Lakshmi on the BBC

This is a comment on the BBC In Our Time programme, on Lakshmi, broadcasted on 6 October 2016.

This is a comment on the BBC In Our Time programme, on Lakshmi, hosted by Lord Melvin Bragg broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 6 October 2016. Without making any statement about the sincerity of the presenter or those academics (Jessica Frazier, University of Kent; Jacqueline Suthren Hirst, University of Manchester; Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Lancaster University) who participated in it,  the programme brought to the fore, albeit in a half hidden way, the contemporary dilemmas facing anyone who wants to talk coherently about any aspect of the Indian traditions.

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The discussion actually demonstrates our inability to talk about Indian traditions without reducing them to some cheap, better-disposed-of copy of Christianity. The programme achieves this for the figure of Lakshmi, a result no doubt totally unintended by the BBC, the host or his academic guests. What follows is a short description by a hearer that is inevitably a synthesis of the discussion as heard rather than a comment on one or another participant in the programme. In other words, for the following description to make any sense, we have to pretend that, much like a novel, a narrator is speaking through the mouths of each participant.  From the start of the programme two themes introduced testify to the fact that the questions asked have no bearing on an understanding of the goddess Lakshmi or, for that matter, any aspect of the Indian traditions. There is talk about origins. Such talk is intelligible only because of the dominant cultural context in which the question of origins of religions, as belief systems, is normal and normative.

Without a historical origin there cannot be a foundation to a belief system. But the search for foundations is neither here nor there for Indians who never asked questions about foundations until the dominant Semitic theology imposed the necessity of establishing them.  Notice also how the text and its dating is treated. Religion must ideally be accompanied by text. Without text there is, after all, no foundation for beliefs. This ties in with the certitude provided by the Christian religion – a certitude that has since permeated the Western culture – that human beings are intentional creatures whose actions betray their beliefs, while beliefs found actions. Where better to examine the source of those beliefs than the available texts. The Semitic template is firmly in place.

However, it is made into an oddity that the Vedic texts do not speak of Lakshmi until some uncertain but certainly later date. The subtle suggestion here is that there is the hand of human invention, a suggestion which is less subtly and intermittently reinforced through the programme. In Semitic religions, which are of course God-given, there is no question of human invention, to suggest which would be blasphemous.

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But Lakshmi can be treated as if invented, perhaps by defrauding priests, a human creation to be worshipped within a false religion. To Indians, it is of no importance whether Lakshmi is invented by a rishi or other personage. This is inconsequential to the role her presence performs in the Indian culture. So, on the one hand, the cultural intuition of Indians can sit relatively undisturbed alongside the allegation that she is an invented creature. On the other hand, the insinuation, to which most Indians are totally blind, is that whereas Indians believe in make believe, willing fools to believe in man-made goddesses, followers of Semitic religions have real religion sent to them by God, of which the religion is itself proof.

The making of Lakshmi is therefore yet another vain attempt by the Indian who contended the forces of nature and invented albeit rather elaborate, decorative and entertaining myths for his being able to cope with them. After all, as programme host Lord Melvin Bragg has it, “these are people like us [but] without the tools of knowledge”. There was no option for Indians other than taking refuge in make believe stories because they did not have real science, and no conception of real (rational) knowledge, as we do. One may even accept that for natural science to flower did indeed require religion, of which the Semitic religions are the epitome. One can even accept that wondrous achievements have been the outcome of the natural sciences. But in the programme the implication is to reduce the Indian to the imbecilic status of automaton who blindly believes in stories that are make-believe to somehow help him (or her – housewives appear to populate the programme) cope with life.

Christian themes loom large throughout the programme. So Indians “worship” and “pray”, but they do so transactionally ergo insincerely, thus unable to fulfil the demand of true Christian worship. The repeated citing of the importance Indian merchant communities give to Lakshmi not only underpins this suggestion but is in stark contrast to Jesus’ forbidding of his Father’s house being made into a house of trade. Christians themes continue to dominate: Indians have “theologies” that carry some “authority”, and they too have “God”; but they also have gods and goddesses and so are “polytheistic” in contrast to our monotheism; worship to Lakshmi is a “meaning making” activity.

Like so much else in the programme these themes also suggest that ‘Hinduism’, itself a unit of the European experience of India, is an erring variant of Christianity. This heritage is an old one, going back to the earliest encounters of Europeans with India. Its continuity and stability is even more remarkable. Once couched in explicitly religious terms, the durability of descriptive terms reveals much more: that the structures on which ‘secular’ depictions of the Indian traditions depend are themselves Christian and theological.

While this is the filter through which discussion of the Indian traditions still takes place, we undoubtedly get variation in accounts among the interlocutors, giving the superficial impression of genuine difference of academic opinion on the role of Lakshmi in India. Instead, what we have is each scholar going about her or his business talking of Lakshmi according to whatever pet theory takes their fancy. So it could be some version of feminism according to which Lakshmi comes to play a role model and support for women (only women? really?). It may be that through Lakshmi we learn of the development of social structure and specialisation in economic production among Indians. And so on.

What is certain is that the discussants are not working with any real theory of the Indian traditions that provides genuine insights into the Indian traditions and the role Lakshmi plays within them. Lacking such a theory, it is a market in which buyers and sellers may meet, each offering what sells or going for what they hanker. But is anyone really any the wiser after listening to this programme?

The article has been reproduced from author’s blog with permission.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary University of London.
  • keval

    These are very relevant issues. Most Hindus themselves, when confronted with the question that these Gods and Goddesses were invention of fraudulent priests, push it in the away from from the conscious mind and do not face it fully. They keep on doing the rituals because they work in most cases, but they loose shradda and vishwas, if they are educated and well off.
    They do not realize that Christianity and Islam is frozen in the time with every new revelation is considered as heresy, imagination and is punishable by death. That at least Christians are now considering it as ‘invention’ without punishing and killing is improvement. They do not realize that although Supreme is changeless, it is still infinite and living, dynamic reality. Human mind and its environment are constantly changing, and whenever someone dives deep in the unified consciousness, the same reality reveal different forms and names. These new forms and names are not inventions; but as American devotee Krishna das said: these forms, names and their actions have been revealed to people with unified consciousness, and if we do sadhana involving them, we come to realize our own true nature; because in essence we are that unified consciousness. He implied that if we start worshipping some imaginary beings like Batman or spiderman, and chant their names; we might find that we are encountering many people dressed and pretending to be batman, spiderman- but we will get no access to the true nature, real consciousness of those beings, as they are not discovered by Rishis or Sages in the unified consciousness.

  • Shubhangi Raykar

    The lens is bound to be Christian and delimiting for that reason because they have that worldview internalized. Lakshmi is as ancient as creation. Suvarna bhumi airport of Bangkok has a beautiful fresco or may be a sculpture representing the creation myth of Hindus and Buddhists ,may be. It is the churning of the Ocean of Milk.14 objects(called gems) come out of the churning and Lakshmi is one of them.She is as ancient as creation. In Maharashtra and elsewhere the Mangalashtak , among the verses recited at the time of wedding there is one on the list of these gems. They are so important and internalized by Hindus.

  • JayZ

    Bbc Cnn aljazeera are all platform to sell their point of view. Time we step up and created our own voice.

  • Chandra Ravikumar

    Some years ago, a pre-deepavali article in the Deccan Herald written by an apparently Hindu journalist (Hindu I presume because of her name) was titled “Lakshmi, the Goddess of Mammon”. Her ignorance was so pathetic that I forgave her on compulsions of pity.

  • Ananth Sethuraman

    Thanks for this article.

  • After all, as programme host Lord Melvin Bragg has it, “these are people like us [but] without the tools of knowledge”

    Its quite funny considering it is coming from people who believe the Abrahamic god created Eve from Adam’s rib/side.

    Since Wendy Doniger has done an analysis on Hindu Gods, I will do similar analysis albeit a brief one based on those very same principles used by her, in my post here.

    Analysis of the Christian Creation Myth

    The Abrahamic God, Yahweh/Jehovah used Adam’s body without his consent (Consent is what separates rape from consensual sex) by causing Adam to fall asleep first which is actually the step one in drug rape, to create another living being Eve.

    So from this myth, we have,
    1. first recorded literary instance of incest between father Yahweh and son Adam, one comes across while reading the Christian Biblical Literature, Book of Genesis and

    2. Another first but also the most important, it is also male-on-male rape. male(Yahweh/Jehovah) on male(Adam) Rape from which we can also deduce that the Abrahamic God is homosexual in nature.

    Similarly, Adam is father(mother?) to Eve, the sex between Adam and Eve is another instance of incest between father Adam and daughter Eve.
    or
    since they both share one common parent, the god Yahweh as father to both, the sexual relation between Adam and Eve can also be considered as incest between brother Adam and sister Eve.

    • unmesh dave

      NIcely put

    • RamRani Yvette Rosser

      Problem is not so much a gay god, as the denigration of women inherent in Xianity. The god (or perhaps demiurge) who made Adam and Eve was so unsure of himself … the paranoid jealous type, that he forbade his creations to gain wisdom and eat from the tree of knowledge. But Eve, being a woman was more intuitive and sensed the wisdom of the sheshnag when he got her attention and told her she too could be wise, like god, so she ate of the fruit of wisdom and zap! pow! that jealous insecure deity banished his creatures from the make believe garden of Eden, where they were kept stupid, and once full of wisdom, sent them out into the real world. But later generations of Xianian MEN blamed Eve for disobeying their god by bringing them knowledge and forever marked her with a black sin on her soul and said she caused all future generations of humans to have this black sin on their soul. And what was that sin? The desire for wisdom! There are no Goddesses in Xianity just a poor woman blamed for desiring wisdom and leading humans into the real world out of the fake servitude of Eden. That is some twisted story… so when that demiurge sent his only son to save the humans did he erase the wisdom that Eve imbibed?