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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

From Baroda to bulldozers: Gods aren’t crazy, mobs are

G N Devy writes: Listening to self-appointed interpreters of divine moods will lead us back to the Dark Ages.

Written by G. N. Devy |
Updated: May 16, 2022 12:08:00 pm
A bulldozer arrives to carry out an anti-encroachment drive in Shaheen Bagh. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha, file)

In the 5th century BC, the Greek dramatist Euripides understood that there was much at the heart of Tragedy that was comic in essence and much in Comedy that was close to Tragedy. He demonstrated this in Cyclops, a satyr-play, “satyrs” being a kind of second-class gods with the ears and tails of horses. One of the characters Euripides created was Polyphemus, a Cyclops,  known for his shrill songs, weird stories and fondness for younger men. However,  in Greek mythology, Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, the god of the seas.  Three centuries before Euripides, the poet Homer had shown Poseidon getting violently angry when the epic hero Odysseus makes the one-eyed Polyphemus blind.

Poseidon’s rage, which makes Odysseus’ voyage home dangerous, raises some intriguing questions: One, do the gods ever get angry?  And two, how do mortals know when the gods are angry? The answer, as provided in the Greek myths, was that Hermes, the interpreter, alone knows when the gods are angry.  Hermes is the herald of the gods as well as a trickster — somewhat like the Narada figure in Indian myths. He is also considered the god of travellers, thieves, orators and merchants. The institution of interpreters of gods’ moods was not an original Greek fancy. In the 33rd century BCE, the Egyptian dynasts known as pharaohs had founded their authority on the claim of their ability to interpret the gods’ moods.

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A similar echo of “theological hermeneutics” can be seen in India’s history in the institution of the Vedic purohit, phonetically close to the Egyptian pharaoh (pronounced “phe-ro-aa”). Not much is known about how the Indus Valley people thought about the gods’ wrath.  Though their civilisation disintegrated around the 19th century BCE, the Harappans have not left behind archaeological signs about this. Perhaps, the Indus Valley civilisation had no interpreters, no orators and no figure that anticipated Hermes or the Vedic purohit.  In sharp contrast to the Vedic purohit,  Buddhism had no concept of an interpreter of the gods. Homer was a near-contemporary of Gautama Buddha. The Buddha located misery and grief in the minds of human beings, in their inadequate understanding of reality, and not in the whims of the gods.

Sadly, the purohits managed to oust Buddhism, and soon after, metaphysics rife with superstition came to be seen as “knowledge”.  The nobler parts of the Vedic and Upanishadic traditions describe anger as a self-destructive emotion. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of anger as a cause of delusion, memory loss and destruction. Yet, when the interpreters of God’s mind assume the form of a coercive social institution, God himself becomes the loser. During the second millennium, the Bhakti movement rebelled against the self-assumed role of the purohits as God’s interpreters.  During the 19th century, the resurgence of Hinduism rested on widening access to the divine for all sections of society. The greatest among our national leaders, Tagore, Aurobindo and Gandhi, accepted the idea of God but made humans the centre of spirituality. B R Ambedkar bravely rebelled against the social domination of the purohits and, in works like Annihilation of Caste and Revolution and Counter Revolution in Ancient India, tried to establish how repressive the idea of the superiority of purohits has been in India’s social history. In Europe, Friedrich Nietzsche could speak of the death of God, and after Stalin’s coercive policies started hurting people,  Louis Fischer, Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender used the bold phrase “the God that failed” as the title of a book. In the light of this history of gods and their interpreters, it is absurd in the 21st century to invoke the gods to justify anger among humans.

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The ethnography of the interpreters of God’s anger should be of interest to those of us who believe in the ideas of justice and the rule of law as upheld by the Constitution. There is a small town called Madhi in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Every year, thousands of people from nomadic communities get together there and express their devotion to the deity at the shrine. In recent years, the advocates of purohit raj have been gradually blocking the devotees’ access to the shrine. When asked if this would make their God angry, many of those nomads replied, “No, our God is not angry, we are angry”. They were honest and had not surrendered their ability to think.

Some four decades ago, I used to teach at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. There was a small temple inside the campus. When communal riots broke out in the 1990s, one of my colleagues remarked that if the faculty does not side with the majority community, the God on the campus would feel betrayed and angry. This reminded me of a poem by Aurobindo.  Eight decades before my time, he had taught on the same campus. Explaining a sudden and unjustified burst of anger, he wrote, apologetically, “It was not me, but my belly’s hungry god that was angry.”

One knows that it is humans who get angry when there are no jobs and prices continue to go up, or bulldozers raze their houses. In an attempt to divert the people’s attention from the hunger in their bellies, clever interpreters point to some trivial gesture or expression as an insult to the gods. Credulous mobs take the cue and attack the misconstrued expression in the work of painters, artists, singers, writers, cartoonists, protesters, critics, opponents, minorities, meek and mild people — all in the name of the gods. Hermes wins; the journey home for Odysseus gets longer; Buddha has to remain in exile. If we continue to be led by the interpreters of the gods’ moods, we may as well find ourselves sliding back to the eras before science replaced myth. Historians describe those eras as the Dark Ages.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 16, 2022, under the title ‘Gods aren’t crazy, mobs are’. The writer is a cultural activist

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