Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Statesman Kolkata 15th June 2008

My letter published in the Statesman Kolkata today

First the oribinal article and then my rejoinder

Spotlight: State Power, Religion And Social OppressionThe book is a must for all sections of the reading public... A review by Suranjan DasClass and Religion in Ancient India By Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya Anthem South Asian Studies, Anthem Press We have known Professor Jayantanuja Bandopadhyaya as an expert in international relations and contemporary affairs. But this book has proved his scholarship and expertise in ancient Indian history as well. Based on such Sanskrit classics as the Vedas, Upanishads, Manusmriti, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arthasastra, Kamasutra, Gita and Puranas, he has ably demonstrated 'the dynamic relationship' between religion and ancient Indian society. Using the methodology already developed by Debprasad Chattopadhyay, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, Bandopadhyay shows how the ancient Indian state played a crucial role in upholding, propagating and enforcing a particular form of religion in the interests of the ruling class. In doing this he questions the notion of 'unparalleled religiosity and spirituality' of ancient Indians, developed by orthodox Hindu scholars, as well as the thesis of the spiritual foundations of Hindu nationalism, promoted by the classical protagonists of the Indian renaissance. The basic argument that runs through the book is the role of religion in sustaining an oppressive and highly stratified social structure in ancient India. Bandopadhyay contends that unlike in other ancient societies, as in Greece or Rome, in India it was primarily religion, rather than primitive accumulation and brute force, which played a crucial role in class formation. The first chapter of the book outlines the process of class formation in the Vedic age.Contradicting the popular notion of the Vedas being divine revelations, the author argues that the Vedas were composed by the priestly class of the Aryas and reflected the material and worldly aspirations of the contemporary ruling class. By the time the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda was composed a four-tier class structure in an embryonic form came into existence. ThePurusha Sukta of the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda essentially sought to sanctify this emerging class structure by imparting it a divine origin. The second chapter argues that the Advaita philosophy was an ideological instrument to preserve the exploitative class structure in the name of the eternal creator. The subordinate members of the society were taught to accept the divine social order and not to covet the wealth and power of the powerful. The third chapter views the composition of the Bhagavad Gita by 'successive writers' in the context of the challenge posed to the Vedic religion and social order by the foreign invaders, the rationalist philosophies of Lokayata, Sankhya, Nyaya and Vaishseshkia, and the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. Brahminical hegemony was now given a new form to preserve the Vedic social order. In the fourth chapter the author demonstrates how such Hindu mythological theories like yugas or time cycle, envisaging the return of the avatar to counteract any threat to Vedic religion, constituted 'a religious instrument of political control in the hands of the ruling class in ancient India'.The author entitles the fifth and final chapter of the book `State and Counter-Revolution' where he unfolds the decisive role of the ancient Indian state to organise the Brahminical counter-offensive against the entire range of anti-Vedic forces. To support this counter-revolution the state encouraged the composition of the dharmasastras and the Puranas, the Brahminisation of atheist philosophies and texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the large-scale revival of Vedic sacrifices. Individuals or social groups opposing the Vedic religion were also subjected to state persecution. The state thus systematically used its power to 'preserve and perpetuate the predatory class-caste structure of ancient Indian society'. Consequently, the society in ancient India became 'more oppressive and exploitative' than any of its contemporaries. The author shows how by the time the Upanishads was compiled the ancient Indian society had experienced class polarisation. But this exploitative Vedic religion and social order also evoked opposition, as Bandyopadhyay indicates, in the form of the intransigence of indigenous Anarya tribes, emergence of Buddhism, Jainism and various atheist philosophies and the rise of Shudra kingdoms. The capture of state power by the Sungas and then the Guptas represented a Brahminical counter-revolutionary process which saw a close class collaboration between the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and the state and coincided with the compilation of the Manusmriti and Dharmasastras, the expansion of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and composition of many Puranas. Besides, Bandyopadhyay demonstrates how the ruling classes utilised such texts as the Gita and Puranas to present the image of a common Brahminical religion in the face of the prevalence of plurality of gods and goddesses in India's cultural tradition. The author draws a parallel with emperor Constantine's attempt to replace Greek and Sumerian gods and goddesses by Christianity to assert political control over an ethnically heterogeneous population. The ruling classes in ancient India were engaged in their pursuit of artha and kama with the support of the Brahminical texts. Religion, as the author contends, was used for "purely demonstrative and exploitative purposes".Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya's reflections on ancient Indian society have great contemporary relevance. His findings throw light on the historical roots of a fundamental contradiction in our country's political economy: a functional democracy, a pluralistic society and economic attainments coexisting with the traditional rigid class-caste structure of Vedic origin and a dominance of 'metaphysical and mythological' Hindu belief system. The author correctly notes that emancipation of the millions of the dalits and subordinated groups in our society, who comprise the overwhelming section of the Indian population, depends on the destruction of this repressive social structure.In fact, the survival of the Brahminised hierarchical and exploitative social structure has provided the fundamentalist political forces in contemporary India an adequate space for working The relationship between state, religion and social structure in India that is underlined in the book, has also an international relevance. Violent fundamentalist assertions in West Asia, the rising force of rightist politics in the USA, and the use of religious justification for interventionism in international politics - all these are indications of this relationship in the global sphere. We hope that the author will enrich our understanding of this international process in a separate volume.The author admits that dissection of the ancient linkage between religion and class-caste convergence in India had been his academic zeal. The present book is a testimony to the fulfilment of the author's passion. Based on a sound analytical framework and an interpretative reading of ancient Indian texts, the book makes a fundamental contribution to a better understanding of the evolution of Indian society in terms of continuity and change. The Select Bibliography is extremely rich and lends an additional value to the book for scholars interested in pursuing further the line of thinking delineated by Bandyopadhyaya. The book is a must for all sections of the reading public. (The reviewer is the Vice-Chancellor, University of Calcutta)

The Editor
The Statesman


The leitmotif of Prof. Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya’s book, as is evident from the review by Suranjan Das, ‘STATE POWER, RELIGION AND SOCIAL OPPRESSION’ in the 8TH DAY in yesterday’s Statesman is the same as the theme of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s pioneering work ‘Who were the Sudras?’. The great Tamil thinker and iconoclast Periyar held similar views. He was a true revolutionary can be understood by the fact that he questioned the patriarchal concept of a ‘woman’s virginity’ labeling it to be a mischievous attempt of the upper castes to enslave women.

Emperor Constantine, after embracing Christianity, persecuted the non-believers on the advice of the Church and the whole Empire became monotheistic. According to the historian, Edward Gibbon, Christianity was the chief cause of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Thanking you


Thursday, June 05, 2008

My Mistress’s Sparrow is dead

An ode to the Immortal Catullus

He was the most vitriolic and the most virulent of the Latin poets of antiquity. But his poems are still read with profound pleasure. There was nothing of the softness or effeminacy in his writings. He has used the ‘f’ word quite frequently with near lethal effect. Come to think of it, the ‘f’ word and its sister germane ‘buggery’ is integral to his poems. The hallowed institutes of Classics learning, Oxford and Cambridge, still teach his poems; the entire lot in Latin. An English translation of his work somehow robs the reader of its sense of humour and subtle irony that every page is pregnant with.

Very little is known about Catullus’s life. He died young, pretty young, aged only thirty years. He was born in 84 BCE and died in 54 BCE during the heyday of the Roman Republic. A contemporary of Julius Caesar, many of his poems heaped scorn and ridicule on the most famous Roman of the day. He had a passionate love affair with a married woman, Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia and his poems on Lesbia are a study on the fickleness of emotion. Lesbia one may recall is derivative of the word Lesbos, an island of Greece, which during the Golden Age of Hellas was famed for a poetess Sappho. Very little of Sapphic poetry survives but she was reputed for her Epithalamia or wedding poems. Catullus had also written a couple of Epithalamia containing a modicum of ribaldry. He also loved a young boy Juventius and was not shy to speak about it.

It was his contention that a writer’s life ought to be chaste but his pen need not be. To understand his poems one must realize that in pre-Christian Rome, eroticism was in full vigour. Adultery, pederasty, phallus display and other orgies were routine, specially during the Festival of Saturnalia.

Let us start with the Lesbia poems. In ‘Tears for Lesbia’s Sparrow’, he writes about the pet sparrow which is Lesbia’s delight and she holds it fast to her breasts. When the sparrow is hungry he bites her fingers. He wishes to toy with the sparrow when he is lovelorn. In the next poem the sparrow is dead and Lesbia’s eyes are swollen with tears. Her pet will no longer play with her, nor dance on her laps, nor chirp to her ears. In another love poem he asks Lesbia for a thousand kisses and a hundred more and to confuse them so that no enemy can cast an evil eye. Shortly after, he mentions of the rupture of his relationship with Lesbia and exhorts himself to be firm and unwilling to chase what is fleeing from him. He wonders who will now pay homage to her beauty, who will love her and whose lips she will bite. Meanwhile Lesbia is in love with a pretty boy named Lesbius and the poet wishes to know if three men could be found to vouch for Lesbius’s parentage. In another poem Lesbia vilifies the poet to her husband who is pleased to hear it. The poet calls the husband a stupid mule as he fails to notice that Lesbia has a lingering emotion for the poet: anger. If she had remained silent that would have been the end of the story. In one of his last poems, Catullus makes a painful entreaty desiring Lesbia to come back to him and satiate his love for her.

His caustic poems, poems bursting with invectives, are a delight to read. He lampoons Asinius Marrucinus for stealing the poet’s table napkins. Not that the napkins are worth a lot but his friends had earlier gifted them to the poet and he had cherished their possessions. Later in another poem he warns his friend Aurelius, to whom he gives a boy, possibly Juventius, for keeping safe during his absence, not to indulge in immodest passion. Catullus has nothing to fear from the people on the street on their daily chores but from Aurelius’s penis, which is dangerous to both good and bad boys. He advises Aurelius to shake his penis with as much force as he wishes and if he debauches the young boy then an evil fate will be his. In the next poem he rebukes Aurelius and one Furius and tells them that he will fuck them and bugger them for their misdeeds.

Catullus poem ‘Siesta: to Ipsithilla’, has all the ingredients of a secret rendezvous of lovers. He asks Ipsithilla to stay alone in her house at siesta and keep the doors open and be ready for nine fucks in succession by Catullus as he had had a plentiful meal and his erect penis was making a hole in his tunic. In his ‘Suggestion to Vibenius’ he asks the father and son duo to migrate to a vile place as the father’s right hand is dirty with filthy deeds and the son’s arse is all consuming. His poem ‘the Writing Tablets’ is surely a masterpiece of satire. In this poem a loathsome adulteress has taken the poet’s manuscript and refuses to give them back. He exhorts his friends to accompany him and accost the strumpet on the street with foul words and call for the papers in question. If she still refuses to part with them then to shout from the rooftops that she is a whore and implore her to return the same. If to no avail, then they ought to change tactics to make her blush by calling her the most virtuous woman in Rome “honest and chaste one, give back my letters”.

To the poet Calvus he vents his spleen when Calvus had sent a complimentary copy of his poems to Catullus. Catullus’s sarcastic comment was ‘Great gods, an amazing, immortal book. That you sent to your Catullus, so he might immediately die, on the optimum day, in the Saturnalia’. Thallus was another individual who had invited the poet’s wrath by not returning the poet’s cloak. Catullus loudly calls him a sodomite, softer than a rabbit’s fur or goose grease or the tip of the ear or an old man’s flaccid penis mouldy with spider webs. In his confessional poem ‘Threesome: to Cato’, he tells of the amusing instance of catching a young pupil in flagrante delicto with the poet’s lover and immediately plunges his erect penis into the youth’s arse.

Catullus is in his elements in his Mammura poems. Mammura, also known as Mentula in some of the poems, was, according to the prevalent gossip, a wealthy man who was the lover of Julius Caesar. Catullus calls him a Cock, an allusion to penis, and sometimes calls him a sodomite and sometimes a catamite. That Julius Caesar was a pederast was well known and Catullus castigates him for wasting his spoils of war and the booties from Spain by lavishing expensive gifts on Mammura. According to Catullus they were beautifully matched, these perverse buggers. Caesar was initially incensed by these scurrilous writings and a discreet word was sent to Catullus to apologise to Caesar, which the poet eventually did. Caesar, being Caesar, forgave the poet and invited him to dinner at his palace and the two antagonists shared a wonderful evening.

Catullus lives in his poems, which have withstood the test of time. Nothing insipid and nothing dull came flowing from his stylus. He had enjoyed life to the full or whatever that can be enjoyed in three decades of existence. He had grieved the death of his brother in Troy and had visited his tomb to pay his respects to his soul. His poems on Lesbia characterize the periodic swing of his mood; the ecstasy of love initially, followed by the pangs of separation and later on his pining for his beloved. His invectives form a genre on their own and stand head and shoulders above anything else available. They are a landmark in poetry.