Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Research Project: Hinduism in Fiction

I was recently invited to write an essay on "Hinduism in Fiction" for a big Hinduism anthology that is being put together by comparative religion scholars.

It's a difficult topic because it's so broad, and one has to divide the focus between Hinduism in the abstract (as a set of religious practices and beliefs), and Hinduism as an evolving social identity in the context of historical phenomena: British colonialism, the nationalist movement, various reform and revival projects (Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj), Partition, and the rise of contemporary Hindu nationalism post-independence. Most representations of "Hinduism in fiction" tend to be in novels and short stories that are most concerned to engage those historical events, especially the reform movements, the partition, and contemporary communalism. Fewer Indian novelists have aimed to consider Hinduism in theological terms (though some have). That's pretty much as it should be -- prose fiction only came of age in India after British colonialism and Christian missionaries had made their presence felt -- but it might not be the whole story.

Here are some of the authors it seems appropriate to talk about in the essay:

19th Century and early 20th century:

  • Bankim Chandra Chatterji (Chattopadhyay)
  • British colonial writers like Kipling and Forster (these writers had a major impact on how Hinduism was perceived by both the broader world and often by Indians themselves; many Indian writers wrote in response to Forster, for instance).
  • Rabindranath Tagore (Gora stands out as a book where competing
    definitions of Hinduism are discussed in the context of the rising nationalist movement in the Swadeshi era)
  • Mulk Raj Anand
  • U.R. Anantha Murthy (Samskara)
  • Premchand (Godaan, short stories like "Sujan the Devout")

Contemporary and Postmodern:

  • Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children
  • Ashok Banker's Prince of Ayodhya fantasy novels
  • William Buck's re-imagining of the Ramayana
  • Githa Hariharan, In Times of Siege
  • Manju Kapur, A Married Woman
  • Diasporic representations of Hinduism: especially V.S. Naipaul.

I'm curious to know whether people would suggest other authors who might be good, or have favorite passages or books that have interesting things to say about Hinduism, either as a social identity or as theology/philosophy. (If I use your suggestion you'll get an acknowledgment in the essay and a copy of it when it's published.)


Anonymous guru said...


Aren't you planning to use Raja Rao -- Serpent and rope, Cat and Shakespeare, or even meaning of India?


3:04 PM  
Blogger Aswin said...

What about R. K. Narayan? In "Swami and Friends," Narayan uses Swami's encounters with his religious studies (or was it called 'moral education', i'm not sure) teacher to alert us to Hinduism's place in the colonial public sphere.

Also, Swami's father, who ends up writing a letter to the school principal complaining about the teacher who derided Hinduism, is a perfect example of what Milton Singer calls "compartmentalized identity." I think Narayan does a terrific job of questioning, through Swami, the difficulties of maintaining a balance between a Hindu self (performed at home), and a colonial self (performed in the public sphere).

I'm sure there are many other examples to be found in Narayan's work.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

One book you should lay your hands on is Sunil Gangopadhyay's "Those Days." A magnificent novel whose backdrop is turn of the century (19th) Bengal. A great upheaval of changes was afoot on the religious, cultural and social fronts.
The main story line of the novel is fictional. A la E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, the backdrop is historical. There is much in the book which will point to what you are looking for. The debate between Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and the Hindu conservatives regarding widow re-marriage and women's education. Poet Madhusudan Dutta's conflict with Hinduism and conversion to Christianity and subsequent search for solace from the very same Vidyasagar- a brilliant Bengali Brahmin and a celebrated atheist. The chronicle of the Brahmo Samaj movement and its eminent and aristocratic followers such as Raja Rammohan Roy (the founder), Keshab Sen, The Tagore family etc. You will find a whole lot of history of Hinduism and the various centrifugal forces operating on its psyche during the British colonial rule. There is not much pure theological musings though. I read the book in Bengali several years ago. I am happy to report that a very good English translation (Penguin) exists and it is available on Amazon.

P.S: Be sure to watch Goopi G and Bagha B. It is a gem. If you locate a clean, clear copy, please let me know. I own a horrible VHS copy and can't find it on DVD.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone. Ruchira, the Sunil Gangopadhyay book sounds really helpful. I was anyway planning to blog on another of his books at some point soon.

I had already been looking into the history of the widow remarriage debates -- in Vidyasagar, Chattopadhyay, Tagore, and so on. I'm about half way through this book by Rajul Sogani on the subject, and was hoping to blog on that too.

Aswin, Narayan is of course relevant, though I haven't read "Swami and Friends." But even in other books Hinduism is a big deal; I don't know why I didn't include him.

And Guru, yes, I know I should get into Raja Rao, but I always get vaguely sleepy and confused when I try to read "The Serpent and the Rope"! Maybe it's time to give another try.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Kamalakar said...

I agree with guru, Serpent and the Rope is good to look into for the issue concerned. You might find Shivram Karanth, a Kannada novelist also interesting. The two novels I have in mind are Choma's Drum and Mookajji's Dreams. (Dont know the titles in English translation). For counter consideration I suggest even Bamas Karukku.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

I second Aswin's point about Narayan - though would pick The Guide and The World of Nagaraj over Swami and Friends.

Also, what about G.V. Desani? All About H Hatterr would seem to me to be fairly relevant.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Narayan, surely (as some of the comments have mentioned).....with "Swamy & friends" as well as more direct books like "Gods, demons and others", or his short version of the "Mahabharata".

Perhaps some regional writers (who are now available in translation).......the nationalist/freedom fighter/Tamil writer "Kalki" Krishnamurthy comes to mind with his superb historical fiction novels. For example, in his "Sivagamiyn sapadam", while writing about the Pallavas and Chalukyas, he outlines religious systems, and of the subtle semi-political conflict between buddhisim, hinduism and Jainism......

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Souvik Majumdar said...

This might be helpful:

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Archana said...

I'm definitely thinking of the more contemporary, mainstream ones off the top of my head...

A Fine Balance re: caste and Hinduism...

The Namesake on the diasporic experience and River Sutra (Gita Mehta) on modern/international manifestations of Hinduism...

Sister of My Heart touched on women's issues in Hinduism, although there are probably books that deal with that issue a whole lot better...

8:59 PM  
Anonymous k said...

Girish Karnad: Taledanda, Hayavadana, Yayati and agni mattu male (Agnivarsha) (all plays with available english translation). Raja Rao's Kanthapura. Kuvempu (KV Puttappa) Kannoru Subbamma Heggadthi(Available in English translation from Penguin India).

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Shobha said...

How about Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel? It's a pretty direct spoof of the Mahabharata, and in the process, makes some outrageous implications on key characters (at least, I thought so...)

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Erimentha said...

I was going to suggest Tharoor's Great Indian Novel too, but you should also consider Riot - it has some very moving passages on the meaning of Hinduism today.

Got here via Desipundit, btb!

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Kamalakar said...

If you want to include narrative verse Aurobindo's inane epic SAVITRI may fit the bill. It offers an opportunity to bring up the construction of Hinduism in 19th Century and nationalism's (and colonialism)role in making Hinduism what it is now.

4:38 AM  
Blogger Supremus said...

Consider reading these books by some regional authors who use hinduism extensively in their books:

Parva - S. L. Bhairappa, a retake on Mahabhararta

The Uprooted - a tale of one conservative Brahmin family and one progressive hindu family by same author S. L. Bhairappa

Phaniyamma - M. k. Indira - story about a hindu Widow, and how over the years, hindu's attitudes have changed towards (better?) widows. Extremly well written.

Cuckold - Kiran Nagarkar - the story of Mirabai as told from her husband's viewpoint.

Gora - Rabindranath Tagore

Jeez - a lot many novels are there I think...

Hope this helps.


8:52 AM  
Anonymous grumpy old indian man said...

You should definitely check out Jan Lars Jensen's Shiva 3000 and the classic Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny -- for the speculative fiction angle.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous k said...

Isn't there a novel by Bhairappa about the dialogue between Adi Sankara and the philosopher Mandana Mishra and his wife Ubhaya Bharati? I think if this is available in english translation, it would make a very interesting addition.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous k said...

The relevant book by SL Bhairappa is Saartha. Here is a review:

1:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Amardeep,

This sounds like a cool project. Going down the list, though, I find that robust Indian language literature that'd be relevant to this theme seems to be underrepresented.

In Gujarati, there's been a pretty strong litereary tradition of fictions set in historical context that intertwine both Hinduism and Jainism. For example, you will find K M Munshi's ( novels, especially the Patan trilogy to be pretty cool. Harilal Upadhyay's ( historical novels are interesting too. I remember reading a brilliant epic around the life of the Indo-Greek ( king Menandar that has tons of Buddhist stuff in it too, but the name of the novel escapes me.

Hope this helps.

- Gujjubhai

1:10 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...


Ravan And Eddie--Nagarkar

and is there a reason why fiction should not include cinema?

that would expand the field considerably, to include not only popular cinema (the uses of the temple and religious spaces) but also specific films such as john abraham's Agraharathile Kazhuthai, Kasaravalli's Ghatasradhha and Thai Sahib, and surely the list is endless?

1:19 AM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

Please do read Raja Rao. He has some extraordinary views on dying in varanasi, and on reincarnarnation! Can't recall the story off hand, but it had to do with birds, maybe parrots, and the female of the pair continues in her utter and unbelievable devotion even in this incarnation.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Murali V said...

Yuganta by Irawati Karwe... set as a alternate interpretation, cum literary criticim of Mahabharat, i found it very engrossing.

This is pop-scholarship at its best

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Vikatakavi said...

If you are looking at translations too, you may be interested in translation of C. Rajagopalachari's Tamil short stories. One such collection is "Stories for the Innocent" published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Ganesh said...

I would second (or third) the suggestions of Fine Balance and Lord of Light. The latter is a more interesting (but also a more problematic) piece to work with in that Zelazny is not a desi author, and was positing Hinduism as the "enemy" because of its "hierarchical caste system" and Buddhism as the "solution" because of its "egalitarian" society. What it does provide is a limited window into one 60s American interpretation of Hinduism at a time before the large diaspora into the US, and the book only takes about 3 hours to read.

I've been meaning to write on your blog for awhile, Amardeep, first to say that I find your posts on SM informative and thoughtful, and second to thank you for mentioning my blog a few months ago. I was traveling in Canada at the time and suddenly, when checking the blog at a B&B, saw my hit count spike and wondered what I had done to cause it. It was a funny scene.

But I write today because on my morning commute, I saw your name in AMNewYork in relation to the "Divided We Fall" documentary, which sounds like a very interesting project. Congrats on the publicity for it!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Raja said...

Hi Amardeep, most of the suggestions I see here are from the recent past if you look behind hinduism. Have you considered anything that goes back not just centuries but millennia, like the Panchatantra or the Pauranic tales that have many stories full of wit and teachings all conveyed through fiction.

2:19 AM  
Anonymous Sreenath said...

Quite a list Amardeep, what I can add to these is Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. From telugu I can suggest Hampi Nundi Harappa Daaka by Tirumala Ramachandra and Vedam Jeevana Naadam series and his other works by Dasarathi Rangacharya. Wish you come up with a beautiful essay.

12:56 AM  
Anonymous Rahul Dewan said...

Dear Amardeep,

- The Principal Upanishads, by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan : no serious study of Hindu philosophical thought can begin without delving into Radhakrishnan

- Eastern Religions, Western Thought, by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan : once again a very well researched book, which delves deeply into how Hinduism has impacted the western thought

- Muniya's Light, by Ramachandran Gandhi -- a beautiful story of philosopher, and a dialogue with his niece covering all aspects of Hindu philosophical thought, including the modern challenges of female foeticide

- Uncommon Wisdom, by Fritjof Capra -- not a book on Hinduism, but is about everything Hindu/Buddhist/Indian philosophical thought

- Conversations with God Book 2, by Neale Donald Walsch -- once again not a book on Hinduism, but you will draw deep parallels between New Age thought and original Hindu thought of questioning the purpose of the Universe

Leave you with this thought:
"What is the purpose of this Universe?" asked Shilaka Shalavatya -- Chandogya Upanishad 1.9.1

7:38 PM  
Blogger Ed Vis said...

One book I will suggest is "Autobiography of A Yogi" by Paramahamsa Yogananda, Ramayana & Mahabharata By Rajagopala Chari, all books by R.K. Narayan and finally my own book AM I A HINDU? [].

I wrote the book as a very lively discussion bewteen a middle aged father and his 14 year old American born Indian teenager discussing every aspect of Hinduism in Q&A format in 90 chapters.

11:29 AM  
Blogger paras said...

Tell me about your project on Hinduism in indian fiction.

send detail of your publication

Paras Dhir
Dept of English
Lovely Professional university, Phagwara

12:16 AM  

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