Kipling and Hinduism

by Guy Liardet

When, in 1882, the young Kipling arrived back in India to work as a journalist, a few weeks short of his seventeenth birthday, he remembered the sights and smells of his early childhood in Bombay, but he knew nothing of the myriad religious beliefs of ‘this great and wonderful land’, as he soon came to see it. He was working in Lahore, a mainly Muslim city, but with a sizeable Hindu community also. Most Anglo-Indians, civil servants and soldiers who saw Britain as ‘home’, knew little of Hinduism or Islam, though the administrators out in their Districts, as Kipling quickly saw, tended to be sympathetic to the people in the communities they served, and to their beliefs.

There is a significant passage in Chapter XVIII of Letters of Marque (p. 188 of From Sea to Sea), written some five years later for an Anglo-Indian readership, about a journey through Rajasthan.

They were all Mahometans, and consequently all easy to deal with. A Hindu is an excellent person, but…but…there is no knowing what is in his heart, and he is hedged about with so many strange observances.

The Hindu or Musalman bent, which each Englishman’s mind must take before he has been three years in the country, is, of course, influenced by Province or Presidency. In Rajputana generally, the Political swears by the Hindu, and holds that the Mahometan is untrustworthy. But a man who will eat with you and take your tobacco, sinking the fiction that it has been doctored with infidel wines, cannot be very bad after all.

There were aspects of Islam that Kipling found congenial. But what was his attitude towards Hinduism, the dominant religion of the Indian sub-continent? He certainly found aspects of Hinduism disconcerting, as can be seen from an earlier article from the same journey, about his visit to the mighty fortress of Chitor: ‘the stately ruins thereof give a shadow of its beauty while it flourished in its pride’.[Ch. XL p.96]

Following an account of the history of Chitor’s bloody sieges, treacheries, and assaults, (1) ‘the Englishman’ finds himself at the top of about the only edifice to have been spared by multiple conquerors, the nine-story Tower of Victory. Here (Ch. XI p. 98) he is repelled by the:

‘thronging armies of sculptured figures, the mad profusion of design and particularly by the slippery sliminess of the walls always worn smooth by naked men……. So he sat and meditated upon the beauties of kingship and the unholiness of Hindu art, and what power a shadowland of lewd monstrosities had upon those who believed in it…’

Subsequently ‘the Englishman’ approaches down a slippery slope the sinister, bubbling spring of the Cow’s Mouth or Gau-Mukh (pp. 100-101):

Almost under the little trickle of water was the loathsome Emblem of Creation and there were flowers and rice around it.

This Emblem is nothing more than the commonly seen shivalingam, a stylised and to modern
eyes inoffensive representation of the god Shiva’s male organ.
Kipling remembers:

… with peculiar and unnecessary distinctness’ that nearby is the underground chamber in which the fair Pudmini and her handmaidens immolated themselves… that some sort of devil, or ghoul or Something, was reported to stand at the entrance of that approach. All of which was a nightmare in full day; but it was the fault of the Genius of the Place who made the Englishman feel that he had done a great wrong in trespassing ino the very heart and soul of all Chitor … and behind him the Gau-Mukh guggled and choked like a man in his death throes. The Englishman endured as long as he could – about two minutes. Then it came upon him that he must go quickly out of that place of years and blood … But he had to cross the smooth worn rocks, and he felt their sliminess through his bootsoles. It was as though he was treading on the soft, oiled skin of a Hindu.


So what do we think about that? Do all Hindus have ‘soft, oiled skin’? What about Mohammedans? Or Jains, even? Is this a mere slip of the pen, or more fundamentally a symptom of what today might be called racism? There’s another glimpse of a like nature in the story “In the Rukh” where Mowgli meets Gisborne Sahib for the first time, the context being a need to find and kill a man-eating tiger. ‘His voice was clear and bell-like, utterly different from the usual whine of the native…’ So what natives are these who usually whine, then? Those with whom Kipling worked and lived for seven years?

Concerning the ‘shadowland of lewd monstrosities’, one can understand a Victorian rejection of the sexual opulence of Shiva’s wife Parvati and the more explicit temple decorations, also perhaps sympathise with a disgust towards, for example, the ceremonial flipping of rancid butterballs – hit or miss – at statues of Kali. (2)

Kipling’s repugnance is strongly expressed in a notable polemic at the back-end of The Smith Administration with a revolting description of how the narrow stinking lanes of Benares and the disposal of a Thing on a burning ghat affects the sensibilities of a delicate English bride.

So to what extent was Kipling inclined – or even given
the opportunity – to appreciate what we see today as beauty
in the marvellous Chola bronzes of the Hindu pantheon?

The short story “The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney”, published in 1889, creates a suspicion that after seven years in India as a journalist, his knowledge of Hindu gods was not all that it should have been.

Private Mulvaney gets drunk and finds himself inside a temple with all the princesses of Hindustan in one of many palanquins. How to escape? He sees a portrait of the god Krishna, and believing that he’s a likeness, wraps himself in the palanquin’s rich upholstery and leaves, giving several ladies an unforgettable religious experience. In order to overcome the undeniable fact that Mulvaney, in common with soldiers of the period, wore a moustache, Kipling has Mulvaney on return to barracks show his companions a ‘foot-long presentment of the great god Krishna playing on a flute. The heavy jowl, the staring eye and the blue-black moustache of the god made up a far-off resemblance to Mulvaney’ [Life’s Handicap p. 33].

While Kipling is entirely correct about the flute-playing, Krishna is invariably clean-shaven, while at that time most British soldiers – and Kipling himself – were heavily moustached. Furthermore, Krishna is always painted with a bright blue complexion. Various reasons for this are adduced, one being that, as a baby, his milk was poisoned by the wicked fairy. But the Incarnation is a wonderfully imaginative story and it is possible that Kipling wilfully bent his Krishna to suit, relying on our ignorance.

In this story, a further example of Kipling’s ‘lewd monstrosities’ inhibition crops up when Mulvaney says [Life’s Handicap p. 30]:

“I was no light weight myself, an’ my men were mortial anxious to dhrop me under a great big archway promiscuously ornamented wid the most improper carvin’s and cuttin’s I iver saw. Begad! They made me blush – like a – like a Maharanee”.

‘Kipling’ responds.

“The temple of Prithi-Devi” I murmured, remembering the monstrous horrors of that sculptured archway at Benares’

A diligent search of today’s Benares temples reveals no temple of Prithi-Devi and if such a ‘sculptured archway’ existed, it would certainly be today a notorious tourist attraction akin to the singular and famous Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh. This writer has visited a large number of Hindu temples and cannot recall such an ‘archway’ as part of an entrance. While the familiar gopuram towers are lavishly decorated with carvings, usually brightly coloured but sometimes plain white; none are ‘improper’. Devi correctly infers a temple in honour of a female goddess appropriate to a pilgrimage by royal ladies; Priti is a name for a Hindu girl, meaning ‘love’.

The tender little poem “Shiv and the Grasshopper” has Shiva described as ‘the Preserver’. The Hindu attributions to the gods of their Trinity are manifold and labyrinthine, but Bramah, Vishnu and Shiva are generally reckoned sequentially as the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer.

The title ‘Mahadeo’ in the poem is one of the over one hundred titles of Shiva and means ‘great god’.

The often-seen statue of Shiva as Nataraj the Dancer who shook the Cosmos, ringed by his aureole of flame, with the spirit of the Ganges in his dreadlocks, standing on the Demon of Ignorance, is also credited with bringing the world into creation. ‘Mahadeo’ has a Vishnaic role as ‘Preserver’ and it is to Kipling’s credit in this case that he has identified this Shivaic characteristic.

Kipling’s critics sometimes remark an aspiration to shock his readers and he surely does – largely concentrated in Life’s Handicap. (1891) We recall in “The Return of Imray” how the corpse of Imray returned suddenly through the ceiling cloth; what was at “The End of the Passage”; “Bertran and Bimi”; “Reingelder and the German Flag” and in “Beyond the Pale” why the poor widow Bisesa had her hands cut off.

“The Mark of the Beast” is very much in this genre – the raffish ex-pat Fleete stubs his cigar out on the effigy at the temple to Hanuman, the monkey-god. Why did Kipling choose Hanuman who is a popular and friendly deity, soldier, faithful guardian, credited in the Ramayana with recovering Rama’s wife Sita from demons in Ceylon and so forth? Kipling possibly felt that this horror story stands up better with a spooky non-human temple deity – the temple’s revenge takes the form of a silver man, a leper white as snow, featureless, deprived of speech, who lays a curse on Fleete which seems to be a mix of hydrophobia and lycanthropy. This priest certainly wasn’t a Brahmin and one notices that Strickland is made to say: “He is not one of the regular priests of the temple”. The curse is lifted after Kipling and Strickland torture the silver man with fishing twine and red-hot shotgun barrels, concluding a story, which, while fanciful, is hardly sympathetic to Hinduism.

The story “The Bridge Builders”, written in 1893, four years after Kipling had left India, features several Hindu gods who, during an exceptional Ganges flood, discuss whether the nearly-completed railway bridge that enchains holy mother Gunga should be allowed to stand. Shiva arrives first to this Panchayat of the Gods in the shape of a Brahminee Bull. The bull is the ‘vehicle’ of Shiva and is always to be found as an intercessor on the main axis of Shiva’s temples. There’s a Parrot which is named as Karma but does not fit the pantheon nor the fatalistic philosophy. Next to arrive is a magnificent Black Buck representing Indra who nowadays occupies a lesser position in the pantheon and is ‘only’ a demi-god – the Lord of the Heavens. Associating a buck with Indra is not supported elsewhere.

Next comes a Tigress as the form of Kali, who is not associated with tigers but is appropriately dangerous. Kali, also known as Durga, is the terrible version of Parvati, and is usually seen draped with a necklace of human skulls. Kipling knowledgeably has the Bull call the Tigress ‘his wife’.

The Elephant correctly mentions “Shiv, my Father” as he represents Ganesh, one of Shiv’s sons, who is translated into half-man, half-elephant as a consequence of a particularly well-known Hindu fairy story.

Again, Kipling is correct in suggesting Ganesh as the ‘Ganesh of Good Luck’ as one can see in most Indian households a shrine to Ganesh, believed to be protective of family life.

A large Grey Ape is Hanuman, the Monkey God (whom we have met above) and the mention of ‘his armies toiling in Lanka’ and ‘he also builded no small bridge in the world’s youth’ (from India to Ceylon) shows that Kipling is familiar with the main thrust of the Ramayana.

The River Ganges is represented by a Crocodile – a Mugger – who asks the Gods to assist the destruction of the bridge.

There is a Man, Bhairon, who arrives drunk, carrying a bottle, who says he represents the Common Man and repeats several times that his staff is the ‘Kotwal of Kashi’. The nearest we can get to untangling this phenomenon is to mention that the minor god Kaal Bhairav has an ancient temple in Varanasi and is himself believed to be the ‘Kotwal of Kashi’ where ‘Kashi’ is a little used name for Varanasi, formerly Benares. (The bridge in the story is “The Kashi Bridge”). Kaal Bhairav is considered a fearsome manifestation of Shiva, associated with death and fate, wearing a garland of skulls and a club of peacock feathers. Somewhat unlike Kipling’s manifestation.

Last to arrive is Krishna, described as ‘the herd’ and ‘darling of the Gopis’, a correct description as stories of Krishna’s youth cover his affairs with these milkmaids – he had a propensity for stealing their clothes by the river bank and hiding in a nearby tree. It is not stated that Krishna is the eighth avatar of Hindu Trinity member Vishnu, nor is there anything to imply the important role that Krishna maintains in Hindu philosophy.

To further the argument in this particular story, Kipling has limited Krishna’s personality to the popular gopi-inspired attraction for young lovers. It would not be reasonable to expect a dissertation on Krishna’s role as the mythic warrior Arjuna’s teacher and charioteer during the epic Mahabharata battle amongst the 700 intensely philosophical stanzas of the Bhagavadgita, with its affinities to Buddhism and Aristotelianism. We must remark, however, that this aspect of Krishna is widely understood, and the ‘charioteer’ scene is often in evidence.

Anachronistic to this story, one may see an example today in the baggage collection area of Chennai airport, captioned in letters of brass with Krishna’s harsh lifestyle guidance to Arjuna: “Do your duty and expect nothing from it”. (Note the ‘and’ is not a ‘but’; the latter phrase is equally an instruction). Kipling’s one mention of the Mahabharata appears in Chapter IV of Letters of Marque when observing the frescoes in the museum at Jeypore, but explores the work no further.

“The Bridge Builders” has a theme – the Gods debate whether the advances of ‘western’ technology, particularly the railway, are gradually eroding the worshippers’ belief in themselves. The foreman, Peroo, who is listening with Findlayson, agrees; he now wonders whether his own priests were so wise. But the Gods conclude that the railway benefits worship by bringing more people to the shrines and as long as Brahm (Kipling means Bramah, the Head of the Trinity) continues to ‘dream’, then ‘the Heavens and the Hells and Earth’ won’t disappear.

With reference to Kipling’s attitude to Hinduism, does this story illustrate a mind-set which says that the Hindu pantheon is archaic and that the system of Hindu beliefs is uniquely vulnerable to ‘progress’? There is an implication deep in the story that the Gods have adopted a Christian image. Hanuman says: ‘…presently I touch the shrines of the New Faith and the Woman whom we know is hewn twelve-armed and still they call her Mary’. But it would be hard to envisage a plot which argued that the Christian and Islamic faiths or the Buddhist way of life were vulnerable to technology in quite the same way, ignoring the thought that scientific explanations have generally reduced superstitions. Again, we see that the ‘lewd monstrosities’ have obscured the philosophy.

Elsewhere, Kipling’s portrayal of Hindus is mixed – Kim shifts several times from Hindu to Mohammedan garb and back without preference while, during his train journey with his lama to Umballa, they meet ‘a fat Hindu money-lender’ who has an ‘oily smirk’.

Let us round off this essay with Kipling’s account of conflict in the streets of Lahore between Hindu and Mahometan. “On The City Wall” recounts how ‘Kipling’ was persuaded by the charms of Lalun, unknowingly to shepherd the ancient Sikh rebel Khem Singh across a city riven by sectarian violence. The violence arises because ‘the Hindus do their best to arrange some minor feast-day of their own to clash with the period of general mourning for the martyrs Hasan and Hussain, the Muslim heroes of the Mohurrum.

While Kipling’s treatment of the causes of the disturbance is even-handed, it does seem that the Hindus prepared for it by taking bricks to upper rooms. Troops are brought in and the trouble is quelled by rifle butts – only one man ‘died expediently for the people’. But it is the fall of Lalun’s Vizier, the handsome, Western-educated, cultivated, completely disengaged Wali Dad that is drawn with such remarkable affection:

‘his nostrils were distended and he was smiting himself softly on the breast.… a gang of Musalmans hard-pressed by some hundred Hindu fanatics passed by. Wali Dad left my side with an oath and shouting “Ya Hasan Ya Hussein” plunged into the thick of the fight…
Later, sobbing hysterically, this Agnostic and Unbeliever, shoeless, turbanless and frothing at the mouth, the flesh on his chest bruised and bleeding from the vehemence with which he had smitten himself, returns to Lalun’s abode on the Wall. ..’

There is no such description of Hindu religious engagement.

Leaving aside the questionable and rather patronising need for the Englishman to ‘take sides’ between Hindu and Muslim, we must conclude that Kipling’s ‘bent’ is towards the monotheistic, Abrahamic religion of Islam, finding Hinduism with its ‘strange observances’ less understandable, the ‘lewd monstrosities’ of the Pantheon distracting from their inner meanings.

Select bibliography

  • The Bhagavadgita S Radhakrishnan (Harper Collins Publishers India 1993)
  • Ramayana C Rajagopalachari (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Publishers 2007)
  • “Am I a Hindu? – The Hinduism Primer” Ed. Viswanathan (Rupa and Co 1993)


The History of Chitor

This mighty fortress, the largest in India, is now known as Chittorgarh (Chittor Fort). In Letters of Marque, Letter X, Kipling sets out the history of Chitor, admitting that much is lost in the mists of time. It was the seat of the proud Rajputs of Mewar for over 800 years, during which time it was besieged and sacked several times. Between 1193 and the opening of the fourteenth century and after eleven turbulent reigns, Chitor must have been taken by the Mussulman, as Prince Rana is recorded as having recovered it. The next assault was by Ala ud din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, in 1303 AD. The story goes that he had heard of the beauty of the Rajput princess Pudmini, ‘fairest of all flesh on earth’ and promptly besieged the fort. Finding the siege unprofitable, he prayed just to see Pudmini – this was famously allowed by means of a mirror. Pudmini’s husband, being a gentleman, allowed safe conduct and accompanied Ala ud Din to the gate where he was captured by a trick. Ala ud Din would trade the husband for Pudmini, but her litter was empty and her handmaidens were armed men.

The husband was recovered, but the subsequent siege resulted in the killing of the flower of the Rajputs and the sack of Chitor. Facing dishonour, Pudmini and her handmaidens burnt themselves to death in a walled-up underground chamber, Ala-ud-Din entering a wasted and desolate city. It was recaptured in 1326 by the young Hammir Singh, a scion of the same Rajput clan.. In 1535 Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, besieged the fort, causing immense carnage. It is said that again, all 32,000 men then living in the fort donned the saffron robes of martyrdom and rode out to face certain death in the war, and their women folk committed sati. In 1568, the ultimate sacrifice for freedom was again performed for the third time with a last rush of the men after the Mughal Emperor Akbar had broken the walls – Akbar’s sack was the most terrible of the three, he killing everything that had life, wrecking and overturning. But he did not destroy the Tower of Victory, built in 1440, which still stands today.

Udai Singh founded a new Mewari capital at Udaipur. Although his grandson recaptured Chitor in Jehangir’s time, its glory had faded.
2. Butterballs and Kali The photograph in the text above was taken in the Tiruparan Kundram temple at the important pilgrimage centre of Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is a typical Hindu Dravidian temple devoted to Murugun, Shiva’s son (aka Kartikkeya). The ceremony of flipping butterballs at Kali is a way of raising temple revenue – one pays a small sum per butterball – and is a placatory gesture towards this terrifying manifestation of Shiva’s wife Parvati. In a hot climate the result is aesthetically unattractive.
3. Krishna
Krishna is one of the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon. He is normally seen as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu ( the other principal avatars, each with their fabled purposes, are: Matsya (fish); Kurma (tortoise);Varaha (boar); Narasimha (man-lion); Vamana (dwarf); Parasurama (warrior); Rama (the perfect man, husband of Sita); then Krishna followed by Gautama Buddha. The tenth and last is Kalki who will appear riding a white horse at the end of the world). There is a minor strand of belief, which says that Krishna is an historical figure from about the fifth century BCE, but there are also traces of such a deity amongst the early Harappan civilisations of the Indus valley. Krishna appears across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical traditions as a god-like child and prankster, a lover, a divine hero and teacher.

The worship of Krishna is part of Vaishnavism, which has Vishnu as the Supreme God; the relationship between the two is complex and diverse where Krishna is sometimes seen as an independent deity and supreme in his own right. According to tradition, he married eight queens and fathered many sons. Krishnaic movements flourish with their particular variations across the sub-continent. Krishna, or his philosophies, can be detected in Jainism, Buddhism, the Baha’i faith and the Ahmadayya sect of Islam.
4. The Bhagavadgita
The Bhagavadgita, often abbreviated as ‘the Gita’, is embedded in the vast epic poem of the Mahabarata, both works being attributed to the sage Ved Vyasa. It is called an Upanishad as it derives its main inspiration from that remarkable group of scriptures. Scholars have placed the Gita between the fifth and second centuries BCE. In our times, there have been many editions and several good English translations. Aldous Huxley’s important Perennial Philosophy (Chatto and Windus 1946) makes much of the Gita in his argument about the universal nature of religious and philosophical thinking across centuries and faiths. Indeed, he says,”the Gita is one of the clearest and most comprehensive summaries of the Perennial Philosophy ever to have been made. Hence its enduring value, not only for Indians, but for all mankind”.

The Gita’s narrative opens with the uncertainty expressed by Prince Arjuna when confronted with the necessity to do battle against many of his own kin. “My limbs quail, my mouth goes dry, my body shakes, my hair stands on end”. But his charioteer is the god Krishna who instructs him in his duty as a warrior of the ksatriya caste and schools Arjuna throughout seven hundred verses in the nature of Reality, the relationship between God and the Self, explaining the seminal Upanishad passage, tat tvam asi, which, echoed by Huxley’s first chapter title, translates as That Art Thou – ‘God is in myself’ and can be discovered through paths of knowledge, devotion and action. It is apparent that the requirements of self-discipline, clarity of thought, subordination of fleshly desires has much in common with Buddhism.

Taking a random glimpse of the difficult and uncompromising Gita philosophy from chapter XII – ‘Worship of the Personal Lord and of the Absolute’:-
(Krishna is speaking):

“He who has no expectation, is pure, is skilful in action, unconcerned, untroubled, who has given up all initiative, he, my devotee, is dear to Me”
“He who neither rejoices nor hates, neither grieves nor desires and who has renounced good and evil, he who is thus devoted is dear to Me”.
“He from whom the world does not shrink and who does not shrink from the world and who is free from joy and anger, fear and agitation, he too is dear to Me”


©Guy Liardet 2014 All rights reserved