The first time I tasted alcohol was when I was about four or five. It was toddy, and it was given to me as prasad — and the deity whose blessings I was consuming was Bhagavathy, the mother goddess (also called Durga, Kali, and various other names, all manifestations of the militant side of Parvathy).
I belong to the Meledath tharavad, a joint family that is based in Bilathikulam, in Kozhikode, Kerala. Our ‘joint family’ is today more a notion than a fact (I wrote about some of it here), but vestiges of the tharavad mindset remain. In the concept of the tharavad karanavar, for instance (that title is now held by my uncle, following the death of my father) — the titular head of the family, to whom all owe allegiance and obedience and who, in family matters, has the deciding voice. It also exists in the kalari (gymnasium, in English), where the Keralite martial art kalaripayattu is taught.
A brief digression: Back in the time of kings and princes, local satraps in the region now known as Kerala had a problem: their territories were too small, their populations too limited, to making standing armies feasible. The satraps got around the problem by giving tracts of land to kalari gurus, on condition that these gurus would use the income deriving from that land to build gymnasiums and train the area youth in the martial discipline. In times of war, the satrap could call on these gurus, who with their disciples would flock to the satrap’s banner — presto, instant army.
The Meledath karanavar of over a hundred years ago was thus given land by the Zamorin of Calicut, whose vassal he was. A kalari was duly established, and the martial art was taught — for several generations. That ended in the time of my grandfather, for various reasons: land-use legislation deprived the kalari of the supporting agricultural revenues; the young were no longer interested and so the supply of students ran out, etc…
However, though the land was lost, the kalari remained. Though there were no classes, it was deemed that the presiding deity could not be abandoned, and so worship continued.
In common with most such gymnasia, our family kalari is, in structure, a very long hall with stone walls and a floor of hard-packed earth with a covering of softer sand. The walls are lined with the various weapons used in that martial art form. At the extreme end of the hall, opposite the main door, is the seat of the deity — a stylised wooden seat, covered in yellow silk. On it is a folded strip of red silk, representing the goddess, and beside it is placed the padaval (ceremonial sword) of the family.
It is to this deity you pray before you begin lessons; this deity whose blessings you invoke before you pick up the weapons, either for practice or for war. It is only this deity that is worshipped — there are no other icons, though as a family we also are devotees of Ganesh, Vishnu, Siva, Ayyappa and sundry other gods of the Hindu pantheon. (Elsewhere in the compound there is an altar to the snake god and goddess, but that is another story).
There are no images, no icons of the goddess — just the red silk, and a faith that has continued through decades, and has been transmitted through generations. Thus, when we helplessly stood by and saw our ancestral home collapse in a morass of legal and financial disagreements, a few of us cousins got together, with our uncle as lead, and through a collective infusion of funds rebuilt and refurbished our kalari, roughly seven years ago.
It is all that remains to us of our family’s heritage; we cousins — located all over the globe — are proud of it and determined that it will not die.
Which brings me to alcohol.
The goddess we worship in our kalari is martial in nature; she is ferocious, all-conquering. She is the ultimate power of the universe. She goes to war — and she doesn’t make war fueled by cow’s milk or cow’s urine, but on a diet of alcohol and meat.
She is ferocious, and must be periodically appeased. Hence the practice of Bhagavathykku vechukodukkal — literally, offering to the Bhagavaty. It is one of the earliest religious practices I remember being part of, as a small boy. In its essentials, it continues unchanged to this day (and 100s of people from the area, irrespective of religion or caste, routinely participate — also to this day).
Once the ritual lamps are lit at dusk, the officiating priest pours toddy (devotees bring bottles as offering) into coconut shell cups which are placed at the balipeedam (sacrificial altar). Cockerels (also given by devotees as offering) are then killed — the priest slices its head off, the neck is then dipped into a brass uruli and the headless cockerel is then flung onto the altar — it runs around, thrashing in its death throes, splattering the assembled devotees with its blood, and then it dies. Rinse, repeat — a dozen times or more, each time the puja is performed.
The roosters are then gathered, plucked and roasted, and the flesh is offered to the deity. And then the prasad — alcohol and roasted chicken — is consumed by all the assembled devotees.
Apply your contemporary sensibilities, and you’d call the practice barbaric. The children of my cousins — several of them born and brought up in New Zealand, UK, and the US — do use such terms. “That is so GROSS! Ewwwww!” is among the milder criticisms I’ve heard when the extended family gets together for one of these periodic pujas.
We sit the kids down and explain how our kalari came into being as the cornerstone of the tharavad; the reason the goddess is worshipped there to the exclusion of all else; the reason why the benign mother of all also has a fierce, bloody side to her… We tell stories, we argue, we debate (ironically, sometimes these debates occur while we are both consuming toddy-as-prasad).
We do this — as opposed to calling out the cops, and in this context I’ll add that two of my first cousins are cops — because we understand that to question is part of the process of growing up. Been there, done that. Also, we understand that at a fundamental level, such ‘criticism’ applies a contemporary sensibility — and its vocabulary — to an ancient practice (which is also my problem with some of Wendy Doniger’s writing, but let’s leave that be for now).
All of this is natural, and fair. When I was very young, I took part in these rituals with fervour; as I grew through my teens, I mocked them to the occasional outrage of my parents and my uncles; later still, I listened patiently as my granddad explained how our family came to be; today, I spend my hard-earned money refurbishing and maintaining that same temple so the heritage can be kept alive.
Recently, we cousins decided to end the practise of killing roosters. In consultation with the current priest, we changed the ritual — now the priest dunks handfuls of kumkum in water and then splatters the resulting faux blood on the devotees. And that is fine, too — society and religion morph, change, evolve, and these changes ricochet off of each other because each is an integral part of the other. And that ability to accept questioning, to ask questions of itself, to adapt, is one of the principal characteristics of a living religion, as opposed to one locked into a particular era that shuts its mind to all progress and says, so it was written and so it shall be for evermore.
Do all Hindus everywhere accept these practices as part of our shared religion? Likely not. And that is ok — Hinduism is vast, it contains multitudes. These multitudes include, by the way, entire sects that worship Ravana. The religion and its foundational myths and legends are full of stories that, if you were to apply contemporary sensibilities, would cause raised eyebrows, maybe even revulsion.
She appears during the time of the Samudra Manthan to seduce the asuras so the devas can swig a double share of the amrut.
She appears again when Shiva blunders through an excess of generosity; she seduces Bhasmasura, she inveigles him into dancing with her (or, to use the language of our times, cuts to an “item number” in Mogambo’s den), and then she kills him.
Shiva is so entranced that he wishes to see her again. She reappears. Shiva leaves his wife Parvati to her own devices and chases after Mohini. He is so filled with lust he can’t stop himself from an involuntarily ejaculation. Some of the ejaculate finds itself into the womb of Anjana, an apsara who is transformed by a curse into a mortal. Her redemption lies in bearing a son — and it comes not from her husband Kesari, son of Brihaspati, but through the seed of Shiva that finds its way into her ear and from there to her womb. (Alert: Much material here for us to claim that we knew all about semen banks and artificial insemination way before the decadent West discovered all this). The child thus born is Hanuman.
Apply contemporary standards to that story and see what words suggest themselves to you: seduction, lust for a woman who is not your wife, onanism, adultery again… To that, add “promiscuity”, if you take into account the number of times Mohini does her thing, with different men. Thus when the demon Araka, by virtue of his extreme “purity” (apparently he put himself in a position where he never ever laid eyes on a woman — because she is evil, see, and to see her is to be seduced by her) earns the gift of immortality, Mohini appears, seduces Araka, tricks him into “marriage”, takes him to bed, and makes mincemeat of all that hard-won purity — and thus he dies.
There are more things in Hinduism, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosphy. Or mine. It is in the nature of our religion that it is filled with such foundational stories, such legends, myths. A vast majority of which cannot be understood, or explained, in contemporary terms. Some of them even seem flat out absurd.
Item: Vishnu as Vamana kills Mahabali the asura king. And yet acknowledges that his reign was so benign, the people so prosperous and happy under him, that he is allowed to return to earth one day each year (hence the Malayalam festival of Onam, which worships Mahabali).
Sort of begs the question: If Mahabali was so good even his killer recognised it, why kill him in the first place — and deprive subjects of a benevolent ruler who they clearly loved? Because some of the gods were jealous of Mahabali’s growing fame. Is it fair for Vishnu to play hitman for a bunch of incompetent gods who couldn’t stand to see another administrator outshine them?
The point? Contradiction is inherent in our religion. And where there is contradiction, there is questioning. The solution is not to resort to the shorthand of our times, to reduce everything to an us versus them binary, or to scream “blasphemy”, but to discuss, debate, explain. To reason. To talk. To create room for disagreement. And to incorporate those disagreements also into the overall philosophy. (Of course, for that you have to expend the time and effort to understand it — and it takes more time and effort than is needed to learn to spell “blasphemy”).
All of which is why I am amused by Ms irani’s ‘Kyunki Minister bhi kabhi soap star thi’ act of yesterday (and I say this with no pejorative intent — I don’t give a flying fig whether Ms Irani was an actress, Modi a chai-wallah, or someone else a nawab). To quote:
“Freedom of speech, ladies and gentleman. Who wants to have this discussion on the streets of Kolkata? I want to know. Will [Congress Vice President] Rahul Gandhi stand for this freedom? I want to know… What is this depraved mentality? I have no answers for it.”
There is a whole lot more in that vein, including challenges to sundry politicians from Kolkatta — and it is all sound and fury, signifying very little. Why Kolkatta anyway? Bengalis appear to be able to accomodate far more contradictions in their beliefs than Ms Irani imagines. As for instance:
The link between the sex-workers of Sonagachi and Goddess Durga however, unlike the two year old Sonagachi Durgotsav, is decades old. According to an age-old Hindu tradition, the making of the idol of Durga requires ‘punya mati’ or dust from the doorsteps of the sex-workers, as an essential ingredient of the sculpture. Every year, before starting work on the idol the artisans of Kumartuli pay a visit to the sex-workers for a gift of dust from their doorsteps.
Various theories lie behind this custom. Some say when men enter the sex-workers’ house for sex, they leave their virtues behind in the form of dust at the doorstep. Others say the ritual is a way that makes the ostracized sections of society indirect participants in the festival.
With due respect, I see nothing in Ms Irani’s tirade — amendment: this segment of her tirade — other than an attempt to inflame already over-heated passions (and to deflect attention from the question that was being debated, to wit Rohit Vemula, by dragging in all sorts of talking points that had nothing to do with anything).
And that brings me to an even bigger problem — which is what Ms Irani used as the platform for her assault: to wit, this pamphlet.
A bunch of young men and women raised questions about some elements of our beliefs — in which respect they are no different from my young nieces who went “Ewwww, gross!”, except those youngsters used the tools of exaggeration and caricature.
You don’t like it? Neither do I, much, when some of the younger generation of our family question some of our family’s foundational stories and associated practices (one reason for my discomfort being that I don’t know all the logical answers, and hence am often at a disadvantage when debating with the very young who rely on reason and refuse to accept “it’s a belief, a faith” as a response).
But, Ms Irani, those pamphleteers kept their screed within the boundaries of their university, their critiques — good, bad or indifferent — were for the limited consumption of their equals, their peers. If you felt they were being misguided, you have at your disposal whole truckloads of sadhus, sants and godmen of various stripes — what stopped you from sending some of them to meet with these kids, to tell them stories, to debate with them?
It is, ultimately, you and not they who dragged this whole thing onto the larger national stage, into Parliament. I’d suggest — I could be wrong — that you did it as part of a cynical ploy to diffuse the issues, to deflect attention, to shift goalposts, and to contribute your bit to your party’s ongoing bid to raise passions to fever pitch when, as a responsible citizen and a senior member of the government, you should have been doing what you can to douse fires.
PSA for readers: Please don’t respond to this with “Would you say the same if they drew caricatures mocking the Virgin Birth (or whatever)?”. The answer is, yes I would (and I speak for myself alone, so don’t drag in “What about when someone somewhere…”).
PSA #2: No religious sentiments were intended to be hurt in the making of this blogpost.
PostScript: Earlier in the day, Zikrullah Nisha posted on Facebook (referenced here) that Ms Irani was lying when she said that neither doctors nor police were allowed near Rohit Vemula’s body till 6.30 the next morning. The immediate push-back from the Right was: Do you think a Facebook post is gospel?
Okay, how about this?
— T S Sudhir (@Iamtssudhir) February 25, 2016
Fair now to say Ms Irani was lying to Parliament? (Ironically, Narendra Modi chooses to add a ‘Satyameva Jayate’ to his tweet recommending that people watch Ms Irani’s speech).
ABP fact-checks her speech, here. Worth mentioning, here, is that the VC in question was appointed by this government just about six months ago.
Post-Script2: On Ms Irani, the gift that goes on giving:
— Nitin Chavan (@a20nitin) February 24, 2016