Why the polytheism of Hindus (and their texts) leaves the monotheistic West confused

[A longer version of this article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.]

Polytheism can be a terribly confusing affair to monotheists. The confusion is not just spiritual but material and cultural. Non-practising or secular people brought up in monotheistic cultures are just as likely to find polytheism bewildering. Attitudes toward polyandry or polygamy in societies that enshrine monogamous partnerships display a similar dynamic, but the problem is not merely the one versus the many. That’s just the surface manifestation.

For starters, the practice of representing divinity in a sensory plenitude of forms is confusing to those who believe in a single, formless god. But the plot thickens as the gods and goddesses represented in polytheism often behave in ways that appear morally chaotic to the sterner moral authorities of Abrahamic religions. “I recall,” writes Amit Chaudhuri in his introduction to the Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), “some of the British critics of Peter Brooks Mahabharata noting in wounded tones the Machiavellian, unfathomable nature of the Hindu god Krishna.”

It is scarcely surprising that, to British critics of Protestant or Anglican heritage (whether secular or religious), a god who conveys an important gospel, engages in ruthless statesmanship, and indulges in transcendental erotic play with thousands of women, all in the same lifetime, may come across as a bit much.

It is hard to conceive of a similarly ambivalent and playful figure of central significance in the Abrahamic religions, which appear far more austere, abstract, and cerebral next to the sensual ambivalence of Hinduism – or, for that matter, Hellenism.

Until the Lions, the 2015 book of narrative poetry by the dancer and choreographer Karthika Naïr, retells the story of the Mahabharata in the voices of anonymous and outcast soldiers, abducted princesses, tribal queens, and a gender-shifting god. During a conversation, Naïr told me that such a retelling does not violate or overturn the original in any way, as the potential for violation is already latent in the text. Indeed, the Mahabharata creates the very conditions for that violation – one can go so far as to say that it encourages it. The character of Krishna tells us why.

Peter Brooks depicted the classical, scriptural version of Krishna as the giver of the key gospel, The Bhagavad Gita, consigning the Machiavellian Krishna and the playful, erotic Krishna to the status of folk aberrations. I don’t know if that set-up helped soothe any moral injury among British critics, but it is quite far from true. The same character does all of these things, consistently, in all versions of his story. That generations of Indian poets, lyricists, and writers have been fascinated by such a character is natural and almost inevitable; the pioneering Bangla novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay has a famous essay on this subject: “Krishna Charitra” – the character of Krishna.

Krishna is an impossibly multivalent character both because and in spite of the fact that there are many Mahabharatas.

I have come across a few myself in the course of growing up in Calcutta, mostly in Bangla but also in other Indian languages, in text and performance. In her 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Wendy Doniger busts apart the myth that oral texts are fluid and changeable while written texts are preserved in a singular form. “The Rig Veda was preserved orally,” she writes, “but it was frozen, every syllable preserved for centuries, through a process of rigorous memorisation. There are no variant readings of the Rig Veda, no critical editions or textual apparatus. Just the Rig Veda.”

The Mahabharata, on the other hand, was both written and oral. But, unlike the Rig Veda, “this text changed constantly; it is so extremely fluid that there is no single Mahabharata; there are hundreds of Mahabharatas, hundreds of different manuscripts and innumerable oral versions.”

But no matter which version I experienced, the fluidity of Krishna’s character was a constant. This moral complexity and ambivalence – chaotic perhaps, to certain value systems – extends to the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses in Hinduism.

In the famous chapter of Mimesis entitled “Odysseus’ Scar”, Erich Auerbach contrasts Homeric and Biblical narration: the former is externalised, sensory, digressive, while the latter is more obscure and abstract, directed unrelentingly toward a single goal. Unlike the Homeric epics, which take delight in sensory effect and lie and fabricate when necessary, the biblical stories lay claim to the singularity of an absolute truth.

“The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s,” Auerbach writes, “it is tyrannical – it excludes all other claims.” It follows naturally therefore that “the scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favour, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us – they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels”.

The Hindu epics – and, more importantly, the worldview behind them – resemble the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration far more than they resemble the biblical insistence on absolute truth.

But that is only part of the story. The larger truth is that Hinduism is vast enough to contain multitudes; that something much like the Abrahamic insistence on a singular, abstract godhead and its ultimate authority is also part of Hinduism. Hinduism is both monotheistic and polytheistic, even though to Western eyes the polytheism overwhelms everything else.

Why does a devotee of god need both monotheism and polytheism? The poet Rabindranath Tagore offers the most beautiful answer: “I have dived into the ocean of forms to find the formless treasure.” In her book Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (2015), Linda Hess reminds us that a keyword associated with Kabir, the 15th-century Indian mystic poet who drew from – and criticised – both Hinduism and Islam, is “Nirgun”, which literally means “no quality”.

“Nirgun” is the ultimate quality that cannot be concretised in any sensory form, much less visualised through language. Even though it expresses a negativity, Hess reminds us, “it simultaneously invokes emptiness and fullness.” Tagore’s invocation of the formless treasure, like Kabir’s “Nirgun”, seeks to go beyond the various beatific forms of polytheism and arrive at the formless divinity who eludes any kind of sensory representation.

Tagore’s poetry is defined by the mutual entanglement of the divine and the erotic, often depicting god as lover, as in the poetry of John Donne, whom he deeply admired. Here he offers the aesthete’s explanation of polytheism: the pantheon of gods, and the icons and images that represent them, matter because they offer concrete forms for imagining god, ways of becoming intimate with divinity. Moreover, these forms are beautiful; the word “roop” in Sanskrit, as in modern languages like Bangla and Hindi, means “beauty” as well as “form”.

It is the beauty of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, sitting with her book and her musical veena; the appeal of the blue Krishna, playing his flute and wielding his fatal weapon, the chakra; the terrifying beauty of the demon-slaying goddess Durga; even the violent rhythm of Shiva’s dance of destruction that earns him the name “Nataraj”, the lord of dancers.

Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and the forthcoming The Scent of God (2019). He tweets here.