Weaponising Cultural Illiteracy: Kamal Haasan's 'Appreciation' of Kantara

Weaponising Cultural Illiteracy: Kamal Haasan's 'Appreciation' of Kantara

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Tuesday, January 24, 2023 02:30 PM IST
Weaponising Cultural Illiteracy: Kamal Haasan's 'Appreciation' of KantaraKamal Haasan, founder of MNM party (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Did Kamal Haasan appreciate Rishab Shetty's 'Kantara' or did he use the occasion to spread Dravidianist pseudo-scientific propaganda?

When actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan sent his framed ‘appreciative’ letter to Rishab Shetty, he gave a classic example of how cultural illiteracy has been weaponised in the Nehruvian-Dravidianist context.

In his message that is more a display of narcissistic condescension than appreciation, the politician-actor states the following:

I truly believe compassion is lacking in gods depicted in most of our mythology. We of the Dravidian stock are a matriarchal society. That is seen in the last scene of your film, where the god behaves like a mother, rather than a testosterone father that he started off as.

It is not of anyone’s business if Haasan is a godless man, even if his godlessness is only with respect to Hindu Gods. It is none of anyone’s business if he is a closet Christian or a Muslim. And not again, if he believes monotheism as civilizationally superior to polytheism, and may or may not identify with Hinduism.

It, however, does become every Hindu's concern when a movie actor, who is also a politician, and hence a public figure, announces his convictions and criticises the Gods and Goddesses that Hindus consider sacred.

Through his statement, Haasan has provided a classic example of how cultural illiteracy serves evangelical theology and colonial racial-pseudo-science.

Serving Evangelical Theology

Let us start with the part where Haasan talks of our 'Gods lacking in compassion'.

This argument is actually a rendering of a theological argument justifying proselytizing. According to this theology called fulfilment theology, Hindu religion has many good things but it lacks a vital aspect. It is spiritually deficient: it does not have grace.

That grace can be provided 'only by Jesus'. So, Jesus completes the gap in otherwise-good Hinduism.

One should note the sub-text here. Though he is a godless man, Haasan with his typical egoistic magnanimity, states that he understands the need for a god. Then he says to us, the 'Hindu peasants' that our Gods and Puranas lack compassion. So the subtext is – find yourself a god in the market that is full of compassion.

No prize for guessing where that leads to. One just has to see his movie Anbe Sivam, which is subtle propaganda for a particular religion.

The fact of the matter is that Hindu Gods not only not lack compassion, they are full of it. The Hindu conception of the Divine form itself states ‘that which is beyond comprehension takes a form full of kindness’.

Their battles with Asuras that take place in a sacred space-time. And the Asuric forces that are destroyed are more often than not cursed Divines themselves. So the Samhara is actually a blessing and liberation.

These Puranic battles are often inner spiritual battles of the sadhakas. Contrast this with a theology that technically condemns an unbaptized, pagan child to eternal hell.

Both MK Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore rejected the characterization of Indian civilization as deficient.
Both MK Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore rejected the characterization of Indian civilization as deficient.

None other than soft-spoken gentle Rabindranath Tagore poignantly made this point in his writing.

The traditional Christians express their contempt for the degradation and cruelty in the characters of the traditional gods and modes of worship of some Indian communities. On account of habit they cannot however see that their own conception of God is equally possessed by evil genius of man. The community whose sacred books condemn to eternal hell a child that has died before its baptism, has attributed to God a degree of cruelty that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In fact, the conception of eternal hell, for any sin however heinous, is the most potent invention of human cruelty. Even today that conception of hell pervades with horror the prison of civilized man, where there is no principle of reformation, but only the ferocity of punishment.

Haasan also cites Gandhi to tell that he wanted to be in a maternal relation with Indian society - a mother rather than a father. But what Haasan does not tell is that this dispensation of Gandhi itself comes from Hindu Puranic worldview where Shiva Himself came in the form of a mother to feed not humans but piglets. Transforming Himself into a mother boar allowed piglets that had lost their mother to suckle on Her.

Similarly, in northern India there is the famous instance of Shantha Sakku Bai, a great devotee for whom Sri Krishna came in the form of woman and did all the chores of the household.

Left - Siva as Mother feeding piglets.
Right - Sri Krishna assumes the form of Sakku bai and does house chores.
Left - Siva as Mother feeding piglets. Right - Sri Krishna assumes the form of Sakku bai and does house chores.

Gandhi, being rooted in Hindu tradition, could thus identify himself with the feminine but Haasan tries to pass on this aspect of Gandhi as unique and as a break from Hindu tradition.

Perpetuating Colonial Historiography of Divide and Rule

Haasan then speaks of himself as ‘Dravidian stock’ who ‘are a matriarchal society’. The words betray not just a lack of cultural literacy of civilization and culture of Tamil people — from ancient to modern times — it also shows the colonial era stereotype of mapping race and linguistic groups to specific cultural-religious traditions.

Haasan puts forth the typical Dravidianist dogma line. According to this, the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) was the creation of a monolithic ‘Dravidian race’. This Dravidian race is constructed with ridiculous binaries against the presumed ‘Aryans’.

All fashionable progressive components get labelled on these ‘Dravidians’ while ‘Aryans’ get struck with all negative and villainous features.

So Aryans are patriarchal while Dravidians are matriarchal.

Aryans invented and imposed birth-based Varna while Dravidians were egalitarian.

Aryans were fire-worshippers and Dravidians had water-based rituals.

Aryans believed in supernatural deities and somehow Dravidians were super-rational and had materialist philosophies. And modern day Tamils are the racial and cultural inheritors of the legacy of IVC.

Needless to say, this is not just laughable but also a despicable racial stereotype.

To start with, the Harappan civilisation or IVC itself was not an ethnic or racial monolith. It was a place where different ethnic, linguistic and religious people mingled.

In a 2018-paper published in American Journal of Human Genetics, a team of scientists studied 'the genetic ancestry of modern Indus Valley populations from Northwest India' and concluded categorically that their 'results show that the Indus Valley populations are characterized by considerable genetic heterogeneity that has persisted over thousands of years.'

The same is also true for the modern day landscape that India’s National Anthem points out as ‘Dravida’. It is clearly a part of the mosaic of India’s diversity anchored in unity and is not a separate ethnic identity by itself.

Dravidian-languages speaking people are not a ‘stock’ – a term that has ethnic or racial connotations.

Similarly, southern Indian linguistic groups comprise both matriarchal and patriarchal communities just as northern Indian linguistic groups.

Mother Goddesses traditions permeate rural southern India as it does northern India. Association of angry and healing Goddesses with diseases is a pan-Indian Hindu characteristic.

Mapping a language to a race and a race to specific world-view and culture was a trait of the bygone colonial anthropology. To claim that Dravidians, because of their language are a specific ethnic ‘Dravidianist stock’ and claiming that they are a matriarchal monolith society is actually insulting the intelligence of those who receive this wisdom.

With all its problems, India has shown the world that civilisation does not have to fear diversity but can benefit from it.

At the base of this flourishing, ethnic and linguistic diversity and biodiversity is the recognition of a third kind: theo-diversity.

This civilisational realisation in turn comes from the recognition of the common motherhood of earth. The celebrated Prithvi Sukta of Atharva Veda has a verse (12.1.45) that brings three human-related diversities and accommodates them all as children of Mother Earth.

In the introduction to his authoritative work on ancient folk traditions of India, Prof Vasudeva Agrawala explains this as the defining feature of our national life itself:

Janaṁ bibhratī bahudhā vivāchasam nānādharmānam Prthivi yathaukasam.

The diversity of the people inhabiting the various parts of the country (yathaukasam bahudhā Janaṁ), the variety of their dialects (vivāchasam), and the multiplicity of their cults (nānādharmānam) — were the three significant features of our racial life in the past, as they are with us even to-day.

But these distinctions did not operate to divide the children of the soil whose devotion to the Mother Earth served as an underlying bond.

Complementing this vision, enshrined in the Rig Veda is the dictum – Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti . This statement is one of the most profound proclamations of Hindu civilisation.

The movie Kantara also showed how Panjurli and Guliga are simultaneously both, Gods of the region and Gods of Dharma. They are local as well as universal, and these aspects are complementary.

Had our history syllabus been robust enough to include these important foundational aspects of Indian culture - its gift of unity in diversity - Haasan could not have made the claims he did. But Indian education system has been designed to impart cultural illiteracy.

What a political phony like Kamal Haasan is doing is simply weaponising that cultural illiteracy to deepen and crystalise fabricated faultlines.

Caveat Emptor Sri. Rishab Shetty.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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