In November 2017, the government of the south Indian state of Karnataka passed a much-anticipated “anti-superstition” bill.
Like similar initiatives elsewhere in India, the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, 2017––Act No. 46, for short––aimed to curb the predations of “conmen” and “black magicians” by banning a handful of “evil and sinister practices.” Hindu nationalist groups were quick to label the bill “anti-Hindu.” Others argued that the legislation targets “caste and gender-based indignities.” Nevertheless, the bill’s expansive language mobilized a flurry of special-interest groups who sought carve-outs. After a “vexed” set of negotiations, in Varuni Bhatia’s words, several exemptions were written into the bill––the plucking of hair practiced among some Jains, for instance, and, without further explanation, “heated branding in accordance with rituals.”
The “heated branding” exemption was a welcomed victory for the state’s prominent communities of Vishnu worship. Each year during the rainy season, men, women, children, and elderly converge on temples and conference halls to brand themselves with the insignia of Vishnu.
The brander is a saffron-clad Swami. For large events, attendants shuffle irons back and forth from the ritual fire while the Swami works an endless stream of bodies in a kind of mass-production piety.
Made of copper, brass, or occasionally gold, the branding implements are shaped like Vishnu’s discus and conch.
Everyone is branded on their arms or shoulders, but some men––for whom being shirtless is both socially and ritually sanctioned––take three additional brands on the chest and belly.
To be branded five-ways is a uniquely gendered privilege, a sentiment that some social media users have succinctly captured through the “Boy and Girl Texting” meme.
Whether branded twice or five times, the resulting burns cicatrize.
Act No. 46 would ultimately spare Vaishnava branding the stigmatizing label of “evil and sinister practice.” But the bill thrust branding into a larger debate over religion, bodies, law, and power––and not for the first time.
Forms of ritualized branding have been practiced in South Asia since at least 300 BCE. Like elsewhere in the ancient world, bodily branding in South Asia was predominantly associated with punishment and property. Early legal texts describe how criminals are to be branded with symbols associated with their crimes––a vulva for sex with a guru’s wife, for instance, or a headless torso for killing a Brahman. Branding was also used to mark the enslaved as property. In all cases, branding was ‘stigmatizing’ in the original and literal sense of the word (stigma, after all, originally meant a branded mark).
Yet for reasons unclear to historians today, branding became associated with temples in the Tamil south in the first millennium CE, and by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries branding had become a cornerstone of conversion and devotion for a handful of Vaishnava traditions.
The popularization of branding in the sixteenth century also popularized a genre of branding polemics, a rowdy world of writing where pundits debated questions of purity and pollution, caste and community, and the very terms and conditions of Brahman identity.
The branding apologists of old drew on the language of Sanskrit scholarlytraditions to pen dense and erudite defenses of the practice. Indian archives are replete with texts like A Hermeneutical Defense of Vishnu’s Discus (Cakramīmāṃsā), Proving the Legitimacy of the Branded Discus Mark (Taptacakrāṅkaṇapraṃāṇa), Singing the Praises of Viṣṇu’s Discus (Cakrastuti), and many others, most of which have yet to be published let alone studied.
On the other side we find pugnacious denunciations like Eradicating Branded Insignia (Taptamudrāvidrāvaṇa), Eightfold Refutation of Branded Markings (Cakrāṅkananigrahāṣṭaka), and the succinct and stinging Slapping the Face of the Heretics (Pākhaṇḍacapeṭikā).
As I show in my work on polemics in early modern South Asia, the branded body was both a corporeal and commentarial problem, a collapse of corpus as text and corpus as body. Apologists used inventive reading practices to shoehorn branding––which has no apparent basis in the Vedas––into the liturgies of Brahmanical ritual. These feats of exegetical gymnastics pushed branding into a rarified word of Vedic hermeneutics. But the body (especially touch) was always central. “Those who brand their body resemble corpses,” one seventeenth century anti-brander disparaged. “They are neither Vaishnava nor Shaiva. You should not even touch a branded person, and if you do, you should stare at the sun to remove the sin.”
It’s tempting to read early-modern branding polemics as a matter of purity and pollution, what many (especially in the years since Louis Dumont’s influential but widely criticized work) have understood as the basis of caste hierarchy. But aside from a connection to fire and ash––the stuff of death and cremation, but also Vedic ritual––branding entails no real “elemental” or “organic” transfer of pollution, to borrow Dumont’s language. Instead, we might think of the branded body as one of Jean luc Nancy’s “written bodies” (corps écrits), the “incised, engraved, tattooed, scarred” bodies that function as “engrams” for certain semiotic orders. To the extent that we can think of blasphemy in pre-modern South Asia, the branding polemics push us to account for blasphemy beyond mere “word crimes” to include cases where words and bodies collide. After all, for the early-modern anti-brander, the blasphemy of branding was a semiotic (not an “elemental”) desecration of the Brahman body.
The anti-branding bogeyman of 2017 was no longer the stubborn Brahman scholar but the secular state. After Karnataka’s state government released draft legislation, social media was ablaze with aspersions and misinformation. Perhaps the most delicious twist of the anti-superstition squabble was that the draft legislation never targeted branding outright. Act No. 46 was thought to ban branding “by stealth,” the quiet machinations of a liberal legislature bent on regulating the Brahman body. But even the specter of regulation conjured anxieties old and new.
In a Change.org petition with nearly 11,000 signatories, for instance, hundreds of pro-branders made their case. “How can an activity recommended by the Vedas and supported by various scriptures and performed as a crucial act of surrender unto Lord Vishnu be considered an act of witchcraft? WTF!”
Some resorted to jingoistic flag-waving. “The congress government in Karnataka is acting like a slave of Pakistan and Christian missionaries,” one commenter wrote.
Others invoked Hindu pseudo-science to tout branding’s alleged medical benefits. “It’s medicine for many skin diseases,” one person claimed. Another speculated that branding “helps to boost the immune power with good/fast circulation of blood in veins,” while others simply deemed branding an “ancient vaccination.”
By far the most common refrain was a kind of legal counterfactual––should the government ban branding, then it should ban tattooing, circumcision, and Shi’ite self-flagellation as well. “Does the government ban tattoos? Does the government ban Muharram?” someone asked. “If assumed inhuman,” another commenter complained, “then tattooing should be banned as well!”
The case of tattooing, circumcision, and Muharram is particularly tangled. Pro-branders seem to acknowledge an equivalence (albeit an uncomfortable one) between these practices and branding––all entail skin, pain, scars, and, especially for Muharram, mass gatherings and procession. Yet for some, to put branding on equal footing with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultural and religious practices was itself a kind a blasphemy. As one person implored, “this is not at all tatto (sic)!”
The branded body leaves us with a set of knotted, fleshy questions. How, for instance, might blasphemy (with its Christian genealogies) translate to Hindu ritual contexts both past and present? And how might branding push us to rethink the terms and limits of blasphemy altogether? Early-modern branding polemics offer a unique vantage point for thinking about blasphemy as both a discursive and bodily problem. And branding’s modern controversies push us to think about blasphemy at the intersection of religion and biopolitics. In both cases, South Asia is a crucial conversation partner for an interdisciplinary and comparative conversation about blasphemy in its many guises.
Jonathan Peterson is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, where he teaches courses on religion in South Asia. He completed his PhD in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto in 2021. Jonathan works on Sanskrit scholastic cultures in early-modern South Asia, with a particular focus on Vedānta in Persianate Deccan and northern India. His articles have appeared in the Journal of South Asian Intellectual History and the Journal of Indian Philosophy, among others.