A study that provides a counter-narrative to the rigid interpretation of history propagated by religious fundamentalists
Inclusiveness is an identifying characteristic of a tolerant and pluralistic society. Sadly, tolerance towards religious heterogeneity appears to be on the decline in Pakistan. Orthodox and literal interpretations of Islam abound, with many pre-Islamic folk rituals deemed an affront to the mainstream religious sentiment. Traces of syncretistic religious practices are being accordingly erased from the country’s historical legacy to appease the powerful lobby of religious puritans.
When states start to condone a particular identity and version of history over others, the alternate narrative is gradually pushed to the periphery of national consciousness. In Search of Shiva, a book by Haroon Khalid, is one attempt to reclaim that alternate narrative before it is subsumed by the fervour of religious homogeneity.
Generations of Pakistanis have grown up learning that irreconcilable differences between the teachings of Islam and Hinduism, the two major religions of the Indian sub-continent, led to the creation of Pakistan. But as the reader accompanies Khalid on his journey to learn more about the unconventional religious practices in the area, it becomes apparent that in this pared down account of the region’s transformation, an important piece of the historical puzzle has gone missing.
In an effort to differentiate Islam from other religions, the folk religious traditions of the South Asian region have been brushed aside. Centuries of diverse religious practices and their interconnectedness are now struggling for survival as the system tries to fit them neatly within the confines of an approved religious definition. Shrines, once dependable sanctuaries for the marginalised and the despondent, are now frowned upon as centres of religious mockery. Many have ceased to exist as spiritual establishments and continue to remain only as structures reminiscent of a pluralistic past.
As Khalid discovers on his visits to numerous sites in and around Punjab, shrine culture is no longer a vibrant part of the local and national cultural landscape. For the most part, the writer and reader both have been unaware about the presence of shrines dedicated to certain animals or objects. While some of the shrines date back centuries and others have been recently constructed, there is a commonality that connects the various idiosyncratic saints.
As the histories of the shrines unfold, the reader is reminded of the Sufi saints’ championing of the underdog, the social pariah, and the downtrodden. Eccentric in their time, the tolerant and inclusive spirit of such shrines remains an anomaly in modern day Pakistan. Khalid repeatedly makes the observation that in most cases, neither the guardians nor the devotees are aware of the syncretistic nature of their worship.
In Search of Shiva is a straightforward study of the syncretistic metaphysical practices in an avowedly Muslim country. Interestingly, the book’s message comes across through the focus on the physicality of the multiple components of shrine culture. From the guardians and devotees to the natural and man-made objects venerated at various shrines, Khalid provides a detailed description of each and every aspect of the sacred sites.
Just as in the cult of mysticism, symbolism becomes the focus of the book as the writer searches for the unconventional in the mystical traditions of Punjab’s folklore. The supernatural qualities attributed to the Banyan’s rope-like branches are echoed in the author’s description of the long matted locks of the malangs at shrines. Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist beliefs and histories mingle and overlap in the practices at various shrines. Their overarching legacies defy any clear historical and religious demarcation.
Interspersed with the author’s observations is the constant realisation of the threat religious fundamentalism poses to the centuries-old practices. The character and nature of worship at every stop on Khalid’s itinerary has been altered to some extent by the rising tide of puritanical Islam in Pakistan. In an attempt to become less conspicuous in a rapidly homogenising religious landscape, the guardians of many of these unorthodox religious establishments have begun to suppress the different manifestations of the sacred under their care.
However, literalist interpretations of Islam are not the only reason shrines with unconventional traditions are tweaking their identities. As the examples of the many shrines dedicated to sacred animals show, commercialisation of religion has had a transformative effect too. Though the shrines visited by the author have always stood out for their religious deviance, they still attract those looking for a miracle. Unfortunately, because of greed and the desire to retain a flow of donations, the caretakers and gadii nasheens are caving into pressure from preachers of puritanical Islam.
Whether it is the pull of the contradictory forces of spiritualism and monetarism, or the overlapping multiple religious influences on each saint, duality is at the heart of the book.
The argument is built slowly, with the reader being introduced to some of the lesser known saints and shrines in Pakistan before the central theme of dualism is explored through the figure of Shiva. Shiva, the manifestation of contradictory forces in a single entity in Hindu mythology, is the perfect symbol for the syncretistic practices of folk religion in South Asia. Shiva thus becomes the unlikely representative of Khalid’s attempt to record and analyse religious pluralism in Pakistan.
In Search of Shiva is written in a no-frills style, much like a good research paper. Khalid does not bother with stylistic technicalities, instead choosing to let his unusual subject hold the reader’s attention. The book’s sub-title, A study of Folk Religious practices in Pakistan, reinforces this impression. Like a good researcher, the author is aware of the pitfall of romanticising his subject. At different points on his exploration of Punjab’s cultural diversity, Khalid admits the limited scope of his own understanding of shrine culture in Pakistan.
As he progresses on his journey, the writer and reader both learn of the multiple layers of history and religious transformations reshaping peripheral religious worship in the country. In Search of Shiva is an informative insight into the history of religious coexistence in the South Asian region.
Khalid’s study lends hope that centuries of folk cultural traditions might yet be saved from oblivion and provide a counter-narrative to the rigid interpretation of history propagated by religious fundamentalists.