The Constructions of Holy Books

Indian Mythology, Modern Mythmaking 31 Comments

Published in First City, October 2010

Today the average Hindu believes that Bhagavad Gita is the holy book of Hinduism and Manu-smriti is the legal book that shaped Indian society before the British and the Muslims. The Bhagavad Gita is often presented with great pride while Manu-smriti argued with great shame. Both beliefs, unfortunately, are constructions, as a result of work done by the British, especially Orientalists, who were determined to homogenize Hinduism so as to simplify their governance of the Indian subcontinent.

The European mind that encountered India was comfortable with unity and homogeneity. Despite all differences between the various nation sates (British, French, Portuguese, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, Italians), all Europeans agreed on one thing – that the Bible was the holy book of Christianity. It is what shaped Europe following the collapse of Rome a thousand years earlier. This same European mind was exposed to two other religions, Islam and Judaism, each of which also had a single book, Koran and Tanakh. All three had a single God, all three had a prophet (Jesus or Muhammad or Moses), all three believed in one life, all three believed in covenants (either by circumcision in case of Judaism and Islam or by baptism in case of Christianity), all three believed in Sabbaths (Sunday or Friday or Saturday). So naturally, the Europeans were fairly convinced what religion should be. And those who argued against the Church in favor of rational thought, also believed in an common thread that bound the universe. Such a mind could not grasp, and certainly could not empathize with, diversity.

When the European seafarers reached America and Africa and India and China, they were suddenly confronted with cultures where people looked very different, where few believed in one God, or one book, or one prophet. In America and Africa, they saw tribes but in India and China they saw rich civilizations that did not seem to value or need monotheism.

The 17th century colonizers of India, the Portuguese who traded along the Western coast of India, simply held the natives in disdain and brutally converted the locals into Christianity. But the 18th century colonizers, the British and the French, were fascinated by the wonders of the East. They were convinced that there was wisdom here waiting to be unraveled. This search for Eastern wisdom was spearheaded by a bunch of enthusiastic scholars who later came to be known as the Orientalists. They were convinced that there was a common unifying foundation under the apparent chaos of India. One can argue these Orientalists were responsible for creating the now famous catchphrase, ‘unity in diversity’.  This journey to philosophically unite India began with the Ezour Veda.

The 18th century saw a book doing the rounds in Paris that claimed to be a French translation of an ancient Sanskrit Manuscript. Named, Ezour Veda (Yajur Veda?), it was cherished by the likes of Voltaire, the great French philosopher. In it, there is a conversation between two Brahmins, a polytheist and a monotheist, and in the course of the conversation the monotheist triumphs. Thus the book demonstrated beyond all doubt that ‘pristine Hinduism’ despite popular prejudices was at heart aligned to Christian truth. The book turned out to be a hoax! It was in all probability the work of a 17th century Jesuit priest who wrote the book to persuade Brahmins to convert to Christianity.

When the British introduced their legal system of courts and lawyers in India, they wondered by what law were Indians governed. In villages, the legal system that existed was that of the panchayat, that depended not on a text but on the wisdom, or lack of it, of the elders of the village. The British legal system simply ignored this indigenous system of jurisprudence because the panchayats did not follow a standardized written code. They believed a civilization ought to have a standard written code. This was a Protestant bias. But they found none in India. So they went looking for one.

That search led William Jones to a classical Sanskrit text called the Manu-smriti. William Jones, an 18th century Judge of the Calcutta High Court, translated it and made it the basis of many laws that the British came up with to govern Indians. These laws were later adopted by the founding fathers of India. These laws today determine the personal Hindu law related to marriage and divorce and inheritance and adoption and legitimacy.

Such has been the power of this book that people assume that in ancient and medieval India, Brahmins referred to the Manu Smriti just as today’s lawyers refer to the Indian Penal Code. Naturally, this book and its contents have been vociferously condemned by Dalits and feminists while celebrated by numerous scholars, both European and Indian, who were relieved that Hinduism was not so fragmented after all.  In reality, Manu-smriti, the book, was for early and medieval Indians not really a book but an idea.

In mythology, Manu is the father of mankind, not as Adam was for the Christians, Muslims and Jewish people, but in a more metaphysical sense. The proper noun Manu and the common noun Manava are derived from manas, which means imagination. Manu and the Manavas thus possess imagination that makes them human. Manu is said to have come up, after consulting with his father Brahma, codes of conduct for humans. But these codes were flexible, changing with space and time, with the various yugas, which is why the code of conduct of Ram (one wife only, for example) is so different from the code of conduct of Krishna (many wives, for example). But this was not seen or considered by the British. They took things literally. They saw Manu-smriti as the closest Hindus had to the commandments. Eventually, they hoped the Hindus would come into the faith; until then Manu-smriti had to do.

The work of William Jones was considered so invaluable that his statue holding the Manusmriti can still be seen in St. Paul’s church in London. That a British Church houses both Manusmriti and the man who presented it to the world, neither of whom are housed in any Indian temple, says a lot about the British and Indian approaches to the manuscript.

Later, post 1857, when missionary activities were not actively encouraged, the British made no attempt to shift all Indians to a common code – the commandments (created by the British) were accepted as those of the Hindus, and treated with utmost deference, a deference that Indians eventually and inadvertently inherited.

In British courts, the Bible was used to compel witnesses to speak the truth. When the law courts came to India, judges wondered what would compel Hindu witnesses to speak the truth. There was no Hindu equivalent of the Bible. The water of the holy Ganga was tried. But it did not stop perjury. This was when Bhagavad Gita, first translated in the 18th century by Charles Wilkins, came to the rescue. It was the first holy Hindu book to be genuinely translated.

Before this translation, in all probability, very few Indians had actually read the Bhagavad Gita. Yes, everyone knew the Mahabharata and knew of Krishna’s conversation with a despondent Arjuna, but they knew the stories, not the original text which was written in a language known only to the Brahmin elite. Numerous commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita had been written long before the British. And most were in Sanskrit. These included the works of Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Vallabha, Nimbarka and Chaitanya, who were later bunched together as the Vedanta gurus.

In the 13th century, a young boy called Dyaneshwar wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in a regional language, Marathi. This act horrified the Brahmins who believed that the voice of God could not be presented in any other language but Sanskrit. Thanks to radical thinkers like Dyaneshwar the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita was familiar to most Hindus through regional songs and stories that spoke of karma and dharma and atma and moksha. But few had actually read the 18 chapters of the treatise as we do today.

The Bhagavad Gita as we know it today is a direct result of the work of Orientalists. It was their translations that were read by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. Since then, the book has been translated several hundred times, and commentaries written on it, not just by Europeans but also Indians, in all Indian languages. All this happened only in the past 250 years. And so, today, Hindus can proudly claim that they have a unifying holy book, an imperative imposed on Hindus by the European gaze.

In our haste to make Bhagavad Gita the holiest of holy books of the Hindus, many forget that Bhagavad Gita is a Vaishanva document; Krishna who sings the song is an incarnation of Vishnu. For Hindus, God presented the same truth in different ways. The same wisdom is captured in Guru Gita, part of the Skanda Purana, and in Ganesh Gita and in Yoga Vasistha and in Isha Upanishad. None of these are as popular as the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps because the Orientalists never gave them the same pride of place for fear of once again cluttering their understanding of Hinduism. One comprehensive book was good enough.

The modern cosmopolitan urban Hindu often overlooks this history and these divisions perhaps because it is so much convenient to ‘unify the diversity’ of Hinduism through one book. This is the insidious power of what we now call Westernization – it makes us intolerant to diversity.

  • Satish Gundawar

    Dear Devdutt,

    Wonderful analysis!! Isn’t division of Hinduism in Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakti a western construct?


    Satish Gundawar

    • aarthi raghavan

      no not at all!this division was present from approximately the 10th century.proof:-“ponniyin selvan” by kalki shows the start of these divisions.

      • Ramesh Subrahmaniam

        but Ponniyin selvan was a fiction by Kalki,and was written after independence, and about some events which was supposed to have taken place in 10th century, and How far it is true only God and Kalki knows ?

        • aarthi raghavan

          ponniyin selvan wasn’t just a fiction.researches were done before writing this novel.anyways u would have known the story throwing the idol of Govindaraja from Chidambaram temple(not taken from the film Dasavataram,but tht’s a true story).

    • Shiva, Vaishnav, Shakta, Davita, Adviata etc were divisions well entrenched in Hindu soc and for centuries gurus of one sect vied with the other to convert people to their ideology – evidenced by the great debate between Adi Shankara and Mandan Mishra where the person who was defeated had to accept the ideology of the victor.

      In places, these rivalries left the debating chamber and ended in physical blows – sad but true.

      Before and after the advent of islam and christianity, Hindus have fought thus between different sects. Even now, some Vaishnavs wont accept Shiva as a Mahadeva. Some Shivas wont accept the great acts of Vishnu except as grace of Shiva etc. It is because of this divide that RamaJanmabhimi sees no major support for it in the South or the breakup of Rama-setu has no sympathy in some parts of Hindu India.

      The day Hindu gurus and sects unite, we will become a spiritual power to be reckoned with. Till than, we will remain as the only religion to have 20% of world following, and still have no “chair” in any major university in the world.

      Read some of my articles on why we need to unite

      • Akhila

        This is the greatness of Hindu culture that u have space for debate. The truth is to sustain, not the belief.

  • Devdutt, excellent article.

    This is the case of blind leading the blind.


    An excellent analysis of events.

  • Sid

    Thanks for such a brilliant piece of wisdom about Hindu mythology. Its very refreshing to read your articles…

    • Sai Sudarshan

      Dear Sid,

      No digs but This article isnt mythology ;-)

      His’ is a commentary on the haste and impropriety of the so-called West scholars of the ancient Indian beliefs and lifestyle and thinking !!!

      But yes .. it is a good read.

  • Jyoti Shukla

    DHARMA means DUTY, not RELIGION. The philosophy we follow is SANATAN: the word ‘hindu’ was coined by invaders unable to pronounce ‘sindhu’. And finally, none of the epics – including the Vedas – are ‘books’. Our philosophy can NOT be read from a book but must be learnt by LISTENING the Guru’s discourses. The masses at large could be misled because they remained uninformed.

  • Raghav

    Hi Devji,
    Thanks for the insightful article.Please could you write an article on the significance of numbers (108,18,3,..for Hindus,786 for Muslims,3 for Christians)in religion please.Thanks :-)

  • Raghav

    Hi Devji,
    I also have another doubt.I do not believe in the original sin,but sometimes I feel that everyone directly(and more often indirectly) is responsible for the good or bad things that happen to everyone for example I feel if I ride a bike and someone else dies of asthama..maybe I also have a hand somewhere in this giant spider web which causes ripples.I know this sounds silly and stupid..but just felt like sharing it..Thanks :-)

    • “I feel if I ride a bike and someone else dies of asthama..”

      Just Google the term “butterfly effect” or check out the wikipedia entry on it. AFAIK this does not apply to morality or religion.

      So,I wouldn’t consider myself “butterfly” neither should you ;)

  • Nikhil

    Great stuff!

    How can we change this and bring back the real values of Hinduism?

  • DevDutt ji,

    Very nice article.I completely agree with the history of it all.Disagree with some interpretations of ‘diversity’ in the religious context or in the more ‘popular’ context.
    As much as the West depends on the Bible and abhors anything vaguely diverse in the context of religion..In the social life, which reflects the framework that the Bible provides, there is absolute acceptance of diversity, change, transformation, growth etc. In the Eastern context or for that matter the Hindu context, inspite of the rich and diverse scriptural knowledge , there is non acceptance of the richness or the diversity.The lessons too many, the ideas expressed in many ways and sometimes contradictory.The East still strives for ‘unity’.
    I look forward to more of your work, it is very insightful, thoroughly enjoy reading your writings.

    Best Regards
    Abha B

    • “In the social life, which reflects the framework that the Bible provides, there is absolute acceptance of diversity, change, transformation, growth etc”

      You mean post-renaissance Western society ? The West of the middle ages is known for the burning of heretics by the church, inquisitions, crusades etc. Of course, the Bible wasn’t the keystone the social framework then, it isn’t now.

      What I gather from Devdutt’s article is that the British administrators and Orientalists who were trying to comprehend,compile and codify Hindu law, according to their own preconceived notions (of One God, One Book) rather than prevailing customs and rules.

      However, I am curious why he hasn’t mentioned some of the more recent developments…

      • Yes, absolutely..for the brutalities , crusades, which prevail even till today..the Bible doesn’t seem to have asked for them, or permitted them.
        My study has been around the impact ‘religion’ has had on the social frameworks. Religion plays a huge role in creating Mindsets, Acceptance of Life and its complexity, Dealing with it etc.More so, on the ‘faith in action’ from the perspective of ‘living in the moment’, ‘achievements’ , ‘faith in self and God’. I am from the field of personal development, and human behavior to a large extent is derived from the religous leanings.
        The East has a culture richer than any in the World, India alone has such a wonderful heritage and scripturally we can claim leadership in the field of human development.
        However, the ground reality is very different and the West ‘lives’ better than the East vis a vis the ‘Actual living'( excluding the excesses) I have had the privilege to live through different religous contexts by interpreting the scripture and applying it to real life as a Hindu, as a Muslim, as a Christian and a Buddhist.
        Surprisingly, While we would all like to believe that there is one God, and all scriptures lead you one to that God..the way that God is conceived in day to day life in so totally different in every religion..the way , God is felt is very different, the way people express FAITH, ( not religous but faith in life ) is very very different..So..the discussion goes on, I am still learning!

        Must thank Devdutt ji for such great analysis.

        • Sorry for the delayed response Abha ji,
          Yes, I agree with you on inherent differences in religions. Take Jesus- Jews revile him, Muslims revere him but deny his divinity, Christians consider him the only path to salvation. But that is not diversity, they are 3 different religions.

          However, Devdutt ji’s post is on diversity in Indian culture which European colonialists could not fully comprehend. You say West “lives” better, but that is because of economic prosperity. Is there really acceptance of diversity ?

          Can a society that bans wearing of the veil, the crucifix, turban and even bans constructions of buildings of a certain shape (minar), be in any way seen as a tolerant society ?

  • Sushma Mata Panda

    Namaskar Devji

    I have been reading your articles regularly and have subscribed to all your articles.

    My knowledge of mythology has been very poor and I have always questioned a lot of things that we are expected to do like believing in castism, rituals like birth ceremonies, death ceremonies etc. Though my thoughts for all that is not changing but your articles have definitely helped me to relate and understand the present corporate life and business and personal life better.

  • Thanks a ton for another insightful article – revealing many unknown truths. The more we find out about it the more we realize there is to find out about it.

  • KW

    Are you planning or in the mids of writting a book on the Holy Gita (as in your own version)????

    I hope you do, atleast I will be eagerly waiting for it.

  • Gagan

    And those who argued against the Church in favor of rational thought, also believed in an common thread that bound they universe.

    Please edit, the they should be the

  • Gagan

    The earlier European civilizations also had many gods, right ? Then How can this diversity did not play any role in their interpretation.

  • Dear Dev Saab,

    As usual a great article.

    Please also inform your fans how ‘our’ religion turned from “Vedic” to ‘Hinduism’ which originated from “Sindhu” by Muslim invaders.


    • Bharat Verma

      Hinduism is the the only religion which came after the beliefs and philosophy.In hinduism, Beliefs and philosophy of the people were compiled to form the relegion. In other religions First the religion was proposed then the beliefs and Philosophy was centred on it. Maybe because it is the only religion continuous from prehistoric times.

      At that time there was no other religion so there was no need to name Hinduism. The basic tenets of Hinduism said and it still says that everyone who does good will go to heaven and those who do bad will go to hell. It hardly matters what are his beleifs. So there was no requirement to distinguish between a believer or non believer in hinduism (unlike other religions)

      Later Jains and Budhist were just considered as a different sect only.

      It was only when external people came to India, the requirement was fealt by them to name the Religion of people beyond Sindhu.

      During the same time as the naming of Hinduism was in progress, the structure was also changing due to close contact often hostile in nature with outsiders. And thus hinduism as we know today appeared.

      Megasthenes elaborated indian and their customs in great details yet he had never mentioned the prevalence of the Four cast system during Chandragupta’s time. He only informs just about classification of the society in seven classes. Which is actually highly essential to organise such a populous and evolved society.

      Cast system became prevalent and increasingly rigid may be to do away and check the damages, modifications to the society during the patronage given to Budhism/Jainism and later on due to hostile interactions with various external people.

  • Good thoughts

    More ideas and recommendations on how to reverse this thought process would be welcome


  • Darshan DALAL

    I find that your articles help me learn about things I am interested in but didnt have a simple / clear way of learning. Its a shame we are not taught these things in school. I am not aware of any steps being taken to introduce this sort of knowledge in schools, whether as part of a History course, or even introduce a course on Indian Heritage / Theology ( i do see private institutes popping up relating to this subject matter). Any thoughts on using your knowldge and influence to help introduce this to curriculums?

  • your writing clears lot of doubt that always entered my mind.
    and I like to read the comments by all readers which give different views…

  • balagopal

    It’s good to see mind application of these sorts. Probably the long periods of secular dominion had reduced this habit. Interestingly the ancient wise structured the religion in such a way that it can absorb all kinds of shocks and eventually rise up as and when the need / time arises. This is what makes the Hindu religion ticking; and hence rightly called ‘sanatana dharma’. ‘Change’ is eternal and ever changing is eternal too.

  • Alex Jacob

    Dear Sir,

    I have read your book JAYA recently. Such a wonderful way of telling the tale. I must say u are a gifted narrator.

    However, whenever you are explaining duryodhana, you explain in suh a way that there is something in him to be despised. From the notes and translations i have read, duryodhana is not a wile person, but just a short tempered guy who has commited a few mistakes in life without thinking about the consequences. Moreover, some scholars have argued that when Vyasa wrote mahabharatha, the war was over and pandavas were ruling, so he wrote it so cunningly that if u read properly, all the persons in kauraya team are gifted with good talents and all the pandavas are posed not as normal straight forward persons from the birth to death. And duryodhana is praised to the helm with the qualities such as will, courage, determination, understanding, loyalty, etc.

    Would you someday write something on duryodhana? a book or an article perhaps ?

    Thanks & Regards
    Alex Jacob