The Snake and the Mongoose

The Emergence of Identity in Early Indian Religion

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Nathan McGovern
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nathan McGovern’s The Snake and the Mongoose is a welcome addition to a rapidly expanding corpus of scholarship that is dedicated to correcting fundamental (mis)understandings of ancient Indian history through principled textual research, new translations, and the taking of various emic accounts and theories seriously. In this important book, McGovern examines the two fundamental social categories of personhood in ancient India, that of the “brahmana” and the “śramaṇa,” and argues that their assumed historical opposition and mutual exclusivity were neither natural, nor definitive, in early Indian literature. McGovern convincingly shows the reader that the inherited assumption that the category Brahmana was a “stable and self-evident agent in Indian history” (5) is not only wrong, but also deceptively misleading. In a move to refine as much as revise scholarship, McGovern elucidates how the category “Brahman” was actually a highly contested and idealized description of selfhood in ancient India which was claimed by various socio-religious groups, such as the Buddhists, Jains, Ājīvikas, and the so-called Vedic “Brahmans.”—the consequences of which are major.

McGovern suggests multiple corrections to the received history of ancient Indian religions, including that to truly understand the birth of Buddhism, scholars need to abandon the inherited “metahistorical assumptions” that Buddhism was a reaction to a pre-established, and in many ways privileged, Brahmanism; or what he calls, “the snake and mongoose model of Indian religions” (16). In addition to replacing outdated models, McGovern argues that, “we must interpret all contributions to ancient Indian discourses as creative and dynamic articulations of identity vis-à-vis other articulations of identity as a particular time and place” (23). While this reader would suggest that such a prescription is far more in line with the Bakhtinian concepts of chronotope and heteroglossia than McGovern's commitment to understand early Indian religions through “dialectic identity formation” (4), it is nevertheless a welcome move.

Aside from such theoretical questions of dialogics versus dialectics, at a larger disciplinary level McGovern wishes to problematize the received models of what constitutes the category of “religion” by questioning the Western “orientalist”—and primarily Christian—categories in favor of attempting to understand Indian religions on their own terms (24). Without a sense of trepidation, McGovern boldly argues for a new methodology in the historical study of Indian religions, which entails scholars completely abandoning the distinctions between the Brahmanic and non-Brahmanic as a “metahistorical principle for the interpretation of early Indian religions” (22). McGovern expertly shows how the oft-cited metaphor for understanding early Indian religions, that of the snake and the mongoose, was actually a grammatical compound used by Patañjali not to portray antagonism between two classes of people, but rather to illustrate “categories of individuals who are treated together as an aggregate but that apply in some way separately to a particular individual” (69), correcting a longstanding and fundamental misunderstanding in emic and etic accounts.

The book consists of seven chapters that may be broadly understood in three parts. In the first part, McGovern shows how the earliest records available didn’t portray Brahmanas and śramaṇas as mutually exclusive or antagonist, but rather—as Aśoka's inscriptions read—"a single class of people worthy of gifts” (41). McGovern's conclusion is as logical as it is controversial, “there is no a priori reason why antagonism between Brahmans and śramaṇas should be accepted as a preexisting context for the rise of Buddhism and Jainism” (65). Through close readings and extensive archival research, McGovern solidifies the argument, illustrating how it was one hundred years or more after the death of the Buddha before one sees the first articulations of a described oppositional nature between Brahmanas and śramaṇas (65).

Part 2 further breaks down the constructed scholarly metahistorical narrative that Brahmans and śramaṇas are opposed to each other through close readings of early Buddhist and Jain sources. McGovern gives ample evidence to show that early Buddhists and Jains actually considered themselves to be Brahmans, based on the reasoning that—since they “gave up the world” or rejected the social call to marry and produce children—they were true Brahmans as defined by renunciation and celibacy, known as brahmacarya. McGovern further traces the reactions to such declarations in various “Brahmanical” texts, such as the Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra, which McGovern credits as “the first complete and explicit statement of the varṇa system” (163). Therefore, those that McGovern calls the “Neo-Brahmans”—or those who were finally able to secure (without contest) the title of Brahman—were able to claim exclusive monopoly on this privileged category by declaring birth as the defining characteristic of a true Brahman.

The third part focuses on how, exactly, McGovern’s “Neo-Brahmans” won the debate over who was a “true Brahman.” The short answer is that Neo-Brahmans were able to “frame” the debates in such a way that they naturalized their position, inadvertently forcing the rest of the potentials to abandon their claims. McGovern suggests that in early Common Era writings, Brahmanical literature portrayed a world in which the Buddhist and Jains did not exist, flooding the market, so to speak, with ideological positioning and dominance. Most insightfully, McGovern argues against scholars who claim that it was the sophistication of the “Brahmans” which was so captivating to the populous, suggesting instead that it was the simplicity of the Brahmanical ideology that was significant to their success in establishing themselves as premier Brahmans (195).

While this reviewer was pleased to read the discussion (109-110) on how initiatory rituals help to define a “Brahman” in multiple religious traditions, it deserved a more extensive treatment. McGovern's already excellent work would have of gained powerful nuance had more attention been paid to the ways in which ritual and language work together to turn ideas into being, or this case, make Brahmans out of humans. Ultimately, McGovern shows us how modern—and many historical—conceptions of “Brahmanism” are actually just one specific, socio-historic understanding of what was once, in ancient India, a widely contested category of selfhood.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Campbell is a doctoral student in the Graduate Group for the Study of Religion at the Univeristy of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathan McGovern is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


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