Lynching And Stereotypes: What This Puranic Tale Tells Us About Indian Culture’s Views On Mob Justice
Stereotypes and unfamiliarity with a person or culture should never be the basis for jurisprudence. This episode from the Skanda Purana tells us why.
Mob lynching is a phenomenon that has never been accepted by traditional Hindu ethos.
If we look deeply into the psychology behind the act of lynching, we will find that it comes from stereotype of the ‘other’ as well as one’s own fear and anger.
It is interesting to note that in Western civilisation, some foundational aspects of religion perpetuate stereotypes.
Thus, we have the scriptural Hamitic myth as well as the Jews being blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus.
There is also apocryphal blaming of Gypsies for producing the nails which crucified Jesus.
When colonialism reigned in India, it at once created stereotypes of the ‘cunning vile Brahmins’ indulging in priest-craft on the one hand and the criminal tribes/castes on the other.
Anyone whom the ‘settled home dweller’ would consider as the ‘other’ was given a negative stereotype by the colonial government.
This forms the basis of most mob lynching that would happen during the colonial and post-colonial era.
Hindu tradition knows that such prejudices of the ‘other’ and negative stereotyping of others arise spontaneously in any society and even the state instruments of justice should guard against such tendencies.
Sri Paranjothi Desika Munivar lived in the 17th century CE. He translated Halasya Mahatmya, which is part of the Skanda Purana, into Tamil.
It describes the 64 divine plays which Siva conducted in his favourite sacred place — Madurai.
The 25th divine play is called ‘Frightened of the Accusation of Injustice’ episode. It is there in both Sanskrit and Tamil. The episode and the values it imparts are part of the pan-Indian culture cutting across centuries and uniting the north and the south.
Kulothunga Pandya was ruling Madurai. A Brahmin, his wife and his child wanted to visit their relatives in Madurai from a distant village.
Their poverty prevented them from having the luxury of a cart for the journey. They were walking all the way with the wife carrying the toddler.
On the way, the wife was overwhelmed with thirst. She asked her husband for water. It was a lonely, forest-like path.
The Brahmin went in search of a water body nearby, leaving the wife and child under the shadows of a huge banyan tree.
On the other side of the banyan tree, a tribal hunter came. Exhausted by now, the Brahmin woman fell asleep. The child was by her side.
There was strong wind. And high above in one of the old branches was stuck an arrow of some hunter. A lucky bird had escaped the arrow, which was stuck there. Now, with the wind blowing, the arrow fell down steep. And alas, it pierced the heart of the woman, ending her life then and there.
The child, too young to know what had just happened, was playing around the dead body of its mother.
The Brahmin returned with water and saw the dead body of his wife with the arrow embedded in her heart.
Seething with anger and with grief filling his heart, he searched for the killer of his wife.
Just around that time, the hunter was readjusting the bow-string.
The Brahmin saw the tribal hunter. He got hold of him and accused him with rage that he had killed his wife.
The Brahmin took the case to the king. The evidence was overwhelmingly against the hunter. The arrow, typically, was the arrow of a hunter. He was the only person around. There was no one else. And he was having a bow and arrows.
The king and his counsel of ministers were inclined to agree with the grieving Brahmin who demanded justice. So they interrogated the hunter.
The hunter was consistent with his denial of the charge. He also requested his interrogators to investigate the matter more thoroughly. The king was disturbed.
The tribal was put in chains, restricting his movements. Meanwhile the disturbed king prayed to Siva with the plea that lest the tribal be innocent as he claimed, there should not be a miscarriage of justice.
A disembodied voice told him to go to a marriage that was about to take place in a trader’s household and take the Brahmin along with him.
So, the king and the Brahmin went to the house where the marriage was about to happen.
As was the custom, go-puja had to be conducted before the marriage ceremony. The cow was standing there, tied to a post. And the bridegroom, a young, healthy, handsome man was sitting waiting for the arrival of the bride.
Then, to the eyes of the king and the Brahmin alone, appeared two messengers of death.
One, clearly an assistant, was asking the other how they could take the life of such a healthy young person who had no reason to die.
The senior one laughed and said :
Oh that is not how it works! Have not you understood? Yesterday how did we take the life of the healthy Brahmin woman? We just made the arrow struck high in the tree fall. Similarly, now as the function begins and as the sound of the drums and other instruments reach the high pitch, I will untie the cow and make it wild and afraid. In the pandemonium that follows, you just sit in its horns. As the cow strikes the bridegroom, make the horns the cause of death.
Sure enough, as the auspicious time neared, and as the musical instruments reached a crescendo, as if by accident, the rope binding the cow gave away and the cow, confused and afraid, became wild and charged at the people assembled there.
Pandemonium followed and the cow struck the bridegroom.
Now, the Brahmin realised his folly and asked for forgiveness.
The Purana says that the king went and asked for the forgiveness of the tribal for the suffering he underwent — both physically and mentally.
The episode rivals the Final Destination Hollywood series in the way apparent coincidences conspire to create unexpected tragic deaths.
The episode conveys the grace of Siva, who prevented a serious miscarriage of justice and also emphasises how ephemeral the worldly life is with death stalking us every moment.
There is also a third element here.
The hunter was not lynched even when the Brahmin was furious. Even as he dragged the hunter along with him to the king, neither the Brahmin nor the people of the city attacked the hunter.
They did not take the law in their hands.
According to the colonial narrative, the Hindus were a ‘casteist’ people and the primary duty of their religion was ‘preserving the Brahminical order’, which in turn served only the ‘vested interests of the Brahmins’.
However, here, we have an episode in a major Purana — both in Sanskrit and Tamil — where a tribal accused by a Brahmin of killing the latter’s wife was released for want of evidence against him (if we do not take into account the supernatural elements).
Why should the king be afraid that he might be blamed for injustice had he given capital punishment to the tribal hunter when a Brahmin charged the hunter with murder?
Even if one considers the story (involving a historical king) to be imagination, why one should imagine a story where a tribal hunter is made innocent and a grieving Brahmin’s accusation turns false (not intentionally) is proved with this case.
Clearly, the Purana conveys here a strong message against stereotyping and giving into biases.
Hindu religious literature is filled with such episodes where the gods come mostly in socially excluded forms — insisting and reminding again and again that the stereotypes of hate and aversion should be overcome consciously in a cultured society.
In fact, such overcoming of stereotypes is the measure of a spiritual culture.
It is a pity that colonialism created the stereotype of the ‘evil Brahmin’ out of the elements of such a lofty culture itself and then made peddling of those stereotypes synonymous with ‘social liberation’.
Once such a colonial-political discourse has been accepted as axiomatic, then, is it any wonder that at all levels of society, mob-violence and lynching become part of social reality?
Unless India rediscovers the Vedantic love for all existence that resides in every fibre of what makes our nation and what makes us a nation, and then through education spreads it, lynchings will not stop.
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