Guest Lecturer Speaks on Hindu Narratives

By Joe Flaherty

Last Thursday, Feb. 21, the Middlebury community had the rare opportunity to hear stories of Hindu heroes from Lindsey Harlan, Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Connecticut College. Harlan’s lecture, titled “Hindu Heroes with Muslim Fast Friends: Contemporary Narratives on Moghuls and Rajputs in Udaipur,” addressed ideas of heroic narrative and religious perspectives.

The Moghuls were a Muslim dynasty from Central Asia that ruled a large part of India from the 16th to 19th centuries. The Rajputs were a military caste that challenged, and sometimes allied with, Moghul power throughout those centuries. Harlan spoke at length about hero worship in Hinduism and Islam (the topic of a book she is currently writing) and her own experiences hearing the stories told by people she met during her travels in South Asia.

In an email, Harlan described how a debate sparked her interest in studying religion in South Asia. “I became interested … after getting into a debate with an ethics professor, while I was pursuing a masters degree in ethics,” wrote Harlan. “It was about Aristotle and the Indian jurist Manu. He told me I should go to India to see how very wrong I was, then told me how I might do that.” Harlan then spent several months traveling around India visiting temples before completing a PhD.

Harlan, who recounted several narratives during her lecture, said analyzing these stories is a difficult and complex task. “The written and oral narratives that I have collected over the past three decades have varied wildly in some major ways. They often clearly reflect the positioning of tellers who are diverse in terms of caste, class and gender,” said Harlan. “In fact, there are so many discordant positions and agendas in these narratives that I have been at times undone; both negatively (as in frustrated) and positively (as in awed).”

These narratives, continued Harlan, are sometimes not the product of academic scholarship, but rather, “What is presented as ‘known’ comes courtesy of devotees living in Udaipur and its environs.”

As a part of her research on hero worship, Harlan recounted several fantastical stories of the Moghuls. One involved a Moghul soldier who was decapitated in battle but, it is said, continued fighting and killed soldiers of the enemy. “This scenario,” said Harlan, “is recognized as a Hindu category of hero,” despite the fact that the soldier was a part of the Muslim Moghul army.

In another tale, Harlan described a legend that the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb was struck blind after attempting to break the idols in a Hindu temple. So, Aurangzeb swept the steps of the temple with his long beard in penance, and his sight was restored.

“There are many stories like this,” she said, “representing Aurangzeb as being successfully challenged by Hindu deities.”

According to Harlan, some say these stories were created to enhance the reputation of the shrines Aurangzeb was unable to destroy.

In response to a question from a student in attendance, Harlan said most people do not know these stories despite their extraordinary content.

Harlan described how she finds these stories “interesting but deeply problematic.”

“In terms of my own ethnographic work, I’ve observed that the stories of opposition and alliance depend so very much on the frames utilized and the agendas they reveal,” she explained.

Harlan believes examining the perspective of the storyteller is key. “Because the frames often tied to claims of properly understanding history or properly understanding how history has led us to the current political situation, including animosity between Hindus and Muslims, they are anything but unrelated to the agendas of the tellers of tales.”

This attention to the agenda of the narrator can help explain the diverse and seemingly contradictory narratives present in Hindu and Islamic myth. “I’ve often thought that the legends of animosity and friendship between Hindu heroes and [Muslim heroes] are like blobs in a lava lamp,” said Harlan. “They converge and diverge depending on how one is feeling at the moment and which narrator feels what way at a particular moment or whom one happens to be speaking with.”

Harlan wrote in an email that these shifting perspectives make the study of history a vibrant field. “I believe that history is always being re-framed by new perspectives,”said Harlan. “People do this with their own histories and their understandings of societies.  Scholarship requires looking at everything anew.  It requires contributing some fresh ideas to scholarly conversations.”