Global guruism
Rachna Singh

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language
by Srinivas Aravamudan. Penguin Books. Pages 330. Rs 395.

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan LanguageTHE ‘guru’ culture in India is deeply embedded. The historical ‘guru-chela’ tradition has translated into a global guru-ism in the modern milieu. We have Hollywood and Bollywood stars swearing by their gurus and we have a spate of ‘Acharyas’ propounding theories of bliss and spiritualism through an omnipresent media. Be it Guru Mayi or Sri Sri or Ramdev, gurus seem to be the current rage.

Srinivas Aravamudan’s Guru English echoes the current global obsession with guruism in the context of a cosmopolitan religion. The book traces the emergence of a language disparagingly dubbed as ‘baboo English’ during the colonial period. This language slowly but surely transmutes into the language of religious discourse adopted by spiritual leaders like Vivekanand. The language evolution continues as the language acquires a literary patina and is reflected in the ‘metaphysics’ of the Lama in Kipling’s Kim or Desani’s All about H. Hatter or in the religious rendition of Dedalus and Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.

The nuances of this ‘guru English’ are further explored as a vehicle of parody and self-deflation in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, where the language sheds its pompous gravity and dons a tone of light playfulness. Interestingly, Oppenheimer’s invocation of the Bhagvat Gita and description of the nuclear test in terms of Krishna’s cosmic form blends the lingua franca with the dialect of ‘nukes’. The language also becomes a New-Age commodity with its Deepak Chopra proclivity for synthesis of Ayurveda, quantum physics and vedanata. Aravamudan’s analysis ends with an East-West synthesis embodied in the image of an Eastern sage who is ‘gizmo’ savvy and propounds a saleable orientalism.

However, the book is not just about the linguistic analysis of the language of South Asian religious gurus. Neither is it just an academic examination of a ‘guru’ discourse woven into literary texts over-run with multilingual puns and parody. Guru English, in fact, functions as ‘transidiomatic environment’ such that the anti-English sentiment of the Irish Harold Bloom of Joyce becomes seamlessly blended with the Indian anti-colonial Nationalist psyche. Guru English also becomes a symbol of the ‘commodifiable cosmoplitanism’ of New-Age Gurus who showcase their spiritualism through websites and offer incentives to modern-day ‘shishyas’ to join their spiritual bandwagon.

Aravamudan has with great penchant drawn a huge canvas in the manner of Colin Makenzie’s View of Dindigul that graces the cover of his book. The guru figure of this canvas continuously morphs into Vivekanand, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Deepak Chopra et al, while the figure of Makenzie is indicative of the manner in which the spirituality of the East appeals to the West. The book thus becomes a synonym for the ‘register’ of the language of religious discourse of South Asia that emerges from and is fashioned by a varied socio-historical milieu.

This well-researched academic thesis would appeal to the students of linguistics and sociology. However, despite the playfulness of its title, Guru English, with its theological references, literary allusions and linguistic terminology is a serious treatise that requires no mean skill to unravel.