The sacred Indian games

One evening, many years ago, my father asked if I would accompany him to a town in northern Kerala called Thirunavaya. The place was known, particularly among the Hindus of Malabar and Kodagu, for a small Vishnu temple. More importantly, it was famous as the place where one went to make offerings on behalf of one’s ancestors, to ask of the cosmological order that release ( moksha ) be granted to them. In parts, this sanctity to Thirunavaya in the Hindu, and particularly the Vaishnavite, cosmos is bestowed by the river Bharathapuzha which flows by the temple, between the Vishnu temple on one bank and the Mahadeva and Brahma temples on the other. Alongside that slender but potentially perilous watery channel, like generations before, I sat on the gravelly steps leading down into the river. Like generations before me, wearing a ring made out of darbha grass and with balls of sesame and cooked rice laid in front, I too performed the pitru-tharpanam rituals. These were rituals in the name of those who had ceased to be. I invoked their spectral presence, reminisced about their life and histories, and asked the gods that their beings find release. Sitting there, as an observer and a participant, while the drone of the young priest’s voice rose and fell, I watched the river flow. The waters carried along with it refuse, debris, and residue to be poured out into the Arabian Sea near Ponnani. The river had survived sand mining mafias, invasive foreign species, chemicals — small and surreptitious abuses that wreck its ecosystem. All the while amidst the profane, natural and secular, the river made its way, unaware of the cosmological significance thrust upon it by humans. Sacred but polluted That Indian rivers have become sites where the sacred and the polluted coexist is not new. The Ganga is perhaps the pre-eminent example of this. In the summer of 1993 and 1994, during the course of her field work, the American anthropologist Kelly Alley, who now teaches at Auburn University in Alabama, asked the seemingly simple question of those who lived in Varanasi: “How is it that a sacred river can be polluted?” While she went about her investigation with compassion and rigour, the scepticism in her question was twofold: How can devotees let the river become polluted, and does the pollution itself not render the river less sacred? Variations on this theme had preoccupied the British colonisers as well, although their focus was inordinately on the macabre. (“The Hindoo casts the dead naked into the sacred stream,” wrote the authors of The Library of Entertaining Knowledge in the 1830s). When faced with the question of why a phenomenon or practice is held sacred, at the very end of that question often lie claims of civilisational epiphanies. This, in itself, is not unique to India. The scholar of myth and religions, Mircea Eliade (a student of Surendranath Dasgupta), wrote that sacrality bestowed on phenomena is, at its heart, an act of uncovering. Sacredness is the manifestation to all of what was a revelation to only a few. It is an act of what he calls ‘hierophany’ (hiero: sacred; phany: to make visible). The great Martin Heidegger called this unconcealment of Being as ‘aleitheia’, as the truth of experience itself. Inevitably, like mushrooms after rains, stories follow that make the strangeness of hierophany palatable. In fact, according to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, it is only by deeming some objects as sacred that societies can find reasons and means to cohere. But our lived lives sidestep such theorisations. Our rivers continue to be receptacles of our detritus and yet they remain as objects of veneration. Earlier last week, we saw photos of women, standing in the Yamuna and surrounded by chemical froth, performing the Chhath Puja. Unlike Islam or Christianity, which are abstemious in their relation to nature, the practice of Hinduism is intimately and extravagantly connected to the forests, plants, caves and rivers of India. These geographic features are not just instances of nature; rather, they become the locus of religion, the site where human consciousness acquires its Hindu identity via beliefs.

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