Trolls-r-Us

The least difficult part of writing this post has been to decide on a title, and one that would share some of the awkwardness and pain that one feels in writing of this, the belated realization that I have met the (internet) trolls and they are us.

UntitledThis Saturday on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, I shared the following striking painting that was originally posted on FB with the annotation “Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature depicting Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Shared by our great history teacher Prof. Harbans Mukhia. Let’s resolve on this Eid to win back the Indìa of magic the picture depicts.”  I’m glad I did this – so many of my FB friends have gone on to share it further… And I was pleased that my erstwhile colleague from JNU was responsible in some part for having spread the word, and the message. However, see the Addendum below, as well as an article that has appeared in the Indian Express. [Fact checks at this point: a) The painting is not Rajasthani, probably Kangra. b) it is not the Eid moon. Actually, it is not even the moon per se, it is a solar eclipse that Krishna and Balarama are pointing out, and c) it is not a group of Muslim men and women, it is Krishna’s adoptive family and friends in 18th century poshak.]

Apparently many other people had also sent out the image, so I was a bit surprised when shortly thereafter, someone commented on my FB post and pointed to a tweet from True Indollogy to say “This picture is fake. There is no such 18th century painting. I challenge you to reveal its whereabouts (where is it located?)”. And then, “Secularism is not a one way street.”

Even the straw-man in the argument would be bewildered. The painting is a charming remembrance of times past, when it was possible to keep one’s religious identity distinct from one’s politics, and when, one would like to believe, all these issues were not automatically conflated. I, in particular, had not talked of secularism, and believe it or not, for most of us who have liked or shared the image, it was just a nice way to convey Eid greetings. We may have been mistaken in what the image was about, we may have made our interpolations (mentally at least, if not in writing) but in any case, the image is not “fake”, and while its provenance can be debated, it’s message would be as compelling were it a thousand years old, or three. [Fact check: The image is in the Smithsonian. So much for that. And it is a solar eclipse, giving a sense of wonder. And Krishna and family are clearly enjoying the view of the eclipse, unlike modern day Indians who avoid seeing such natural phenomena for all sorts of superstitious reasons. Which is an equally good and compelling message from the painting.]

Other than to point out that the self-same image had indeed appeared on the pages of Swarajya some years ago, I have not said anything, and neither am I going to add to that debate here, but I have been bewildered (to the extent that age permits) by the ensuing discussion on the two-way streetness of secularism and so on, and the fairly large number of ‘plus’ or people-like-us who can find serious fault with either the picture, its purported image, or its use today. Or that the way in which the term secularism has become to mean something very different from its textbook definition, of the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

John-Tenniel-Humpty-DumptyWe are in a wonderland of sorts, so I can quite accept that words mean whatever the user intends them to mean, like this memorable interchange from Through the Looking Glass.

The importance of being master cannot be denied, but it is impossible to carry out a discussion, meaningful or or not, to establish mastery on the pages of FB, as this very helpful video on the science of trolls so carefully explains.  But the post and subsequent comments confirmed the feeling, much like Oliver Perry said, that we have met the trolls and they are us.

300px-Cave_troll
A Cave Troll, from: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Troll_(Middle-earth)

Of course, the internet being what it is, there is already a FB page for Trolls-r-Us though this is not relevant here. Neither is a similarly named website, “an archive of misinformation and propaganda.” This struck a nerve, given that one had been accused of propagating fake news, so I did a random search of this latter website for the word India, and found this gem: Egyptian pharaohs were of Slavic origin, the true history of Russia is hidden by masons […]. The human species was evolved not in Africa, but on the territories of current Russia. The Russian ancestors were known as Aryans who came to India. These Russian ancestors are mentioned in the Indian Vedas.” The site goes on to say These claims contradict the available anthropological data. So yet another nugget of wisdom is said to be contained in the Vedas. Having heard so many claims these past few years of what all our ancients knew or had known and having been both privately and publicly embarrassed by it, I was mildly surprised that there were not more claims on that site.

And this then brought to mind a paper that I had seen many years ago with the title On the Remarkable Spectrum of a Non-Hermitean Random Matrix Model by Daniel E. Holz, Henri Orland, and A. Zee. What had caught my eye at that time was the abstract, and in particular the last phrase: A non-Hermitean random matrix model proposed a few years ago has a remarkably intricate spectrum. […] The spectrum is complicated because our matrix contains everything that will ever be written in the history of the universe, including this particular paper.

We are indeed living in the matrix. Verb. sap.

Addendum (my notes in blue, others comments in italics)

A friend (and a real one) on FaceBook commented: This was being shared as an example of  ‘secularism’. Later, one of my friends posted a long clarification that showed this was not as it was claimed to be. I will copy it here or refer to it.

My reaction when I first saw it in a WhatsApp group was somewhat like this: It is so anachronistic! Eid in the time of Krishna? Lord Krishna with Muslims? Islam arose around 7 CE. And, this is supposed to be shared “via Harbans Mukhia”? Really? What did Prof Mukhia say about this? A joke or fabrication? Or, something else? Need to know a lot more. I don’t know what to make of this. It is really problematic to say Islam existed in that period. Secularism shouldn’t attribute symbolism where it may not exist in that form. The interpretation associating it with Eid is puzzling. “

Well, it was indeed shared via Harbans Mukhia, although he does not say that it was  an example of secularism (see my post above) but he did identify the others in the picture as muslims and went on to say: Is this the India we have lost?

There are allegorical references in many paintings and this is something that all of us are used to, so anachronism may not be such an issue. If one were looking at the painting as a record of some incident or a depiction of some event, clearly more research is needed. He then went on to quote his friend on FB:

Since many people shared the of us shared the image, here’s a clarification: For all those who are interested, here is Prof. B N Goswamy’s response to Prof. Gulam Sheikh’s query about the “Krishna sighting Eid moon” image. Please also forward it to other friends who may be sharing the image with wrong details. Also, those of you who are Prof. Mukhia’s FB friends, could you please check if the post in his name with the wrong attribution for the image is “genuine” — and alert him to this?

B. N. Goswamy: “I must confess that I had not seen this image before, despite being quite familiar with the Bhagavata Purana and this series of paintings from the Tehri-Garhwal collection (painted by one of the members of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh). However the present ‘reading’ of it is completely meaningless based as it is, chiefly I think, on the appearance of Nanda who is dressed like a Mughal courtier: with that kind of beard, and wearing a long jama and a sloping turban. The anachronistic impossibility of a Muslim figure to be seen in the Bhagavata Purana or this series apart, this is the way Nanda appears in every single folio of this series whenever we see him! Even in this regard, if one notices from close the jama Nanda wears is clearly a Hindu style jama, tied as it is, in Hindu-fashion, under the left armpit. There is not the slightest doubt about this.

Topped by that is the silly statement that it is a Rajasthani painting! Of course it is not. It is a Pahari painting from the series to which I have referred above. […]

The pointing towards the moon in the sky by Krishna and Balarama seems to be from an obscure passage, possibly in chapter 28 of the tenth skandha, where Krishna, after rescuing Nanda from Varuna who had seized him and taken him to his dominions, leads him and other kinsmen, using his powers of illusion, to a vision of his domains. There, after the rescue, the text says, Krishna “manifested to the cowherds his own realm” which is beyond the range of tamas … One cannot be certain, however; it is not unlikely that the episode occurs more fully in some other rescension of the Purana and not the one generally in circulation.

I have no idea where the present folio is. If it can be located, surely one will find a text on verso, like on other folios of the same series.

Long answer? But hopefully of some use.

Indeed, very useful, but also see the article in the Express. To be honest, I had also thought the image was more Kangra than Rajput, but that was just a superficial impression. The interpretation above, replete as it is with references and with caveats is more along the lines of a collegial note of correction on an over-interpretation of the image. Many of us who shared the image did so without any reference to either the identities of the persons there and without scholarly interpretations. As I said above, we are used to allegories in all our religious texts, and therefore to take everything so literally and to find fault, in of all things, the coexistence of different religions seems extreme. Many people found that the image evoked a memory of the way things were (or we imagine they were, or hoped they were). And I am willing to let it be.

We may well be in a matrix where all pasts and all futures are possible.

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