What is European?

I often ask myself. After having spent 37 years at a stretch on this continent – which means the major part of my adult life – I suddenly find myself caught up in the midst of an unholy debate regarding Europeanness and – let’s just call it otherness.

If Europeans are that afraid of otherness, those ‘others’ should have been just as afraid of Europeanness, right? But apparently they aren’t. Hordes of human beings from other parts of the world are heading towards Europe looking for – what? Everything, I’d say, security, above all; security of life & limb, of food & shelter, employment and/or social benefits. Children’s education. Health care. Citizenship in due course. Voting rights. Pension. And all this irrespective of one’s religion – irrespective being the key word.

That seems to be the secret of how this continent of bloody-minded ex-slave traders & colonialists fighting their world wars every twenty years still managed to remain so attractive a place to live in. Irrespective of religion. In its long and chequered history, Europe has managed to preserve, even cherish, its religion, which is undoubtedly Christianity – and still ‘pull the teeth of religion’, as they’d put it in German, and the claws as well, one is tempted to add. We remember the end of the Inquisition & subsequently of all debauched, battling popes. The separation of church & state. As England is a constitutional monarchy, Europe seems to have converted to a kind of constitutional religion. Isn’t the Vatican somehow like the Buckingham Palace? People go and watch the changing of the guard in both places, I’m told, whether the Queen’s Guard in their bearskin caps or the Swiss Guard with their gorget, cuirass, morion and what-have-you.

On a more serious note, what fascinates me about Europe & European history is the fact that they turn entire epochs of that turbulent history into what I call their Great Unifiers. The Greeks and the Romans might have been what they were in their day, but they and their culture were later turned into a part of the humanistic education & upbringing of the European elite – together with Greek and Latin, two dead languages which will never die. Back in the ’eighties, I had a Czech doctor – in Communist Czechoslovakia – writing out his diagnosis in Latin so that I’d be able to present it to my house physician in (West) Germany. Poor fellow didn’t know German but assumed that any self-respecting doctor in Germany would have enough Latin. Charged me one crown, one single and solitary Czechoslovak crown, for the visit, prescription included.

But the Greeks and the Romans pale into insignificance when we come to Christianity, the master stroke of the Roman Catholic Church being to authorise the Latin version of the Bible, for the use of the vulgar or common people, hence called the Vulgate. And then the saints came marchin’ in!

It is necessary to understand how Christian myths & legends managed to penetrate every home & every mind in Europe – provide that substratum of a common consciousness upon which all could draw – the artists for inspiration & allusion, the commoner for understanding & comprehension. Philosophy is for the philosopers, theology for theologists; what the common man – or woman – needs are personal gods to pray to. In the case of Christianity, they gave the common folk the saints. After that there was no looking back. Because saints are human to begin with, their lives are open to human representation – in the arts and literature, for example. In churches as much as in palaces – or hovels.

The second trick was to adopt the concept as well as the terminology – not to speak of the insignia! – of earthly power to depict everything from the King of Heaven to His representative on earth viz. the Pope. Forget the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, as the saying goes. But power, even at the Holy See, has always sought & expressed itself in pomp, and pomp proved to be a bounty & a bonanza for artists of the ilk of Michelangelo & Raffaello Sanzio. Especially the ‘divine Michelangelo’ did what he liked with the stories of the Bible – he liked naked men, for example! And he created a bit of Europe as we know it, in the process.

What the Europeans have been doing right from Michelangelo’s day is to decontrol & declassify religious/Christian myths & legends so that the secular world – of both artists and commoners or where the two touched – could make use of them for the furtherance of art & culture.

This is exactly what should have happened with our religious myths and epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for example. Religious myths & legends are not meant to be locked up in a treasure room & guarded with drawn swords & raised halberds – they are meant to be used, both ceremonially and otherwise.

The Indian, Hindu version of the Vulgate is of course Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. The poet-saint of the sixteenth century retold the tales of the Sanskrit Ramayana in his native awadhi, the Hindi dialect of Awadh, and Hinduism of & for the masses was born.

Twentieth century Bengali novelist Satinath Bhaduri based his two volume saga of the Tatmas, a backward, low caste community in eastern Bihar, on Ramcharitmanas and titled his work Dhonrai Charit Manas. Dhonrai is the simpleton hero of this grassroots, realistic Ramayana set in sub-rural India with WWII as well as the Indian Independence Movement rambling on in the background. The way India & Indians have neglected this major piece of work which goes far beyond the purview of literature – and which I rank on the same level as the best of Premchand or Renu or Tarashankar or Bibhutibhusan – is as if the Taj Mahal were to be a forgotten monument among the goats & the scrub somewhere on the banks of the Yamuna.

I don’t know whether Shashi Tharoor got his inspiration from Satinath Bhaduri – I doubt it – but Tharoor based his 1989 The Great Indian Novel on the Mahabharata, recasting the epic to tell the story of India’s independence struggle & thereafter.

So Tulsi in Hindi, Satinath in Bengali & Tharoor in English – have we made the grade, then, so far as decontrolling & declassifying our myths are concerned? Let’s turn to the arts.

Michelangelo’s saints, sinners, Adam, even God Himself were mostly naked or nearly naked. This was in the sixteenth century. Maqbool Fida Husain, named the “Picasso of India” (if only by Forbes), had to breathe his last in European exile (in 2011, at the age of 95) because he had portrayed Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in the nude. The fact that he was a Muslim merely obscured the debate, which is still waiting to be joined.


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