Just as precisely demarcated, delineated and zealously guarded national boundaries were once unknown outside of Europe as Lord Curzon pointed out in his Romanes Lecture 1907, this probably was also true of religion. Aside of the Semitic religions of which Christianity came to be Europe’s dominant faith, almost all other religions were once formless, open-ended, multi-layered and sometime even chaotic. They were also not a set of rules and dictums to be adhered to as in the Semitic religions, but conformed to the broad and amorphous spectrum of natural laws of justice and rectitude.
Curzon implies in the lecture that almost all of the borders in post-colonial nations came into being after the intervention of European colonisers. Many of these have remained burdensome legacies for many former European colonies. India’s McMahon Line which marks the boundary between India and China in the Northeast sector is just one evidence.
Jurist and author A.G. Noorani says as much with reference to another sector of this same border in India-China Boundary Problem: 1846-1947. When Kashmir came into British hands by default from the Sikhs after British victory in the First Sikh War 1846, the British inherited a boundary problem and this problem was, he writes, is there was no boundary. Expectedly, the British began sending out expeditions to determined where the boundary should be and left behind three different alignments corresponding to their varying strategic concerns at the time. India again continues to bear the brunt of this inherited uncertainty.
In religion, this relationship is a little more nuanced, and few have portrayed this better than psychologist Ashis Nandy in his 1983 classic, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. The psychology of the colonised, Nandy contends, is to measure up to the colonisers’ outlook to life and religion which they believe gave the later their superior hegemonic power. Today, long after decolonisation, this undeclared challenge is still arguably to measure up to Western standards.
Right from the colonial days, the religions of the colonised began silently to emulate the Semitic model often through reformation movements. They also began leaning more towards a masculine interpretation of their religions. In Nandy’s words, to turn their religion “into an organized religion with an organized priesthood, church and missionaries; acceptance of the idea of proselytization and religious ‘conscientization’…; the acceptance of the idea of linear, objective and causal history; acceptance of ideas akin to monotheism…” etc. The colonised minds, in this way remained intimately associated with their enemies.
Examples of the amorphous nature of boundaries of pre-colonial nations outside of Europe are many. The ancient Indian tradition of Ashwamedha Yajna is one such. In this ritual, a ceremonial horse is let loose by a ruler, trailed by his army. The extent to which the horse roams without being challenged and stopped by another power, becomes the ruler’s domain. Quite obviously, boundaries once upon a time waxed and waned in accordance to the military mights of kings and chiefs. Stories from ancient traditions of other non-European nations point to the same conclusion.
Similarly, in religion too, the formless and open-ended splendour of non-Semitic religions is seen in the diverse, numerous and multifarious manifestations of divinity in them. Hinduism probably would rank among the foremost of these, with different regions and communities freely picking the god closest to their intuitive and cultural preference to worship and seek salvation.
The beauty is, despite worshipping different gods and following different worship rituals, the worshipers of these gods, without any sense of contradiction, can still belong together to one faith, as if to say the path to salvation does not have to be just a single consecrated one. There are hence Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Durga, Laxmi, Ganesh and more. No hierarchy of importance among them at all either. Embracing one also never meant diminishing or excluding another. The triumphal arrival of muscular Hinduism in recent time, designed to complement an equally muscular politics of nationalism may likely change this order.
For Hindus in eastern India, starting West Bengal, Durga is a very important deity just as Ganesh is for western India. For the Hindus of the tiny Northeastern border state of Manipur, it is Vaishnavism that came from the 15th Century Bhakti movement of Chaitnaya Mahaprabhu, and the primary worship is of Radha and Krishna.
The divinity here is not so much of the intellectual Krishna of the Bhagavat Gita, but of the sensual, naughty, extremely human cowherd avatar. The path to salvation taught in this worship is plain and complete devotion to god as manifest in the devotional union of Radha with Krishna – a devotion which begins at the sensual plane but transcends to become an utimate union of a devotee with divinity. Every other treasured human value, it is taught, would come as blessings from this.
The power of this devotion is not to be trifled. A mid-18th Century king of Manipur, Bheigyachandra or Chingthang Khomba (1759-60 and again 1764-98), during one of his moments of extreme distress, faced with the prospect of death during exile following a Burmese invasion, meditated and surrendered to his god.
The story goes, on the night of his meditation, in a dream Krishna not only showed the king the way to victory, but also revealed the Ras Lila. After regaining his kingdom, the king choreographed his dream and this became the Manipuri Ras Lila, recognized as one of the five original classical dances of India. He also choreographed the devotional Nat Sankirtan, and this too was recognized in 2013 as a UNESCO World Intangible Heritage.
The vastness of Hinduism being such, the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 or the inauguration of the Ram Temple on January 22, 2024, made only small ripples on the front pages and prime time cable news in states like Manipur. Is this any indication of being any less Hindu?
There would be countless sparks of divinity inspired creativity at every corner of the Hindu world within country and without, for in this formless and open-ended religion, a hundred different flowers blossoming together in the same garden is only natural. With this religion today increasingly beginning to have a political identity, will the infinite pathways to salvation this multidimensional religion once offered, become structured or moderated into a unitary way?
This article was first published in The New Indian Express under a different title. The original can be read HERE
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author