What Sandhya Jain shows in Adi Deo Arya Devata: A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Interface that the same is true of culture and history. Cultural and religious practices of the tribal or Vanvasis and those of the Hindus have much in common and are generally indistinguishable. We know from genetic studies that genetic variation within a group (or tribe) is always greater than variation between two groups?like Vanvasis and caste Hindus. The same pattern holds when we look at culture and religion: what we find are local variations but a common underlying theme with much give and take between the two. The author tells this story in fascinating detail and much fresh insight. The book title is also most apt: Adi Devas are indeed Arya Devatas.
The book begins appropriately by bringing to light the close interplay between the so-called ?Brahminical Hindus? (a missionary label) and the Vanvasis. As the author notes: ?Colonial rhetoric notwithstanding, Vanvasis have never been passive recipients of Hindu upper class? cultural models, but have contributed enormously to the infinite variety of India'scivilisation from the very beginning.? Contrast this with the impact of Christianity on the Vanvasis, which has served mainly to uproot them from their ancient traditions leaving them as cultural refugees with a confused identity.
This cultural interface between Vanvasi beliefs and the Hindu tradition is hard to miss for anyone who grew up (as this reviewer did) in a region rich with Vanvasi heritage. In Mysore for example, where the Vanvasi goddess Chamundi has been the presiding deity since time immemorial, people from all walks of life have worshipped her. Beginning as a grama-devata, she has been identified with Parvati or Lakshmi or anyone else depending on the devotee'spreference.
The region around Hampi (former Vijayanagar) is particularly rich in such Vanvasi deities and their sacred places. All these have found place in the Hindu pantheon. One can still see the cave in which Anjaneya was born, who later gained celebrity and following as Hanuman. The fact that Hanuman today is more popular in the north than in the south is eloquent testimony to the artificial divisions created by colonial scholars and their present day followers.
Jagannath of Puri, as the author points out, serves as an example par excellence of an Vanvasi god gaining acceptance in the Hindu mainstream. It may come as a surprise for many, especially in the south, to learn that some gods that are worshipped by the highest of the Hindu orthodox, like Narasimha, have Vanvasi origins. The main point is that scholarship that claimed to study the Vanvasis and their practices was never without ulterior motives. The Santhals for example were mercilessly exploited by the British rulers, and continue to suffer today. This is particularly true of Vanvasis in the northeast, in places like Manipur, who are often at the mercy of missionaries enjoying government support.
The book has a valuable chapter on how the scientifically discredited notion of race, fostered by colonial authorities and sponsored scholars (like Risley), continues to influence scholarly and political discourse in the post-colonial world. The remarkable thing is that its covert proponents in the name of some or other guise are not Western scholars so much as Indian Marxists and missionaries. There are a few holdovers in Western academia that continue to peddle these proxy race theories in the guise of Indo European studies and comparative linguistics, but their influence is on the wane. It is sustained mainly by the missionary-Marxist nexus that seeks to maintain divisions created by their colonial sponsors. For political reasons, this nexus has found support in some Indian political circles.
The book also has a fascinating chapter on the various Vanvasis mentioned in the Mahabharata. It would be useful to have a similar study based on the Vanvasis mentioned in the Vedic literature from the Samhitas to the Upanishads as well as the technical literature like Yaska'sNirukta and Panini'sAshtadhyayi. One thing that becomes plain is that many noble dynasties had humble Vanvasi origins. The great Mauryan Empire is a prime example. Even the Hoysalas, renowned for their unmatched achievements in the arts, notably architecture, were of Vanvasi origin.
It can be stated as a general rule that dynastic founders were invariably of a humble origin. Once they gained power and wealth, it was a simple matter to have themselves anointed as descendants of some illustrious solar or lunar line. This is what Vishnuvardhana, the greatest of the Hoysalas did. A bettada kuruba (hill shepherd) from the hills, he changed from a Jain to become a follower of Ramanuja as his kingdom expanded. The motive appears to have been his desire to perform an ashvamedha, which he could not do as a Jain. But he did not turn back on Jainism, much less turn hostile to it as the Marxist historians suggest. He continued to patronise Jain scholars and institutions. Dharmasthala near Mangalore, a center for Hindu pilgrims, but administered by Jain ?Hegdes? (hereditary chiefs), is a living testimony to the Vanvasi-Jain-Hindu cultural continuum.
As the author points out, all this raises a fundamental question of whether the division into categories as Vanvasi and Hindu has any validity at all. Science and history are united in their answer: none. What is needed is a new school of thought that breaks away from colonial stereotyping?an artificial construct that passes for anthropology?and begins to explore Indian tradition by looking at sources with unprejudiced eyes. The author is to be complimented for making a valuable contribution to this in her Adi Deo Arya Devata. We need many such works in the humanities, history and linguistics.