Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Lord Parshuram - Transcript

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:08]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I am a social anthropologist based in Oslo and also one of the leaders of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we focus on Hindu nationalist politics in contemporary India. And more particularly, we're here to discuss the use of religious myths, icons and deities in Hindu nationalist mobilization, something that is a well known feature of religious nationalism almost everywhere. And this theme of myth, icon and deities was incidentally also the theme of an earlier episode in this podcast on political deification in South Asia that we produced a few months back. Today. We continue this conversation by looking at the political usage of Lord Parshuram, a deity in the Hindu pantheon who has in recent years become more visible as a mobilizing political symbol in the Hindu nationalist movement. But who is Lord Parshuram, and why has he now become politically salient? And indeed, what does his political role tell us about Hindu nationalist politics in India today? To discuss these issues, I'm joined by Jigisha Bhattacharya, who is at the Faculty of English at Cambridge University and by Solano da Silva from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at BITS Pilani in Goa. Welcome to the both of you. Now Jigisha, if we can start with you. We encounter Lord Parshuram in the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But who is he as a figure according to Hindu mythology?

Jigisha Bhattacharya [00:01:59]

Thank you so much for inviting me to the podcast and thanks for the question. Lord Parshuram is one of those very few figures who appear in both of these Hindu epics. His conception is also very interesting. The story of his conception where he is born to a Brahmin sage as a father and shot through a prince's Chaitra used to be the kingly caste and Brahmins are supposed to be the priestly caste. He is born to a chaitra mother, so he is supposed to have inherited the qualities of both a sage and a warrior. That is how his birth has been explained. According to the epics, is also a character which is kind of timeless. He appears at different junctures of the yogas or the mythical times, mythical eras, and he is one of the greatest kind of deeds that is known by remains. The fact that as a Brahmin sage who had all the qualities of a warrior, he exterminated the princely caste, exterminated them 21 times. And that kind of remains one of the most important stories which are associated with Parshuram in these epics. This is celebrated as the establishment of the rule over all the other castes, especially over the past. And it is told time and again at different junctures of the apex in different ways to suit certain different narratives at different points. But this is one of the key points which Parshuram is remembered by within the epics.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:03:47]

You mentioned the spectacular story of his slaughter of the chariots and also that violent actions performed by Parshuram in these narratives. They almost always occurred during events that somehow threaten Brahman dominance. In that sense, Parshuram s mythical battles, they always seem to have the underlying imperative of establishing or reestablishing Brahmin supremacy over other castes. Indexing parshuram, as you might say, the symbol of Germany within these epics. Now this association between Parshuram and ideas about Brahmin supremacy is also one of the keys to understanding the search and attention that has been given to him in the sphere of popular politics, perhaps particularly in North India. Right?

Jigisha Bhattacharya [00:04:37]

Yes, absolutely. I would mention a couple of specific incidents to help understand it better. For example, the first time that he performs this while in slaughter of the cast happens when the death of his father, who was a Brahmin sage himself, was caused accidentally by some chaitra. He takes that as a sign of chartreuse being corrupt from their caste duties. And somehow this Varna order, which is there of all the different castes which existed somehow that is that gets destabilized for him. And he feels that it is imperative for him to teach the chartreuse a lesson and therefore he exterminated them 21 times. There are also other incidents, like when he performs matricide again at the instruction of his father, he performs matricide because his father had suspected his mother to have romantic inclinations to wash your king, which is when Parshuram performs this matricide with one swing of his axe, his axe also being one of the key symbols which are popular around North India in popular politics as a symbol associated with romantic pride as well as with Parshuram himself. It's also important to note that even though he later asks his father to resurrect his mother out of the five sons that his father had was the only son who agreed to commit the matricide. There are also people like stalwart theorists and philosophers like Jyoti, for example, has also noted how Parshuram makes his prisoners wear a black tie around their necks, which is supposed to be the origin of untouchables within the myths, the mythical origin of untouchables, for example. So in that way, all his deeds which are mentioned within the epics, have somehow always had this underlining imperative of not only just a Brahminic rule or a Brahminic hegemony over all the other Banas, but also like a very deeply masculine, a deeply militant face of it. It is not just a priestly sage like a quality that he is born with or he is celebrated for. It is precisely these qualities of being a militant face of Rabbinic Hindutva, which he is celebrated for within North India as well. If we look at the popular politics, the surge of the demands within electoral politics for establishing different kind of parshuram statues, for observing Poroshenko's birthday as a state holiday, demanding different kind of institutions to be named after Parshuram, as well as the widespread observation of different events related to persons life within popular politics. We see that this idea of him being the true Brahmin icon very much is lingering there. And these ideas which have been formed within the epic are very much informing the contemporary popular politics in North India right now.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:07:53]

I mentioned in my introduction to this episode the discussions we've had on political deification in an earlier episode of this podcast, just to encourage listeners who haven't listened to that episode yet to maybe go and have a listen to that as well. But of course, Jigisha, you've very much been part of these conversations about political deification in South Asia that have been happening over the past couple of years. And in your own research on the politics of Lord Parshuram, you've looked especially at the role that he plays in what I believe you call territorial assertion on cyberspace by a number of different Hindutva aligned groups active in different parts of North India. Could you tell us something about how important is social media and cyberspace to Hindu nationalism today? And perhaps more specifically, what particular role does Lord Parshuram play within this sort of project of territorial assertion on cyberspace.

Jigisha Bhattacharya [00:08:58]

Alongside the kind of popular politics which are happening on ground within electoral politics, within the different kind of assertion over social spaces, for example, the social media, the digital media plays a very important role. And many theorists, many writers have extensively discussed the role of social media, digital media and how it aids Hindu nationalism today. The fact that it sort of gives a platform for different kinds of networks to be formed, for example, all of that has been discussed quite extensively in terms of the Hindu nationalism and its close ties. With the digital media especially coming to the question of parshuram. For example, the digital media really serves as a space where there are different ways in which people defy Parshuram as a political icon. For example, there is one specific way in which there's a what you also mentioned this territorial assertion. The question of territorial assertion happens on the cyberspace, for example, within the image based social media mechanisms, for example, Instagram. Structurally, the platform has this method called geotagging, where you can put different places as your location alongside image based content that you are posting. And very often there are numerous Hindutva groups, there are numerous groups which are specifically dedicated to the cause of Parshuram. For example, there are many youth groups, many groups which just say that they are the followers of Parshuram, for example, or they have devoted their lives to the cause of re-establishing Parshuram as the true Brahmin idol. There are many groups, many accounts like that all over Facebook, Twitter, as well as Instagram, specifically in Instagram, for example. This method of geotagging on this feature of geotagging, we can see that when some of these accounts are posting about parshuram or giving these clarion calls of associating with the cause of Parshuram, we are seeing that they're putting their geotag locations as something mythical, which doesn't exist in the real geographic kind of way. For example, they're geotagging something like Brahmin land, which may have been an aspirational idea of a space, but it doesn't really exist in reality, right? And most often if you click on those tags because they are hyperlinked, they would take you to a specific area within North India, most often within Uttar Pradesh in U.P., and there are several of these. There is area where there is Brahmin land, there is Brahmin government and so on and so forth where we get an idea about what the aspiration of having this Brahmin ruled land looks like. And it is also very centrally sort of placed within the discourse of Hindutva Hindu nationalism today, but we also see that. Technically speaking, their idea of the Brahmin land also is squarely rooted within the geographic area of North India. The other thing which happens is also like social media, just the way it functions. The fact that you can continuously keep reproducing a piece of work, you can add your commentaries to it, reproduce it, share it like et cetera, all those things. You also feel like you are a stakeholder at some kind of a project, which is also a feature which I have seen that the people who are at least giving these clarion calls for performance cause they are using specifically, and it really becomes a way of performing that kind of politics as well. For example, they would share routinely about different kind of news about observations which are happening, especially during the pandemic when there was a hindrance in people meeting physically in person and coming together to celebrate different kind of events regarding the life of Parshuram, for example, especially in the pandemic, there were calls which were routinely posted where they said that, you know, you should observe performance, but they just by posting something on your social media or changing your display picture or using a particular hashtag, and that became a means in a way to also consolidate people not only locally, regionally, which is also how many of these groups functioned otherwise outside social media, but also to really announce its existence to different parts of other different parts of India, and also to build those networks with other kind of outfits which are doing similar kind of things at different parts of India. So in that way, of course, there are many ways in which the digital media, social media plays a key role also because of the kind of structural features that it provides and it really enables this certain kind of populist discourse to circulate and sort of get viral and circulate very fast in very heavy numbers. That is also something that I have seen that happens in the case of Parshuram and his digital presence over social media.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:14:15]

Jigisha, you mentioned this connection to other parts of India, whether by social media or other means. In many ways, it's precisely this kind of connection. That is the reason that we actually having this conversation, because as you were developing your work on the politics of Lord Parshuram in North India, he also popped up as a politicized deity elsewhere in the country, in the western state of Goa, where Solano and I have done some work together on very different things, totally unrelated to religion and politics. Now in Goa and also in the Konkan region more broadly, the mythology of Parshuram is somewhat different from what you describe from North India. Here. Popular legend holds that Parshuram, the warrior sage, as we heard just now, variously shot an arrow or threw his axe into the sea. And as a result, the water receded and the land rose and thereby laying bare the Konkan region, seeing how the land was filled with salt and was unsuitable for habitation. Parshuram then invoked the Snake king Vaisakhi, whose holy poison then converted this soil into the fertile and lush green lands that we visitors to Goa tend to associate with that state even today. But like in North India, there's also a clear, prominent subtext to this mythical story about Parshuram after raising the land from the sea. Legend holds that these lands were then settled by satisfied Brahmins who were brought to the Konkan by Parshuram. But this wasn't actually the point I was trying to make. I wanted to talk about the controversy that arose in Goa in April last year, where Lord Parshuram was invoked by a Hindu nationalist organization in Goa, led by a person named Vellinkar. What happened was that Vellinkar said that the Catholic Saint Francis Xavier should not be recognized as the protector of Goa. Why? Because Xavier, through the Inquisition, had committed a series of historical atrocities on Goans. So instead he wanted Lord Patron to be recognized as the state's proper patron saint, Solano Da Silva. Why did these statements by Vaillancourt cause such a controversy in the state?

Solano da Silva [00:16:42]

Thank you, Kenneth. Well, there are a number of reasons why this generated such a controversy in Goa. The first and most immediate reason is that Francis Xavier has been considered a patron of Goa for centuries, and this continued even after Goa. S liberation from Portuguese rule. Now, deities and saints like Francis Xavier are largely invoked by individuals and families and have enjoyed devotees from across religious faiths. Simultaneous to this following Goa's Liberation School going children, including me, have been inculcated with Goa's own creation story and that which you mentioned that this land was created through the intervention of Lord Parshuram, as described by you briefly. Now both of the above, a Christian patron and Hindu deity, a greater deity, have been assimilated into Goa's cultural milieu for decades. In this context, Linker states and actions of placing one deity above the other. The kind of notion that my saint is greater than yours, and even going further than that of calling one anti-national represents a rupture to the existing syncretic cultural sensibilities in Goa, and calls to question even the beliefs and practices of tens of thousands of devotees of Francis Xavier. Now, the second reason why this generated a controversy is that in spite of the fact that approximately one third of BJP MLAs in Goa are from the Christian background, with exception of 1 or 2 of them criticising Bellinger's actions, the official state machinery has on the one hand refused to decry linker statements. But on the other hand, the Chief Minister has even gone on to make statements that echo similar stance sentiments such as making a commitment to rebuild or restore temples in Goa. Now, this is significant for several reasons, because the timing is very interesting here. Before the elections, the assembly elections, the BJP went all out to argue that the party represented development and not communalism. This seems to have changed within months of the party being re-elected. Others have also pointed out that the State Government, which is led by the BJP, has, through acts of commission and omission, stoked this controversy as a way of masking their unwillingness to face real life and livelihood problems. In Goa, for instance, just a few weeks ago, the Niti Aayog Planning agency in central government has pointed out extremely the gross levels of unemployment in the state. The unwillingness of the state government to investigate and recover dues from illegal mining. And of course what we see every day in Goa is the wanton conversion of land in Goa, which cannot happen without connections with the state machinery and approvals from them. Now, why am I raising this? Because leaders of the Sun in Goa never take on these issues. Many have argued that this is the real conversion and the real destruction of Goa that is taking place, but these are never absolutely silent about them. Finally, Willingham made another statement in response to his critiques. He says that if people realise that they are all Indians first, then there is no question of communal harmony. Now, for many in Goa, the identity of being an Indian represents a larger commitment commitment to a set of civic and political values. And the notion that an Indian identity calls on all of us to transcend parochial, regional and communal identity. So another identity transcend a locally held identity or a regional identity. Now, in this regard, Bellinger's own notion of what is Indian marks the shift towards an ethno religious notion of Indian identity.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:20:38]

You mentioned now this composite and syncretic culture that is in many ways so defining of Goa, where both Christianity and Hinduism play such key roles. Are characters like Valencia who stand in opposition to such syncretism. Should we consider them marginal players in the state's larger political landscape, or do they indicate some kind of more fundamental shift in the state's political discourse?

Solano da Silva [00:21:06]

My tendency is to ask myself this question. Did any new fact emerge that led Bellinger to make his utterances? Launches website et-cetera. Absolutely none. Nothing new emerged. Then why was it time? The timing for me is so interesting. So no, no new fact. Nothing. None of this is new. Why now? So for me, rather than confining this controversy to a set of actions of an individual character. It is, for me, perhaps best understood as the unfolding of a particular kind of cultural politics. The Lincoln's actions represent a facet within a deliberately crafted political design. Now, political commentators in the past in Goa used to theorize, used to wonder how did the BJP rise emerge and rise in Goa? And they still theorize this by saying that the BJP used a soft Hindutva in which they appeal to the erstwhile Bahujan Samaj, who was the voter base of the MGP, and also to also focus on a development plank which was the way they appeal to the Christian minority. However, in this new BJP version two under Modi and Shah, there's been a licensing of Sangh affiliates, like the ones associated with Wellington. And it now seems that a hard line Hindutva is now being experimented in Goa. So there's a shift from the softer, more hard line and it's still an experiment. Now the timing of blinkers actions for me are super significant. Really significant. And if you go to see is also the silence of the state. The state, which is the BJP controlled states, tacit approval of his actions is so strategic. If one sees the chronology of events, this is done after the Goa State elections happened in March. That means after the BJP has been allowed to consolidate its electoral victory, then they gauge the response to the Bollywood movie the Kashmir Files. And then Wellington does what he does in May, and it's done prior to the All India Hindu convention organised by the Hindu group Samiti, which is in June, where there is a blueprint for a Hindu nation that was supposed to be chalked out in Goa. Now, for these reasons, for me, Wellington's actions are indicative of a larger trend of experimenting with a new kind of hardline Hindutva in Goa.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:23:42]

Solano da Silva and Jigisha Bhattacharya, thank you so much for joining us today in this episode to shed light on the multifaceted political life of Lord Parshuram and also on some of the darker dynamics of Hindu nationalist politics in India today. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen, and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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