The Alabama board of education in 1993 voted to prohibit yoga, hypnosis and meditation in public school classrooms. The ban was pushed by conservative groups, and some schools have reported complaints from parents who say the practice endorses a “non-Christian belief system”.
From The Guardian:
The ancient practice of yoga has its roots in Hinduism though it is now a common form of exercise practiced across the world, including in private gyms in Alabama.
A bill brought by Representative Jeremy Gray, a Democratic legislator from Opelika, is on the proposed debate agenda Tuesday in the Alabama House of Representatives. If the bill passes with a two-thirds majority, it will then go to the Senate for further debate.
Gray’s bill seeks to dissociate yoga from its religious roots, and says that local school systems can decide if they want to teach yoga poses and stretches. However, the moves and exercises taught to students must have exclusively English names, according to the legislation. It would also prohibit theuse of chanting, mantras and teaching the greeting “namaste”.
“Critics of thebill often see yoga as a part of the Hindu religion that can’t be separated”, Gray said. “The exclusions are part of the political compromise”, he said, “and are better than not allowing students access to any of the emotional or physical benefits of the practice.”
That sounds like cultural appropriation, but I’m not going to concern myself with deciding whether it is.
Yoga is very much a part of Hindu religion. It originated as part of Vedic religion thousands of years ago. In Sanskrit, yoga is derived from yuj meaning ‘union’ – union with the divine after quieting the five senses. It is not just an exercise routine but is used as one outside India.
Like haldi doodh, an Ayurvedic treatment for balancing the three doshas, is now called turmeric latte and sold at Starbucks!
Yoga is good. Haldi doodh is good. Ordinary people don’t have to acknowledge the origin of anything they use. That’s only for academics. So why these disclaimers, distortions and little deceptions?
In a hyper-connected world people from distant countries are exposed to other cultures. That’s unavoidable. Throughout history people have tried to alter or influence other cultures to be more like theirs, never realising the other culture is subtly rubbing off on them too! That’s how yoga has entered the lives of non-Indians.
Christian evangelism by Americans has been going on in India for many decades now. Here are a couple of excerpts reflecting dissatisfaction with it.
In India, evangelism has always been a cause for concern as it poses a severe threat to the demographic stability of the country. In this report, we elaborate on the zeal of the missionaries and the extent of their efforts to convert people to the worship of their ‘One True God’. The Joshua Project is a ‘research initiative’ that seeks to ‘highlight the ethnic people groups of the world with the fewest followers of Christ’.
Joshua Project focuses on catalyzing pioneer evangelism and church planting.
If you haven’t heard of the project, this is from wikipedia:
The Joshua Project is a Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, United States, which seeks to coordinate the work of missionary organizations to highlight the ethnic groups of the world with the fewest followers of evangelical Christianity. To do so, it maintains ethnologic data to support Christian missions.
The goal of the project is to identify people who “do not have enough worshipers of Jesus Christ” and providethe needs and support to evangelize about Christianity and Jesus.
Not so strange, is it? Everybody has misgivings about ‘the other’ infringing on their territory and trying to alter their way of life.
All human beings want to keep their tribes safe and cohesive. They like who they are and don’t want to change. Not unlike the parents of school children in Alabama, Hindu Indians don’t like the propagation of American religion in India. They have the same worries about Christian missionaries as Mr. Gray and the parents of the kids in Alabama have about yoga being taught in American schools.
Are India and the US both religious democracies rather than secular democracies then? In which case, why are we pretending to be secular?
There is a small point I need to add. Even if American children are taught yoga using English translations they are still exposed to yoga per se. Won’t they explore it further if they benefit from it, as the school and Mr. Gray intend them to? Isn’t it pointless to shield kids from something they will question anyway, given the inbuilt BS meters that all kids are blessed with?
I would think it’s simpler to tell them that this is not a Christian thing but it’s good for them. Hindu children in Indian cities enjoy decorated Christmas trees and gifts and cake at home on X’mas Day, minus the religious underpinnings, knowing that Christmas honours the god of many of our friends.
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 originalSanatana 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hindus 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 saathpheras 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.
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:
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!
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, SanatanaDharma 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.
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.
I was surprised when a friend related this incident. Her cousin in Boston was fundraising for a cause, a calamity that had left her feeling very unhappy. When she asked her friends, a Hindu couple, for a donation, they demurred. My friend doesn’t know the details, but the gist of their reasoning was: “Giving out of pity is not charity – you’re only doing this to make yourself feel better!” So when my friend indignantly asked me, “Who on earth says that?” I was inclined to agree with her.
I had never heard this before. Or, had I? A forgotten memory suddenly popped into my mind with surprising clarity. I might’ve been seven or eight when I was walking with my mother and I said “paapa”, an expression of pity, when we passed a woman in tattered clothes begging on the pavement. My mother dropped a few coins into the woman’s outstretched palm. Then she told me we must never say “paapa” and pity people because it means we think we are better than them. God has put them there and it is not our job to judge God. But we have to help them because God expects us to. Though my parents never spoke about compassion it was often obvious in their interactions with people. I was too young to understand the difference between pity and compassion and didn’t dwell on it. Until now that is, when my friend directly asked me if such a belief existed in Hinduism.
The tradition of giving exists in every religion. Giving ‘daana’, or alms, is encouraged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver but warns, “when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”. Charity is an integral part of being Parsi. In Islam, zakat is obligatory and people are expected to donate a certain percentage of their wealth to charity, but are not penalized if they don’t, perhaps to keep the offering pure. Religions in general seem to agree that what you give has to be selfless. It has to arise from empathy and compassion and can’t be a tax write-off!
I asked a couple of Hindu friends from other parts of India if anyone had told them something like this growing up. To my surprise one said that she had been told “paavam sholl-kudaadhu” (in Tamil) when she commented on poor people on the streets of Tanjavur. The other, a Gujarati from Bombay, said “nobody said this to me, but nobody ever said ‘bechara’ (in Hindi) either. We gave to charity in different ways, but it was as a duty…”
The Bhagavad Gita says: charity given to a worthy person simply because it is right to give, without consideration of anything in return, at the proper time and in the proper place, is stated to be in the mode of goodness.
Is philanthropy the same thing? The modern definition of philanthropy is ‘private initiatives for the public good, focusing on quality of life’. And the rules are different. Publicity is a necessity. Soliciting to raise funds is all right. It’s okay to donate to charities to have your taxes reduced while filing returns. According to some, charities should be for-profit organizations and be run like businesses, efficiently, so that money is not squandered. In celebrity philanthropy the celeb’s brand is the pivot. These are all new developments and I find it hard to square them with the traditional approach to charity. But I guess this is the only way bigger set-ups can use philanthropy for something large-scale, like Akshaya Patra here in Bangalore.
Still, people who want to donate a little to a cause as a duty can give without patronizing the people they are giving to, without expecting to gain anything in return, and the left hand doesn’t have to know. Equally, people can give because they feel sorry when they see suffering and feel good about doing their bit.
Since I don’t know the people my friend talked about I don’t want to judge them. Maybe they didn’t believe in the cause, or maybe they were on a tight budget. A religious directive might have consciously or subconsciously come into play. Or they might have deliberately interpreted it to their advantage. Small actions often have complex drivers as I’ve observed frequently in clinical work.
When it comes to holy books, it’s all about interpretation. Religious texts can be misinterpreted. Regardless, most regular folks have a natural urge to help the less fortunate, and they do, even atheists. Maybe being helpful is more a human attribute than a religious one.
This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!
We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.
By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.
We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms wending their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.
A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.
The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.
Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!
The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.
Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.
In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!
The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.
This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.
Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.
This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.
Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.
There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.
The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.
First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.
A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.
There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.
One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.
The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.
In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.
The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!
Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.
On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.
As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.
One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.
I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.
At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.
The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .
I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.
However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language – Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.
A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.
And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pic below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.
We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!
I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .
I could hear someone talking loudly when I neared the little fitness park at the lake this morning. It sounded like a speech. No, it was more like a sermon. People were exercising on the machines as usual. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to the man. In fact, it looked like they were avoiding eye contact with him. He went on, nevertheless. As I got on the cardio-walker to get the morning stiffness out of my legs, I tried to figure out what was happening here.
He was saying he loved to hang out at this lake whenever he came to Bangalore from Delhi, his hometown. He told us we were lucky to have the famous Bangalore climate. True, it was a beautiful June day. Then he began talking about yoga. I zoned out for a bit. When I got back to listening he had moved on to how Indians should not be divided on the basis of religion because all religions are routes to one god and all religions are about being good human beings…
He spoke in Hindi to an almost exclusively Tamilian audience, most of whom neither know Hindi nor wish to learn it! At least, that’s the impression given to the rest of India by Tamil Nadu politicians. Luckily for him, though, most Bangaloreans know some Hindi. He ended his talk with an extra-loud “Bharat mata ki…” and waited for the crowd to respond exuberantly with a “Jai!” The exercising people gazed at him in bewilderment. He smilingly cajoled his listeners into shouting “Jai!” Finally, people smiled tentatively and shouted “Jai!” after him three times as going along with him was the easier way for a bunch of sleepy people at that early hour.
A man slowly got off his machine and ambled over to the preacher. He asked in very basic Hindi, “Do you think there is a god?”
The preacher answered with a smile: “I don’t know.”
“Then why are you talking about him?” There was an edge to his voice.
People stiffened and looked warily at each other.
The preacher kept his smile in place and said, “See, we are having a discussion, we are not going to get angry.”
The man backed off a little, then muttered, “We are always being told to pray to god, to not fight. So when the rest of the world keeps progressing, we keep praying, nothing else…”
He walked off to another machine. After a while he called out to the preacher, “What happens to people when they die?”
The preacher again said “I don’t know” in his mild tone.
“Oh, shouldn’t people know where they are going when they die? You should…” He slid off his machine and bore down on the preacher.
One youngster, apparently anxious to head him off from an aggressive confrontation, called out to the man in a neutral conversational tone, “Why don’t you read some books and find out? Don’t you read?” I expected him to round on the kid but he shook his head and said “No”. He slowly looked around at all the people watching him. He seemed to be in a daze, as if he had just come out of a trance and realised what he was doing. Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
Meanwhile, the preacher had started singing a song in Hindi. The lyrics were on the same lines: Indians are one people, all religions lead to one god, all religions try to make their followers into good people. He was on his own trip in a happy place inside his head, where subtexts and undercurrents didn’t exist.
I left the fitness park and continued down the path to finish my walk. When I passed that point again on my way back he was still singing, and people seemed to have accepted him as a part of their lives for one morning.
Meanwhile, I thought about the other man’s questions. He was obviously fed up with god and didn’t have the patience for platitudes early on a weekday morning. But the preacher was evidently in the middle of a peak experience and had a strong urge to share it with the rest of humanity, and he happened to pick our quiet fitness park for sharing his joy and goodwill!
The paths of people unknown to each other crossing like this, unexpectedly, to create uncomfortable situations, is the stuff of sitcoms, not of an early morning walk in the park. As I walked towards my car, the moment when the man’s face registered annoyance at the preacher’s “I don’t know” stayed stuck in my mind, with the rest of us frozen in our places like a tableau on a stage.
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 willhopefully 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.
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.
BENGALURU: Catholic bishops across the country have raised concerns over “…false messages of conversions are being spread on whatsapp and facebook to instigate communal violence.”
One of the bishops says:
“There are growing concerns and anxieties among Christian community members as the country seems to be going one-sided or on the verge of being affiliated to a particular religion.”
This is from today’s edition of The Times of India.
This is not going to happen. Newspapers may report a few incidents, and television anchors may hold highly-charged debates, but if you look around your own city or town, beyond your own little bunch of people, you can see that our country is doing well enough in terms of religious harmony. Nothing like the Goa Inquisition is going to be unleashed on Christians by the Indian government.
Religion is not what it used to be fifty years ago almost everywhere in the world, and if you actually want to go by what is propagated via whatsapp and facebook, no religion can claim the moral high ground. I am sure people from every religious group, including religious heads when they were younger and not-yet-so-wise, are guilty of saying nasty things about some other religion, if not on social media, at least in their own drawing rooms.
When I think or write about religion it is always from the perspective of truly devout people who want to live right in God’s eyes. I’ve shied away from acknowledging that it is more of a political tool, and has always been one, because religion is sacred and empowering for billions of people, and I didn’t want to desecrate that by saying it is anything other than spiritual. In kind and open minds and hearts, religion is blessed, deeply meaningful and unifying. I believe that disparaging someone else’s god already makes you a bigot and your bias disqualifies you from judging other religions and preaching about god.
Religion is a power structure from a different era, like monarchy, and religious heads are loath to let go of power, just like European monarchies are. Apart from this, the need to increase the number of followers is also a practical consideration, so there’s some safety if there’s an internecine conflict involving religion, or even a world war, though the stated purpose is the betterment of the individual who is invited to join a religion.
India is a pluralistic society. Nobody wants to instigate communal violence, though communal violence is often a fallout of a fight over something else. As far as I can see, everyone is freely following his religion in this country for the most part. People have the freedom to propagate their religions too. I’ll give a single example. There exists a US-based project called The Joshua Project whose stated aim is to christianise all of India. The organisation was granted permission by the Indian government to operate in India in 2002. Its members are apparently even given special missionary visas.
Its activities have not been obstructed in any way for the past fifteen years as far as I know. I’ve often wondered how this project benefits India, and why the government permitted it, because I don’t see other countries allowing similar projects to hinduise, islamicise, sikhise, zorosterise, buddhisise or jainise their countries. Also, if India is truly secular it’s government shouldn’t be promoting any religion. It is very likely that there are concerns in the Hindu community regarding this. In this era of fake news how do we know that the messages the bishops say are being spread on whatsapp and facebook are true or not?
To quote from The Washington Times, 15th Dec 2006:
“Officially, Christians comprise 2.3 percent of India’s more than 1 billion population. Unofficially, he insists, the number is closer to 8 percent”, he being a man called Thangiah who preaches in Bangalore. It’s only a ball park figure, but he wouldn’t say this without some idea.
Perhaps the bishops should look at the freedom Christians have in India compared to, say Coptic Christians in some countries, before making vague allegations directed against “a particular religion.” Please? This is as good as it gets. Let’s not destroy this country over religion. We’ve managed for a thousand years, so surely the bishops can address the issues raised by others and get on with it? The people who belong to the “particular religion” may have genuine fears too, fears that could be dispelled by the bishops’ answers. Perhaps a dialogue between the respective religious heads would be more helpful than complaining to the press.
“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another”( Romans 14:19). This applies as much to us now as it did to the Gentiles and Jews then, especially in the context of the Indian belief in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, whichmeans ‘the whole world is one family‘ in Sanskrit.