The Idea of India
Beyond Boundaries by Pankaj Mishra

Along the outer walls of Gharib Nawaz's shrine - waiting for the daily food distribution

This essay is reprinted here by kind permission of Pankaj Mishra. The original piece appeared in The National newspaper and can be seen here.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of four books, most recently The Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond. But it was perhaps his writings for the Barbara Epstein-era The New York Review of Books that first attracted my attention to his insight, clarity and talented writing. His pieces on the conflict in Kashmir -  Death In Kashmir, Birth Of a Nation, and Kashmir: The Unending War remain amongst my favorites and a must read for anyone trying to understand the modern-day intricacies of that situation.

His book The End Of Suffering: The Buddha In The World is a favorite read and his most Edward Wilsonian of works. Oh, and it was Pankaj Mishra who introduced me to Edward Wilson in the first place.  His only piece of fiction, The Romantics, was hailed as the work of possibly India’s finest young writer. I am avid reader of his works, including his commentary pieces that have appeared on The Guardian website in the Comment Is Free section. In particular his fine arguments against the shrill and paranoid Islamophobia gripping European intellectual and popular culture. In pieces such as A Culture of Fear and A Paranoid, Abhorrent Obsession and The Politics of Paranoia he takes on the failure of Europe’s intellectuals in their abandonment of fundamental humanist values and consistent adherence to values of equality, justice and respect for all.


India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations; but as a nation-state it is relatively very new, and its nationalism can still appear weak and unresolved, as became freshly clear in August, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party expelled its veteran leader Jaswant Singh. Singh had dared to praise, in a new book about the partition of India, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Indian nationalists, of both the hard line Hindu and soft-secular kind, see Jinnah as the Muslim fanatic primarily responsible for the vivisection of their ‘Mother India’ in 1947. But Singh chose to blame the partition on allegedly power-hungry Hindu freedom fighters, rather than Jinnah, who he claimed had stood for a united India.

Explaining his motivations, Singh referred back to his origins in Sindh (the province famous for its syncretistic and tolerant Hindu-Muslim culture) and suggested that he could only mourn the subsequent division of pluralist communities on the basis of abstract and singular religious identities. ‘In Jaisalmer,’ he said, ‘Muslims don’t eat beef, Rajputs don’t eat pork.’ Singh went on to speak wistfully of a famous shrine in Indian Sindh that is revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Singh is not being a romantic. Hindus and Muslims commonly worship at each other’s sites across the subcontinent.

One of my most intense childhood memories is of being immersed, by my Hindu Brahmin parents, into the great crowd at the dargah (shrine) of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. I felt a similar sense of wonder earlier this year at another dargah in Pakistan, standing amid ecstatic dancers at a spring festival in Lahore that celebrates the friendship, apparently homoerotic, of a Muslim and a Brahmin boy in the 16th century. Such paganism remains a fact of daily religious practice even in Pakistan, a state ethnically cleansed of its religious minorities more than 60 years ago, and now allegedly vulnerable to the Taliban. This older cultural syncretism of the subcontinent, and its everyday defiance of modern political identities, is one of the subjects of William Dalrymple’s new book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, an account of the spiritual life in contemporary South Asia. Dalrymple visits the Pakistani town of Sehwan, which, he writes, ‘was once a major cult centre of the great Hindu god Lord Shiva’ and where ‘one of the sajjada nasheens, or hereditary tomb guardians, is still a Hindu.’ The Sufi dance called dhammal, Dalrymple explains, is said to derive from the damru, or drum, of the Hindu god Shiva. Nearby, the director of a new fundamentalist madrasa confesses to Dalrymple that he is struggling and failing to attract the local population away from what he sees as heresy. ‘The illiterate Muslims here,’ he complains, ‘became infected with Hindu practices. All over Pakistan this is the case, but Sindh is much the worst.’

Early in its millennia-long presence in the subcontinent, Islam lost its Arabian austerity, mingling with local religious traditions to become something that Wahhabis would abhor. Incredibly, much of the subcontinent’s composite culture has survived both the divide-and-rule strategies of British colonialism and the rivalry between the nation-states of India and Pakistan, which has produced three major wars since 1947. This enduring pluralism is rooted in the traditional diversity of religious practice across the subcontinent marking a contrast to the more recent state-guaranteed multiculturalism of Europe and America. Here the pluralism preceded the establishment of the modern state, and it is often at odds with the state’s insistence on singular identities for its citizens. To some extent this pluralist tradition comes from within Hinduism, which has ingested and modified innumerable folk religions since its origins in the Vedic religion of North India’s Aryan settlers, and absorbed the founders of Buddhism and Jainism – the Buddha is now part of the Hindu pantheon – in addition to diluting the monotheistic core of Islam and Christianity. A general consensus about not eating beef and the centrality of the Bhagavad Gita (among the Vedas, Upanishads and many other scriptures) has defined modern Hinduism since the 19th century. But despite the frantic attempts by Hindu nationalists to ‘modernize’ Hinduism, this religion still lacks a single dominant church, creed or clear founder; it possesses a variety of gods and goddesses, and prescribes several modes of devotion and salvation, ‘high’ as well as ‘low’.

Religious piety in India continues to grow, even as religion, along with caste and language, has assumed an aggressive and divisive new role in mass electoral politics, carrying the pain of deprivation and injustice. But while the politics of religion becomes more vicious, bringing forth hard-edged identities, and claiming the attention of scholars and writers, a vast majority of the subcontinent’s population quietly go on with their personal and syncretic religious practice.


So why did Jaswant Singh suddenly become so protective about a syncretic culture that his own hard line party has done much to undermine? After all, as foreign minister, he upheld his party’s utterly conventional idea of India: nuclear-armed, allied with the Bush administration and Israel against Islamist terror, and ready to fight a fourth war with Pakistan. It may be tempting to suspect Singh of cynical political motives. But it is more likely that, along with almost all westernized Indians, Singh is unable to suppress his feeling for an India older than the nation-state created by brutal surgery in 1947, one in which religious and cultural identities freely overlapped.

Even the most modernized and secular Indians cannot suppress their consciousness of this pre-modern India. ‘I am aware,’ Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Cambridge-educated first prime minister, wrote in his last will, ‘that I too, like all of us, am a link in that uninterrupted chain which finds its origin in the dawn of history, in India’s immemorial past.’ The persistence of this uninterrupted tradition offers other possibilities for defining the self, and for being in the world, beyond the singular identities and secular constraints enforced by hyper-rational modernity. Much given to mystical descriptions of the Himalayas, the agnostic and secular Nehru was also profoundly influenced by the Persian-inflected composite culture of North India. Singh was only articulating what many Indians and Pakistanis (even the most nationalist) feel in their innermost hearts: that it was possible for partition to be averted, and for the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims to coexist in the same towns and villages that their ancestors had inhabited for centuries.

This regret gnaws deepest among those who have visited the country stigmatized by their politicians and media. The public definition of the ‘self’, even in liberal nation-states, is parasitic on the existence of an excluded, preferably dangerous, ‘other’. But few nationalist hatreds in India and Pakistan survive the discovery that the much-demonized ‘other’ is an aspect of one’s own personality, who not only has identical preferences in food, movies, sports, poetry and music, but also a similar world view: one that can accommodate the eccentric and irregular in life – all that modern societies rigorously organized for production and profit would seem to have discarded over the last two centuries of industrial capitalism.

The subcontinent’s popular religious practices in particular habitually breach the boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, caste and class that European colonialism did much to entrench, and even create. The gods themselves are elusively mercurial: Krishna, for instance, is an androgynous figure who is, often simultaneously, warrior, counsellor, randy villager, divine principle, flautist and great king. This polyphonic quality of Indian religions is largely due to the original influence of Hinduism. Though identified with the Vedas and other scriptures in Sanskrit, Hinduism in practice contains a baffling diversity of religious ideas, extending from the worship of trees and abstract monism to atheism – alone among major world religions, Hinduism continues to expand its pantheon with new divinities.

Indeed, there was no single name for India’s overlapping religious traditions until Christian missionaries, together with colonial scholars and administrators, dubbed them ‘Hinduism’ in the late 18th century. The definition was then keenly embraced by western-educated Indians who were embarrassed by their disorganized religion; some of these, the intellectual ancestors of today’s Hindu nationalists, then stressed Hinduism’s more orthodox aspects in order to effectively deploy it as a base for pan-Indian nationalism. Some foreign observers, most notably the German Romantics, did acknowledge the basic pluralism of Indian religions. Even Kant, busy defining the Enlightenment, conceded: ‘It is a doctrine of the Indians,’ Kant wrote, ‘that every nation has a religion of its own. Hence they compel no one to accept theirs.’ In the main, however, the prejudices of post-Enlightenment Europe relegated India to a primitive stage of fantasy in the unfolding of reason in history: India was no more, as Hegel put it, than ‘the character of Spirit in a state of dream’.

A certain arrogant bluster and distaste has usually been the norm here. The utilitarian philosopher James Mill and the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay fervidly denounced Indian religion as incorrigibly backward – a view that also influenced Karl Marx’s appalled descriptions of how man, ‘sovereign of nature’, had been reduced to worshipping monkeys in India. Most of these secular Europeans assumed that it was only a matter of time before religion in India was expelled from the public sphere and banished, as it was in Europe, to the darker corners of private life; they had not reckoned with the fact that religion in India was not just a matter of personal faith and belief in a divinity. It was a whole way of relating to the world, individually and collectively; it offered, too, in the absence of modern administrative and legal institutions, a set of ethical parameters for everyday life.

Certain expressions of Indian religiosity bewilder even the most liberal and sympathetic of Western visitors to the subcontinent. Immersed into the color and noise of a Hindu festival in 1921, the Bloomsbury aesthete EM Forster initially complained that ‘there is no dignity, no taste, no form’. But in the 20th century, the multiple traumas inflicted by ‘sovereign’ man drove many of the secularized West’s most sensitive thinkers and artists – the pilgrims of Herman Hesse, the Beats of America – to India in search of ‘Eastern Wisdom’. Praising the art of Hindu temples in London in 1945 after yet another catastrophic European war, Forster wrote: ‘You cannot imagine how much we over here are in need of inspiration, of spirituality, of something which will deliver us from the tyranny of the body-politic.’

However, the debunker has remained as ubiquitous a figure as the Indophile, sternly judging the natives from the heights of Western science and rationality. Returning from India in the late 1950s, Arthur Koestler declared that ‘I started my journey in sackcloth and ashes, and came back rather proud of being a European.’ Ancestrally Indian, VS Naipaul was shocked and appalled on his first visit to the country by its poverty, which he blamed on the philosophy of fatalism, or karma, upheld by Indians. But Naipaul, prone like Nehru to quasi-religious rhapsodies about the Himalayas, also struck an ambivalent note. Describing the Hindu pilgrimage to the cave of Amarnath in Kashmir in An Area of Darkness, he wrote: ‘The gods existed; the faces and cries of the returning pilgrims carried this reassurance. I wished I was of their spirit. I wished that something of their joy awaited me at the end.’

Naipaul also showed himself vulnerable to modern man’s nostalgia for the noble savage – often a disguised craving for true individuality in societies that uphold personal expression but impose a bland uniformity. Here, for instance, is his rapturous annotation of a sadhu dressed only in a leopard skin in severe weather, who ‘lent his nobility to all the pilgrims’: ‘a young man of complete, disquieting beauty. His skin had been burned black, and was smeared with white ash; his hair was reddish-blond; but this only made unnatural the perfection of his features, the tilt of his head, the fineness of his limbs, the light assurance of his walk, the delicate play of muscles down his back and abdomen.’

It was on another famous Himalayan pilgrimage, to Kedernath, that William Dalrymple conceived the idea for Nine Lives. ‘The narrow mountain track,’ he writes, ‘appeared like a great sea of Indian humanity. Every social class from every corner of the country was there. There were groups of farmers, illiterate labourers and urban sophisticates from north and south all rubbing shoulders like something out of a modern Indian Canterbury Tales.’ Talking to an ash-smeared sadhu of the kind Naipaul described, Dalrymple discovered that he had been a sales manager in Mumbai with a Masters degree in Business Administration before he decided to renounce the world.

Many nuclear scientists in India are known to keep shrines of their favorite gods in their homes. This easy coexistence of the scientific and religious worldviews, of modernity with tradition, leads many visitors to conclude that India’s population is uniquely and deeply spiritual. This is not an entirely false presumption; but it leads many into romantic exaggeration. Thus, the Anglo-Scot Dalrymple, who has written sensitively about Christianity in the Middle East, and authored several books of history and travel writing about India, had to overcome a degree of embarrassment before writing this book. Numerous are ‘the cliches’ he notes, ‘about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much writing about Indian religion.’

His way of avoiding them is to muffle his usually lively narrator’s voice. Still, Nine Lives remain oddly gripping, and often very moving, in its first-person accounts, framed by minimal explanations, of spiritually-minded people that Dalrymple meets on his travels across the subcontinent. In South India, at the site of the great statue of Bahubali (whose great bulk dominates Moreau’s painting of Alexander’s conquest of the West) Dalrymple talks to a Jain nun, the daughter in a family of merchants who is planning to depart the earth the same way her best friend has: by starving herself to death. In the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, Dalrymple coaxes a poignant narrative out of a Tibetan monk. Forced by the Chinese invasion of Tibet into violent self-defence, the monk now does penance in the melancholy setting of his refugee town by selling Tibetan prayer flags.

Across the country, Dalrymple comes across instances of popular religiosity and the stubborn persistence of beliefs and ritual practices amid rapid change. In Tamil Nadu, he meets an idol maker who stands twenty-third in a long line of sculptors going back to the medieval Chola bronze makers, and who now meets a fast-growing demand for idols from expatriate Indians in New Jersey and California. In a twist reminiscent of RK Narayan’s novel The Vendor of Sweets, the sculptor who regards ‘creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India’ has to ‘reconcile himself to a son who only wants to study computer engineering in Bangalore’.

Everywhere Dalrymple marvels at the continuity of India: ‘Some of the rituals you see today in the Tanjore temple are described in the Rig Veda, written when both the Pyramids and Stonehenge were still in use. Yet Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, is still alive, and while Zeus, Jupiter and Isis are all dead and forgotten.’ In Rajasthan, Dalrymple finds that ‘castes of nomadic musicians, miniaturists and muralists, jugglers and acrobats, bards and mime artists were still practicing their skills’.

Naipaul famously condemned this continuity as ‘sterile’, an obstacle to India’s intellectual growth and economic prosperity. But like many adherents of modernization theory in the 1950s and 1960s, he expected traditional societies like India’s to retrace the history of secularization in Europe. The stories in Nine Lives will surprise those accustomed to seeing India as an instance of an old caste- and religion-bound civilization turning into a secular and modern developed nation. In Kerala, which Dalrymple points out has ‘always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive and rigidly hierarchical societies in India’ as well as, in recent years, the most Marxist and secular state, Dalrymple meets Hari Das, a Dalit prison warden. In between monitoring open warfare between Hindu nationalist and Communist convicts in his prison, Hari Das moonlights as a theyyam god, the central figure in an old tradition of worshipping local deities through dance and spirit possession. He tells Dalrymple: ‘Though we are all Dalits even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet.’

Many traditions have not survived well in India’s fragmenting rural and semirural societies. In Northern Karnataka, Dalrymple describes the devadasis (literally ‘god’s girl-slaves’): young girls who were once rigorously trained in nritya, or temple dance, and then as virgins, dedicated to the temple. They were, Dalrymple explains, ‘a part of a complex cultural tradition in pre-colonial India where the devotional, metaphysical and the sexual are not regarded as being in any way opposed; on the contrary, they were seen to be closely linked.’ But that old world now lies shattered. ‘While many medieval temple women had honored positions within the temple hierarchy,’ Dalrymple writes, ‘the overwhelming majority of modern devadasis are straightforward sex workers,’ almost entirely from low-caste families, and tragically exposed to HIV.


Dalrymple often hints, without elaborating, at how the pathologies of modernization blend with, and aggravate, those of tradition. He raises some large, pertinent questions in his introduction: ‘What does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past? How is each specific religious path surviving the changes India is currently undergoing? What changes and what remains the same? Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?’

Nine Lives answers, perhaps inevitably, only the first of these many difficult questions by letting, as it were, the tradition-minded Indian speak. Characters rarely allowed into contemporary Anglophone writing about India are given an opportunity to describe their deepest aspirations without the slightest hint of authorial condescension. They speak eloquently, even without the benefit of Dalrymple’s amplifying and clarifying voice, of the varieties and specific content of religious experience in India; its remoteness from the political mobilization of religion, and its role as a marker of identity. The rest of the complex issues Dalrymple raises in his introduction require an analytically more active narrator, and another, more spacious book.

For traditional religions have presented many contradictory trends in post-1947 India. The caste system has evolved into a highly politicized entity, with low-caste politicians forming upper-class elites within their respective communities. Political parties, the Congress as well as the BJP, have used mass religiosity to organize political movements. The most egregious of this was the BJP’s campaign for Hindutva (Hindu identity) in the 1980s and 1990s, which culminated in the destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the North Indian town of Ayodhya in 1992 and bloody Hindu-Muslim rioting across India. In many parts of the country, the Hindu nationalists tried to supplant folk deities and local traditions with their own versions of a hyper-masculine Lord Rama. But popular Hinduism continues to develop, with new divinities and pilgrimages. There are fewer private recitals of the Ramayana of the kind I grew up with in small cities and towns; there are more collective displays of religiosity, such as large Maha-Aaartis (mega-prayers) organised by Hindu nationalists at major temples. Wealthy gurus, such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, have proliferated, and provide material and psychological support as well as spiritual guidance to their mostly middle-class followers. Large ashrams, such as Puttaparthi near Bangalore, Gayatri Teerth Shantikunj in Hardwar, and Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, contain large communities of affluent Indians. And members of the politically ambitious global Indian diaspora, who are also the most fervent supporters of Hindu nationalism, construct lavish temples in places as unlikely as Louisiana.

Yet the true vitality and continuity of Indian religions is still to be found where most of India’s one-billion-plus population lives. Still widely practiced, folk religions and pluralist traditions constitute the norm rather than the exception, even if press and television coverage of India makes religion mostly seem a nasty political obstacle to the country’s modernization and economic growth. In a remote small town in Rajasthan, where Dalrymple attends the performance of a six centuries old epic poem before a phad, a long narrative painting on a scroll, he asks one of the bhopas, ‘Rajasthani Homers,’ if their tradition will survive. ‘Oh yes,’ he said firmly. ‘It will. It has to. For all that has changed, it is still at the centre of our life, and our faith, and our dharma.’

Dalrymple’s response is worth quoting in full:’This,’ he writes, ‘it seemed to me, was the key, and the answer to the question of how it was that the Rajasthani epics were still living in a way that the Iliad and the other epics of the West were not. The poems had been turned into religious rituals and the bhopas had become receptacles for the messages of the gods, able to penetrate the wall – in India always a fairly porous wall between the divine and the mundane.’

In South India, Dalrymple writes elsewhere in Nine Lives, ‘every village is believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods, who are said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life.’ The exigencies of economic development now menace many of these self-contained worlds: the tribes of south Orissa, who are presently fighting to prevent the multinational mining corporation Vedanta from destroying their sacred local hills, are only one of the many peoples in India waging a battle for survival against the contemporary axis of politicians, businessmen and the media.

Their religious beliefs, often almost animist, make them appear, at least in the eyes of western and westernizing elites, as a holdover from the past; their ‘backwardness’ is something they ought to grow out of, presumably into the dazzling plenitude of brand-name consumption. But the impersonal authority of science and the modern state or the triumph of industrial capitalism still doesn’t much impress people for whom traditional religions remain a vital source of ethical and pluralist world views. The trailblazer here is Mohandas Gandhi, the most famous and creative Hindu of the contemporary era, who combined popular and ‘ Saskritic’ Hinduisms and borrowed from Islam and Christianity in an effort to infuse mass politics, and contemporary life in general, with ethical urgencies.

Both Gandhi’s syncretism and the loyalty to pan-Indian and local gods that Dalrymple describes seem to reveal that the self in Indian culture – whether individual or collective – is not something clearly defined or enclosed. The sharp disjunctions and separations – between self and others, us and them, the secular and the religious – that define identities in even the most liberal and multicultural Western nation-states rarely occur here. Indeed, this idea of the self makes space for what other more modern societies, which require clean-cut identities, would isolate and stigmatize as the fearful ‘other’ an irrepressible spirit of accommodation and fellow-feeling that occasionally overcomes even hardline nationalist politicians like Jaswant Singh.

It may be useful to contrast India’s lived experience of pluralism with contemporary Europe, especially as the latter tries to renovate its faded ideals of secular citizenship while longing for its old cultural uniformity. The secular liberalism of the nation-state has demanded conformity and obedience from Europe’s citizens. Upholding an abstract idea of the individual citizen divested of his religious and ethnic identity, this liberalism has not had an easy relationship with Europe’s ethnic and religious minorities, to put it mildly; the current obsession with Muslims, for instance, betrays a deep unease with expressions of cultural distinctiveness (previously exemplified in Western Europe by Jews). The rise of right-wing parties across Europe shows that masses as well as elites are embracing majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of immigration, social diversity and political extremism.

India’s example suggests that Europe may have to broaden and deepen its understanding of religion and tradition rather than expect its immigrants to abandon them. As Dalrymple’s book vividly illustrates, the country’s heterodox religious and philosophical traditions remain stronger than the imported idea of the homogenous nation-state, and have survived much of its immense violence. By ensuring a degree of collective and individual continuity, these traditions have avoided the traumatic breaks with the past that have occurred in the West, and even in older civilizations like China. Certainly, the subcontinent’s antique and enduring pluralism, its respect for minority identity and community belonging, could not have been possible without the moral and spiritual core of traditional religions, which will continue to provide essential bearings to many in our increasingly crowded and confused future.

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