Two great new articles are up at NYRB:

The first is Wendy Doniger’s review of a new “biography” of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. Something similar could no doubt be written about most scriptures, since the importance of the book, and of Doniger’s review, is to show how variously the Gita has been interpreted and taken up by different (often contradictory) groups and ideologies during its long history, all of them believing they alone were right. It also shows how the Gita‘s status as a “central text” or “Bible” of Hinduism is actually a fairly recent idea, a point that is especially important in the West, where people like me were first told Hinduism was little more than the Gita and the Upanishads.

And it illustrates yet again the only point I hope to ever make about religion. As with every scripture, while the text of the Gita has long been set, there are nevertheless dozens and dozens of Gitas to be found, depending on your interpretation of it. So that one of Gandhi’s remarks on the Gita only goes halfway: “It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics”–the other half being that It is entirely sectarian.

Divine permission for both compassion and violence can be found in all scriptures, and sometimes can be drawn from the exact same passages. The great struggle of religion is not to deny this, but to choose which interpretation, which passages, we prefer. And this is what both Gandhi and his assassin did, as Doniger writes:

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.


The other article is an excerpt from Sara Lipton’s new book, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. The excerpt only concerns the invention of the “Jewish nose” in Christian art, but what can be said merely about a piece of artistic iconography can also be said about negative Christian notions towards Judaism as a whole, as well as any negative notions any religion throws on another: they are the inventions of human beings, whose beginnings can be traced in history, and are hallowed by no ancient history, let alone divine revelation. Nevertheless, one lie sanctifed as truth can then used to justify other lies, and other brutalities.

Lipton makes the point that in early Medieval art, Jews were frequently depicted wearing pointed hats, but that these depictions has no source in history, and were likely based on the pointed hats of Persian priests. She goes on to say:

But the appearance and meaning of Jews in Western art would change over time, as Christian concerns and devotional needs changed. Moreover, art affects as well as reflects ideas. Marking Hebrews in art influenced the way Christians imagined and thought about Jews; Christian attitudes and policies toward Jews consequently transformed as well. In one remarkable case of life imitating art, in 1267, two church councils ordered that Jews be required to wear pointed hats “as their ancestors used to do.”  In the absence of centuries-old photo albums, one must conclude that the primary evidence for how Jews “used to” dress was Christian art.

 

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