Ignorant commentary
by Bhaskar Menon on 24 Apr 2014 10 Comments
The weekend issue of Business Standard has a column by one Arundhuti Dasgupta that is outright ignorant. It is a shaggy-dog take on alliances in the Mahabharata and the Odyssey, ostensibly to give perspective to the current Indian political scene. None of it makes any sense because her basic premises are wrong. For instance, she thinks the Pandavas had the upper hand going into the Kurukshetra war.

She does not seem to have noticed that the Mahabharata goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Pandavas are the underdogs. After 14 years of exile in deprivation and hardship they are powerless and willing to settle for just five villages of their usurped empire. The Kauravas not only had more allies and the larger army, they had the awesome Bhisma as commander-in-chief and the invincible Drona.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Dasgupta’s ignorance of the Mahabharata more than her take on Duryodhana’s elation at getting Krishna’s army while Arjuna gets Krishna as a non-combatant charioteer. “Without their commander the soldiers were not as effective; and Krishna provided a huge moral, tactical and psychological advantage even though he did not fight on the battlefield.” That is not the point!

Krishna is God. Duryodhana in his egoism does not see that all the armies in the world cannot help him if Krishna is guiding the other side. That blinding egoism defeats the Kauravas at every turn as they spiral down to defeat.

Further along in the column, Dasgupta writes: “Strategic relationships have been a critical aspect of the mythology of the subcontinent. Vishnu, for instance, who is part of the trinity and highest in the hierarchy of gods, rides on the Garuda (a mythical bird) and rests on the Ananta Nag (the world serpent). The two were strong animistic deities who were assimilated in the Vedic fold, albeit in positions lower than the main gods. Alliances with the tribal gods helped spread the Vedic way of life. They widened their influence.”

Was there no one at the Business Standard to ask Dasgupta if she has ever read the Vedas? If she had even skimmed through them, the idiocy of her statements would have been clear.

The Vedas are entirely a collection of tribal hymns (Rig), rituals (Yajur), songs (Sama) and magical spells (Atharva). There is no “Vedic fold” or “Vedic way of life,” separate from the tribal. The Vedas (literally, “Seen”), are the only holy books of Hinduism that are “sruti,” of divine origin and thus eternal. All else, including such revered books as the Bhagavad Gita, is “smriti,” the remembered works of human origin.

Why that difference? Because tribal lore is the “seen” reality of the universe dating to the very beginnings of the human race.

The hymns to Agni (the first deity invoked in the Rig Veda), Surya, Vayu, Indra the wielder of the thunderbolt, Varuna the upholder of law, and Yama the god of death, give voice to the most elemental poetic/religious experiences of homo sapiens.

Why were the Vedas compiled? Most probably to end inter-tribal conflict by creating a common source of veneration and allowing tribes to settle into interdependent castes. There is solid genetic evidence that each caste was once a tribe. The persons credited by tradition with putting the Vedas in order were the Saptarishis, the seven sages memorialized as the stars that point to the unmoving North Star.

Straddling the Sruti and Smriti canons is the Vedanta. That is the net wisdom of the Vedas extracted by the Upanishads (literally, “discussions”) organized by the rishis (literally, “seers”). The teachings of the Upanishads shaped the world view and the value-system we call Hinduism. Its key element is belief in a universal immanent Spirit that a devotee can approach in any form.

Upon that basic faith rests the view that all Creation is “God’s Family,” and that life and death are an infinite continuum through which individuals progress according to their observance of the Dharma (Eternal Law/Duty) and Karma (burden of moral causality).

Two wonderful epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, spread that grand perspective to every village in the country and far afield. Celebrated in music, song and dance, their stories told and retold in religious and secular drama, they shaped the customs, festivals and observances that have given us a common Indian culture and spirit.

The colonial British tried to fit the complexity of Hinduism into the Procrustean view of their own faith, itself the crippled child of a church created by the savage lust of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, they could not comprehend it, and resorted to a number of self-aggrandizing theories, including the "Aryan invasion" and the Orientalist invention of Hinduism. 

Fortunately, the British are now long gone. Unfortunately, their confusions continue to haunt us through the works of Dasgupta and her ilk.

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