power games

Even though I’m not religious I can’t stop thinking about Religion and what it is doing to this country and, indeed, to the world. It’s in your face, making headlines everyday. If the purpose of Religion is to make us better people that’s certainly not happening. In fact, I don’t think that is what Religion is about anymore. And as news media confuse us more than they clarify, we need to think things through as best we can.

I wonder if it’ll help if I go back to the beginning of religion in India, and work my way to the present. Not being a theologian, I’m definitely hamstrung, but I’ll try.

Let’s see – what do I know of the nascent stage of religion in India? Our ancestors’ gods were elements of nature, personified. Consequently trees, rivers and animals had identities and were respected. They were not treated like disposables – to fell, pollute, cage and kill as we pleased. Forces of nature like fire, wind, thunder and rain, and celestial bodies like the sun, moon and stars, had names. They were part of the interconnected system of which human beings were a small part. A change in one link could impact the whole system. The Sanskrit word for this perspective is Sanatana, meaning ‘without a beginning’. Religion had no beginning as it was already there? I guess.

Okay, this aspect of religion does make sense to me. That would make me an Animist. To me every object in the universe is an arrangement of recycled quarks and leptons, including myself. Everything has its place and duty, which is literally what dharma means. Dharma comes from ‘dhr’, which means ‘to hold and maintain’ or ’that which is established’ in Sanskrit. To put it simply, dharma is my duty, what I am supposed to do in an honest and ethical manner during my earthly sojourn. That’s it, Sanatana Dharma! Religion at its simplest!

What is the problem with stopping here? Some say Animists are primitive because they can’t tell the difference between living things and non-living things! Well, Animists are by nature not Cartesian thinkers and cannot understand why some people see god as a separate anthropomorphic entity when the whole world is a manifestation of god, or maya. Some say god created the world, I think he manifested as the world, and I put down the difference to semantics, because this is a futile debate.

God is described as neti neti, meaning ‘not this, not this’ in Sanskrit because he’s all of it, the whole universe, including all of us in Kingdom Animalia and Kingdom Plantae, and things inanimate. By the way, there is now something called New Animism. The adherents revere nature after acknowledging that the objects they revere are inanimate, to show the world they are not primitive. The Cartesian mindset cannot process the original, organic Old Animism, but even if it could, this disclaimer is necessary so their Rationalist friends don’t dismiss them as cuckoo!

Admittedly, a lot of things went wrong with Sanatana Dharma as it got more and more complicated over the centuries. Pettiness, meanness, high-handedness, clannishness and exclusion created rifts and resentment among people. Reformers like Siddhartha and Mahavira in the BCEs, theologians like Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya and others about thousand years ago, and some kings and sages along the way, provided checks and balances from time to time. Things continued in pretty much the same way as the world is proceeding now, selfishly, with no regard for the greater good. We all know that entropy is inevitable, and we see it happening everywhere on earth now too, but faster than then. Stability is transitional in the affairs of human beings because we have an insatiable appetite for drama and BREAKING NEWS!

Let me skip to about 1000 CE because there don’t seem to have been any upheavals until then that are germane to the problems in India today.

People from other cultures encountered Indian culture for the first time in large numbers from the time Afghans invaded India in the 11th century CE. Over the next thousand years Islam and Christianity clashed with Indian thought continuously.

Islam and Christianity are centred around two different personages from Middle Eastern regions. They evolved from systems of thought that tend to study, classify, quantify, record, separate and order everything in the Universe, rather than flow with the inherent universal order and merge and be one with all of life, unlike the original Sanatana Dharma.

This is just my impression. I see one human lifetime as a few decades in a span of four billion years. We are as transitional as dinosaurs, mastodons, Java lapwings and orange upperwing moths. We don’t matter. I expect others will have their own take on this because religions are complex and people are individualistic, and I’m not an authority on the subject. And I’m certainly not saying one way is right and the other wrong, because opposites are often illusory, and both paths ought to lead to the same point if there are no biases.

What is Indian culture?

A loosely defined pan-Indian culture does exist. There are too many cognate words common to Sanskrit (north Indian) and Tamil (south Indian) for anyone to swallow the myth of the Aryan invasion. The gods of North Indians and South Indians are the same, so are the scriptures. Festivals like lohri and sankranti are harvest festivals of the north and south respectively, raksha bandhan and nagpanchami reaffirm the bond between brother and sister in the north and south respectively, and karva chauth in north India and varalakshmi pooja in south India celebrate the bond between husband and wife. They occur at the same time of the year in both the north and the south.

The only thing I can say for sure is that Indian culture is syncretic, having absorbed elements from immigrants over more than two millennia, or maybe even five. Make that sixty five if you start from the advent of the first Africans.

If Indian culture is syncretic and accepting as I say, you might well ask why Hindus of today seem intolerant. Some sections of the English press in India and abroad have asked this question and tried to answer it. Every time I read one of these articles I get the feeling that the writer doesn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle he’s trying to complete.

Let me go back to the very beginning or, rather, the many beginnings, of religion in many parts of the world. One thing is obvious: the religion of a population is subject to change depending on which section is dominant at a given time, and how much pressure that section exerts on the rest to convert.

  • The Celts worshipped nature gods between 500BCE and 500 CE. When Romans invaded Celt territories their religion got romanised, later christianised, and finally lost its essence.
  • The Greeks had a pantheon somewhat like the one in India. Their religion gradually disappeared by the 9th century CE, replaced by Christianity. The ancient Greek religion is being revived now under the name ‘Hellenism’ and has been gaining popularity since the 1990s.
  • The Romans created a pantheon of nature gods of their own based on the Greek one. The entire edifice of Roman culture and religious beliefs collapsed in the 4th century CE when the king, Constantine, converted to Christianity and gave it legal status.
  • The Nordic religion of Germanic peoples was lost in the 12th century CE when Christianity replaced it. It has been revived as Forn Sidr, meaning ‘the old way’, and worship of Norse gods has been practiced as Asatro for the last two centuries.
  • Lithuanians worshipped nature until Christianity became the religion of the majority by the 14th century CE. They have now revived their ancient faith, which is called Romuva. I came across a most surprising post today: https://medium.com/@subhashkak1/romuva-and-the-vedic-gods-of-lithuania-3aae469ff2f1
  • Native Indian tribes in America had their own religion and gods. From the 1600s to the 1970s these religions were suppressed, until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Though much of their culture is lost they are apparently trying to save what they can. Meanwhile, 66% of them identify as Christian according to US government data published in 2014.
  • Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world dating back to 2000 BCE, originated in Iran and was the state religion for a thousand years, until 650 CE. Then its followers had to convert to Islam or flee. Many of them fled to India in the 8th century CE. They are called Parsis and have assimilated well over here. They are devout Zoroastrians but do not attempt to spread their faith. My Parsi friend tells me that the community continues to be grateful to India for sheltering them when they fled Iran twelve centuries ago and they show it by respecting the culture that welcomed and helped them. That sounds very fair to me, because that gratitude and respect for local culture is exactly what I see in my relatives who are now citizens of the USA.

All of these peoples, except Parsis, were Animists or Polytheists. They were probably open to accepting others’ gods as an addition to their altar, the way a lot of Hindus are, even today. They didn’t suspect that their gods would completely disappear if they did that. We learn from history. We see patterns. We become wary.

In South-East Asia, indigenous religions were replaced by Hinduism and, later, Buddhism many centuries ago. Some South-East Asian nations became Muslim, like Indonesia and Malaysia. Many African countries like Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Congo have a Christian majority, though this wasn’t so in earlier years. This shows that religions of entire populations can change depending on which group has seized the chance to stealthily crawl into the breach, because forced conversions following conquests are not common now.

Putting together what happened to other ancient religions of the world with what is currently happening around the world it seems that Christianity and Islam have always been vying to dominate the world. All 193 countries, except India and Nepal, seem to have one of these two religions as their majority religion! India and Nepal are the only Hindu majority countries in the world, and there are very few Hindus outside of these two countries.

The pantheon of gods is what has kept India stable for centuries. All gods are welcome here, but since the search for the meaning of life is an individual quest, each person ought to do it his own way, however primitive his idea of god and religion may appear to someone else. Anyone who disrupts his growth by telling him his god is not worthwhile, and offers to replace his god, is impeding his soul’s progress. That is the essence of Hinduism. This is why Hindus don’t proselytise. Which means Hindu numbers will greatly diminish if conversions to Christianity and Islam are strategically planned and rapidly executed.

What happens to Hindus if two warring faiths (starting with the first of the Crusades in the 11th century CE) become the dominant religions here?

As Christianity and Islam exhort their followers to proselytise, Hindus try to hold on to the gods worshipped by different communities, so that each Hindu community has a traditional god and a network of supportive relatives and friends affiliated to that god. This way, they are less likely to get conscripted into one of the two armies. India could eventually turn into a battlefield for turf wars, and be reduced to the state Yemen and Iraq have been reduced to. The zeal of new converts will make it easy for them to offer themselves up as cannon fodder. Hindus suspect that systematic proselytisation is destroying this network by targeting the most vulnerable among them.

I fervently hope the unfolding years prove me wrong.

This is my personal view. I don’t claim to speak for all Animists, or Hindu Indians, or anyone else, nor do I have issues with Indians affiliated to any religion. I think religion is a set of ethics a person lives by, nothing more. To me, religion is neither a social nor a political concept; my religion has nothing to do with anybody else.

As I understand it, the religious turmoil in India right now is less about God, more about the fear of control, manipulation, negation of identity, and the unspeakable horrors inflicted on us by some of the Delhi Sultanate kings and Europeans in the past. Right now nobody’s in a good place, neither Hindus, nor the rest. The echo chambers of each religion are circulating plausible-sounding hypotheses and frightening the entire country, except those who don’t believe that Religion is powerful enough to rip this country to bits.

Unlike Europeans, we Indians are fortunate that our link with our past is unbroken. Many of us are aware of our remote past through stories passed down orally by parents and grandparents. Thanks to social media they are being collected and shared all over India. People have started noticing and appreciating similarities rather than differences now. Someday somebody will have to verify and catalogue these stories.

If Greta Thunberg’s ancestors had held on to Forn Sidr she might not have driven herself into depression over the state of the world at the tender age of twelve. If people still worshipped nature gods they wouldn’t have brought Earth to the brink of total destruction. Right now, India is one of the few countries on earth where nature worship is still prevalent in some form. When I walk around the lake every morning I see quite a few people stand for many minutes facing the sun with hands joined in a Namaste, eyes shut. People still worship the Peepal tree, anthills, cows and other things in nature during different festivals. It’s just giving thanks to the universe, a forerunner of the modern gratitude journal!

Meanwhile, I’m somewhat relieved to see there are quite a few moderate known voices of people from all religions, and many concerned, articulate, generous and empathic unknown Indians, who are not any party’s bots, who lucidly explain new developments to the public so they don’t go completely berserk with fear. As Steven Pinker says: With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

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When my son was two he would play peek-a-boo with the moon, excitedly shouting “Boooooo” when it came out from behind a cloud. When a cuckoo trilled “Ku-oooo” he’d say “Mama, birdie calling Kayu” (what he called himself then), and call back “ku-oooo”. He would switch easily from English to Russian when necessary. There were no barriers between himself and celestial bodies, birds, or Russians!

Once, when we were packing up to leave a cabin we had been living in for four months, I unthinkingly deflated his inflatable panda and he screamed in terror, obviously thinking it would be his turn next! Perhaps we are, likewise, getting frightened of what we think will happen, and there’s no reliable source of information left to enlighten us in this era of fake news.

 

white gown / red sari

The Archbishop of Canterbury visited Jallianwala Bagh earlier this week and expressed shame and sorrow for what happened there in 1919, exactly a hundred years ago. He came to India with a wish to make things better in the contentious world of Religion and, for that reason, met with leaders of other religions in India in his capacity as a spiritual leader.

Yesterday’s issue of The Times of India carried an editorial by Michael Binyon, the editorial writer for the The Times, London, about the Archbishop’s visit. One of the things he said is that the Archbishop ‘did not achieve any dramatic breakthrough in his meetings with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and leaders of other Christian denominations in India’, which is rather sad. I hope that was only initial awkwardness, and that this initiative will be taken forward by all involved, though I can’t help wondering what exactly are the sticking points that these leaders cannot agree on.

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In the last paragraph of the above article the Archbishop says, “One of the most profound, deep, philosophical civilisations, India has received into its life the many faiths that thrive in this country. India’s culture and history – except when manipulated – has been one of learning to value that diversity and this is so important.”

Value that diversity:

Now, this is true of all countries, not India alone. Every country is diverse because countries with tightly guarded borders are a fairly new phenomenon. India has been a country for only seventy-two years. Before that it was just a vast campsite for a whole lot of unrelated people who came from everywhere and stayed on in ethnic clusters that grew into towns, cities, principalities and kingdoms.

People teach themselves to value diversity when they have no choice and a tribal mentality proves counterproductive. It’s not really natural. The other option is to Brexit themselves out of the diversity I guess. In equivalent terms, governments in many modern-day countries accept legal immigrants and refugees, and their populations become diverse, sometimes to the dismay of citizens.

Except when manipulated:

Manipulation is exactly what has been going on for thousands of years all over the world! No country has escaped it. It’s a human trait that gets more pronounced when a mob or an exploitative bully are in control. Ever since the woman carrying the L3 mitochondrial-DNA walked out of Africa with the man with the Y-chromosome CT and started populating the rest of the world 70,000 years ago, that’s all that’s been happening!

Manipulating others, like overpowering the Neanderthals to make space for Homo sapiens, manipulating the environment, like destroying forests to make space for agriculture, driving entire animal species to extinction, torturing and killing conquered peoples, banning their cultural mores, imposing language, i.e. communication, restrictions on them, plundering resources by evicting, enslaving or killing the rightful inhabitants – this is the bad side of the history of us human beings, isn’t it (the good one being co-operation and progress as a species)?

And Jair Bolsonaro now says the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest are ultimately good for Brazil’s economy so don’t try too hard to put them out! Manipulation – everywhere, all the time, by anyone with a little bit of power – is the norm!  Manipulation is finessed nowadays because there are college courses on how to manage everything and everyone, and networking is a thing, so people think it isn’t obvious.

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Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, there are others trying to reduce religious strife in their own way. Here’s a picture of a Catholic Bishop trying to make it easier for Hindus to relate to Christianity. The Catholic Bishop is dressed up like a Hindu Swamiji: saffron robe, kumkum tikka on forehead, rudraksha mala around his neck. Behind him is one more person dressed the same way. As explained by the Archbishop of Goa, this is what the Catholic Church calls inculturation.

IMG_9898.jpgHindus criticise this as cultural appropriation. As there are thousands of Christians in India, and people are quite familiar with Christianity, it was not necessary for the Bishop to adopt the inductive teaching method of going from the known to the unknown, if that was his intention. That’s why it came off as a parody of both Hinduism and Christianity, especially when it was reported that the tabernacle was shaped like a shivalinga! This much fusion simply cannot work when it’s a question of faith and tradition and what people hold sacred. A Christian bride will not get married in a black gown or a red sari, and a Hindu bride will not wear a white sari for her saath pheras around the sacred fire. Some things have a value and meaning beyond the practical and utilitarian, and I don’t think anybody has the right to violate them.

While I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s observation that India values her diversity I honestly think we paid a huge price for it. What looks like diversity in the present era of relative peace is the result of the terror, physical pain and loss of loved ones that our forefathers went through when they were raped, tortured and massacred by marauders over hundreds of years, when there were no borders, and no standing army. We all shook down together and made ourselves a country just a few decades ago.

Going back to what the Archbishop said, yes, we have been manipulated a lot over the centuries by all and sundry, but the resilient land that is India has survived the onslaught of an endless stream of invaders only because syncretism and adaptation are more natural to us than rigid beliefs that won’t budge to adapt. While we are aware that others have taken advantage of this quality in us for their ends, we can’t change that without losing a valuable part of ourselves. So we stand like coconut trees, we bend but don’t break in a storm, and hope the damage is rectifiable when the storm is over.

animal cookies

When I read the daily newspaper I often wonder at how religion complicates things in India. Only yesterday I was thinking what a quagmire we have turned our country into, with people of almost every religion doing things that defeat the purpose of religion per se. Why didn’t we put more effort into dealing with quotidian issues instead?

Then came news that a Sikh teenager had been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan, and handed over to a random man as a ‘wife’. In India, parents start looking for a bride outside the community only when they can’t find a good-looking, educated girl from among their own. Is the situation similar in Pakistan? We would approach the girl’s family in a more civilised way, though!

Let me relate a childhood incident to illustrate why this scenario is practically incomprehensible to me.

My great-aunt was a high school teacher in Mangalore. She must have been in her mid-fifties when I went to stay with her in the Dasara holidays in the fifth grade. Her part-time maid’s daughter, Jessie, also ten years old like me, would spend a little time fetching and carrying things for her mother when she did the housework. Then, before we could go out to play near the well under the carambola tree, she would sit down with us to pray when my great-aunt did her morning pooja.

One day she told my great-aunt that she wanted to be a Hindu. My great-aunt said, “No, child, you have to be faithful to your God. He has taken good care of you and your anna, amma and akka. And don’t you think your church father will feel bad if you stop going to church?” When I think about it now I’m surprised how spontaneous, simple and unequivocal her response was. Some people do believe they are doing something of moral value by replacing others’ religious beliefs with their own, so it’s wonderful that she wasn’t that sort.

Propagating one’s religion is a constitutional right in India. Except that it is dishonourable ­­to take advantage of innocent people like this little girl. One needs a home, a full stomach, good health and some money in the bank before thinking of the needs of the soul. So people who have met their basic needs on their own, and who are therefore confident and ready to explore their higher needs, are the ones to be engaged in a public discourse if one wants to honourably propagate one’s religion.

As I see it, our religion on Earth doesn’t matter. People address the one god by different names is what I think. So all religions are fine so long as they don’t intrude into the lives of people following other religions. This is what Sri Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

  • As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.
  • Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion also worship me, Arjuna, even if they do not observe the usual forms. I am the object of all worship, its enjoyer and Lord.

That there is only one god is not an exclusively Hindu belief. All religions preach that there is only one God, at least as far as I know. The disputes are only over what name He should go by, and which of the books He has co-authored should take precedence over the rest.

I’m not surprised that many people have turned away from religion today. Practiced and preached in the right spirit religion had a chance – many chances, in fact – to make the world a better place. But religion has been petty and divisive, when it was actually meant to bind us together in peoplehood. Right now, gathering more people into any religious fold – even if it means poaching from other religious groups – is part of a bigger game plan in which gullible participants are mere pawns. Or, it’s a political activity to build vote-banks. Even poor old Bernie Sanders unwittingly fell into the vote-bank religion trap yesterday while addressing the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America!

Perhaps accepting people as they are, without bigotry and put-downs, is enough for us by way of religion in the social sense; personal religion can stay private. Especially if the alternative is to hang on to a bunch of dogmas that make us discriminate against those who believe in a different set of dogmas. Dogmas have meaning only at a superficial level. As the Gita says, just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.

Jalaluddin Rumi makes it simpler:

ANIMAL COOKIES

God gives the things of this earth

a certain color and variety and value,

causing childish folk to argue over it.

When a piece of dough is baked

in the shape of a camel or lion,

these children bite their fingers excitedly in their greed.

Both lion and camel turn to bread in their mouth,

but it’s futile to tell this to children.

Decades later, I still feel glad that my great-aunt was so forthright in her response. Any other reaction would have been exploitative and made her a lesser person. And my takeaway from the same incident would have been vastly different!

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hindutva

For the past few years the word hindutva has been interpreted as a form of fascism. Articles in the English language press often call it Hindu fascism. But is it, honestly?

-tva just means –ness in Sanskrit. So hindutva is merely hindu-ness. If the term ‘Christian values’ were translated into Sanskrit the word would be christ-tva, or something like that. So hindutva equals Hindu values.

The word Hindu is a cultural and geographical descriptor for who we are. In the past, being Hindu literally only meant belonging to this motherland. The way people lived in harmony with all of nature was called Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma has now been reduced to an anglicised ‘Hinduism’, though it isn’t the same thing. Dharma encompasses much more than –ism covers. It means ‘that which sustains everything, all that exists’. As the cliché goes, Sanatana Dharma is not a religion but a way of life.

There are no Hindu missionaries trying to convert people to Hinduism, and there is no government interference with citizens’ religious observances and what they want to call themselves. Vigilantism or violence in the name of Hinduism doesn’t become hindutva.

For people like me whose roots lie in the region of the Rivers Indus and Saraswati, hindutva is what our ancestors and more recent forefathers lived by, and were immersed in, all the time. It is not a set of religious customs and rituals; it is the milieu in which we live. It is also what makes us accept other religions and their avatars of god as equally valid, not to be desecrated or ridiculed.

The mainstream press generally handles words and images with deep meaning for religious people – of any religion – with care and respect, some religious words and images even with mortal fear! But the pejorative way in which hindutva is employed means the writers either don’t know what the word means to ordinary Hindus like me, or they haven’t really thought about the etymology of the word. Or, perhaps, their style guide doesn’t bother with cultural sensitivity and the need to avoid biases. Whatever their reasons, it amounts to taking a very simplistic view of it. I mean, what I understand by ‘atom’ is nothing compared to what it really is, and even when I say ‘really’ I only mean how physicists see it; there might very well be other ways of understanding the atom.

Calling vigilante violence hindutva is like saying that sexual abuse in churches (that was highlighted in the movie Spotlight) is part of Christian values just because some Christian priests indulged in it! That’s grossly unfair. Christians deplore such depredations by their clergy, and Hindus do not condone vigilante violence. These are aberrations, the way the massacre of Rohingyas in Burma is not Buddhism, and blowing up people and buildings is not Islam. Lynching people because they eat beef is not hindutva. Hindutva is not fascism.

Fascism is what Mussolini practiced in Italy from the end of the WW1 onwards, until the end of WW2. The fact that Mussolini and his people were Christian never came into it; it was never called Christian fascism. Hitler and his Gestapo were raised Christian (Hitler was baptized and confirmed), but their activities were termed Nazism. I have never heard anybody say Christian Nazis killed Jews; it is The Holocaust, that’s all. People even avoid calling it genocide! Likewise, I often wonder why people never say they eat pig – why is it pork, bacon, ham, sausage – anything but pig? And mutton, venison, beef, veal, poultry, never naming the unfortunate animals slaughtered for these meats?

Why does the world use euphemisms and delicately dance around some words and maul others mercilessly so they are rendered meaningless? When we sang ‘Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made…’ at Chapel in school, ‘awesome’ meant something sublime, it evoked awe and thankfulness. Does ‘awesome’ mean anything anymore? Hindutva has similarly lost its real meaning.

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Indians had lost all hope that this country would ever improve, and that cross-border terrorism and the ‘Kashmir problem’ would ever end. Five years ago I had written a sad little blog post on how India is a spent force and will never improve! Now there’s a bit of hope, a bit of pride in being Indian, and it’s palpable all over the country and even among Indians living abroad. If there is triumphalism, it is in the media; ordinary people are quietly upbeat about what the government is trying to do, at least about schemes like jandhan and fasal bima. I don’t see any country thriving like a utopia, all peace and justice and booming economy. We have our share of problems too.

This is an elected government. It has only five years to effect change and it seems in a hurry. On the face of it, you could say it looks like the definition of fascism in the Cambridge dictionary: ‘a political system based on a very powerful leader, state control, and being extremely proud of country and race, and in which political opposition is not allowed’. But is the state of affairs in India honestly fascism? There is a powerful leader because he got the votes, there is state control only in some parts of Jammu & Kashmir to prevent violence at present, the people in government are proud to be Indian and don’t get pushed around by other countries the way they did earlier (and I don’t find their pride extreme), political opposition is allowed but is temporarily inadequate because the opposition parties are currently in disarray.

Placing the blame on hindutva for every act of violence in the country (like the rape of an elderly nun in 2017– the assailants were later found to be Bangladeshi Muslims), and using the word hindutva to mean fascism, does not help. I have chosen to write this post only because the gap between hindutva as we live it, and the way it is portrayed in the media, is too wide to ignore.

entropy

A friend sent me this link today. It’s about therapeutic writing.

http://www.allysonlatta.ca/interview/more-interviews/conversation-with-dr-james-pennebaker/

Now I know why I write the stuff that I write. Much of what I write is simply catharsis. I already know that most people are not interested in it, which is why I don’t talk about any of this to anyone! But I have to get it out of my system. So it goes here. I know this is a safe place because I’m not inflicting it on anyone, because they are not obliged to read it. There might be 1 nanosec wasted when they see it pop up on their screen and groan “Oh no, not her again!” For that I apologize.

This is how it usually happens: I read the newspaper in the morning (my generation still does). Something in it gets on my nerves and I have to write it out of my system because there’s nothing else I can do. Or, it triggers some old unresolved existential worry and I drift with it into an uncomfortable space in my head. I make myself a cup of tea and try to put the thought aside. It usually works and I move on to doing other things.

Then I might get a whatsapp forward from my friend whose husband is in the army. It could be about the water situation in Cape Town, data security compromised by linking something to Aadhar card, or some terrible news from the Pak or China border that she gets on her army wives’ whatsapp group. This sometimes sends me back to square one, and I might advance my mid-morning cup of coffee by an hour to calm down.

Today was a little different. I met my friend Jay at the lake on my morning walk and we walked together at his frenetic pace. As I panted along beside him, he talked about how screwed up India is, and why do they keep calling it secular when it simply can’t be.

I drove back home ruminating on all that Jay had said. By the time I had breakfast and turned the computer on I was already in the zone, and in a hurry to get it out of my system. I hammered it out at top speed, and here it is.

Schisms >> entropy

  • Though the Constitution declares that India is a secular country, it’s hard for India to be one.
  • Secularism denotes a separation of religion and state, the government having nothing to do with people’s religions.
  • But the sacred frequently bumps up against the secular and puts the government in a spot.

Take the case of Goolrokh Gupta. A Parsi married to a Hindu, she was not allowed to participate in her father’s funeral rites because she married outside the community. This has been the norm for centuries in the Parsi community: people who leave the fold through marriage are excommunicated. Distressed, Goolrukh approached the Gujarat high court for justice. When the high court judgment didn’t favour her she took it up to the Supreme court. Meanwhile, my Parsi friend Rozbeh tells me that Goolrukh is wrong and the court has no business to decide she isn’t.

Our government can’t be called secular. It is very much involved with people’s religions. While some say that the government is promoting Hinduism, it could also be seen as promoting Christianity through the Joshua Project that I wrote about in my last post. It could even be seen as supporting Islam if you go by the minority appeasement politics it has indulged in for decades, and its recent noisy debates about triple talaq and pilgrimage rights of women. The newly added triple talaq clause in the nikahnama will hopefully prove a win-win situation for the government and the community. Then, the government has banned the Jain practice of santhara as being a form of suicide and Jains have taken out protest marches against the verdict. Last month the long-drawn-out Padmaavat row happened because Hindus objected to it as a deliberate negative portrayal of a respected Hindu queen. How can a government stay secular in a country where religious beliefs keep clashing with laws and fundamental rights?

A lot of unrest in India is because of religious issues, including caste. The Hindu caste system has been widely publicized. If you google it you get 10,50,000 results. It is deeply entrenched. Nobody can hope to find a solution soon, or want to find one, because caste groups vote en masse and are useful to political parties as they are.

Schisms occur in every group, religious or otherwise. They almost work like castes, actually. Broadly speaking, Buddhism got divided into hinayana and mahayana, Jainism into svetambara and digambara, Islam into shia and sunni, Christianity into catholic and protestant long ago. Later, more splinter groups appeared.

Navdeep, a Sikh friend, told me just yesterday that there are castes in Sikhism too, something I didn’t know. My Sindhi friends, Kantha and Renu, say there are four castes among Sindhis, divided into higher and lower. In India there are even low-caste Christians who are converts from lower castes of Hinduism, called Dalit Christians. They have their own separate churches and priests and marry among themselves. My Christian friends, Nina and Rachel, deplore this as there are supposed to be no caste divides in Christianity, but candidly add that nobody in their families would marry a Dalit Christian.

None of this was intended to happen when each of these religions began. Every religion started off nice and pure, then got corrupted over generations like the first sentence uttered in a game of Chinese whispers, then split up into castes, sects or denominations. You see this happening in whatsapp groups too, often within days or weeks of their being formed, when you see a list of so-and-so lefts, and the group admin can’t do a thing about it!

It’s entropy. It happens to everything.

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I guess we all have our little nests where we feel safe – our communities – but if the tree falls, all our nests will be destroyed…

So, well, that’s the way it is in our country. We are a highly imperfect society, but we haven’t been doing too badly. We just have to keep resolving issues as and when they arise, and may have to lock horns with the government every now and then over some strong religious belief held by our community. ‘Secular’ is a borrowed idea, it simply doesn’t apply here.

Note: all friends and conversations real, names changed for their comfort should they happen to read this.

(Photo by Sandeep Vatsa)

a smorgasbord, not a set menu

Part of the lore passed down orally in my family was that Jesus lived in India for many years. That he was an avatar of God, like Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others before him. That he lived in the Himalayas in his youth and learnt about samadhi from Indian rishis. That he was therefore able to survive after he was lifted down from the cross and placed in a tomb. That he returned to India and lived to a ripe old age in the Himalayas. And that his tomb is in Kashmir.

It sounded too far-fetched to me. Surely a young boy wouldn’t leave his home and family in the middle-east to come and learn about spiritual practices here, so far away, through high mountain passes and biting cold? And if he came here as a youth how did he die here at eighty? When did he preach in his own country then? I simply pushed the story to the back of my mind with the rest of Indian folklore.

My actual introduction to Christianity was at the age of nine when I began attending a school run by Christians. A school day started with Chapel every morning, and I learnt a lot about the religion over the years.

Born Hindu, I never had to commit myself to any one image of god because we had a pantheon in our pooja ghar, or altar. And when we went to other parts of India we worshipped at temples of gods who weren’t even on our altar, because all gods of all religions are representations of the only god there is. My parents said that a holy place was a holy place regardless of religion, because people bring only pure, clean thoughts and prayers to their holy shrines, and all places of worship are therefore imbued with holiness.

Growing up, I did wonder about the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism, unlike in other religions. Hinduism is monotheistic, but people worship god in hundreds of different forms. They invoke god in the form that traditionally represents what they need fixed: like goddess Lakshmi for money worries, analogous to the Christian patron saint, St. Nicholas; or Saraswathi, the goddess of music and art, who is similar to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music; or any of the gods – like Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, or Durga-mata in desperate situations, like St. Jude, or Jesus himself. Prayer is just a matter of reaching out to god in his most relatable form in the circumstances, either directly or through an intercessor.

The name by which I address god doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if I don’t engage with him at all. I can be an atheist, which will make me a nastik Hindu, or an out and out materialist, which will make me a charvaka Hindu, none of which are bad or wrong; they are just where I happen to be on my karmic path. I can even worship Jesus as my ishtha-devatha (god of choice) and follow the path of bhakti yoga (path of love) and still be Hindu. Looking back, this is what I probably did for a couple of years in my teens when I read the Bible, went to church and subscribed to an American Christian youth magazine called Young Ambassador. All this fits in with the claim that Hinduism is not a religion, just a way of life, which can leave a child quite confused.

As a young adult, the Hindu way of thinking gave me freedom to not commit myself irrevocably to a fixed set of beliefs. I was wary of being expected to handcuff myself mentally to things I had stopped believing in, something that happens when you permanently accept any dogma. Religious syncretism allowed me to change or modify my beliefs when I understood something better while dipping into the teachings of different religions and philosophies, and I made up my mind that this was how fluid it was always going to be.

Being a medical student, one side of me said it was just neurones and synapses that process information continuously and throw up new patterns of thought, perception and emotion, and nothing was real, especially not god and religion. Another side of me said it was more than that, beyond science. There was room for that internal debate too because Hinduism doesn’t expect me to accept anything on faith.

What was my takeaway from learning the teachings of Jesus as a child? By clearly distinguishing between good and bad, they simplified the world for me at an age when I wasn’t yet able to grasp the complexities and nuances of Hinduism that I now appreciate. Having been introduced to two religions simultaneously I saw the world of abstract ideas about life and god as more of a smorgasbord than a set menu. Theism, as I still see it, is only useful if it enables us to live in harmony on earth, and not quibble over the name of the Maker or form armies to kill each other in his name.

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In 2002 I came across Jesus the man, a book by Australian historian and theologian, Barbara Thiering. One bit I remember from this book is that Jesus and the two men who were hanged along with him ­­– Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot ­– were brought down from the crosses on Pilate’s orders. They were then imprisoned in a burial cave where Simon, who belonged to a community of healers called the Therapeutae, revived Jesus. He survived and was taken to safety, a few days after which he left the country.

Around the same time I read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten. This book is about Jesus’ coming to India after the crucifixion. Apparently he lived to be eighty and was buried in Rozabal in Srinagar, Kashmir, when his life ended. The ancient inscription on his tomb says Hazrat Issa Sahib meaning Tomb of Lord Jesus. And it still exists!

I didn’t think of any of this for a long, long time as I was busy with profession, children and home.

Then, a few days ago, I read The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Prophet. This concerns the time Jesus left Jerusalem with a caravan of merchants at the age of thirteen and lived in India till the age of twenty nine: the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

To quickly summarise, Jesus apparently spent six years in Eastern India in Hindu centres of learning like Puri, Rajagriha and Kashi. He later moved to Hemis, a Buddhist monastery in Leh, Kashmir, where he lived till the age of twenty nine. The Buddhist lamas refer to him as a Buddha (= the enlightened one), the Buddha Issa.

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I visited this Buddhist monastery at Hemis in 2007 on a family vacation to Leh in Kashmir. This is where Jesus is said to have spent the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

Records of his teachings, as well as his biography, were maintained in the Hemis monastery in Leh in Kashmir. A Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovitch, heard about them by chance. He went in search of them in 1887and had them translated from Pali into Russian. His book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, was first published in 1894.

The existence of these documents was subsequently verified by reliable people, viz. Swamy Abhedananda (1922), Prof. Nicholas Roerich (1925) and Madame Caspari (1939), the details of which are in Elizabeth Prophet’s book.

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The questions I had asked as a child were answered. But more than that, thanks to trying to make sense of all that I heard in school and at home regarding god, I had concluded that swearing allegiance to any religion was not necessary. Cherry-picking from all of them was fine. But that’s exactly what Hinduism is: you are free to think, free to question, and free to choose what to believe, without an angry god to consign you to hell if you dare to process and question what is preached.

There’s this quote from ancient Indian literature called the Puranas: “Like a honey bee gathering trickles of honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all the religions.”

Despite the differences in what religious fundamentalists – of all hues – say, at the deepest level we all feel the same thing in terms of what god, or the idea of god, is supposed to do in our lives: be there for us when we need him. Sometimes it’s easier to anthropomorphise god, and that’s fine too. The problem arises when a group of people act as though their virtual image of god is a photograph that god physically posed for, while others’ images are morphed ones of an imposter!

‘A Little Book for the Hindu Child’ is now available on Amazon

    When my son was about five years old, an older child in the school van asked him if he was Muslim or Hindu. He didn’t know. So he told her, “I’m a Gemini”! When he got home he anxiously asked me if his reply was right. I nodded and smiled, all the while wondering how to explain religion to a five-year-old.

He had a lot of questions.

What is a Hindu? What is the difference between Hindus and other people? How many Gods are there? Why are there beggars with no food to eat and no place to live – why does God let it happen? Where did Ajja go when he died? Why do I have to be good? And so forth.

I thought back to my own childhood. When I was four I lived with my grandmother and her mother for about a year. That’s when I think I imbibed something about Hinduism. I say ‘imbibed’ because not much was spoken; it was just lived. There are only two things I remember being mentioned. One was karma, or ‘you reap what you sow’, and the other was that there’s only one God whom people call by different names. I realize that these two beliefs have endured, and I still believe them to be true. So, when I decided to write down what I meant to tell my son about Hinduism, I started with these two concepts. That’s what ‘A Little Book for the Hindu Child’, published in 2005, is mostly about.

‘A Little Book for the Hindu Child’ has been available only in Bangalore all these years. Earlier this month Raj, whom I’ve known for several years now, converted it into an e-book and made it available on Amazon. I hope his efforts bear fruit, and people everywhere read this book and find it useful to understand the basics of Hinduism.

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A little book for The Hindu Child

When my son was about five years old, an older child in the school van asked him if he was a Muslim or a Hindu. As he had never heard either word before he told her, “I’m a Gemini”! Anyway, that was the beginning of his questions to me.

What is a Hindu? What is the difference between Hindus and other people? How many Gods are there? Why are some people so poor? Where did Grandpa go when he died?

I looked in every bookstore for books that could simplify Hindu concepts for him. This was in the late nineties, when we depended on bookstores, not on the internet. I couldn’t find any. Finally I decided to put down on paper what I had imbibed about Hinduism over the years. Those jottings gradually grew into a book, and illustrated and edited by friends who believed in it, reached stores in early 2005.

Review by Bala Chauhan (Deccan Herald):  

http://www.deccanheraldepaper.com/ (DH Archives 24th April, 2005)

 

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 ‘A little book for The Hindu Child’ by Bangalore-based psychiatrist Shyamala Vatsa is an interesting introduction to Hinduism. The book, primarily meant for children and early teens, is equally fascinating to adults because of the way the author has dealt with the content. Her address is straight and her answers to certain very profound questions, to the point and without any dogma. 

In the first chapter ‘What is religion?’ she begins by usual questions like “Who am I?”, “Why was I born?”, “What is God?” and turns to the readers for the answers. “Who can answer these questions? Only you.” The baseline – ‘Find out for yourself’ does wonders and is the essence of Hinduism. 

Dr Vatsa’s approach to the subject is good. Keeping in mind the vulnerability of the age group she has addressed, she has kept away from pedagogy and preaching. Instead, she has, at some places, used classroom lessons to clear doubts on intense questions like the existence of God, meaning and relevance of education, goals in life, etc. and at some, she has used life as a great learning experience to address similar serious queries. She has very simply and interestingly connected the basic principles of Hinduism like the four ashrams or stages in life to everyday life. Brahmacharya, Grahastya, Vanaprastha and Sanyas come out of the dry pages of scriptures and become alive in a young mind. 

Nowhere has she sounded absolute and final in her effort to make her readers understand the subject, and this, I feel, is a remarkable achievement. For instance, when she talks about education, she says, learning something is actually ‘discovering’ something that is already in one’s mind. 

Her definition of right and wrong is equally commendable. ‘Whether a thing is right or wrong depends on why you are doing it. So you have to be clear about your reasons for whatever you do,’ is quite profound. She has explained Karma – one of the underlying principles of Hindu philosophy and at the end, says, “Maybe you don’t believe in Karma or re-birth. Then what do you believe in? Try to argue it out in your mind till you are satisfied.” 

It’s a reaffirmation of her remarks towards the end of the book. “Hinduism is a way of thinking and one of the ways to find out these answers.”

Review by Raj: 

http://niranjani.wordpress.com/category/books/page/3/