Book World: They were oppressors, but they were treated as gods


Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, By Anna Della Subin.Metropolitan. 480 pp. $35

Accidental Gods. Photo by: Metropolitan Books. Copyright: Handout

John Nicholson was not most people’s idea of a god walking on Earth – unless it was the vengeful, Old Testament kind. The British army officer spent months as a prisoner of war in Kabul in 1842, then found the body of his brother mutilated in the Khyber Pass. At that point, his disdain for the people of South Asia hardened into hatred. Yet as he ascended the ranks of the army in northern India, observers noticed that his subjects did not merely tolerate their conqueror; they worshiped him. A devout circle of 250 Sikh sepoys trailed him everywhere, refusing government pay. They crept into his tent at night to prostrate themselves as Nicholson sorted through imperial paperwork and tried to ignore them.

Some years later, a Hindu holy man began preaching that Nicholson was an avatar of Brahma, a god he called “Nikal Seyn.” Muslims claimed that he was the reincarnation of the prophet Muhammad’s martyred grandson. When this ecumenical mix of worshipers prayed at Nicholson’s feet, he ordered them whipped, which only increased the fervor of their devotion. The god-man died during the Indian Mutiny in 1857; some of his followers were so distraught, they killed themselves.

The cult of Nikal Seyn is one of many stories that historian Anna Della Subin traces in her first book, “Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine.” It’s a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes of humanity’s religious instincts – and the power of followers to deify flawed mortals against their will. From South Pacific islanders’ worship of Prince Philip in the 1970s to Captain James Cook’s brutal end in 1779 at the hands of Hawaiians who seemed to take him for a death-defying deity, her narrative leaps backward and forward in time and finds the same sequence again and again: imperial subjects who extend and twist the logic of domination, declaring the White man in uniform to be a god – although it is not always clear why.

There are superficial deviations from this pattern: Jamaicans who marveled at National Geographic photographs of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and built the Rastafarian religion around him; an 11-year-old Indian boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti, forced by White Theosophists to play messiah. Crowds of Mohandas Gandhi’s followers elevated him to divine status – to the horror of the Raj and Gandhi himself. Reports circulated that merely invoking his name could help a devotee locate a lost wallet or multiply the livestock in his flock. “Despite his belief in sacrifice, renunciation and non-harm, the Mahatma became a wrathful, vengeful god in the tales of his acts, raining feces on a lawyer who defied his call for noncooperation,” Subin writes.

But these cases, too, underscore Subin’s key themes: religion as a coping mechanism of the oppressed; White Protestant condescension toward colonized people deemed primitive; the power of followers to bestow charisma, regardless of a leader’s innate allure.

Subin is a gifted storyteller, especially when she dives into lesser-known tales of Indian colonial subjects plying the shrines of dead British officers with brandy and cigars, or a Japanese prophetess haunted by visions of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. While none of these cults evolved into major religious movements (with the exception of Rastafarianism), they shed new light on the dynamics of colonialism and misunderstandings between Westerners and the parts of the world they sought to dominate, or at least comprehend and partially control. To declare a foreigner to be an avatar of a Hindu deity is not at all the same thing as accepting him as a new Jehovah or Christ; it is as much an act of assimilation as subservience.

Subin deftly exposes the human urge to worship something, anything – especially forces we can’t understand. Underneath this rich narrative, however, lies a familiar formula and a long-standing debate about what religion really is. “Accidental Gods” follows an ideological playbook popular since the mainstreaming of Michel Foucault’s ideas in the 1980s: one that reduces religious and cultural phenomena to a story about power, usually racialized power.

“The political comes into being when we distinguish between men and gods, a line as primordial as that between friend and foe, and as old as Adam’s fall,” Subin writes. “Who decides who is a deity, and who is a man? Political power is the ability to create something out of nothing, just as God once labored to bring light and dry earth from the void.” The study of religion is what Subin calls “mythopolitics” – “how power is so often rooted in myth.” Pull back the curtain of complex rituals and mystical encounters, and you find merely another venue in which bad guys with power find ways to control good guys without it.

Religious practice is simultaneously at the heart of this book and a surface phenomenon: in the West, a pious varnish on imperialist prejudices, or in the East, a state of false consciousness that blinds believers to their own subjugation. Subin seems ambivalent. She defends these cults against Westerners’ mockery and insistence on putting unfamiliar ideas into Protestant boxes. Yet she also dwells on their tragedy, the agony of so much righteous energy channeled into worship of White male oppressors rather than revolution.

It is telling that “Accidental Gods” does not follow a strictly chronological order but jumps around in time. Toward the end of the book, after we meet an Indian farmer who carries around an icon of Donald Trump, a final section called “White Gods” brings chronological whiplash: Subin takes us centuries back to Columbus, Cortes and Cook and the self-serving myths of conquistador godhood. The organizing principle of “Accidental Gods” is not historical but theological. It culminates in the unveiling of white supremacy as the original sin that explains all human experience.

There is no doubt that examining racism and political power is fundamental to understanding the history of religion. But sometimes these frameworks become reductionist. Can they fully explain, for example, the bizarre cult of Nikal Seyn: why Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims chose this particular cruel and grumpy British officer – with no obvious charisma and, presumably, many equally grumpy and cruel colleagues – as their object of worship?

“Accidental Gods” depicts a dazzling range of human religious experience, by turns moving and horrifying, familiar and gloriously weird. Subin does not wholly answer the questions she raises but invites a broader investigation of the ways humans make meaning and order out of suffering and chaos.

– – –

Molly Worthen is a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here