Bhimayana: Dorothy Figueira on India’s neo buddha

Prof Dorothy Figueira

Dorothy M Figueira is a distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The University of Georgia now. She has served most of the leading universities in the world as professor and visiting fellow.  She came to the Central University of Kerala for an international conference on “Dissent in Subcontinental Literatures and Cultures” recently in mid-October 2012.  She presented a paper on the historic struggles of the excluded in India against the lasting internal empire of caste and Brahmanism.  The iconic counter articulations of resistance and dissent by the sun of Indian enlightenment; Boddhisatva Babasaheb Dr B R Ambedkar was effectively textualized and theoretically contextualized by Prof Figueira here against the backdrop of genocidal and symbolic violence from the hegemonic elites.

The enlightened past of Kerala: Pagoda enshrining the 7/8th century black granite buddha at Karumady in Alapuzha. People call it Karumady Kuttan. Kuttanad the land of Kuttan itself is named after Kuttan/Puthan or Buddhan. Also a lasting imprint of Brahmanic/sudra violence as it is mutilated badly by the furious Hindu henchmen in the 8th century conquest of Kerala.

Dorothy’s paper titled “Bhimayana: One Ramayana Among Many” was a truly illuminating and educating experience for the whole delegates, academics and scholars at the conference gathered at Kasaragod from the farther regions of the world.  She made the conference a meaningful and counter hegemonic event.  Her paper and deliberations stand apart in the flurry of traditional and “balanced” scholarship that still verbalize cultural elitism and Brahmanical hegemony in India.  Prof Figueira’s epistemological attempt is simply subversive and radically empowering the subaltern as her latest works.

Prof Figueira on genocidal and symbolic violence in the Hindu epics

She explicated the new visual narratives by tribal artists on the life and legacies of Ambedkar.  She has elaborated the politics of genocidal violence and symbolic violence that stereotype and reduce humans into mere apes and beasts in the Hindu Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha.  The resisting and questioning south Indians and Buddhists in particular were termed as monkeys and demons by the Aryan Rishis says Figueira.  She also explained the importance of Jain and Buddhist versions of the epics to expose the subversion and cultural difference involved.  She democratically placed the Ambedkarite struggles as the real counter hgemonic politics in India emerging from the bottom and grass roots.

Bhimayana as a historic act against hegemony: Ambedkar’s speech at Yeola

It is no wonder that the word figueira is the Portuguese for the fig tree.  The Boddhi tree is there in her very name.  So is the spirit of enlightenment and compassion in her persona and texts.  When I accidentally chanced upon her after the conference she talked to me on her interest in and identification with the dalitbahujans in India.  She is a woman of Spanish origin now treading the south Asian shores in search of new voices of dissent and resistance.  She believes in the power of letters that can change and in the alterity of pedagogy.

I consider it a privilege to present a paper in a conference that was honoured by the presence and articulations of Prof Figueira.  I salute this woman, a truly enlightened organic intellectual from the west, a proper boddhisatva from the land of liberty.

Dorothy Figueira’s Profile from University of Georgia webpage

Prof Figueira

121 Joseph E Brown Hall 706-542-2748

Dorothy Figueira holds graduate degrees in the history of religion and theology from Paris and Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Comparative Literature. Her scholarly interests include religion and literature, translation theory, exoticism, myth theory, and travel narratives. She is the author of Translating the Orient (1991), The Exotic: A Decadent Quest (1994) and Aryans, Jews and Brahmins (2002) ,and Otherwise Occupied: Theories and Pedagogies of Alterity (2008). She edited of La Production de l’Autre (1999), Cybernetic Ghosts (2004) and co-edited (with Marc Maufort) Theatres in the Round: Multi-Ethnic, Indigenous, and Intertextual Dialogues in Drama (2011).  She has served as the Editor of The Comparatist (2008-2011) and is currently editor of Recherche litteraire/Literary Research. She has written numerous scholarly articles and presented many academic papers. She is an Honorary President of the International Comparative Literature Association, and has served in the past on the boards of the American Comparative Literature Association and the Southern Comparative Literature Association. She has held fellowships from the American Institute for Indian Studies, Fulbright Foundation and the NEH. She has been a Visiting Professor at the University Lille (France), Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India), Indira Gandhi Open University in New Delhi.

Dorothy Figueira on The Myth of the Aryan and Brahman

Dorothy Figueira’s Googlebook on Brahmanism and Aryan Superiroty

Sastha and Buddha: Buddhist Vestiges in Southern Western Ghats of Kerala

Buddhist vestige at Kallupacha, RPL Estate, Kulathupuzha
Buddhist vestige at Kallupacha, RPL Estate, Kulathupuzha. Carved into a fine granite boulder with three doorways

The western foothills of the southern ranges in the Western Ghats are known for ancient and popular Sastha Temples of Kerala.  Sabarimala, Achankovil, Ariankavu, Kulathupuzha and Sasthamkotta are prominent Dharma Sastha or Ayyappa temples located in and around this region.  Their proximity to the Tamil Country in the east and Malakootam or Malaya Kootam/Parvatham (Now Agasthya Kootam) in the south are remarkable.  Malaya Kootam is still called Pothiyil Mala (variation of Boddhiyil Mala) and it was also called Pothalaka in Buddhist lore, the seat of the Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva.  It is a ghat region revered by the Hindus and the Buddhists alike.

Kattalapara Buddhist vestige. near Shenduruny sanctuary, Kulathupuzha. Abandoned due to poor stone quality. Now three doorways are worshiped as representing Hindu, Christian and Islamic religions

Dharma Sastha is a synonym for the Buddha.  Ayyappan is an Avalokiteswaran later Hinduized and appropriated by Brahmanism in the early middle ages as an offspring born out of the Siva-Vishnu union.  The metamorphosis of this deity through the violent conflicts and negotiations  involving  Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) Saivism and Vaishnavism is evident in the legend.  In the Tamil Country Pali words Ayyan, Appan, Achan, Ayyappan and Puthan refer to the enlightend one at least from BC third century.

Kottukal rock cut temple, near Anchal.

Vajrayana used various Avalokiteswaras and Boddhisatva idols with consorts to popularize the cult and it was easy for Brahmanism to appropriate it overnight. Like the Buddha Nilakandha temple of Nepal or the Padmanabha temple of Thiruvananthapuram the Ayyappa temples were easily modified into Hindu Brahmanical ones.  Some scholars also argue that Tantric Buddhism itself was a clever deviation made by the Brahmanical usurpers who joined the Buddhist Sangha for the gradual sabotage as the basic teachings of the compassionate one challenged Brahmanism and caste.

Ariankavu Ayyappa temple at the eastern end of Kollam pass close to Tamilakam

The Buddhist rock cut vestiges in and around the Kulathupuzha forests prove the early presence of missionaries in the Kollam pass well before the advent of the common era.  It can be assumed that they entered the western slopes of the Western Ghats through the Ariankavu pass and established their Pallys and Pallykootams in the lower foothills. The rock cut constructions in Kallupacha in RPL estate in Kulathupuzha and Kattalapara close to the Shenduruny sanctuary are still surviving relics of early Buddhist rock architecture.

Kulathupuzha Sastha temple. The idol represents a Kulanthai or boy

The same architectural pattern and style of carving are found in the rock temple at Kottukal near Anchal.  As the first two vestiges are inside plantations and forests they are almost in abandoned state but the Kottukal rock cut temple is modified into a Siva temple by later Saivism that entered Kerala in the 8th and 9th centuries.  It also shows remarkable resemblance to Kaviyur rock temple near Thiruvalla and Kallil Jain temple near Perumbavur.

River Kallada at Kulathupuzha temple. Location of fish-feeding, an ancient conservationist practice related to Buddhism and Jainism as in Triprayar

It is interesting to note that the bigger shrines close to important mountain routes and the popular ones were transformed into bigger Hindu temples while the smaller vestiges and rock carvings were neglected and forgotten in the jungle.  On June 1, 2011 the Hindu published an article on the report of Dr Rajendran an archeologist who surveyed the region.  According to him these vestiges are related to early Buddhism that reached Kerala in the last centuries of BC era and the whole Ariankavu, Kulathupuzha, Ponmudi belt still holds the relics of this early Buddhist cultural  intervention.

Mahamaya/Mayadevi in Kulthupuzha in classic Yakshi stance with a mirror in hand and leaning onto a tree.
Mahamaya/Mayadevi in Kulthupuzha in classic Yakshi stance with a mirror in hand and leaning onto a tree. Mahamaya is the mother of Buddha who is the central deity in Kilirur and Neelamperur

According to Dr Rajendran Malsya Mudra or fish signs are identified in the carving sites that prove the Buddhist identity of the makers.  In Kulathupuzha fish-feeding is also an important ritual that is still practiced showing the Buddhist conservationist spirit of the shrine.  Such practices of conservation are still sustaining in many temples all over Kerala as in Thriprayar in Thrissur district.  Naga deities and Mahamaya (mother of the Buddha) idol are also worshiped in Kulathupuzha.

Naga deities in Kulathupuzha Sastha temple

I visited the region on 18th and 19th May 2012 and got the opportunity to see and experience the unique ecology and cultural traces related to the ancient conservationist traditions of Kerala.  The Thenmala eco-tourism project and rivers Kallada and Kallar along with the numerous life forms offer plenty of learning experiences for the seeking.

Indilayaappan idol.
Indilayaappan idol. An ambiguous deity in Ariankavu Ayyappa shrine, showing the Vajrayan, Saiva and Vaishnava scramble