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Rush Hour for the Gods

June 12, 2010

William Dalrymple in National Interest:

LAST YEAR, on a trip in southern India, I met a man who makes gods.

Srikanda Stpathy was both a Brahman priest and an idol maker: the twenty-third of a long hereditary line going back to the Chola bronze casters who had created some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art at the beginning of the Middle Ages. His workshop was in Swamimalai, near Tanjore, from where the Chola dynasty once ruled the southern half of the subcontinent. There he and his two elder brothers plied their trade, making gods and goddesses in exactly the same manner as their ancestors: “The gods created man,” he explained, “but here we are so blessed that we—simple men as we are—help create the gods.”  (…)

AS IN North and Latin America and China, but in sharp contrast to what is happening in Europe, development, progress and education have not in any way threatened religion in South Asia. Instead, across the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region develops and reinvents itself. In nineteenth-century Europe, industrialization and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the death of God: organized religion began to decline and the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of South Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.

During the early twentieth century, educated, urban Hindu reformers moved away from ritualized expressions of faith, and early leaders such as independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the writer of its constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, formed the nation as a model secular state with no official faith: this was to be a state where, in the words of Nehru, “dams would be the new temples.” But over the last twenty years, just as India has freed itself from the shackles of Nehruvian socialism, so too has India gone a long way to try and shake off that particular brand of secularism. [More]

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