Under my byline

Demons without humour

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 19 November 2007

Nanditha Krishna explores the origins, nature and logic of Indian demons

The Book of Demons
Nanditha Krishna
Penguin
x + 268
Rs 325

If Lanka still had its rakshasas, this would be an op-ed piece urging the government to invite them to India. Because, as Nanditha Krishna defines rakshasas and other “demons”, they would make excellent Indian citizens: they are aggressive and entrepreneurial, dominant and self-willed, flashy and unsubtle, and always aspire to mastery. What troubled the ancient world about demons — that they mess with the balance of things, that they are unsatisfied with their lot — is precisely what would make them valuable to our GDP growth rate.

Which clearly means that we already have demons around us. Name any newish captain of industry; name any UP politician. Name your boss; your neighbour; your spouse. Look in the mirror. In fact, the classic trajectory of an Indian demon, as Dr Krishna tells it, is readily transposable, a metaphor for seekers of success everywhere. The demon (upcoming politician) does extreme tapasya (chamchagiri or worse) for a boon (election ticket or ministry), the use of his new powers ends up ruining the balance and scaring the gods (party elders and so on), retaliatory action is needed so Vishnu takes an avatar (Rajiv? Sonia? Rahul?) and finally defeats the demon (expulsion?), thus restoring the balance (the pro-élite status quo ante). Now tweak the terms to describe a corporate career, or the life of a company. The fall (failure/payback/result) may be slightly delayed, but it will assuredly come.

Compare this with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model of historical change, attributed (not entirely fairly) to Georg Hegel. The notion that change is inevitable and creative is inbuilt in that model, while continuity and preservation are the ideal conclusion of stories in Hindu mythology. Of course many centuries separate Hegel and Ravana, but it remains true even today that Indians are uncertain where to place the concept of change in their own cosmology. Is it good, is it bad? What is change? One result: our aspirations — as individuals and as a nation — are all quite short-term. Long-range thinking requires a comfort and imaginative acquaintance with the idea of change, and this our history hasn’t given us.

Taken literally: written and analytical history is a recent thing in India. Without a discipline of history, a broad-based written culture, how can change be understood or, eventually, embraced? The Islamic rulers of the subcontinent, with their highly literate ruling class, were better long-term thinkers than our own government — or any we’ve had since Nehru. They knew their own history, and it had a clear forward direction. They started as immigrants, but they built in stone.

Yet myths are better than any historical model at describing a yug or “age”, or even a single career, from dawn to dusk. This is because they provide a handy metaphorical framework, take proper account of beginnings, middles and ends, and explain human actions — specially when humans act against their own apparent best interests. So why not learn how to use them in writing about our present? At the very least this will stimulate our imaginations. Why not use them in school history classes, management institutes and journalism college?

Dr Krishna’s book is a straightforward look at the demons of Indian mythology and how they came to be. She says every demon has a human origin, whether it is a person (Ravana), a tribe (the Rakshasas) or a passion taken to its extreme. She writes of fallen gods, ancient tribal enemies demonised, and the bhuts and spirits of the land. She reminds us how much our geography, real and mythical, is associated with demons. Mathura, says Dr Krishna, is named after Madhu, an ancestor of Kamsa, Krishna’s murderous uncle.

She also demonstrates how meanings change: for instance, Aryan gods were asuras, until the word acquired the opposite meaning after the Babylonian Assurs drove the Aryan tribes out of their homeland in Iraq-Iran. Dr Krishna marshals diverse evidence in support of such historical speculation, some of which is convincing. However, she doesn’t say, as she ought, which interpretations are accepted by scholars, of what sort, and which are more her own. It’s a bracing show of self-confidence, which reminds one of Nirad Chaudhuri at his excursive best, but the effect is nothing like as provocative.

Nanditha Krishna wrote some wonderful, very readable columns for the New Indian Express, touching upon themes within the field of culture. So it’s a mystery why, although it’s neither academic nor long-winded, this book isn’t a pleasure to read. Perhaps this is because — incredible as it sounds — there is no storytelling, and no humour! Not even in the “dictionary” of Indian demons with which the book concludes.

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