Kumararamuni Katha & Girard

Part 1: Historicity and Patterns

The idea of applying the composite anthropologico-historical theory of French philosopher René Girard (born 1923) to Indian society and its mythology is not a new project. The complex Indian civilization possesses undoubtedly certain historical features liable to a fruitful analysis through his theory. In particular, the caste system and its supporting mythology appear as a perfect example of a scapegoat institution, in a clarity hardly matched in contemporary European culture. However, several attempts to conduct this analysis were not successful. One example is Sacrifice (2011), the short transcription of a series of lectures by Girard, in which the Indian application of his theory is led only at a distance, with nothing more direct than the secondary literature of French indologist Sylvain Lévi. But some historical narratives may allow this dialogue more easily. In the introduction of their Textures of Time (2001), Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam mention an undated Telugu text, Kumararamuni Katha, which seems to display a number of aspects possibly compatible with Girard’s theory. In the present essay, I shall try to briefly mention these points of juncture and the larger claim on historicity that we can infer from Girard. For this, we will start by mentioning the essence of his theory. In the second part, we will then come back to the larger critical discussion of Narayana Rao et al. and see how Girard’s view may avoid certain potential shortcomings of pattern-driven readings of historical narratives.

What does Girard’s theory consist in? Schematically, it can be summarized in three steps. First, humans are fundamentally mimetic, for all matters of life (food, leisure, social prestige, romantic relationships, etc.), which leads to a high potential of self-destruction for any society: anyone may compete with her neighbor at any occasion. Second, according to Girard, primitive societies have found one solution to avoid the rival destruction of all-against-all: the scapegoat. This central hypothesis is understood as a very early historical event, so fundamental that the sacrifice of the arbitrary yet generally innocent victim will play a major role in structuring the becoming of the group. Through the ages, the collective memory of the founding event is repeated through rituals (some of them resembling the original sacrifice) and narratives – mythology – which retell the original story in a variety of ways, but always from the viewpoint of the persecutors: the official story remains that the scapegoat was not innocent; that she or he was culprit of the evil of that time. The historical dissimulation is such that even the nature of this original event as execution is hidden. Thus, each society develops and gets structured on the foundation of the original scapegoat, yet while being unaware of the sacrificial nature of this foundation. It is at the third stage of his thought that Girard enters the realm of documented history: the Passion of the Christ, according to him, is the first major revelation of the innocence of the scapegoat victim, and of the importance of such institutions for human societies. In Girard’s reading, it is this historical event that was at the root the contemporary Western civilization, where state-organized executions have virtually disappeared, and where any attempt of polarization against one individual or group is harder than ever before.

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The birth of two boys is a classical scheme found in numbers of myths, with a high risk of future mimetic rivalry between them. Moreover, the second boy will receive a very evocative name: Polika, “Replica.” This confused double birth gives rise to a movement of mimetic tension between rivals in the king’s court.

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Where could we posit the Kumararamuni Katha in Girard’s scheme? Kumararamuni Katha is a historical narrative, with certain supernatural elements. I would therefore argue that it could correspond to Girard broadly means by the ‘mythological texts’: providing an a posteriori narrative describing the foundational event of the community (here, the birth of a prince) while dissimulating the scapegoating processes included in this foundation. The opening of Kumararamuni Katha narrates the birth of Kumara Rama. Brahmin counselors assure the father that “the time and the star are excellent” (Narayana Rao et al. 2001, 8). The story mentions that the birth of the king is simultaneous with that of a boy by the maidservant. The narrative only accounts of a confusion of the social structure of the community following this double birth: various warriors “started questioning one another” (8). A first level of analysis would emphasize the mimetic themes present in this segment. The birth of two boys is a classical scheme found in numbers of myths, with a high risk of future mimetic rivalry between them. Moreover, the second boy will receive a very evocative name: Polika, “Replica.” This confused double birth gives rise to a movement of mimetic tension between rivals in the king’s court. But Girard’s analysis seems even more pertinent in the following of the story. The tension between warriors increases, so that a battle takes place and “six hundred died” (9). The king realizes the event following the birth; he accuses the Brahmins of having given an inaccurate account of the propitiousness of the moment. The tension faced by the community leads its ruler to attempt an initial polarization towards the Brahmins: “‘The end has come for the Brahmins.’” (9) But the Brahmins explain to the king that it was not a matter of stars or hour, but of a confusedly simultaneous birth: “Just a little while before, in this city, a dangerous man was born…” (9). Directly, the court leads a search to find that newborn. The process of substitution, that is, the selection that permits to choose a victim (here, the newborn) instead of another one (the Brahmins) is also an important feature of many original sacrifices and of their later ritual representations, according to Girard’s reading. As we just saw, the Kumararamuni Katha displays both themes of mimetic rivalries, and of cathartic resolutions through scapegoats. But another, intriguing feature of the story seems to transcend both the critical understanding of Narayana Rao et al. and the theory of Girard itself: the relative transparency of the story with regards to the various social mechanisms in question.

Part 2: Transcending Theories

Besides the specific aforementioned narrative elements, Girard’s approach altogether seems also compatible with the intellectual project of Narayana Rao et al. Indeed, the main thesis of Textures of Time seems to be that, unlike what is generally believed, India has a tradition of rigorous historical accounts. The only difficulty, the authors tell us, is that the reader should not hastily conclude that because a narrative contains certain non-realistic or fantastic elements, it should be seen as void of any historical value. Indian historiography is both more complex and richer than that. Broadly, this is the same claim that Girard made before the beginning of his study of ancient mythological texts and ethnographic reports. Girard probably shares the same theoretical opponents with Narayana Rao et al. (for instance the postmodern view that values the textual value of a record more than its historicity) when he says that there may be more than innocent folk tales in seemingly non-historical narratives:

“I do not deny the utility of recent descriptive contributions. But I believe the time has come for us to ask ourselves, once again, whether something of vital importance did indeed take place initially. We must return to the traditional questions, reframing them in terms of the rigorous methodology of our own times” (Girard, 2005/1977 97).

In response, we find Narayana Rao et al. valuing the historical study of myths: “Still, there are kinds of history, and great historians are open to that dimension to reality that we call ‘myth’…” (11). However, the similarity may stop here, since Narayana Rao et al. seem to wish to keep their distance from historical analyses in ‘motifs’ like Girard’s: “The motifs are familiar from classical materials—the barren queen, her superhuman penances, the formulaic numbers… But what happens when we go to a slightly later point in this same text…?” (7). The reading of Kumararamuni Katha by Narayana Rao et al. reveals things beyond the analyses through tropes and motifs: in particular, non-formulaic numbers and incredibly precise descriptions of places and people. This type of information, powerful enough to question even the categorization of the text – from ‘mythological’ to ‘historical’ – is invisible to the theorists who directly apply one historical frame, one motif to all historical or anthropological narratives. Girard would be one of them.

But at another level, Girard, who developed his theory through fifty years, was willing to avoid such a limitation – the narrow scope of a hermeneutically powerful, yet simplifying theory. Since Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987, French edition: 1978), Girard added to his psychological insights (the mimetic desire) and his anthropological intuitions (the scapegoat mechanism and the victimary institution) a third layer of analysis. For Girard, an open advocate of Christianity – his main flaw, according to his critics – the Passion of the Christ, the death of the Christ on the cross was a historically unique event. Through his life and message, Jesus gave a culmination to the Judaic tradition, where, as seen in the Old Testament, mimetic rivalry and scapegoat mechanism become more and more transparent. Human societies realized these tendencies at the heart of their past and present, and with Jesus arose an awareness, a desire to transcend this permanent reflex of substitution on another human being, in favor of an unconditional love. This step in Girard’s theory is of importance: it allows for flexibility. Therefore, Girard is able to explain both for tropes of mimesis and scapegoating, in social groups where the aforementioned awareness is not yet strong, and for their possible absence in other narratives. Indeed, in Christian-influenced societies, in particular in modern Western civilization, the aforementioned awareness is quite widespread and mimetic accusations are – in principles – criticized and avoided.

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But the Kumararamuni Katha is, surprisingly, very transparent as to what is taking place, and more, as to the nature of the narrative itself. The narrative starts with an aside by the speaker: “This is a story. This is a way. I want to tell it to you…”

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Finally, there is one last feature of Kumararamuni Katha that will allow to transcend both Girard’s thesis and the critical cautiousness of Narayana Rao et al. The mythological, biblical and ethnographic accounts that Girard studied all contained attempts to dissimulate the process of sacrifice and/or substitution. But the Kumararamuni Katha is, surprisingly, very transparent as to what is taking place, and more, as to the nature of the narrative itself. The narrative starts with an aside by the speaker: “This is a story. This is a way. I want to tell it to you… What kind of story is it? …” (6) As for the intention to search (and kill) the alleged culprit of the bad omen, and later to substitute the Brahmins with the newborn, the Katha is very clear and unambiguous. Girard’s theory seems even virtually unnecessary to uncover these actual historical events. This leads to one major question against the integrity of Girard’s theory: what if there were non-Christian sources of an awareness, and a strong attack, of the sacrificial institution? Numbers of researchers, including supporters of Girard, have argued that some of his theory, in particular mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism, could work even without the other segments, namely, the Christian revelation. The Kumararamuni Katha may be one of such narratives, which could at once corroborate Girard’s psychological and anthropological intuitions, as well as transcend his exclusive assumption in favor of Christianity.


Image courtesy: British Library