You are sure to hit the bestseller list if you write a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. New versions of old religious legends are today an industry in itself. Some religions are too rigid to accept such liberties. But Christianity and Hinduism seem to be fertile ground for free-thinkers.
The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman was published in 2010. This is one instance where the familiar disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance...is coincidental” is indeed superfluous. But you will be disappointed if you expect juicy blasphemy by a non-believer. Pullman is a believer and the blasphemy is disguised as humour.
And there is only a small bit of it. Christians brought up on the idea of Immaculate Conception will be outraged by Pullman’s rather entertaining version of the birth of Jesus. In this version, Mary, 16 years old, allowed into her room at night a young man who whispered through the window that he was an angel. He said, “you are going to conceive a child.” And she said, “But my husband is away.”
And he said, “But the Lord wants it to happen at once.” It did. When he came home and heard the news, Joseph, so old that he “had not touched her” during their marriage, cried bitterly. He was consoled by Mary who said: “I’ve done no wrong. I’ve never been touched by a man. It was an angel that came to me.”
In the mood for a little more blasphemy? Well, author Pullman says that Mary had twins—Jesus who was healthy and boisterous and Christ who was a weakling. As time passed, “there came more brothers and sisters”. Pullman slips into what must be taken as straight humour (without blasphemy) when he starts dealing with the miracles attributed to Jesus.
The well-loved story of water turning into wine is a case in point. In Pullman’s re-telling, Jesus first feigned innocence when he was told, in the middle of a wedding reception, that they had run out of wine. Then “he took the chief steward aside and spoke to him, and soon the servants discovered more wine”. The author’s line: The steward had hidden the wine hoping to sell it and “Jesus had shamed him into honesty.” So much for miracles.
The thesis of Pullman’s narrative is that corporate interests had seen the promise of building a big institution, the church, on the foundations of Jesus’ popularity. They recruited his twin brother Christ who betrayed Jesus and helped the corporate plotters. Rather far-fetched a story for believers to accept, and too outlandish for others to comprehend. This is one of those books where the author was fired up with a title but could not weave a story to match it.
The Indian tradition is too liberal to allow much scope for blasphemy. See how the Charvaka school of materialism finds acceptance despite its rejection of notions like karma, moksha, the Vedas and the very idea of God. When Ramanand Sagar brought the Ramayana to television in 1987, he took liberties the camera allowed: Arrows would stop midair, Goddess Saraswati could be seen inside Kumbhakarna’s mouth making him say nidra instead of Indra. All 78 parts of the serial were artificial and melodramatic. But people would have a bath, wear fresh clothes and sit reverentially before their TV sets to watch Hanuman leela and Sita swayamvara.
Greater sophistication arrived with the entry of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi. Inevitably different people have reacted differently to them. Some believe that Pattanaik trivialises Hindu philosophy, a reference perhaps to volumes like Fun in Devlok and The Sita Colouring Book. Tripathi began by re-imagining Shiva at trilogy length, then started reconstructing Sita as a warrior princess. Nobody objects to the liberties he takes with the storyline and characterisation.
That’s because the underlying element of devotion is intact. An atheist, Tripathi turned religious as the books seized him. It may be difficult for us to see Sita as Ravana’s killer. But she was Ravana’s daughter in another re-telling. A K Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas was enlightening in that sense though Hindutva zealots got it removed from the history syllabus in Delhi University. How can petty minds erase truths from history? With the likes of Tripathi at work, there will be 400 Ramayanas soon. Can zealots keep pace with the march of writerly imagination? And the unstoppable push of marketing? Sita and Rama will endure after Philip Pullman’s Jesus and Christ are forgotten.