‘Give us today our daily bread’ is already a highly developed prayer and cannot have been prayed by humanity in the stone age as nothing like bread was known to us then writes Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi in his famous book Myth and Reality.
Indeed, the prayer could not be directed to God the father in that era, when Mother Goddess was predominant. All our beliefs today have evolved and gained in complexity. Scientist Newton recognised that he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Our past has a constitutive relationship with the present. Most of us in India accept this truth more radically through our belief in the law of karma.
Kosambi, being a great intellectual giant, drove home this plain truth effectively through his book. He demonstrated that some of our myths and rituals have primitive roots, opening a new widow to our understanding of our history and culture. He showed how these practices remain fossilised in the caste and religious practices of today.
We can identify two dynamic processes in the religio-political past our country. Some ancient cults amalgamated with each other and consolidated their socio-political and even economic dominance while the quest for the same lead other cults to refuse merger with others.
Kosambe maintained that it is not the cults that clash with each other, but rather the people who follow them, who sometimes even take to violent paths. In this context, he presented the conflict between the followers of Acharya Shankara and Acharya Ramanuja as model and asserted that nothing in the noble theology of the two could inspire such violence and yet it occurred.
Kosambe stated that the cult of Shiva grew out of primitive aniconic cult-stones and steadily sublimated into the god that he is today. He pointed out that at one stage his lower form came into more or less violent conflicts with various mother Goddesses, who were senior deities of that era. We can trace a naked three-headed God of Indus civilization that appears to have graduated into modern Shiva. He further stated that the Indus man-tiger metamorphises into man-lion Narasimha, the incarnation of Vishnu. Besides this, he taught that the marriage between Shiva and Parvati is a latter event, when human marriage had become a high ceremony. This means that the God’s of today have evolved from dynamic stratum that can take us to the origin of our civilization. Society often forgets the ideologies of the past that are associated with its gods but carry further older imagery within new spectrums of meanings. The gods of our days have complex and dynamic genealogies and have evolved with our evolving society. This means locals gods got absorbed into the senior and dominant deities as power equations in our societies also shifted.
The views of Kosambe resonate with ideas articulated in Max Weber’s celebrated book Sociology of Religion. It only shows that gods are not static but evolve and metamorphise along with socio-political changes that take place in our society.
We might be able to trace the complex genealogy of our god’s in the context of Goa. The senior deities that are reining today in Goa certainly tell us a complex tale of the in migration and demographic settlements of our ancestors. Almost all of our senior deities of today have their substratum in the original settlers of Goa. These original Goans belong to a tribal society who have their heirs among us even today.
The first to come into Goa were the mhars, followed by the kols and then mundas. They came along with their gods. Eventually others who came in, especially the Aryans, absorbed their gods and more complex deities evolved. Thus, the amalgamation of the santer with Durga became Santa Durga. The Malkajan became Mallikarjun. This tendency of hybridising of our local deities with the main stream Brahmanical deities is said to have increased after our liberation. This dynamic process has steadily reinterpreted our local deities and bestowed on them new genealogies.
The profound lessons from Kosambe’s work can indeed give us a great insight into the socio-dynamics of our religions. Our societies are not frozen in time but are in on a dynamic march of evolutions. Even our gods have not remained fossilised but have evolved with our evolving society. There is nothing wrong in rejecting the static notion of god. The divine is certainly divining. God cannot be caged into our categories. It seems that the neti neti or the negative approach is the only way we can understand the nature of god with our own power.
Besides, there is another profound lesson in the work of Kosambe. It tells us that our past is never static. It remains dynamic, plural and inter-related. There is no singular narrative of the past. The narrative that we singularise is the narrative of the victors. Hence, both Goa and India have plural pasts, which can be narrated and even exploited to suit one’s interest. Thus, our openness to the dynamic metabolism of our society certainly interrogates a nationalism that freezes our past into a golden era and fools us that we can recreate it in our days.
We can only hybridise our past but never really recreate it. Hence, the lessons from the work of Kosambe can liberate us from the false dream sold to us in the name of nationalism. Our religio-political history has brought into dominance gods that belonged to communities that enjoyed hegemony. Kosambe demonstrated how these dominant communities co-opted gods of the subalterns and subjugated them. Hence, we need to ask ourselves how the religio-centric nationalism is not exploitative.
Its exclusionary and discriminatory ideology does not suit a nation whose soul is plural. That is why it is imperative for us to understand the relevance of the work of. Kosambe so that we can understand the evolutionary dynamism of our society and respond adequately to the divisive politics that seem to have been unleashed by an emboldened Hindu right wing after its stupendous political gains in the national elections. It is urgent and important that we understand how the social space in our society is polarised and communalised with a strategy to further consolidate their political gains so that we are not sucked into their divisive sinister designs.