Mashrur Arefin's 2019 novel, August Abchhaya, is full of moments that evoke the blood-stained memory behind the language of conflict. One such moment arrives in the intense exchange between the narrator-protagonist and Sarafraz Nawaz, prominent local citizen and the head of the local Mosque and the Madrassah committees. The liberal, artistic protagonist knows that the conservative Sarafraz sahib disapproves not only of his uninhibited lifestyle, but more importantly, of the ideology that supports it. More than anything else, he despises the narrator's pantheistic belief of the manifestation of God in all reality, in the manner of Hindu and Buddhist tantric practitioners, not least because it draws in its fold the beauty of women and possibly helps to disguise his "immoral" desires.
"Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim"
In mid-Victorian England, a Jesuit priest named Gerald Manley Hopkins fought the pangs of his religious conscience for writing poetry of such Keatsian beauty about the sensuous beauty of the universe. How can an ordained priest take such delight in the senses? His answer was Pantheism. Who else but God can create such beauty? Hence, "Pied Beauty", the poem which thus opened ended with these lines;
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Pantheism – the perception of divine beauty in all reality – has historically bridged religions to a range of aesthetic and philosophical visions and lifestyle practices. It involves a broadening of horizons that helps to keep a sense-loving Jesuit priest such as Hopkins in the fold. But it also evokes hostility in the upholders of traditional faith, as evident in Sarafraz Sahib's suspicions.
Is the suspicion about the pluralization of divinity? Of worshipping many embodied gods as opposed to The Great Abstract One? When Rabindranath wrote the line: "Ami roopsagore doob diyechhi orup roton pabo bole" – "I have dived in the ocean of forms to find the formless treasure" – his pantheism became a credo for polytheism. One worships a range of images as the formless God is to hard to imagine.
Artistic narration needs both kinds. In a famous chapter of Mimesis entitled "Odysseus' Scar," Eric Auerbach contrasts Homeric and Biblical narration: the former is externalized, sensory, digressive, while the latter is more obscure and abstract, directed unrelentingly toward a single goal. Unlike the Homeric epics, which take delight in sensory effect and lie and fabricate when necessary, the biblical stories lay claim to the singularity of an absolute truth.
Hinduism shares with Hellenism the sensory appeal of polytheism. It is the beauty of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, sitting with her book and her musical veena; the appeal of the blue Krishna, playing his flute and wielding his fatal weapon, the chakra; the terrifying beauty of the demon-slaying goddess Durga; even the violent rhythm of Shiva's dance of destruction that earns him the name "Nataraj," the lord of dancers. But the beauty of Brahminical Hinduism is also limited to its caste-beneficiaries. As the caste-oppressed intellectual Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd says in his memoir, as a boy in his village, he would wake up in the middle of the night to the nightmare of Saraswati as a ghost, ready to kill him as he nurtured dreams of education, unpardonable hubris for a lower-caste child.
The icons of polytheism can haunt as well as nourish, depending who you are.
But to identify religious faith with a conservative, even reactionary position might be a knee-jerk reaction for people on the secular left. This has repeatedly turned out to be a false instinct. There have been many progressive religious thinkers, even among those canonized as prophets. But writing in 2002, Ruth Vanita made an observation of curious but pointed significance — unlike the continuing presence of the Islamic or the Christian left, which collaborate with the secular left in different parts of the world, there is no Hindu leftwing in India, none left any more – the pun is unavoidable. Marxist thinkers and writers flock to Durga Puja celebrations on the streets and pray to shrines at home, but very few have tried to integrate leftist and religious thinking in the context of Hinduism. Thinkers like Ashish Nandy and Ramchandra Gandhi, who attempt to do so, are a tiny minority.
Why this lacuna? The reasons, Vanita argued, has much to do with the shame heaped on polytheistic Hinduism in the 19th century. This was essentially the work of British colonialism, which successfully labeled idol-worship as savage and backward. The British were confounded by Hinduism, which they found harder to understand than Islam — which was, like Christianity, monotheistic and based on a single text. Hinduism, with its textual and iconographic plurality, was much more like ancient Greek and Roman religions that Christianity had wiped out centuries earlier. Though Hinduism, which proved resilient through many centuries of attack on its temples and idols, was not to be wiped out easily, the modern method of attack was quite insidious: it took the form of shaming English-educated Indians regarding Hindu rituals, especially those relating to idol-worship. "The best evidence of this shaming," writes Vanita, "is the way new Hindu organizations, such as the Arya Samaj, who rightly embraced such causes as women's education and the eradication of untouchability, felt compelled to also renounce polytheism and idol-worship." Liberal and educated Indians continued to internalize the shame of polytheism; not long after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, whom Vanita calls the last left-wing Hindu, the Hindu left got lost between the stridency of the Hindu right and the shame felt by the secular left regarding Hindu polytheism.
The literary intelligentsia, especially as it has been forged through colonial modernity and the resistance to imperialism, has gradually moved further and further away from religious iconography, donning a secular mantle. The disenchantment with faith that in Europe energized the Enlightenment and forged the secular form of the novel found its way to India too, through anticolonial movements no less than through movements of colonial modernity. From the Bengal Renaissance to the Progressive Writers' Movement in Urdu, Hindi, and other north Indian languages, this disenchantment has gained pace, nowhere more so than in the English language literatures of India, produced almost exclusively by the urban, English-educated bourgeoisie.
But it would be madness to deny the tremendous aesthetic and emotive power of religion. Literature, and all art, have lived ancient lives enabling – and being enabled by – the beauty, emotion, mystery and terror of religion till secular modernity pried them apart. Subsequently, this has become a reality all across the subcontinent, across all religions. We are left wondering: can Arefin's narrator and Sarafraz Sahib even find a common language in which to voice their differences?
Saikat Majumdar's novels include The Scent of God (2019) and The Firebird (2015).