Book Review – Vishnu’s Crowded Temple

Published December 12, 2014 by vishalvkale

Image result for vishnu's crowded temple



A treatise on Casteism, Religion and Political Inteplay from 1857; A look at how Caste was shaped by The British Raj

This is a book that belongs in your collection, its weaknesses and shortcomings notwithstanding; a book that helps us understand, or at least get an insight into why and how we Indians are what we are today. This is a study, an investigation, an attempt to understand Modern India, and trace how it arrived at the current place, a unique effort to present our history and our today as a single connected and linked thread.

The book successfully challenges many current beliefs, takes them on head-on and demolishes them in no uncertain terms. It very successfully traces the sad interplay of Raj Politics & Modern Independent politics, Religion and Social Forces; and analyses their cumulative impact on Indian Society. This is a hard-hitting, thought provoking and deeply disturbing yet engaging research into the origins of the modern Caste relations, Religious fractions and how political forces came to be influenced by these tectonic forces

On casteism, it delves into excruciating detail, proving the impact of the Raj on caste equations, analysing the situation at the advent of the Raj, and going on to provide factual details, events, strategies, tactical maneuvers and machinations that resulted, inadvertently at times, into the solidification and cementing of casteism into its most repressive form. The painstakingly put investigation comes as a revelation, despite it being exhausting in its detail. A better presentation would have made the absorption of the material much easier; having said that, there are no discernible logical gaps in the material, apart from it being slightly tedious due to the stunning level of detail. 

As a matter of fact, the main overarching theme of this book, throughout the 449 pages, is caste, and its interplay with various societal and political forces from 1857 till around 2006. This is a stupendous effort, and thus deserves accolades. Furthermore, it provides the proof of a connected chain of events, leading to a better understanding of what we are today. That is what makes this book a must read for all Indophiles; its many weaker points notwithstanding!

Woven into this main theme is the theme of colonialism, and how the forces of the day intervened in all facets of Indian life, from the mundane to the esoteric, definitively shaping them for the worse. Before the advent of the British, the caste construct was fluid and interchangeable. The British intervened with their coloured glasses, and  created a system of differential treatment of various classes and castes, differential economic treatment and power-sharing, combined with labelling of some tribes as criminal {who could be imprisoned on suspicion alone}. This led to a cascade impact, as a caste identity became the key to economic, political and social status under the new dispensation

The book also looks in rather uncomfortable detail at the rise of what The Great West {as also some Indians} likes to call hindutva; and the rise of aggressive Hinduism. This fills in a major gap in most contemporary books, which focus on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in India and elsewhere. This book does more than the reverse; it looks in painful detail at the rise of Hinduism in a more aggressive form. 

While it is true that this is a needed exercise; societal movements depend on all forces in operation within a society : the fact remains that this comes across as excessive, targeting the Hinduism movement, the rise of the Hindi language etc in needless detail. This is done without a proper reasoning of the full background, which gives a biased picture. Furthermore, given the seeming bias added to the evident inconsistencies and ill-disguised disdain for a few facets of ancient history, this tends to give a skewed picture of the scenario as it existed in those days. This is a significant weakness throughout the book, one that lessens its impact. 

Post independence era, the book falters a little, but is a treasure trove nevertheless, as it traces the rise of Indian Democracy through the early years, right till the modern day. However, the content fails to leave as deep an impact as the section dealing with the pre-independence period. In this section, the effort, though laudable, comes across as disjointed, and lacks focus in my opinion.

The book traces, or attempts to trace, key events in this period, like the secularism debate and the entire common law issue, going into the history of this debate in parliament. It also looks at the changing caste equation, but sadly in much lesser detail , preferring to focus on economics and political intrigue. This is where the book loses steam and finally surrenders its engagement quotient.

The entire Indira Gandhi – Sanjay Gandhi – Rajiv Gandhi saga has been dealt with in considerable detail, almost too much detail. In this phase, the story meanders into unfamiliar territory, leading to a lack of focus, as it swiftly looks into the Rajiv years, before metamorphosing to Mandal and VP Singh. Despite that, it does manage to recreate the canvas of India quite successfully, plotting the problems and events in various states in relatively short sequences, creating a kaleidoscope of the nature of the country in those days. This is what makes this section invaluable; it places in one contiguous section all the problems faced by our nation; you begin to appreciate our development as a people with double force and pride. 

The rise of the BJP from its genesis in the Jan Sangh, and the entire sequence of events has been dealt with in detail; as has the tumult during the Mandal years; this is in keeping with the overall theme of the book. Thus, at the fag end of the book, it manages to return to its core theme after meandering into politics. While the impact of politics on society is a given, in this section, the connection and the impact has not been fully traced. It comes across as half baked. It attempts to trace the rising equality in castes, and the influence of the downtrodden, but partially fails to do this, giving a definite idea, but stopping short of a deep insightful analysis…

The main criticisms of the book are 3-fold; first, it is irreverent towards Hindu sentiments, Gods, History and tends to take an ill-disguised condescending tone on more than several occasions. The unbalanced and one-sided analysis of Hinduism in its more aggressive form comes across as rhetorical in the absence of an equally rigorous examination of other forces. It  is frankly dismissive on many points which have common acceptance and have proofs in support. To be honest, I felt as though this is a look at only one side of the equation, and more data and facts are needed from the other side. Furthermore, there were some sections that I felt were inaccurate, and the portrayal of Hinduism as being completely negative and objectionable almost throughout the entire book…

Secondly, it is also surprisingly kind towards Pakistan and Islamic terror. But the most objectionable point was the reference to Kargil, and the claim that this was an operation carried out by Kashmiri insurgents! Similar are the unflattering references to terrorism in India, and a completely inaccurate analysis of the same. 

Thirdly, and most damning, is the shoddy presentation, and editing / finishing. The book is extensively researched; but the bibliography, annotations and end-notes are just not upto the mark. The impact of this is a lack of conviction, as the links and references to the statements contained in the content do not immediately link back to the source of the said claims. This significantly impacts the readability of the book

All in all, this is a must read book, despite the weaknesses mentioned above, for the simple reason that it adds enough value, despite being unreasonably critical {in my opinion} of Hinduism, and economical with the facts in some cases, as I mentioned in the third point given above. I would rate it 3 stars, and as a book that is a good read, and a great value addition, given that it clear many cobwebs… 

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