Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra [A Review]

Vishnu’s Crowded Temple – India Since the Great Rebellion is a thoughtful analysis of a 150 years of Indian history since the Mutiny. Dense with information, Misra promises a more causative analysis of modern Indian history that will challenge the readers preconceptions of how and why modern India came to be.

Cover image of Vishnu's Crowded Temple by Maria Misra

In her introduction, Misra describes the difficulties in coming up with a comprehensive theory of modern India. She discusses the flaws of other attempts – made from liberal, Marxist or subaltern (tribal groups, forest-dwellers, poor peasants and Dalits (FKA ‘untouchables’)) viewpoints. India, she says, has avoided both the homogenisation of much of the West and the famines and Gulags of communist Russia and China. Instead, like its former colonial masters, the British, India is dominated by an upper class that has adapted and endured despite various attempts to subdue it. An upper class and caste system that Misra argues, did not rigidly exist before colonisation but instead established itself in response to the arrival of it, mostly by literate Brahmins who put themselves at the top but with jostling by other groups at other times. In this book, Misra promises a departure from the usual explanations to provide a less ideological, more causative analysis of how India came to be India – an approach I found encouraging.

The history of India recounted in this book is, then, not a tale of straightforward liberal westernisation, nor of a struggle between all-powerful elites and the hopelessly subordinated poor, but of its complex and halting evolution into a very particular kind of modern nation.

Divided into eight chapters and an epilogue, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple tells its story in three main parts. The first covers the building of the Raj, post-Mutiny, up to the First World War. The second covers the Raj’s response to various crises, not least of which was the Independence movement. The third looks at India’s post-Independence journey; various attempts to create a unified nation, the rise of Hindu Nationalism and various ‘Silent Revolutions’ by minority groups.

And so, Misra begins with the impact of the Mutiny on the British colonists. Before the rebellion, she argues that colonial action was motivated by nation-building where colonists sought to ‘improve’ India by providing the benefits of modernity – such as the railway and the telegraph – and removing the backward – such as sati (widow sacrifice). The colonists interpreted the Mutiny as a reaction to the speed of change which was rapidly destroying culture and tradition. Following the Mutiny, the colonists altered their methods to focus on what the two cultures had in common.

But, the British difficulty and inability to understand India frequently raised its head with enormous consequences. Those aspects the British felt they understood became promoted and reinforced, those they did not were neglected, atrophied or were modified to suit them. For example, both cultures were built around a traditional aristocracy. But while the Hindu caste system was flexible, local and inclusive, under the British it became organised, nationalised and segregated, as it was in Britain. Some castes were seemingly invented during this period simply to aid the British in making sense of their census data.

It might surprise some readers, less familiar with India, to learn that much of what they think of as traditionally or uniquely ‘Indian’ was in fact are in fact strongly influenced, if not wholly invented, by the British.

Much of this colonial ‘science’ was absurd, but it had a real effect on society because there were powerful reasons for Indians to internalise these formal caste divisions. The census and other British classificatory schemes gave scientific credibility to the idea that India was composed of elaborate hierarchies and that some groups were better than others – more intelligent, more honest, more manly and more modern. The distinctions, now supposedly empirically verified, flowed through the Raj’s administrative channels and were soon used to determine highly political questions such as the allocation of land, representative rights, martial honour, bureaucratic office and higher education; and, of course, who should be denied all of these boons. However, the most profound legacy of this urge to catalogue and control was on the way Indians thought (and, to an extent, still think) about themselves. A symbiotic relationship developed between British ideas and Indian realities, between British stereotypes and Indian self-perceptions. No sooner had the British proposed that a type existed that the ‘type’ sprang forth to claim its rights, contest its disabilities or demand the stigmatisation of others. Indians soon learnt that the British only responded to claims grounded in caste, tribe or religion.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, famine and disease claimed millions of lives but the British did little to help. British-only infrastructure, administration salaries and foreign adventures were prioritised instead. As the money flowed out of the country, disillusionment grew among those Indians who felt they were led to believe they would be governing India as equal partners with the British and the potential for a nationalist movement was becoming apparent.

Initially, it seemed very unlikely that Indians would coalesce into a unified nationalist movement. It could also be argued that it never did. The usual dividing lines of religion, class and caste were of course present and resulted in Muslim and Hindu revivalist movements that rejected both the British Raj and the Northern, upper-class/caste, Hindu-majority Indian National Congress. There were also divisions between the urban and rural and between rich and poor Muslims. But unity was also hampered by the difficulty of answering the question of what the movement was for. Was the aim to hold the British to account and/or to expose British hypocrisy? Was it to reject Western values and revive indigenous culture? Or was the goal full independence? In the end, the opposition to the Raj and its policies was enough to bring various interests together.

However, there was an obvious problem: an Indian national identity fashioned around notions of high-caste Hindu triumphalism and the stigmatisation of Muslims, and relatively indifferent to the grievances and sensibilities of lower castes and Indians from other regions, was always likely to alienate more people than it attracted. The patient constitutional politics of the moderate Congressmen may have seemed anaemic and passionless, but they were also potentially universal and inclusive; the politics of Hindu revivalism were emotive and rousing, violent and divisive. Yet despite the conflicts between them, soon they would be uncomfortably yoked together.

But Misra pushes back against the claim that the British created these divisions, that Hindu-Muslim division existed from the start or that Partition (the division of British India into independent India and Pakistan) was inevitable. She also argues against the idea that sectarian violence originated in poor and rural areas and was transported to the cities. And though another internal division was along linguistic lines, and revivalist movements destroyed an opportunity for an Indian lingua franca, she disputes some of the common beliefs about this too.

So by 1900 the great cultural chain reaction continued to transform the subcontinent. India was an extraordinary politicised society, but also a kaleidoscopically fragmented one. The presence of a colonial state with its influential nostrums of race and hierarchy, its powerful predispositions to legitimise diversity and deny unity, and its dextrous ability to rapidly reshuffle the pack of collaborator loyalties seemed unbeatable. Any nationalist movement faced not only the obvious difficulties of forging a sense of ‘unity in diversity’, but also the infinitely greater task of doing so when the ruling state was determined to do the opposite.

In covering the First World War period, Misra discusses the impact of British policies in India which were designed to help it cling to power, discourage nationalism and support for Congress, or to give Indians the impression that things could change for the better with the Raj still in charge. The effect of these policies, Misra argues, was to encourage a Muslim separatist movement while giving Congress increasing power over other Indians.

Meanwhile, several other crises and events affected Indian politics in this period. There was India’s enormous contribution to the war, an effort that many came to see as going unrecognised and unrewarded. There was the British’s horrific response to the Massacre at Amritsar which collapsed what support it could still count on from Indians. There was a sharp rise in sectarian violence and the use of religion as a political weapon. There was also the perception among Indian’s Muslims of an unprecedented international crisis – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, Mecca and Medina in infidel hands, and war in the Balkans.

Amritsar was not in fact the wholly isolated event the British liked to believe. Elsewhere in the Punjab disturbances had been met with lethal force: armoured trains and aeroplanes were sent from Lahore to the villages of western Punjab, where unarmed market crowds and schoolhouses were strafed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition and then carpet bombed – a strategy recently perfected in Iraq. Jury-less courts were used to try people retrospectively; many were sentenced to death without appeal, and public flogging was common.

These incidents, and especially Amritsar and its reception in Britain, had an inflammatory effect on Indian public opinion.  

It is only at this point that Misra really introduces the reader to Gandhi. As elsewhere, I was encouraged by the fact that she was unafraid to critique the man and offer an objective analysis of his impact. For example, she shares the problems with the stories of the young Gandhi which have become standard; his problematic attitudes towards black Africans and middle-class Indians; his controversial views and methods with religion and interpretation of Hinduism; the failures of his ashrams. Her analysis extends to Gandhi’s three major Indian campaigns; what they achieved and where they failed.

But the history of his ashrams hinted at a more general flaw in his conception of the nation, which he insisted was also a harmonious family community of like-minded truth-seekers. For, like the inmates of Gandhi’s ashrams, many Indian nationalists heartily loathed one another, saw the movement as more akin to a prison than a utopia, and curtailed their ideological and factional disputes only in deference to the Mahatma’s extraordinary charisma. But the price of success was a confusion of purpose that would later blight efforts at national transformation after independence.

[…] For many Indians Gandhi’s anti-modern national vision was reactionary, unappealing and incompatible with contemporary notions of national power and individual equality and freedom.

Neither the British, Congress or Gandhi seemed to know how best to respond to World War II. But the British failures – in dealing with the huge influx of refugees from Burma, their role in creating a famine in Bengal and the unequal treatment of Indian soldiers – fatally damaged the Raj’s standing. Even when the British made offers of increased democracy, Indians felt they could not negotiate in good faith as there was little trust the British would hold up their own end. Much else covered in this period was fascinating too, such as the sharp rise and fall of an Indian brand of fascism.

Post-WWII, Indian Independence seemed inevitable and the focus turns to what form it would take. For Misra and this book that means explaining and describing the road that led to partition. Factors she lists include the growing influence of the Muslim League, already operating like a de facto nation within India; the new Labour government coming to power on a promise of freeing India, putting an emphasis on a sped-up process; and a fear on all sides of balkanisation with the hope that one partition would prevent several. Misra rightly calls partition one of the great disasters of the twentieth century and lays out four main causes for the extreme violence and death.

The partition of India has generated a great deal of controversy, and observers at the time and since have spent much time trying to assign blame to one or other of the three main parties involved. The British have been accused of attempting to weaken the successor states in order to ensure continuing British military and political influence. The Congress right has been seen as callously sacrificing a united India for a Hindu one, while Nehru has been depicted as an opportunist anxious to get his hands on power as soon as possible, regardless of the consequences. A megalomaniacal passion for power has also been offered as an explanation for Jinnah’s actions. But, given the conditions of the period, the behaviour of the British, Congress and the Muslim League is readily comprehensible in terms of their interests, as they perceived them at the time.

With India independent and partitioned from Pakistan, Misra’s book enters its third and longest phase; describing the impact of the administrations that have governed India since Independence. For me, personally, this was the part of the book I learnt most from – most of my reading of India has been of pre-Raj, Raj and Independence movement history.

Misra begins by taking a deep look at India’s first independent Prime Minister, Nehru – his upbringing, his role in the Independence struggle, his political views and, most of all, his successes and failures as Prime Minister. Misra’s take on Nehru’s successes were that they were small. I instead feel that they are potentially immense yet are overlooked because they are mostly about what he prevented than what he achieved. For example, preventing both the balkanisation of India and the excesses of Russia, China or other post-colonial nations.

His failures, covered by Misra, are clearer to see. A more difficult argument to make is what Nehru could have done differently. In some cases, there simply was not enough government funds for pursuing policy. In others, the Congress Party was simply too large a tent with not enough centrists to bring Left and Right to agreement or make it too costly for them to dissent. Elsewhere, the balance of power between the central government and regional powers – a constant difficulty in large democracies – prevented broad, large-scale policies from being enacted. It is difficult to see what Nehru might have done differently other than use his massive popularity to overcome opposition. But he was perhaps too committed to pursuing the most democratic means, too averse to authoritarianism, too anxious that a Stalin or a Mao might emerge, to be the strong leader a new nation needed.

Misra views Nehru as a tragic figure, his administration unravelling in its later years. Among his failures she points to his failure to enforce secularism as being particularly impactful. She describes Indian secularism as a ‘contorted compromise’ which carries explosive potential for the future.

The writing may not have been on the wall, but the image of India’s future was on the screen, and it was regionalist and populist.

The end of the Nehru era brings us to one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century politics – Indira Gandhi. Misra’s account of her upbringing and her time in power only confirmed this for me – her ascension to power on little more than name recognition, the strategy that consolidated her power with a landslide election victory, the reasons even this was not enough for her to hold on to power and the actions she took when she was about to be removed from power. What makes Indira Gandhi so interesting it that at her centre is a mystery of where her mind and her politics really sat, with no satisfying or consistent theory available.

[…] Mrs Gandhi’s vivisection of Congress and subsequent landslide electoral victory were events of undeniable import in the history of Indian politics. The very scale of her support, now unmediated by party middlemen, vote-banks and the old-school paraphernalia of the ‘Congress System’, was proof that increasingly large sections of the Indian electorate could, and would, vote independently. This, in turn, could only be a reflection of a profound challenge to the culture of hierarchy and deference that had hitherto bound Indian society.

Despite the excesses of the ‘Emergency’, Indira returned to power but a final crisis would result in the end of her power, her life and effectively, the end of the Congress era.

The era of Congress’s dominance was over. The populist strategy of marshalling high and low against a variety of ‘enemies’, be they party bosses, rich farmers or the CIA, had failed to bring stability to Indian politics or dynamism to the Indian economy. The nation’s brief detour into authoritarianism had also achieved little, except, paradoxically, to entrench democracy. […] To some it seemed as though the nation itself was falling apart.

In the final parts of the book, covering the post-Congress era, Misra mostly covers three factors. The first is the economic reforms of Prime Minister Rao’s minority government – how they were passed, the factors that forced them through and their impact. The second is the rise to power of the BJP – their origins, their tactics, their base of appeal. The third is the ‘silent revolutions’ of minority groups otherwise denied power. In her epilogue, Misra discusses the contradictions of modern India, for example, that democracy remains strong but with a weak central government and with voters who are difficult to persuade away from their group loyalties. She also discusses the challenges India continues to face such as a lack of infrastructure and poor levels of education.

But there are some advantages to India’s haphazard and wayward trajectory. Unlike China, India is an open, pluralistic and highly diverse society, and from these virtues flow great creativity – a commodity that even the mighty Chinese now fear may be lacking in their own more streamlined developmental drama.

As much as I may have overwritten the above overview of this book, the fact is, this is a book dense with information and detail. It is the details Misra provides to support her analysis, that I have not shared, that really makes the book. Her use of supportive evidence and her critique of other more popular theories helps assure the reader of a commitment to an objective impartial analysis. I certainly learned a lot, from the extraordinary impact of British racial theories, the precursors to Gandhi’s methods – not just from the well-covered Western thinkers, but from Indian innovators as well – to the wide impact of the policies of post-Independence administrations despite an apparent lack of power. My criticism of the book are few and minor. For example, I think a glossary would have aided readers less familiar with some of the terms used.  

Much has also changed since this book was published in 2007. When it was written, Prime Mininster Manmohan Singh was at the beginning of a ten-year, two-term government and she ends optimistic about Indian democracy. It would be interesting to know what she makes of what has happened since then – the power of the BJP and Hindu-Nationalist politics, the considerable backsliding of democracy of India and of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially given her analysis of the 2002 Gujarat Riots and Modi’s role in them.

Despite the time that has passed, there are aspects of this book that remain relevant. Especially for those of us witnessing and experiencing the impotence of central government against regional, corporate and special interests and the backsliding of democracy around the world. The story of India post-Independence contained in this book, including dangerous flirtations with populism and autocracy, offers both warnings and hope that democracy can survive such threats.

Paradoxically, India’s half-baked experiment in dictatorship had the effect of entrenching democracy.

Did she accomplish her goal? I think largely, yes. But I think what she has provided for the reader is much more than a causal explanation. She also colours in her analysis with a lot of other details. That being said, I think prospective readers should know that this is almost entirely a social-economic-political analysis of India since the Mutiny. The story it tells is mostly of the dance between those who held power that affected the multitude and the response and changes in the multitude that affected those in power. How Indian culture has changed over this period is not a focus and only appears where it is relevant to the politics.

In this book I have tried to show how India has developed its own peculiar form of modernity, the most striking feature of which is its highly variegated, fragmented and diverse citizenry. Identities of caste, religion, community and region often overpower broader-based loyalties to the nation state and also account, in part, for the very weakness of that state. Lacking deeply entrenched popular legitimacy, the Indian government has found mustering and deploying the resources and general will for development almost insuperably difficult. Paradoxically, while this lack of common purpose and identity has helped to perpetuate poverty and create only the most skeletal infrastructure, it has also fostered a robust democratic temper: India’s kaleidoscope of contending castes and communities have seized on elections as a relatively peaceful means of brokering their competing claims. The question now is whether this paradox can be resolved into the harmonious co-existence of democracy and diversity with economic growth and equality. And, in particular, can the state sustain stability, legitimacy and economic dynamism as it emerges as a new superpower?

The bulk of Vishnu’s Crowded Temple is sandwiched by a metaphor Misra uses. In her Introduction she says that the Guruvayur Temple of Vishnu in Kerela is symbolic of the principle dynamics of modern India such as the conflict between hierarchy and equality, difference and commonality. But in pointing to a possible future for India, Misra notes the static or even declining relevance of Vishnu and the growing popularity of Hanuman, perhaps indicating a new emphasis on change, compromise and practicality.

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