Indic religion; it was a common theme among missionaries operating in India in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To see an example we need to go to go to Serampore (in Bengal) of 1799 where the Baptist missionary William Ward preached. He was an evangelical who believed that even unbelievers had to hear the Gospel to be saved from damnation. According to his colleague and mentor William Carey, Hindus definitely had knowledge of God, but it was not the same as attaining salvation by accepting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Ward, who had gone beyond the rituals of Hinduism, agreed with this. He was not one of those missionaries, who during Alexander Duff’s time, preached in street corners. He had learned Sanskrit from the Head Pundit at Fort William –  one Mrityunjay Vidyalankar. He had read Vedanta and even translated Vedanta Sara.
According to him Non-Christians — Africans, Indians, Greeks, Romans — all knew about God. That was not sufficient; only through divine revelation, you would know how to worship God. Hence the idolaters would never reach the Kingdom of Heaven and any religion which did not have this concept was irrational and absurd.
Three decades after Ward, Peter Percival who spent fifteen years in Tamil Nadu, did a similar comparison. He found that the goal of a Hindu was to merge with the sole, self-existing essential spirit. He then held this concept of an impersonal Brahman against Hinduism; the God mentioned in the Bible had personality, free will, and absolute power and hence that theism was more attractive.
You just can’t win.
In his staged apology for the media, Tiger Woods talked about his religion

Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught.[Tiger Woods’ apology: Full transcript]

Tiger Woods also ignored the televangelist’s suggestion.

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 

The man who coined 'Hindooism'

In 1767, a 21 year old Charles Grant, like many other twenty year olds traveled to India to join the East India Company’s military service. Arriving in Bengal, he was offended by the corrupt activities of the company and the officers. Soon a personal incident changed him forever and his life went in a new direction. He became an evangelical and argued vehemently for the introduction of Christianity — which was against company policy — to enhance the morality of Indians. In the process he coined the word “Hinduism” and redefined the way how the world viewed the traditions of India.
When Grant arrived in Calcutta, a decade after the Battle of Plassey,  the company was in charge of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive had left and the company officers we indulging as best as they could. Corruption was rampant and the famine had reduced the Bengal population by a third. Though he argued that the company had done quite a lot, he was troubled by the suffering. But interestingly, in his letters written during this period, there is no mention of religion or God.
After the famine he got a severe fever and had to return to England to recover.  He returned in 1773 with his new bride – the 18 year old Jane Fraser. The young Mrs. Grant did not take to Indian climate very well and this worried Charles, but those worries went away with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. He got promoted as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, but that did not prevent him from criticizing the Warren Hastings’ administration.
By then he had a secure life: good friends, great family, terrific salary. If you have watched any non-Adoor Gopalakrishnan Indian movie, you will know that usually there is a song here and then it all goes downhill. What is true now, was true in the year of American Independence too; Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret died of small pox, just nine days apart.
A devastated Grant took refuge in Christ and became a sincere believer; he became an evangelical and few missionaries in the area helped him overcome his pain. He became a new man, renounced vices like gambling, and letters written during this period contain references to God and salvation.
After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.
In his words

With the argument for the introduction of Christianity and Western education in India, Grant was years ahead of Thomas Macaulay and Alexander Duff. The charter of the East India Company did not officially permit missionary activity, but Grant was convinced that it had to change. This social revolution, Grant argued, would promote the well being of the population and in turn protect the company’s interests.
In 1787 Grant wrote a letter to one Mr. Wilberforce which contained the following paragraph.

This is important for one reason: it is the first time the word Hindooism is ever used; it replaced descriptions like  “Hindoo religion” and “Hindoo creed”. By coining this new term and advocating it, Grant’s label made it convenient to refer to the various religious traditions of India.
This was a time when there were apparently four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. Now the Paganism of India had a name and a comparison to Christianity could be done. For example what was the religious structure and accepted scriptures of Hinduism? How similar or how different was it from the Protestant religion?
He had answers for this: Hinduism was Brahmanism and Brahminism was Hinduism. These crafty priests had enslaved the population — people who did not have a mind of their own — through rituals and the caste system. These slaves, enslaved through fear and ignorance practiced barbaric rituals like sati, hook swinging and the devadasi system. Also unlike in his religion, only those crafty priests could read the sacred texts.
Though he despised the Brahmins, he thought they were the descendants of Noah and  were blessed in the Garden of Eden. These Brahmins who once held belief in a rational Supreme Being, had now fallen from grace into the ignorant ways of polytheism and idolatry.This belief, that Brahmins were descendants of Noah,was nothing new and was prevalent in India at that time. While Grant was in Bengal, the French-Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who was working in South India, too connected Brahmins to Noah

After the flood, the whole world was repopulated again. For this, Noah and his  sons dispersed around the world. One group went West, while the others under the guidance of Magog, Noah’s grandson, went to the Caucasian range. From there they came via the North into India and populated it. He even has a date  for this migration – nine centuries before Christian era. Thus the Brahmins, according to Dubois, were descendants of Magog’s father Japheth.[The Biblical Migration Theory]

Grant wrote all these ex cathedra pronouncements in Observations on the State of Society among Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, but initially showed it only to a few evangelical friends. Grant later became a member of the Board of Directors of the EIC, but still then the pamphlet was not released publicly. Even other missionaries had not seen it. So why should these comments by a delusional missionary matter?
His work, along with the work of others, influenced the British perception of India. This was the beginning of the establishment of a dominant paradigm — defining Hinduism for Indians and rest of the world. Since the colonial power was in the control, their representation of the traditions became the accepted norm, which we continue to use even today.
Also in 1813,the Charter of the company came up for renewal and by then the Evangelicals had gained strength. People like Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential and wanted the ban on missionaries to be removed.  On the eve of that debate, Grant’s work was printed as a parliamentary paper.
The evangelicals won in 1813.

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 
  2. Henry Morris, The life of Charles Grant (J. Murray, 1904).
  3. Image from Wikipedia

Challenging the Secular Censorship

While the current tendency is to portray anyone who questions the Western/Marxist portrayal of Hinduism as a bigot, the picture is much complex, writes Jakob De Roover

A climate of implicit censorship has long dominated this field. Not quite as spectacular as the rise of ‘Hindu’ censorship, this is not the stuff of juicy journalism. But this kind of censoring is as harmful: it also moulds people’s minds in particular ways; it constrains their speech; it compels them to show compliance to certain dogmas in their writings; and, for the unlucky few, it may even end their careers. The difficulty is to identify the modus operandi of this form of censorship. Much like racism, it is only in certain blatant cases that one can say with certainty that it has occurred. Nonetheless, we have to try and circumscribe this obstacle standing in the way of a much-needed rejuvenation of the study of India. [How Free Are We?]

Arun Shourie’s Eminent Historians documents such activities of censorship which was quite common and some of them were quite explicit. A prime example is a state circular from the Communist ruled state of West Bengal which censors the atrocities committed by Muslim invaders.
Jakob then documents the role played by Hindu-Americans in tackling this biased scholarship.

There is a cold war going on between the ‘Hindu-Americans’ (and a few academic sympathisers) and the mainstream scholars of Hinduism. Academics no longer fear being called ‘commies’, ‘reds’ or even ‘heathens’, but now ‘Hindutva’ has taken the place of such labels in the study of India. If one makes positive noises about the contributions of Indian culture to humanity, one runs the risk of being associated with ‘Hindu nationalism’ or with the NRI professionals who aggressively challenge the doyens of Hinduism studies. [How Free Are We?]

In fact in one of his recent lectures at UCLA on British India, the instructor (1,2,3,4) briefly mentions about the folks in Silicon Valley who hold some crazy ideas; as always the lunatic fringe is chosen to make generalizations. So more power to those  who challenge shoddy scholarship.