“Ten Ways on How Not To Think About the Iran/Saudi Conflict”


Omid Safi, an accomplished scholar of Islam, has written an excellent article about the current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have already have widespread repercussions on the Middle East as a whole. Many news outlets have described the conflict as rooted in Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, which is simplistic and not-totally-accurate, and Safi argues for a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the article.


“One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates.

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.”

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“Hindu way to resist Hindutva”

An environment in which even educated Hindus don’t know their Hinduism (in a critical and intellectual sense), even as the Hindu faith retains its pre-eminent sway over the masses, has become fertile ground for fanatical bigots.

As you can probably tell by now, I really don’t like Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). This article discusses how many religious/observant Hindus have been relatively silent when it comes to speaking out against Hindutva, and how that has serious consequences.

“Amidst the noisy debate on intolerance that marked the political discourse this year, one voice has been conspicuously absent — that of the Hindu obviously steeped in the tradition. Of course, a large number of Hindus, at least nominal Hindus, have spoken out against the growing climate of bigotry and chauvinism — Nayantara Sahgal, Kailash Satyarthi, P.M. Bhargava, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Raghuram Rajan, Admiral Ramdas and now the new Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur, to name a few. However, none of them appears to be a tilak-sporting, shloka-chanting, bhajan-singing, puja-performing, pilgrimage-going, observant Hindu. Rather, they are exactly the sort of urban, secularised, English-speakers that the proponents of Hindutva scorn as “inauthentic” in terms of their Hindu roots.

Indeed, most of India’s liberal Hindus would confess that they are Hindu, if at all, mainly in a vaguely spiritual and philosophical sense and have little understanding of Hinduism’s history or scriptures and no truck with its many rituals, symbols and observances. Their liberal sentiments are rooted largely in their own cosmopolitan experience and, at best, a homegrown understanding of the Hindu tradition absorbed from the family milieu rather than anchored in the texts and tenets of Hinduism. Of course, the more eclectically read can trot out a supportive quotation or two from the Gita, but their plural and tolerant understanding of Hinduism is instinctive rather than intellectual.

Sadly, however, this well-meaning guff is simply not going to cut it. The misguided rants of the RSS, Sangh Parivar and the rest of the Hindutva brigade have to be delegitimised from deep within Hinduism — by wielding the texts, idioms, history and practices of the Hindu tradition, rather than the liberal and secular values of the European Enlightenment. Hindutva can only be countered by showing it up as “un-Hindu”.

This is easier said than done. No Hindu religious leader of any consequence — not one of the hordes of gurus and mahants supposedly immersed in the tradition and, therefore, able to authoritatively represent its core values — has spoken out against the rampant distortions of Hinduism that are currently being propagated. On the contrary, many have implicitly condoned or are explicitly riding the Hindutva bandwagon. Sadly, there is no Swami Vivekananda around to once again articulate an ecumenical vision for Hinduism — “a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”, as he memorably put it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

What, then, are liberal Hindus to do?

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Telisi Rama: goats and milkweed and God

In the cheerful, bright song Telisi Rama (in the raga Purnachandrika), Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847) showcases his skill as a vaggeyakara (poet-composer). He quotes various Telugu homonyms to make a point about language and devotion to God. The video above is a rendition of this song by the Malladi brothers.

telisi rAma cintanatO nAmamu sEyavE O manasA

talapu lanni nilipi nimiSamaina tAraka rUpuni nija tatvamulanu

Tyagaraja begins by appealing to one’s mind (O manasa) to “keep thoughts of Rama,” and to “recite his name steadily, even for one minute”. He continues by saying that, having stopped all unnecessary thoughts (talupulanni nilipi) even just for a minute (nimisha maina), one should concentrate on Rama’s attributes and sayings (tattvamulanu).

rAmAyaNa capalakSula pEru kAmAdula pOru vAru vIru
rAmAyaNa brahmamunaku pEru AmAnava jananArtulu dIru

The Telugu word rama can have two meanings: either “woman” or the god Rama. In this (sexist) couplet, Tyagaraja disapproves of those who say rama thinking of women. He says that saying rama while thinking of God will remove the hardships and troubles from one’s life.

arkamanucu jilleDu taru pEru markaTa buddhu leTla dIru
arkuDanucu bhAskaruniki pEru kutarkamanu andhakAramu dIru

Similarly, arka can mean either a poisonous milkweed tree, or another name for Surya, the sun god (technically one would say arkudu if referring to the god). Here, Tyagaraja asks, “When saying arka, if the mind thinks of milkweed, how will one’s monkey-like thoughts go away? / When saying arka, if the mind thinks of the Sun, the darkness of unnecessary thoughts will disappear.”

ajamanucu mESamunaku pEru nija kOrika lElA gIDEru
ajuDani vAgIshavaruniki pEru vijayamu galgunu tyAgarAja nutuni

Finally, the word aja can refer to a male goat, or to the creator god, Brahma (like above, technically one would say ajudu if referring to Brahma). Tyagaraja asks, “If the mind thinks of a goat while saying aja, how will one’s real desires be achieved [meaning moksha/liberation]? / When saying aja, if one thinks of Lord Brahma, they will attain success.”


Do you have 20 minutes to spare?

This might just be my favorite song ever. I’ve listened to it since I was much younger and it never ceases to amaze me. This track is a duet performance featuring Pandit Jasraj, a great Hindustani singer, and Dr. L. Subramaniam, who is one of the most skilled violinists in the world, and certainly the most accomplished Indian violinist. I’ve been lucky enough to see both of them in concert individually, but this joint performance is on a whole other level.

Pandit Jasraj is performing a composition called the “Govind Damodar Madhaveti” stuti, in a raga (melodic scale) known as Sarasangi. He is accompanied on violin by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

I’ve put the meaning of the composition after the break, but I would recommend listening to this track without reading the meaning first. (I’ve only just now discovered the meaning of the lyrics, thanks to Google) Just enjoy the music. The depth and range of Pandit Jasraj’s voice coupled with Dr. L. Subramaniam’s mastery of the violin is truly stunning.

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Amit Chaudhuri: “Modi’s Hinduism”

This piece by Amit Chaudhuri, an acclaimed Indian author, provides an excellent look at the current political and social situation in India, and the consequences that the current rise in Hindu fundamentalism (aided by the ruling party, the BJP) may have on Hinduism as a whole. Here are two passages that stood out to me (emphasis mine):

“Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally.

This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ religion into a kind of legitimacy… it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.

Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality, and making it a ‘proper’ religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. ‘Intolerance’ is the Indian press’s term for this regime of threats and violence towards beef-eaters, writers, ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ organisations (like Greenpeace), and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, ‘“intolerance” is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings.’

The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable, and is tone deaf to figurative language. Soon after it came to power, one BJP minister proclaimed that ancient Indians must have possessed the technology to build aeroplanes since the epics mention flying chariots. Modi then added that the elephant-headed god Ganesh was proof that plastic surgery existed in ancient India. Both remarks made people shake their heads and laugh, but all Modi was saying was that Hindu mythology as a domain of poetry, irreverence, humour and symbolism (‘Only an incredibly sophisticated culture could have produced a figure like Ganesh,’ Allen Ginsberg once said) made far less sense to him than the Renaissance and Enlightenment realism which, in a weirdly distorted form, has shaped the BJP as well as its secretive cultural-militant wing, the RSS.”

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My introduction to Satyajit Ray: “The Music Room”

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Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) is regarded not just as the greatest Indian filmmaker, but as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. You can read his biography on Wikipedia, but this quote gives a sense of his reputation:

Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon.

— Akira Kurosawa, “one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema”

After reading a lot about him and hearing about his films, I decided to experience him for myself by watching his 1958 film, Jalsaghar (“The Music Room”). I partly chose this as my first Ray film because it’s known as “a showcase for some of India’s most popular [classical] musicians of the day,” and it indeed lives up to its title. In fact, the sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, whom I wrote about in my first blog post, composed the film’s soundtrack.

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In Bengali, the upper text says “Music composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan”

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Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music

One major difference between the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions can be seen in their treatment of improvisation. In his book A Southern Music, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna explains improvisation in the context of Carnatic music:

The [Sanskrit] word manodharma has two components to it: mano, meaning ‘one’s own will’, and dharma, which refers to a certain righteousness in the path… Improvisational music is what is referred to as manodharma sangita, or the music that issues out of the individual musician’s very own and personal musical sensibility.

In both systems of Indian classical music, improvisation within a raga (melodic scale) is seen as the highest level of musical skill; in no musician is qualified to perform if they are not proficient in improvisation (which is why I have a while to go until I give a concert, lol), and indeed improvisation plays a central role in Indian classical performances.

In Hindustani performances, improvisation makes up the vast majority of the concert; there may be a few compositions with defined lyrics and melodies that are performed, but the rest of the concert is raga-based improvisation. In a typical Hindustani concert, the performer will say, “I will now play/sing Raga ___”, (or they might not say anything) and they will begin a certain type of improvisation in that raga. They will then move on to another raga or two, and then end the concert with some short compositions.

In contrast, Carnatic performances are typically driven by compositions, not freeform improvisation. Instead of just announcing the name of a raga, the artist would typically say, “I will now perform the song ____ in ____ raga, set to ____ talam (rhythm), dedicated to Lord/Goddess _____ and composed by _____.” They would then begin by improvising in the raga in which the composition is set, and then they would sing the composition itself, which would have defined lyrics set to a specific rhythmic cycle. Within Carnatic compositions, there is plenty of scope for improvisation, but the artist cannot deviate from the lyrics of the composition.

This reliance on compositions with set lyrics presents listeners and performers of Carnatic music with this question:

Is Carnatic music “art music” or “devotional music”?

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