Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s exchange with a reader over what makes a Hindu, Hindu; and Hinduism, Hinduism
Let me tell you at the face of it: I do not believe in an external power named God. This is not due to reading the Dravidian Movement literature. It’s entirely through my own confusion and the resulting introspections. The feeling that there is no external power named God gained strength after reading the thoughts of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Ramana. The reason I am saying this is to show that I am not merely a vacuous atheist. Though I do not understand Bharathi’s concept of ‘All that I see is Self’, Einstein’s ‘The World is a Cycle’, Ramakrishna’s ‘Nirchalanam’ I am incapable of refuting their contents. I am incapable of accepting them either maybe because I do not understand them or haven’t experienced them. All I can do now is value them.
I have a desire to read the Vedas and the Upanishads. But not now.
I think this letter is the first step in my effort towards that. Though my question is not direct, I know that the answer will be a journey towards that. I will come to the question. Why am I a Hindu? Is it my mother religion or is it an alien religion? Please do not repeat like all the others that this is the power of Hinduism (I feel this is absurd. If I create a chapter on Karuppaswamy in the Bible, will I become a Christian? These sort of questions arise within me).
I do not agree with the reason that it is impossible to pinpoint what defines a Hindu or that under the Constitution, those who are not Buddhists, Christians or Muslims are Hindus.
What’s common between me and my fellow Hindus? Not religion, not even cuisine. Not habits (not even in worship). Not even common Gods. Isn’t that true? In my grandfather’s generation, I have never seen any other form of worship than the worship of our communal deity (nor have I heard them speak of it). It’s only in my generation that for the people of my village it has occurred that someone living in Thirupathi or Sabarimalai could be a God. Even the worship of Murugan at Thiruchendur was not very prominent till a generation ago.
Till now, my village had worshipped only deities such as Karuppaswamy, Sudalaimadan, Kanniamman. My people (including me) knew of the Ramayanam as merely an epic (that too through Kambar, or pattimandrams). There is no Siva temple or a Rama temple in the vicinity of our village or an easily accessible distance (there was none in the past too). As far as I know, there is none in my ancestors who have read the Gita or the Vedas or have even thought of doing so.
I believe you would have understood my question now. With all these, why am I still a Hindu? Or is the Hindu religion something that was thrust on me like the other religions?
From where did this religion come towards me? Is the distance the only differentiating factor between Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism? If it came in the recent past, did my ancestors have no religion before that? Did they have no form of worship? At the beginning of human history, there would have been no religion. I believe that all religions arose after that.
My question is – did my village not have any form of worship as its own? Or will this become a reality soon? The most significant change I notice in my generation is the food that is presented in temples. The educated (so-called) classes are keen to show themselves as abhorring the custom of eating meat in temples. For them, only the larger temples appear to be beautiful, potent and possessing divinity. My argument that we present to our deity what our deity likes fails to impress there. (I support vegetarianism solely on the basis of health. But this is different. They eat meat at home. But at the temple, they will do so with a guilty heart or will refuse.)
Similarly, I do not remember my grandfather or my grandmother performing offerings for the dead. What I learnt from that is that after the tenth day of rites, that’s it. Now, this habit is also on the rise.
My question is not whether these are for good or for bad. My question is whether the Gita and Vedas are to me what the Bible and Koran is? Or whether there is a connection between me and them.
Am not sure if I have put my question properly. But I have hopes that you would have understood me.
This confusion exists among a large section of educated youth in Tamilnadu who come from a humble background. This has been fanned by Dravidian organizations and the Left over the past several years. Powers with financial and organisational mightiness which operate with the objectives of proselytisation stand behind them. They seek to convert this confusion into a firm concept.
To give an example, it’s only in the 1990s that intellectuals of the Dravidian movement and the Leftists who espoused rationality started emphasizing that the worship of local deities in Tamilnadu is not connected to Hinduism and that it is even against Hinduism. Before that, they used to entirely brand it as superstition.
The reason for this happening is the ten-day conference named ‘Gods of the Common Folk’ (‘Sanangalin Saamigal’) conducted at the behest of Father Jeyapathy of the Department of Folklore at the St. Xavier’s college in Palayamkottai. At the conference, a segregation was easily fed to our intellectuals that all the local deities were subjugated and that Hinduism is a religion of subjugating gods. Around 50 lakhs was spent toward this.
Look at what our Leftist intellectual S. Tamilselvan had to say about it: ‘In those days when the Department of Folklore at the St. Xavier College in Palayamkottai functioned actively, a ten-day conference ‘Sanangalin Saamigal’ was conducted. Those ten days were a turning point in my life. It gave a new perspective about gods and deities.
Observe here. See who has to come and present these intellectuals with the history of their own society and their own deities.
These intellectuals failed to ask just one question to the organisers of this conference. Does religion of the organisers permit the worship of local deities? Did it allow those who converted to continue their worship of their communal deity? What happened to the communal deities of those who got converted before this? Which is truly the subjugating religion that suppresses smaller deities? Only one student stood up and asked this, and he was removed from the room.
This question that you ask has been planted inside you without your knowledge and has been growing in strength with continued propaganda. I am pointing out that those behind such efforts are proselytising forces. An educated person like you may have doubts and misgivings that your illiterate father might not have had. He would never have doubted whether he was a Hindu or not. I had to tell this since I could not have answered your question without explaining this background.
The basis for your question lies in your definition of religion. You consider that a religion consists of firm principles of divinity, a definite organisational structure and well-defined practices and rituals. Most of the religions that we see today are like this. But this is not applicable to all religions. Only if we understand religion from a broader and less rigid definition will we be able to understand not only Indian history but also Asian and African histories.
There are two kinds of religions that have a firm center with surrounding structures. The first kind are religions based on race like the Jews. The faith of the Jews is Judaism. Outsiders cannot convert to it. Several African minor religions are like this. These religions have clear boundaries. The boundary of race-based religions is the racial identity. For them, those outside this boundary are aliens. Race based religions do not proselytize.
The second kind are the religions of Prophets. The Prophet who founded the religion would have clearly defined the religious center and its boundaries. In the Abrahamic religions, the Prophet would have said that ‘I am the true Prophet, all else are false’, or it would be written that he said so. Christianity, Islam, Manichaean, Bahai, Ahamedia – these religions can be listed in this category. These kinds of religions keep appearing even today.
These religions would demand complete faith from its followers on its founder prophet and its book. All those who do not accept this would have been defined as aliens or others. It will insist that these others have to entirely give up their own beliefs and customs and join them. These religions will do all that is necessary to this end. This duty would have been preached to all of its faithful. It’s on this basis that they grow.
Other than these two kinds of religions, there are two other. One – religions based on philosophy. Examples, Buddhism and Jainism. They were founded by prophet too. But they do not preach faith, they advocate their philosophy. Even the God that they preach is a philosophical construct. Their description of the universe is not based on faith, but on philosophy. They do not say that this philosophy had to be entirely believed and accepted. Instead, they call for a debate with that philosophy. Even Confucianism and Taoism belong to this category.
There are basic differences between how the two religions spread – the religions of the Prophets and the religions based on philosophy. The religions of the prophets ask the others to come to them casting off their older beliefs and customs in its entirety. They command that what they say be accepted with complete faith. If you become a Christian or a Muslim, you cannot retain any aspect of your old religion, communal deity or customs. You cannot doubt Christian or Muslim beliefs even a little.
But religions based on philosophy do not say so. They only teach that the philosophy be imbibed in your thoughts and your lifestyle. By only accepting the five customs of a Jain, and the basic principle of the Universal cycle, one can become a Jain. Standing within that boundary, one can worship his own community’s deity and practise his customs. In other words, they do not propagate their religion, but their philosophy.
If we consider Buddhism, this is why Sri Lankan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are different in customs and beliefs. A follower of Taoism can also be a Buddhist. The Japanese are able to use Shintoism for material life and Buddhism for spirituality. But it’s the Buddhist philosophy that remains as the essence. What Buddhism does is not proselytisation, but the transmission of philosophy.
Another category of religions can be called aggregate religions in general. Hinduism is the best example of this. Shintoism is another, somewhat smaller, example of the same. They do not have a central vision of divinity or a central philosophy. These emerge at a particular juncture in history and continue to grow.
We usually compare these religions to Abrahamic religions, religions of the Prophets. Hence, we start asking what is the central vision? what is its holy book? and who are the ‘others’? We ourselves decide that these are the central points and boundaries of this religion. Soon we are confused who else is within this boundary along with us. The same confusion exists in your question.
What is the difference between aggregate religions and the other religions mentioned before— religions based on race, religions of the Prophets, and philosophy-based religions? It is that the other three originate at a point and start expanding outwards. Religions based on race have a self-identity based on race as their core. Prophet’s religions have the vision and viewpoint of their prophets as their core. Religions based on philosophy have a philosophical system as the basis.
They make this core interact with several other beliefs and thoughts. Prophetic religions defeat other beliefs and thoughts and establish themselves. Religions based on philosophy penetrate other beliefs and thoughts at the level of philosophy, modify their core, and carry them along. In other words, in both these categories, a core that already existed in the religion starts moving towards the fringes.
For example, when Jainism came to South India, it spread among the Nagars who worshipped Nagas. It made them accept the Jain philosophy. Nagar’s worship of the Naga became a part of Jainism. The five headed serpent over the head of Parsavnath is the god of the Nagars. The Nagaraja temple at Nagarkoil is their temple.
But aggregate religions do not have a pre-defined central principle or core. Since they are ancient, it is not easy to point out their source or where they originated. It can be said that aggregate religions are formed when the ancestral customs and beliefs of a set of people living in a landmass combine over a period of time.
Tribes living over a vast expanse of land develop individual forms of worship out of their lives. It cannot be called religion. When those people start relating with another group of people over a long period of time, there is a dialogue between their belief systems. They grow by giving and taking. A common ground is discovered between the two. In other words, by conjoining the cores, a new one is created. When it merges with a third form of worship, a new common point is discovered.
Like this, over hundreds of years, hundreds of forms of worship come together to form an aggregate religion. Most of these aggregate religions still continue to be in this process of aggregation. Hence, their central core continues to change and grow. This core moves towards whichever group of people within that population that has the largest intellectual influence or authority.
The structure that we call Hinduism today has been in this aggregate form since the beginning. Even the most ancient book of Hinduism, the Rig Veda is an example of this aggregate nature. It does not preach a particular faith, custom or a philosophy. In it, there are several forms of worship, beliefs and philosophies. We can see them in dialogue with each other and join with each other in the Rig Veda.
In the ending part of the Rig Veda, there is this approximate central core that arose out of this aggregation. It can be called ‘Brahmam’. That is to say, the essence of this universe or power is envisaged as unfathomable and realizing the universe as its expression. As soon as a core like this is created, dialogue begins between this and the other cores. This we can see in the period of the Upanishads.
This dialogue continues till today. A few Leftists explained that this structure called Hinduism pulls in smaller components towards itself. Several people keep saying the same thing. Any form of worship which they claim was sucked into Hinduism has not lost its self-identity. Even philosophies and beliefs which came in like this two thousand years ago continue to remain so. It’s the newcomers that have modified what the Leftists called as the core. Hence, it is not swallowing in. It’s dialogue and reconciliation alone.
If we see history, we can notice that the central course of Hinduism has changed entirely once in every two or three hundred years. If a new population arrives or a new thought comes in, it changes itself after reconciling with them. Almost like a river. Our Ganges is not a river, it is an aggregation of rivers. It’s course and shape are all determined by the rivers that merge into it. Every group within Hinduism may claim that they are the core, but the core is always all-containing.
Please examine this question from this background. ‘Am I a Hindu?’. Saivaites, Vaishnavites and Saktars could ask this question too, isn’t it? Saivite and Vaishnavite forms of worship are different, aren’t they> Then, who is a Hindu? One is ‘Hindu’ only if everyone stays together. If they stand alone, they are merely Saivite, Vaishnavite or Saktar.
You have pointed out in your question a duality that is present in Hinduism. It is the contradiction between theological religion and folk religion. It is a sociological method developed by the British to study the forms of worship here. But one cannot understand Hinduism using this. The great godheads here were folk deities till a few years ago. A folk deity of today will combine with an existing godhead and become one as well.
Shiva was a folk deity like your Karuppaswamy once. Today Sudalaimadaswamy is turning into the Graceful Lord Sivasudalaimadaswamy. This evolution is constantly happening. You can worship yesterday’s Karuppaswamy or tomorrow’s Shiva. You cannot add a chapter to the Bible about Karuppaswamy and make him a godhead. There is no place for him in the Bible and the Koran. It’s possible in the Gita. It is this nature which creates aggregate religions.
Now, the information which you share. They mostly reveal your ignorance about your own heritage. You mostly do not know anything about your village, deities and forms of worship. You would have grown up without interest in any of these like most other youth and would have come to the cities for work. After this, you have imagined a village from what you have read or learnt here and there and are asking this question.
What do you know of Karuppaswamy or Sudalaimadan? Have you attempted to learn something? I know local deities very well; the local deities and communal deities of Nellai and Kanyakumari districts in particular. I am in touch with folklore researcher A. K. Perumal and have been discussing with him for over a decade. Only a few communal deities belong to your village alone. Karuppaswamy, Madaswamy, Kanniyamman, Maduraiveeran and Muthupattan are present all over the southern region.
Written histories are available for more than three hundred years for all these deities. In oral folklore, there are stories about these deities from even before this period. The Sudalaimadaswamy folk song belongs to the 15th century. The Karuppaswamy villukathai (story narrated with a villu musical instrument) belongs to the 16th century. You can try reading them. Almost all of the southern folk deities belong to the Saivite tradition. Shiva would have been mentioned as the god of these deities. Or they would have become deities having after receiving a boon from Shiva. These stories are still being sung in the villu songs and kaniyan mudiyetru of these deities.
In our culture, gods continue to be created. There are three ways through which a folk deity can be created. One, symbolic deity. That is, a small deity worshiped to cure a disease or to increase the harvest. Worship of trees, rocks and rivers fall under this category. Secondly, worshiping the deceased. Making deities out of those who faced a violent death, killed in a war, or childbirth for the sake of honoring their memory. Thirdly, worshipping elders – deifying one’s ancestors. Temples rise in places where saints are laid to rest.
In the beginning, deities created in this manner stay within the groups that created them. When this community forms relationships with other communities, they mix with other gods and transform into larger godheads. All the godheads that you see today were created in this manner. Deities for a particular family alone continue to exist as their communal deities.
This process of relating would have started several generations ago. To tell the truth, a local deity starts relating to the Shaivite tradition as soon as it is created. For example, the temple of ‘Serman’ Arunachala Swamy. It is in Eral. Arunachala Nadar was born on October 2nd, 1880 at Melapudhukudi near Thiruchendur to Ramaswamy and Sivananaindha Ammai. He took over as the Chairman of Eral Panchayat on 5th September 1906. He undertook several good measures for the people. He passed away on Adi Amavasya of 1908. People established him as a deity and started worshiping him.
Slowly, the worship of ‘Serman’ Swamy started interacting with Saivism. ‘Serman Swamy’ turned into an incarnation of Siva. Today Arunachala Swamy temple is an important spot of Saivite worship. This is how Hindu religion takes birth and continues growing. Any form of worship here starts a dialogue with Hinduism and over a period of a time merges with it. Only by merging this like, Hinduism moves forward. Like all streams of water in a particular region somehow going and merging with a large river in that region.
Hence, your deities do not hang out of thin air without any relation whatsoever with the Hindu tradition like you think. And you are not silent in the dialogue with the common structure of Hindu religion. You are merely unaware of it. Even communal deities will merge into the Hindu common traditional worship when the community expands and spreads a bit more. All other deities will have a historical narrative which fits with the Hindu tradition. Enquire this when you go visit next time.
As far as our smaller deities go, only a few in the village will have knowledge about them. The others do not care. The reason is the cultural setback caused in the 19th century due to the great famines. Most of our families would have migrated during that time. The root of the community would be somewhere else. As a result, communal deities were given up and forgotten. Traditional forms of worship were lost. Traditional stories and wisdom were lost. Only simple rituals survived in the places where some ended up living. Our fathers and grandfathers would have existed in a cultural vacuum and slowly gained roots in the new towns and villages. They would have known nothing.
Why this doubt as to what your religion is? Which other religion does the word ‘Kaliraj’ belong to? I believe that you at least know that Kali is a Hindu god. You mentioned Thiruchendur temple. You can learn this easily. Please see if your community has any right to any ritual like mandagappadi in the Thiruchendur festival. If so, you are a member of a grand, temple based Hindu (Saivite) religious organization which has existed since the tenth century. If your father or grandfather did not perform the communal worship meant for their community, it is their personal issue alone.
I too have communal deities. Ittagaveli Neeli and Melaangodu Yatchi. It is them that my ancestors worshipped. At the same time, they were also a small part of a grand setup of the Thiruvattaru Adhikesavan temple. All communities would have this dual religious belief. Small deities would be their own unique deities. They would have been attached to temples for larger godheads.
The Vedas were considered merely as books for rituals. Hence only those who conducted rituals alone read them. The Gita and the Vedanta were not spoken of as meant for everyone. It was meant for those who crossed devotion and worship and searched for true knowledge. In all the communities, those who knew these were a miniscule number.
The puranas and epics belonged to all people of India in their respective forms. For every community, there were different forms of the same stories from the Puranas. That lower class people had no introduction to the puranas and that they had no relation to it is simply a fraud perpetrated by the Folklore Center Palayamkottai and the Madurai Divinity College.
Have you ever known that the puranas and the epics are the sole basis for all the folk arts of Tamil Nadu? There are around two hundred folk arts in the Nellai region like the Therukoothu, Tholpaavaikoothu, Pulluvan Paatu, Villupaatu etc. All of them still narrate stories form the puranas and the epics. Even today, over a hundred of them continue to be staged without facing extinction. All the local deity festivals for the past two centuries have been conducting them only. The people who act in them playing parts and those who watch them are all from the lower classes only.
When special dramas arrived, they staged dramas from the puranas. When silent movies came, they were movies on the puranas as well. Your village or your family is very surprising. If they really do not know a little bit about all these things, they certainly live in an interesting illusory world. Their special state should be separately studied. One cannot examine Hindu religion or Tamil society on that basis.
You say that you and the Hindu form of worship do not have any relationship. This is a statement made without any knowledge merely by believing in hearsay. There are four ways of approaching divinity in the Hindu religion. One, padayal (offerings) and sacrifice. Secondly, poojas and prayers. Third are the Vedic rituals.Fourth, dhyana (meditation) and yoga. Any folk deity would be within the first two forms of worship only.
Do your offer prayers to your Karuppaswamy? Or a joint prayer session? You would light a lamp or a torch. You would deck it with flowers, offer food and worship it, wouldn’t you? And you would share the food as sacred prasadam. What is this but Hindu worship? This what Hindus do in the Fiji Islands, South Africa and in Nepal. This is what is done to Thiruchendur Murugan as well. It is sacred ash (thiruneeru) that is smeared on Karuppaswamy and Sudalai. You would know this if you went to a Karuppaswamy temple.
There would be life sacrifice and food from meat in a Karuppaswamy temple. In a temple for a larger deity, vegetarian food would be offered. There would be a few differences in the materials and in the words used, that is all. This is because a few centuries ago, Thiruchendur Murugan became a god for a larger set of people. Hence, he moved towards a form of worship common to all the people. Life sacrifice existed till around a hundred years ago in several of the great Hindu temples for major godheads.
Any small deity would continue to exist somewhere in the Hindu common tradition. It will definitely not be completely outside of it; even the deities of the Dalits and tribal people. How far within it depends on how big the worshiping community is, how wealthy, how educated and how much social status it possesses. The deity of a community gains as much importance within a larger tradition (and merges with it) as the extent to which the community gains stature in society.
That’s why Hindu religion is not thrust down your throat. Who is there is to do so? Does someone come door to door for religious conversion? Do they distribute pamphlets or do they campaign with loudspeakers? There are no evangelists for Hinduism. Counter campaigns happen from all quarters with the utmost rigor.
It’s you who force yourself into the Hindu religion. This is the history of the past five or six thousand years. Every community jostles for social power. It searches for its own place in society. Once it reaches there, it establishes itself there. Soon their deities gain prominence. Convincing proof for this is the great prominence gained by Badrakaliamman temples of the Nadars and the importance being gained by Mariamman temples of the Vanniyars.
Watch the roadside when you go. You will notice brand new Ammans and Karuppaswamys standing up out of the concrete. A few people from the community that worships those deities would have earned money in Dubai. As they move up the social ladder and slowly gather authority, their deity will move towards the current core of Hindu religion. If it has to move towards the centre, it should have a dialogue with the centre. It should transform itself. It should seize the centre. That is what is continually happening.
This is what is happening in your village as well. When smaller deities turn into larger godheads, their appearance and rituals get transformed. When Karuppaswamy which seeks life sacrifice is worshipped as the All-Pervading ruler of the universe, it has to become a god which has compassion for all living beings. After that, it is not possible to offer life sacrifice to it anymore. It transforms into the Graceful Lord Karuppaswamy.
There is no question as to whether this is right or wrong. This has been the way culture has functioned in the Indian subcontinent for the past five thousand years. This is how Hinduism was formed. This society has grown and has progressed forward. Our intellectuals who scream that this is cultural colonialism shamelessly dance to the tunes of proselytizing forces that uproot and destroy entirely the worship of local deities.
Hence, if you ask if you are a Hindu, I would say that yes, you are a Hindu. Hindu religion is not an ear-marked region. It is an expanse in which several fronts continue to be in dialogue. You and your deities are already a part of this vast Hindu expanse. From what you have said, it appears that you continue to move towards the general way of life. You are one among the group of people who are gaining ground within the Hindu religion and are making themselves the new core.