The River called Language

Aditya Vikram follows ideas of religiosity and secularism to trace the flow of language, through a reading of Francesca Orsini and Rita Kothari.

“Kahay Kabir ek ram japahu re, Hindu Turuk na koi.

Kabir says, plunge into Ram! There: No Hindu No Turk.”

Hess 67

For Kabir, dwelling and unraveling in the name of ‘Ram’ marked his journeys to the existential and spiritual questions that he pursued. Contrary to his conveniently valorized image as a syncretic saint-poet, this verse is perhaps not a rejection of religiosity as much as a rejection of religious authority. There is a different usage of the same phrase in ginan, where Pir Shams emphasizes the practice of internalized devotion in the place of formal ritual. For him, the adage ‘neither Turk nor Hindu’ does not mean rejection of both religions but rather positing true Islam (Orsini 57). ‘Neither Hindu nor Turk’ belongs to nobody, and yet sits on so many tongues, mutating between registers, each of them producing different meanings for their own worlds. Far from being outside religion, it flirts with different religions, betrays them for each other, and puts them in dialogue with one another. Something similar happens with the term ‘secular’, only in a very different era.

In his speeches across India, Nehru used to advise people to consult a dictionary before they used ‘secular’, but the word itself lived mostly outside the dictionary in India, getting contested and re-accented everywhere, right from parliamentary debates to everyday banter on the street. Nehru’s later acknowledgment of religion came from the realization that the word secular had remained external to Indian thinking, even after his multiple invocations of it as a popular figure (Kothari 44). ‘Secular’ predates sarvadharmasambhav, a term coined by Gandhi, a political figure who took religion very seriously, whether his own or the other. Against this neat timeline of linear succession, the English term absorbed meaning from this Hindi counterpart, at least in India, and became what it came to be recognized as later on– the state and society treating all religions equally. With its current connotations as almost a slur, the word has come a long way from there. The right-wing government has turned it into an adjective for television debates, where re-accenting becomes an important performance.

As Mikhail Bakhtin writes, any understanding of live speech is inherently responsive and any utterance is a link in the chain of communication (Bakhtine et al. 84). The new usages of ‘secular’ are conceptualized in reaction to its use in the past, and in this way, political spokespersons against secularism have to first borrow the language of their opponents to vilify it. Each word is always half other – language becomes a space for continuity and dialogue. And translation assumes the role of the silences that punctuate these dialogues. At first, it seems that the silence separates the dialogues from each other, but it is also what connects them, and opens the possibility to make the word of someone else your own. Even though their contexts are very different, both Orsini and Kothari write about this conception of languages-in-continuum and find a special place for translation within them.

If we view language in this manner, creativity is not the beginning of some elusive ‘original’, but the art of re-accenting what has already found utterance. Translation resides at the heart of such an endeavor. India’s current problem with secularism is a symptom of a binary, prescriptive understanding of languages and religious vocabularies. They are imagined as separate territories that people belong to or borrow from, rather than a flowing river – full of differences and endless equivalences. The small puddle of water inside our hands is extracted from the river that is language. This puddle is what we translate for ourselves every day, while the river keeps moving, becoming new for each ghat it graces. Platforming syncretism as a moral ideal against religiosity only locks these differences into their positions by making them battles of meaning (that small puddle in our hands) rather than experience (flow).

The river is perennial but never permanent.

Jayasi, the master poet of Awadh, offers this possibility through Harikatha, where Krishna’s story is an allegory for a Sufi-Chishti lesson of love. He offers new ways of storytelling in his figure of Krishna:

Krishna disguised himself (bhesa apuna kinha) so that each saw him according to his own hue (barana).

Doha: He appeared so clearly (darsana Nirmala) as if in a special mirror;

If they looked at Kanha, each saw their own face.

Orsini 60

Krishna’s bhesa also harkens to the Sufi distinction between zahir (appearances) and batin (hidden truths) (Orsini 60). This multi-accenting conveys both Hindu and Muslim audiences what they wish to see in the tale, whether it be Krishna-lila, or wahdut al-wujud. Krishna reveals himself in disguise. Like language, he can be translated into the mirror image of the person who seeks him, and yet he remains a God that belongs to no one alone.

Works Cited

1. Bakhtine, Mikhaïl Mikhaïlovitch, et al. Speech genres and other late essays. Edited by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, translated by Vern W. Mac Gee and Vern W. McGee, University of Texas Press, 1986.

2. Hess, Linda, and Shukdev Singh, translators. The Bījak of Kabir. Motilal Bonardsidass, 2001.

3. Kothari, Rita. “Secular, Secularisms and Non-Translation.” Economic and Political Weeky, no. 38, 19 September 2020.

4. Orsini, Francesca. “Na Hindu Na Turk: Shared Languages, Accents, and Located Meanings.” A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India. Edited by Rita Kothari, Oxford University Press, 2018.

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