The 15th of August marks India’s Independence Day; and, as has become my custom, I have penned an article in honour of both the occasion, and the state and struggle for which it stands. Whereas 2017’s piece looked at the geopolitical saliency of India, especially from the perspective of a small South Pacific state such as our own; and 2018’s took a much more … theological ambit, seeking to illuminate Bharat Mata, and ancient Indo-European roots from whence She has remained; this year’s effort shall instead seek to take a more ‘historical’ bent – and, in so doing, due to the nature of the incident which I am about to examine, hopefully *also* manage to build upon and *bring together* the mythoreligious and political themes of my previous contributions into a glorious, unified whole.
As today is also the Hindu observance of Raksha Bandhan, an occasion upon which bonds of fraternal care and guardianship are honoured, in the Hindu lunar calendar, several of the underlying key purposes in my writing here are rendered additionally salient and resonant as a result.
But more on that in a moment. For now, let us introduce the core incident which forms the backdrop and the body to this piece. And thence why this is important, why this matters – and continues to matter, especially for the more contemporarily oriented political and religious perspectives that I have earlier alluded to above.
The year is 1843. India is still very much under British rule, as it would continue to be for just over another century – albeit at this point, still through the ‘convenient fiction’ of the East India Company and its byzantine layers of bureaucracy and semi-pliable local accommodations or arrangements.
In office, as Governor General of that faraway land (in the senses both of conventional distance, as well as the ever-lengthening gulf of Time), was a man by the name of Edward Law – better known by his formal title, Lord Ellenborough. A full examination of the conflagrationary context into which Ellenborough found himself thrust when he took over the Governor-General-ship of India in 1842 is *well* beyond the scope of the piece – but suffice to say, the situation which he had inherited from Lord Auckland was pretty dire. In addition to an array of ‘unquiet’ circumstances within India proper itself, the British had also just two months earlier suffered one of its most bludgeoning defeats of the Colonial era during the course of Elphinstone’s storied Retreat from Kabul – and despite the full-throated sound and fury of the subsequent British reprisals visited upon the Afghanis, it would be a very difficult thing indeed to conclude that the Anglos, in any meaningful sense, “won”. But I digress. This is, after all, not an essay upon the failures of British imperialism (although, in a way, it is *also* that); but rather, takes as its spring-board, what happened *next*.
For this is where the eponymous Gates of Somnath Temple enter into our story.
See, one of Ellenborough’s more commented upon actions as Governor-General, was to order the returning British-led army to uplift the gates from the mausoleum of Mahmud of Ghazni, and bring these back with them as trophy. It is a matter of some debate as to which considerations most motivated Ellenborough to engage in this particular effort of that British national past-time of substituting for what later generations would capture in a postcard or a selfie … with the bringing back of entire aesthetic or archaeological marvels *wholesale*. At the time, the ‘official’ impetus was alleged to be a request by the Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh, for the return of the Gates to … what turned out to be another Hindu temple entirely. The ‘better’ reasonings for the Gates’ (re-)uplift, can probably be succinctly summarized as a dual desire on the part of Ellenborough et co to actually regain some semblance of national/imperial pride by taking something of value and narrative significance from the Afghans, while *also* attempting to curry favour with the Hindu population of British India through the restoration of something precious to them, in the process. It is for this latter reason that the Gates were presumably allowed to remain in India itself once they had reached there – rather than winding up shipped off back to the British Museum or somewhere, as so much else of beauty and worth from the SubContinent and further afield inevitably has been.
But I have skipped ahead a bit – some eight hundred and twenty years, or so, in fact – and should probably endeavour to explain just what these Gates were, where they were from, and why they carried such weight of narrative significance to them, even before they got turned into a political football within the realms of the UK’s House of Commons some considerable years later. Or, for that matter, before they got turned into the opening aperture for this Independence Day piece.
Somnath Itself, is one of the thirteen Jyotirlingam sites sacred to Lord Shiva, situated in Prabhas (Radiance) in modern-day Gujarat. We won’t go into too much detail with the explication here, except to note that there are twelve such sites located across the Subcontinent (with the thirteenth, for … curious reasons relating to the then-reigning King of Nepal’s astrological eccentricities, in modern-day Australia); that they get their name from the Pillar of Light [Jyoti – (celestial) light, hence “Jyotisha”, as in “Astrology”; and Lingam – signifer, ensign, pillar] that Shiva manifested as in the course of the Lingodbhava Incident [for more detail upon which, see my piece on KaalBhairav Jayanti], and which can be taken as the infinity of Brahman intersecting with the material universe, as well as an implicit statement of the supremacy of Shiva and the direct illumination of the highest-beyond-reality as a result. Somnath, meanwhile, is a Shaivite theonym meaning Lord of the Soma – and, in this context, given Soma’s entheogenic properties, also connotes the concept of ‘getting close with’ the imminent, immanent Divine.
It’s not hard to see how all of the above has made it an important pilgrimage site even today; and in the early decades of the 11th century A.D., Somnath was well-renowned for its prominence amidst the pious, and for the richness of its splendor as a result. Naturally, this made it an exceedingly attractive target for the Muslim brigand, Mahmud of Ghazni; who swept down from Afghanistan [whence Ghazni lies] in a frighteningly frequent series of full-scale invasions and rapacious raids through the predominantly Hindu realms to his southeast – a reign of terror which persisted for a full quarter century or more, from about the turn of the century, through to the mid-late 1020s.
There is some debate amongst historians as to just why Mahmud did as he did; whether he was motivated to this rapacious, iconoclastic conduct simply by the age-old gluttony for glittering tribute with which to sustain an ever-larger proto-imperial building army; whether he was a religiously driven man who saw it as a duty to cast down the faiths of those folk and those Gods different to his own, to erase them in proper from his line of sight and from living memory; or whether his declarations and definite actions against Hindus in the religious sense, were ‘cover’ for a political agenda of subjugation and intimidation of those potentially resistant kingdoms which might otherwise have more successfully banded together against him and his depredations. No doubt, there are other, ‘political’ considerations at play in the presentation of Mahmud as some kind of disinterested-in-religion mere ‘raider’ – rather than taking at something approaching at face value the accounts of himself, his contemporaries, and those who came shortly after him within the Islamic world, who highlighted not only Mahmud’s religiously inflected declarations as to his intent in northern India (indeed, open and outright statements that he would invade India on a yearly basis as acts of devotion – which he just about did, launching 17 incursions overall), but who also recalled the sadistic glee with which he was supposed to have *personally* smashed the Jyotirlingam of Somnath into fragments, and then sought to install these shards in the steps of a Mosque back in his homeland so that the remnants of this priceless relic could be continuously trodden upon by his people. [Indeed, as a point of perhaps minor epigraphical interest, a contemporary of Mahmud – Farrukh Sistani – who claimed to have been with the man when the smashing was carried out, deliberately sought to cast Mahmud’s abhorrent actions in that circumstance as having strong echoes of Mohammed’s purgation of the pre-Islamic pagan deities from Mecca – down to directly stating that it was a case almost of ‘unfinished business’ from that previous occurrence nearly four hundred years before.]
Yet it is a curious thing. The campaign which took in Somnath was also destined to be the high-water mark of Mahmud’s efforts into India – the place where the wave finally broke, and began to roll back. On the way back from Somnath, his baggage-train groaning under the weight of ill-gotten spoils, he found himself harried by Jats, who managed sufficient onslaught against both his forces and pillage-loot that he had to forestall any subsequent substantive military efforts for a further two years while he replenished.
In addition to this, during the course of his final incursion into India, Mahmud is said to have become infected by some disease, that would shortly after kill him – although not before he had witnessed his empire begin to crumble and to disintegrate; a process which took place both without through the loss of territories that occurred following the military defeats that characterized his final years breathing, as well as within through the internal divisions and outright internecine conflict that followed Mahmud as a result of the weakness of the son he chose as his successor and the bloody ambition of the other whom he had fathered. Mahmud, therefore, died a failure; and irreversibly enmeshed in what we might term “contrapasso”. He had sought, as a raider from the west, to establish an enduring power via his feats and prowess of arms, and fueled by what he brought back in plunder from India. He found himself dying of what *else* he had brought back with him from India, losing his martial renown amidst his western provinces, to raiders not unlike himself in a previous era; and with the kingdom, the treasure that he had thusly created, being smashed asunder, his tomb being defaced and *its* relics carried off by a far grander imperial power from even *further* west again. Only, unlike the fate of Somnath (repaired, restored, resurrected, reincarnated ,you might say) for Mahmud and the Ghaznavids, there could be no rebuilding.
The Long Arc of the Universe, is a धनु. It is *long*, but it *does* bend towards Justice, as surely as Its Bowstring is Rta. And, as the saying goes – Time [Kaal] And I, Against Any Other Two.
Or, to phrase it more clearly again – the chartered course of Mahmud of Ghazni’s fate following his most grievous outrage against Somnath, would appear to be a visible manifestation of the concept of शङ्करचेतोविलास – the subtle play of Lord Shiva’s wit.
Such must be the fate of all those who commit such deliberate and egregious abominable attempts against Ishvara.
In any case, it is eminently understandable why a man such as Ellenborough would have regarded the uplifting and ‘return’ of the Gates, from Afghanistan to India, as a worthy symbol both of British imperial might in service of the “Pax Asiatica”, and a gesture of attempted magnanimity on the part of the Empire to one of its major component subject peoples. Except, of course, for the slight problem that it almost immediately turned out that the fine carved sandalwood doors to the Tomb of Mahmud were not in fact the Gates of Somnath Temple, but were rather of likely *Egyptian* workmanship – thus leaving the whole thing no further ahead on that latter score, and rendering the entire probative value of the seizing of the Gates, as being their symbolic value as a ‘settling of accounts’ with the Afghan bete-noirs of the day through striking at one of their storied national progenitors’ legacies. And, further perhaps, signifying the manner in which even when attempting to be well meaning as applied India, the British authorities could nevertheless find themselves being hopelessly tone-deaf to the actual nuances, much less ‘realities’ of the situation.
But in a sense, this is all preliminary. Simply setting the stage for the *main* backdrop to this piece. Which isn’t the Gates of Somnath Temple themselves, at all. But rather, a Speech made in the British Parliament in response to the above episode by one Thomas Babington Macaulay. Better known with regard to India for his ghastly “educational” approach, tantamount to ‘civilizational vandalism’, of attempting to erase Indian cultural and religious heritage through living contact with the languages and corpuses of yore in a bid to produce more pliable, pliant “helot” subjects of Empire. And better known elsewhere, I would imagine, for at least a few lines from his rather well-received Lays of Ancient Rome – a set of poetry he composed while in or about the Subcontinent, as a sort of paean to the alleged ‘Classical’ antecedents of the then-modern British Empire.
There is both a considerable and a capacious irony inherent in these things. Partially in terms of his systematic endeavours to ‘fossilize’ one living tradition that had persisted, and which was from the same roots, as Ancient Rome or Greece, ancient even when those places were young. But also, and much more intriguingly for the purposes of this piece, in terms of the huge mental contortions which Macaulay must have had to inflict upon himself, in order to rationalize exalting the Classical civilizations on the one hand, yet seek to cast down Vedic heritage upon the other. The way he appears to have ‘squared the circle’ upon these matters is to basically abrogate the realities of either in favour of living in a far less confronting, idealized fantasy-land of his own creation. But more on that in just a moment.
First, let us present the relevant parts and portions of Macaulay’s own speech; so that we might thence discuss what it means for us, here and now and in this epistle:
“But the charge against Lord Ellenborough is that he has insulted the religion of his own country and the religion of millions of the Queen’s Asiatic subjects in order to pay honour to an idol. And this the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of the Board of Control calls a trivial charge. Sir, I think it a very grave charge. Her Majesty is the ruler of a larger heathen population than the world ever saw collected under the sceptre of a Christian sovereign since the days of the Emperor Theodosius. What the conduct of rulers in such circumstances ought to be is one of the most important moral questions, one of the most important political questions, that it is possible to conceive. There are subject to the British rule in Asia a hundred millions of people who do not profess the Christian faith. The Mahometans are a minority: but their importance is much more than proportioned to their number: for they are an united, a zealous, an ambitious, a warlike class.
The great majority of the population of India consists of idolaters, blindly attached to doctrines and rites which, considered merely with reference to the temporal interests of mankind, are in the highest degree pernicious. In no part of the world has a religion ever existed more unfavourable to the moral and intellectual health of our race. The Brahminical mythology is so absurd that it necessarily debases every mind which receives it as truth; and with this absurd mythology is bound up an absurd system of physics, an absurd geography, an absurd astronomy. Nor is this form of Paganism more favourable to art than to science. Through the whole Hindoo Pantheon you will look in vain for anything resembling those beautiful and majestic forms which stood in the shrines of ancient Greece. All is hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble. As this superstition is of all superstitions the most irrational, and of all superstitions the most inelegant, so is it of all superstitions the most immoral. Emblems of vice are objects of public worship. Acts of vice are acts of public worship. The courtesans are as much a part of the establishment of the temple, as much ministers of the god, as the priests. Crimes against life, crimes against property, are not only permitted but enjoined by this odious theology.”
These are the core passages of relevancy; but there is one further excerpt I shall quote before moving on to the explication and execration.
“But, Sir, he has paid unseemly homage to one of those religions; he has grossly insulted another; and he has selected as the object of his homage the very worst and most degrading of those religions, and as the object of his insults the best and purest of them. The homage was paid to Lingamism. The insult was offered to Mahometanism. Lingamism is not merely idolatry, but idolatry in its most pernicious form. The honourable gentleman the Secretary of the Board of Control seemed to think that he had achieved a great victory when he had made out that his lordship’s devotions had been paid, not to Vishnu, but to Siva. Sir, Vishnu is the preserving Deity of the Hindoo Mythology; Siva is the destroying Deity; and, as far as I have any preference for one of your Governor General’s gods over another, I confess that my own tastes would lead me to prefer the preserving to the destroying power. Yes, Sir; the temple of Somnauth was sacred to Siva; and the honourable gentleman cannot but know by what emblem Siva is represented, and with what rites he is adored. I will say no more. The Governor General, Sir, is in some degree protected by the very magnitude of his offence. I am ashamed to name those things to which he is not ashamed to pay public reverence. This god of destruction, whose images and whose worship it would be a violation of decency to describe, is selected as the object of homage.
As the object of insult is selected a religion which has borrowed much of its theology and much of its morality from Christianity, a religion which in the midst of Polytheism teaches the unity of God, and, in the midst of idolatry, strictly proscribes the worship of images. The duty of our Government is, as I said, to take no part in the disputes between Mahometans and idolaters. But, if our Government does take a part, there cannot be a doubt that Mahometanism is entitled to the preference. Lord Ellenborough is of a different opinion. He takes away the gates from a Mahometan mosque, and solemnly offers them as a gift to a Pagan temple. Morally, this is a crime. Politically, it is a blunder. Nobody who knows anything of the Mahometans of India can doubt that this affront to their faith will excite their fiercest indignation. Their susceptibility on such points is extreme. Some of the most serious disasters that have ever befallen us in India have been caused by that susceptibility. Remember what happened at Vellore in 1806, and more recently at Bangalore. The mutiny of Vellore was caused by a slight shown to the Mahometan turban; the mutiny of Bangalore, by disrespect said to have been shown to a Mahometan place of worship. If a Governor General had been induced by his zeal for Christianity to offer any affront to a mosque held in high veneration by Mussulmans, I should think that he had been guilty of indiscretion such as proved him to be unfit for his post. But to affront a mosque of peculiar dignity, not from zeal for Christianity, but for the sake of this loathsome god of destruction, is nothing short of madness.
Some temporary popularity Lord Ellenborough may no doubt gain in some quarters. I hear, and I can well believe, that some bigoted Hindoos have hailed this proclamation with delight, and have begun to entertain a hope that the British Government is about to take their worship under its peculiar protection. But how long will that hope last? I presume that the right honourable Baronet the First Lord of the Treasury does not mean to suffer India to be governed on Brahminical principles. I presume that he will not allow the public revenue to be expended in rebuilding temples, adorning idols, and hiring courtesans. I have no doubt that there is already on the way to India such an admonition as will prevent Lord Ellenborough from persisting in the course on which he has entered. The consequence will be that the exultation of the Brahmins will end in mortification and anger. See then of what a complication of faults the Governor General is guilty. In order to curry favour with the Hindoos he has offered an inexpiable insult to the Mahometans; and now, in order to quiet the English, he is forced to disappoint and disgust the Hindoos.”
Risible stuff, and intriguing in its own grotesque way for quite a number of reasons. Partially, due to its demonstration of the flat and fundamental ignorancy of the ways, customs, culture, and religious creeds of the colonial subject peoples on the part of those who would otherwise proclaim their careful and ‘considerate’ paternalistic dominion over same. I mean, given Mahmud of Ghazni’s well-remembered atrocities also against Shi’ite and Ismaili Muslim populations, even leaving aside the severe historical prominence of more general Sunni conflict against other Islamic groupings, it is rather peculiar to suggest that Islam upon the Subcontinent [or in conjoint with that existing anywhere else across the British Empire, for that matter] could be feasibly regarded as existing in a state of “unity”. And that is before we get into the blatant lack of anything but the most jaundiced caricature of an understanding of Hindu theology, when it comes to Macaulay’s statements on Shiva etc.
It would be one thing, and not entirely beyond the bounds of plausibility, to point towards a certain ‘realpolitik’ in Macaualay’s motivations here; and, indeed, he directly and explicitly notes such things when he speaks of the undesirability of triggering outrage nor uprising within India’s Muslim communities. But even where Macaulay talks about the potential negative impacts upon the Crown’s taxation revenues of their ‘diversion’ back into supporting the largely Hindu communities from which they were actually raised, it is quite abundantly clear that what has motivated his sentiment is a recursive anti-Hindu depth of feeling that is both reflexive and repugnant. His statements in preference of Islam may be a result, also, of the same broad trends underpinning that longstanding cordiality betwixt Protestant Christianity and the Muslim empires [a curious ‘rhyming’ of which in the present day might perhaps be found in the American friendship with Saudi Arabia]; but his attitudes and invectives towards Hinduism instead suggest an ignorance that is studious, and deliberately cultivated as a further intentional form of his contempt.
But why am I telling you all of this? What purpose could I have in quoting at length, from both a British Parliamentary proceeding, as well as, in linkage to it, some of the severe annals of India’s pre-British history?
Well, partially it is due to the direct and most clearly apparent purpose for the 15th of August in the Indian national calendar. It is Independence Day. And as good, as glorious as it may be to look upon it as a birth and a beginning … in a veer-y real sense, it is also a transcension of what had gone before. A colonial life, a subjugated life, a half-life, governed by the [far-off in origin] principle of bondage rather than bandha. Recalling Macaulay’s words [and earlier deeds], therefore, is a reminder of just what it was, and *why* it was, that Independence had to be sought for, fought for, and thence, eventually, inevitably, achieved. Although with the important and vitally necessary caveat that Britain was not the first foreign imperializing power to attempt to brutalize and erase India, Hinduness from the world – which is partially why Mahmud of Ghazni bears such a prominent place, alongside Macaulay, as the bete-noir of this piece. As a recollection and a commemoration that the Independence, the Swaraj Principle, is something that has been at stake, and denied through force of arms and force of economics, to much of India by many conquerors and for many centuries afore the British ever turned up in Bengal as the local taxation-agents of Aurangzeb.
Phrased another way, as I asserted in my last year’s Independence Day piece – titled ‘Bharat Mata And The Indo-European Deific of National Identity’ – from a certain perspective, today is really more accurately viewed as a *Re*-Birth Day, after quite some long years of at best partial manifestation, if not outright seeming moribundity, of both the Principle and the Mata, in question.
Yet that is not actually the thought that initially inspired this piece, nor its piquant choice of particular primary subject-matter.
Instead, that was a somewhat younger me stumbling across the rather well-regarded and justifiably prominent lines from one of Macaulay’s poems – the Lays of Ancient Rome, funnily enough written by him while in and around India, and eventually published in the same year as Ellenborough’s uplift of the ‘Somnath Temple’ Gates.
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.” ”
Stirring stuff; and in one of those curious occurrences which seem so common to India, also quoted upon the Indian war memorial commemorating the fabled “to the Last Man” heroically defiant last stand of the Kumaon at Rezang La, during the course of the 1962 war to repulse Chinese invasion.
In any case, I felt I should know more about the mind which composed those verses, and so I looked into Macaulay further. What I found was, obviously, pretty dire; but at the same time downright peculiar. For you see, when looking through exactly that Parliamentary speech of his which I have quoted from at some length above, I found my head banging repeatedly against a downright puzzling paradox.
Namely and specifically – how could a man who so clearly admired and vaunted Classical civilization, culture, values and literature; producing pastiches of same in then-modern English for broad-scale consumption by his own countrymen, and continually [and, it has to be said, frequently downright offensively] referencing Classical incidences as guidance in the course of his political activities [for example, his obnoxious and insistent comparison of the situation of the Indian peoples relative to the British as being that of the Helots under the heel of Spartan overlords … with all that that entailed] … how could somebody like *that* speak so vitriolically and vituperatively against “Brahminical Mythology”, “Brahminical Idolatry”, – in short, against Hindu religion?
It is true to state, of course, that the field of comparative Indo-European studies was not even properly in its adolescence at the time that Macaulay was speaking. The linguistic side of things *was* there, and there was a growing awareness in various circles of the mythoreligious commonalities of the Indo-European peoples alongside this, and as an at least partial result.
But leaving aside whether Macaulay had anything like the same enthusiasm for then-recent academic developments in these areas as he did for the devouring of the archaic literary corpuses which formed part of their ultimate working material … what comes across in the relevant sentences of his speech is that he’s at least vaguely aware of the possibility of comparison between Hinduism and Greek or Roman religion – and that he’s most profoundly unsettled by it.
I mean, seriously. I shan’t quote the whole rant-section again, but look at this line – ” Through the whole Hindoo Pantheon you will look in vain for anything resembling those beautiful and majestic forms which stood in the shrines of ancient Greece. All is hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble. ”
The preceding sentences seek to attack “the Brahminical mythology” and its “absurd system of [meta-]physics” as being “so absurd that it necessarily debases every mind which receives it as truth;” – a sentiment which, apart from the questionable interpretation of the word “truth” [with reference to Adi Shankara’s wonderful sentiment around how “Mythic Truth” and Scientific Truth can exist side by side, and interleavened, in a manner that fundamentally *supports* the probing discernment of observable reality], has quite plainly not stood the test of time if we look at the many and storied achievements of both Indians themselves [as but two example from the Colonial era, recall the Satyen Bose who corresponded on an equal footing with Einstein, for instance, or the astounding mathematician of Brahmin lineage, Srinivasa Ramanujan; and this is before we get into the annals of Hindu history – the very numbers we use today, and most particularly the “Zero”, have their origin in Vedic development], and Westerners who’ve been informed (some might say “enlightened”) by received wisdom from the East. Indeed, Voltaire’s “E Orientalis Lux” idea, that almost all civilized arts of the mind had “come down to us from the banks of the Ganges” is, today, recognized as at least something of an overstatement … yet there can be no denying that in every field from metaphysics to nuclear and quantum physics, there is a capacious Hindu influence to be felt. The Nataraja Murti stands at C.E.R.N. for good reason; and I cannot help but wonder whether, in the absence of Hegel’s introduction to Indian thought upon time and causation (which also, as it happens, partially underpins our ongoing deification of Napoleon I Chakravartin, Whose Birthday, it *also* is today), whether there ever would have been such a thing as Marxism. But I digress.
The key and the core element of why I have thought Macaulay’s utterances here, is that line directly seeking to castigate even the contemplation of the potentiality of comparison between the mythoreligion and surrounding culture of Ancient Greece with that of Hinduism as being something almost self-evidently abhorrent. Because it does not at all take the detailed linguistic and other such scientific analysis which we have considerable competency with today to see that this is quite plainly not true. One would just have to indulge in a direct, even perfunctory side-by-side comparison of the legends, deities, and accompanying pious practices to immediately begin to see clearly evident parallels. As, in fact, many European thinkers had *already* been doing, on a pseudo-academic basis, for some decades prior to Macaulay’s speech. Indeed, I found myself personally contemplating last night whether Macauley, if he’d actually bothered to think about it, much less *read about it*, might have noticed the obvious and abundant coterminities between the Horse-Twins who feature as the most prominent protagonists of his poem “The Battle of Lake Reguillus”, and the Ashvins – or, for that matter, several pairs of mounted warrior-deities also to be found elsewhere in the annals of of Vedic and subsequent Puranic myth.
There are some important points of difference too, of course, and I have previously remarked with some amusement that one significant distinction between the characterization of Greek Zeus and His extramarital activities, with those of Lord Indra – is that in the latter case, at least, Indra *does* find Himself subject to actual punishment and sanction, for His excesses in this particular area. So much for Macaulay’s attempted insistence upon the absolute moral inferiority of Hinduism to Western mythocivlization or its archaic antecedents!
But in the main, it is a maxim both wise and profound to state that even a mirror shall not show you your own face if you are insisting upon being blind to it. And whether we take the most charitable possible view that Macaulay was almost deliberately ignorant of either Hinduism or its compartative, indeed *downright coterminous* and co-heritous relationship with his beloved Classical (and very definitely religious) cultures … or whether, as seems an intriguing prospect, we speculate that part of his rabidly emphatic desire to oppose “comparison” between “Athens” and “Aryan” was precisely *because* he realized on some deep psychological level that there *was* in fact some seriously more-than-sensible equation to be made … it goes without saying at this point that Macaulay *really did not want* to see anything familiar to him, the purported great Classicist, within Hinduism.
Which, to be fair and sure, may *also* have been a partial result of his only “knowing” about and of Ancient Greece and Rome that which he *chose* to know and acknowledge of them. This is, in fact, a pretty standard and common element when one comes to “remembering” the further past – whether viewing our own personal histories with not simply “twenty twenty” perspicacity, but a cloying, candy-floss haze of sentimentality; or, more especially, when it comes to the “Imagination” as much as “memorification” [‘hagiographizing’ as compared to ‘[auto-]biographizing’] of a community or nation. We seemingly always wish to remember the glass we feel connected to, to not just be rather more than half-full – but often, a bigger, and more ornate glass, at that; and frequently containing a rather different [in terms of quality or even in terms of kind, to say nothing of rough alcoholism content] beverage than it may ever have actually borne in [authentic-]life.
And it is also a rather enduring feature of how people about his period chose to think about the Classical eras all up. The Victorians, in particular, not only cemented our flagrantly inaccurate mental image of ancient Greek polises and statuary as being unpainted, somewhat sterile seeming bare marble or other such stone, when actually these were brightly coloured or even a little gaudy to modern sensibilities vibrant, living representations of culture … but also reinterpreted for ‘sanitation’ purposes various myths and words to suit.
As an example of which, reconstruing the word referring to what Poseidon did with Medusa in Athena’s temple from a term that more closely means “illicit liaison”, to one meaning “rape”. And, in Macaulay’s case, apparently choosing to scrupulously edit out of mind nor memory the rather prominent male genitalia to be found carved by deliberate design upon the Herms of much of the Ancient World, or the processes and purposes of the Lupercalia festival in Ancient Rome, or the previous utilization of blood in the face-painting of a Roman Imperator’s Triumph, or the many and numerous accounts of “temple prostitutes” to be found in the Hellenic world’s own source material. I mention all of these things, because they fairly directly correspond to what Macaulay thought he was speaking of when he sought to accuse that in Hinduism: “Emblems of vice are objects of public worship. Acts of vice are acts of public worship. The courtesans are as much a part of the establishment of the temple, as much ministers of the god, as the priests. Crimes against life, crimes against property, are not only permitted but enjoined by this odious theology.”
The fact is that, once again, Macaulay’s indictment is simply one of his own ignorances and prejudices – a Lingam is not, in particular, what he seeks to infer it as, to take but one example.
And perhaps that is, once again, some underlying psychological part to the overarching manifestation of his turgid and reprehensible perspective upon these matters. As a man who was, in theory, rather keen to bring back in some measure the Classical values, virtues, kernels of heritage and culture which he was so fond of elsewhere … but at the same time, an emphatic, vitriolic Christian and Whiggian-liberal Supremacist … maybe he could not bear to see the still-living close-cousin of the actually-existing Classical civilizations – because it fundamentally exposed the *lie* integral to his entire worldview in these areas. Namely, that the Ancients to whom he paid so much notional lip-service, were – to reference the refutation of this insistent trope contained within VIlhelm Gronbech’s ‘Culture of the Teutons’ – basically just like men of his time, generation, place, and country, only with some slightly unfamiliar names, and some quaint architectural features and ‘window-dressing’ eccentricity customs.
In Vedic Religion, then, Macaulay must have encountered – and he knew it, after a sense, after a sort – something that really *was* Ancient; and which had been passed down from the otherwise only incredibly dimly remembered Age whence in Europe, Rome and Greece were hardly even yet “young”.
He stared at it, could not bear to actually dare meet Its gaze [flashing like a dragon’s – or with the pulsing, deconstructive rhythm of Trilochana, mayhap, to reference me some #NAS looks], and so instead peered off to the side. To cast and aim his rhetorical barbs in another direction entirely from what was actually in front of him; and to thence attempt to eradicate it from its immanence, its *permanency*, its continued, ongoing, *radiance* even in the midst of the then-“Modern” age, via means of his educational “reforms” and other political activities.
Lest also that somebody, you know, perhaps remember – and this is what comes through when he is castigating Ellenborough as some kind of “idolator”, or screeching about the spectre of British troops participating in Hindu religious rites and customs – that somebody who looked a lot more like him, actually remember that once upon a time, and not at all that long ago, really, the Europeans were “Indo-Europeans” [although that term did not properly exist yet], were “Pagans”, were “uncivilized” in Macaulay’s hypocritical projection of the term [worthy, perhaps, to be cursorily *depicted* – never, really, to be intrepidly *understood*].
No wonder he preferred the “Mahometans”. Who, after all, had themselves carried out almost at the very birth of their religion and their empire, conspicuous acts of expurgation and iconoclasm of the “Pagan” religious trappings which had existed there before. And, one of whose number had evidently sought to re-enact [Eliade’s “Eternal Recurrence” is a curious, but apt concept to reference here, I suspect] just such an occurrence as another empire-builder in India, some eight hundred and eighteen years before.
But again, I digress – and due to the already significant length of this piece, for that I must somewhat apologize.
My reasoning for choosing to use the Gates of Somnath incident as the core illustrative of this year’s Independence Day tributary, is because what has happened here – what we see fundamentally betrayed in the words of Macaulay, and which runs in pointed direct counter to what he was actually attempting to say – is hugely relevant to both my (geo-)political perspective upon India (and writing-efforts in the furtherance of the broader uptake of same), and also to a great swathe of our work here at Arya Akasha.
Frequently, when we are speaking positively about India or about Hinduism, to persons in Western, often Anglosphere audiences, we get reactions that are not necessarily positive. Some of the time, as with Macaulay, this is down to out-and-out racism; and a cultivated antipathy towards the actual realities of either paradigm, either situation, either Truth. That is unfortunate. And what is more unfortunate again, is the way in which those voices can then push, propagate, and promulgate their own pernicious perspective further – ensnaring the unwary and the trusting in their calumny through malicious, malefic misinformation, lies, and slander.
At other times, it is down to ignorance [I hesitate to say ‘simple’ ignorance, for ignorance is often a seriously complicated condition – hence why it is also often so unutterably hard to ensweepingly dispel!]; whether because people have internalized this aforementioned inaccurate material, or whether they’ve just taken a straight-up-and-down surface-level “glance” at India and/or Hinduism, and concluded that it’s “strange” and irreducibly “foreign”.
In any of these typological cases, the situation of Macaulay attempting to propel, flat in the face of all modern scientific and other such evidence – or even the already-loudly-emergent academic consensus opinion of his own time, for that matter – that there could be no comparison, still much less ‘coterminity’ betwixt the much-loved forerunner mytho-cultural complexes of Europe, and the still-surviving branch of that self-same tree then-as-now-as-it-has-been-for-some-millennia bearing its fruit in India … well, it has some salient relevancy. Even if only to urgently state “Don’t Be Like That Guy”.
As applies the (geo-)politics of the matter, I shall not re-iterate everything I have said here, but rather encourage interested readers to consult my previous article, entitled “This Man Is Your Friend: He Fights For Freedom!” Given the ongoing efforts to demonize India as everything from a quasi-rogue nuclear weapons state, through to some kind of latter-day Nazi Germany that we’ve witnessed in the past few decades since Independence, and the way in which this only seemed to intensify over the past two years in response to India’s pursuing of a multipolar foreign policy and standing up to China, taking a moment upon Independence Day to step back and actually take in the realities of the situation seems a sound idea. Especially in light of the trove of shared values, and shared opportunity to continue to make positive contribution on the world stage, which reveals itself once we pierce through the post-Macaulayite miasma in these regards.
You can also just imagine the comparable conversations within the mytho-religious field. It ranges, in terms of the sentiment being examined here, from the simple and benign “I couldn’t really see anything familiar to us in an eight-armed, possibly blue representation of a deity” [itself a bit of an irony, as it’s nevertheless an anthropomorphic depiction], on out to pseudo-Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist [often without the “pseudo”] espousing of the “modern Europeans conquered India four thousand years ago and then got non-white and inferior, we should therefore disregard all that has been found there since” iteration of the “Invasion Theory” that is itself a most unsightly midden-mound leftover from the attempted self-justification metanarrative for the excesses of the British Empire.
A large part of our work, therefore, is composed of attempting to either directly and head-on counter the *intentional* “Macaulayisms” of these spheres. Showing things as they actually are, and as they can be; rather than as some would perhaps prefer exponentially them to be *not*. And, at the same time, working to educate, to inform, to elucidate, to include, and to enlighten, so as to counter the *less* intentional, or at least the less intentionally malefic viewpoints out there in these matters, and other related fields besides.
The reasoning for this is, as ever, at least threefold.
On one level, it is because it is the just thing to do. To endeavour to right in some small way, a great many historical and contemporary wrongs, through the arrow of truth; which can often be something of an almost unqualified good.
On another level, it is rather more ‘personal’. In my own particular case, I am immensely indebted to both the Indian and Hindu communities around me and which have taken me in, as well as to India and the religion itself. I also founded Arya Akasha precisely because I was Told to, by the subject of last year’s Independence Day piece, and with exactly this sort of Mission in mind.
But the third, it relates to the *other* observance which we mark upon this day. Raksha Bandhan. The festival of fraternal sodality; in which bonds – bandhs – of brotherhood, of guardianship and protectiveness, are given. The traditional employment of the rite, involves female devotees tying the bands in question about the arm of a brother [potentially also not a literal one, signifying the solemnization of these non-natalistic bond], with all of that obvious and previously entailed symbolic significance made manifest in the act and the talismanic binding itself.
But I am here employing it rather more broadly.
For in these fraught times, there is something additionally precious to be found in being aware of what unites us, especially against common problems, common foes.
The illumination of these bonds, therefore, that have always existed and lain dormant, or which yet may needs forging anew, that act of *illumination* is the re-tying of the bandh.
As pertains the mytho-religious matters in particular, I have felt there to be something beautiful in the recent outcomes of our efforts. It’s gone well beyond “I can respect that this is a decent religious tradition”, through to a situation around us of proper lineage’d Brahmins shouting praises of Woden, Nordic persons speaking positively of Hanuman(-Thor) and citing shastras, and Europeans visiting their local Hindu Mandirs to see living Indo-European religion in motion.
And as pertains the political, I have endeavoured to do my bit to successfully get people looking *beyond* the spin-lines and the decades-old recycled propaganda,to evaluate Indian foreign policy and domestic occurrence upon their *own* merits. Going above simple re-examination and into “what can we learn from this”.
This does not mean *erasing* distinctiveness or the integrality of tradition in favour of some kind of McWorld [or, its predecessor, “Macaulayist”] homogenization. Indeed, the far better mottoes run “Unity in Diversity, and Diversity in Strength”, “Diversity in Unity , and Unity in Strength”.
A comradeship, and a shared sense of purpose, that is the exact antithesis of the “Spartan-Helot” relationship promulgated by the man impaled through the heart of this piece.
A similar spirit, in some ways, to that which underpinned the Purna Swaraj Struggle itself. And which is very much in keeping with the dual goals of Multipolarity in the geopolitical sense, and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in the Puranic.
A “mythology”, you might say, is so resonant that it necessarily enflames-empowers every mind which receives it as truth.
3 thoughts on “ON THE GATES OF SOMNATH TEMPLE – AN ESSAY OF RAKSHA(PALA) FOR BOTH SWARAJ AND BANDHAN”
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Great article, usually I can hardly read such a long piece without getting bored and moving on to something else and continuing it later, but this just kept me engaged till the end, I really love your writing style. And it was really informative as well, will definitely read more from you
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I thank you for the kind words. I keep meaning to do some ‘Arka’ posting that basically distills things into shorter format to make the work more accessible, but my enthusiasm can often carry me away and all over the place.
This one really came together; i forget whether it was done in a single sitting to try and make the deadline for having it up on the Day itself.
I try doing a devotional tribute piece for several such occasions – (Indian) Independence Day, MahaShivRatri, and a few more ; so those may be of interest as well.
In any case – thank you once more for the kind words and for reading (esp all the way to the end in a single go – many find that rather difficult)