The Book That Explains the Elephant
October 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
Over the last 25 centuries or more, the ancient schools of Varanasi must have taught millions of students, immersing them, not just in the Ganga, but also in the knowledge of classical religious and secular Samskrut texts. Kshiti Mohan Sen was one such student at Varanasi during the closing years of the 19th century. It wasn’t uncommon for young men from distinguished Bengali families of that era to pursue scholarly proficiency in every field, and while most went on to become lawyers, doctors and politicians of repute, there were several whose patriotic inclinations led them on a quest to know more about their own country’s history and culture. More unconventional than most, Kshiti Mohan proceeded to augment his studies in Varanasi with extensive travel around rural India, acquiring in the process, a solid grounding in folk literature, legends, songs and oral traditions – at a time when they were unfashionable in intellectual urban circles. In this manner, he became a formidable expert in all aspects of Hinduism – its regional and class-based variations, its past and present manifestations, its urban and rural forms.
Since Hinduism has always been a composite entity, meaning many different things to many people, and not just something set down in a definitive book which is interpreted by a single priesthood, Kshiti Mohan’s is perhaps the only true method to master Hinduism, to know it formally from end to end – as opposed to having an intuitive but partial knowledge of it, which a billion people do today. It is surely no coincidence that the legend of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant is at root an Indian legend, occurring in Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu folklore. Perhaps the legend even refers to Hinduism’s six schools of philosophy. No matter – trunk to tail, the Hindu elephant has few secrets from Sen.
While adequate information is not easily available, I believe this slim volume was published either postumously, or towards the very end of his life, well after his stint as Vice-Chancellor of Viswa-Bharathi University at Santiniketan.
What did I gain from the reading of this book? Not a whole lot by way of new knowledge, as it is a very basic introduction aimed at foreigners with no prior background. But it was made worthwhile, nevertheless, by Sen’s fascinating reports of philosophical conversations with itinerant Baul singers, his interesting historical vignettes, and a handful of historical hypotheses about the evolution of the religion. I particularly liked the part where he traces the trajectory of Hinduism from Vedic polytheism to Upanishadic monotheism to Puranic polytheism to Advaita monism to Bhakti-era polytheism. As a result, today’s Hindu can believe in idolatrous polytheism while simultaneously believing in a single omnipresent formless God-spirit; his belief in heaven and hell coexists comfortably with that in re-incarnation. History, says Sen, can explain these paradoxes. By providing a historical basis to these changes, Sen manages to convey what we don’t usually realize: that most religions, and definitely Hinduism, are not static entities, and in order to understand what they are, you need to understand the chaotic and creative process of interactions with other schools of thought by which they evolve.
For a long time in its history, Hinduism remained ignorant of the existence of other religions, and even ignorant of itself as a religion (manifesting as a set of common beliefs and customs instead). But then foreigners came in contact with it and named it, and in doing so, ‘created’ it as a single religion. Hinduism has remained acutely aware of foreign religions ever since – transforming itself by borrowing liberally from each of them (from Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam), and influencing them, in turn. Sen delights in documenting these influences – I found it significant that the cover page of my edition of this book depicts Vishnu flying on Garuda, a Mughal-style painting that is part of a collection exhibited in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.
It is curious and unfortunate that the educated yuppy class in today’s India, a class that has no excuse whatsoever for ignorance, is perhaps most ignorant about the history of Hinduism – and about the man who devoted his life to knowing it. I confess I woul never have heard of him or this book if not for their mention in The Argumentative Indian, the best-seller penned by his celebrity grandson, Amartya. But I am not alone in this. Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen is not a household name in India these days, even among those who (unlike me) profess a deep and abiding faith and who wear their Hinduism angrily on their sleeve. Perhaps it is just as well – he comes across in his book as inclusivist and liberal, and deeply respectful of other cultures, and I somehow feel he may not quite have enjoyed their attention.