Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Don't believe what people say - III

Apparently, one reason why some students of JNU were suspended was because they had a puja of Mahishasur instead of Durga. This is ridiculous. By that criterion, I can also be dubbed an anti-national since I am not a  fan of any gods, goddesses or godlets. I remember reading that those who talk the most about Indian culture know the least about it. In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Hecht says that the Cervakas in 7th century BC were the earliest example of radical doubt in the human record. Some of their views may be more extreme than those of the New Atheists.

(I have not been reading any literature criticizing religion for about 3 years now- except the book Doubt: A History. I decided to take the Issac Asimov route: 'I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time'. I also saw a note of caution by Gandhi who now seems wiser than anybody who has studied in a business school - 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.')

I learnt later that there are tribes that worship Mahishasur. There is an attempt to push one version of Hinduism modeled on the Semitic religions and having the gods and and rituals of the upper castes. In the process, the folk religions of Scheduled Castes, tribals and other disadvantaged sections of society are ignored. (This process is by no means happening only in the last couple of years.)  The religion of Hinduism can more properly be viewed as a collection of Hindu religions.

In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan indicates why there is no simple formula for 'unity' and 'diversity' in the Indian subcontinent. He says that "India doesn't have one past but many pasts. There are many different traditions like Brahmanism, bhakti traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, tantra, tribal traditions and folklore, modernity as well as Islam and and Christianity all of which have porous borders. 'They look like single entities, like neat little tents, only from a distance.' (A study shows that about 11% of the communities in India cannot be clearly identified as belonging to any of the conventionally defined religious groups.)

The attempt to force one version of Hinduism was seen in forcing a ban on 300 Ramayanas, A.K. Ramanujan's essay which gives an idea of the various versions of the Ramayana in existence. In Folktales from India, Ramanujan writes about the tales, 'Figures of power like kings, the law, Brahmans and gurus, gods and goddesses...are all shown to be stupid, easily outwitted and all too flawed.' In instances where a ban is sought, it is said that the sentiments of Hindus is hurt. The question is: which Hindus?

The gods of Hinduism are not the remote incomprehensible gods common in most other religions. And like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. Onam, the main festival of Kerala (some people may know it better as India’s Somalia!), is celebrated in the memory of a demon-king whose reign was supposed to be just and prosperous till he was finally deceived by a pious Brahmin. So a demon-king has the last laugh in God’s own country!

There was an attempt by the BJP to call Onam Vaman Jayanti, Vaman being the dwarf avatar of Vishnu who deceived the demon-king. (The Indian category 'asuras' is not exactly coincident with the Western category 'demons' although it is generally translated into English as such.) It was another attempt to make the non-conforming bits of Hinduism conform to one dominant narrative.

In a video, an audience member says that it would be a good idea to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools - the student would then be able to read the  ancient Sanskrit literature for themselves and find out how distorted is the view of Indian culture being currently propagated. He adds tongue in cheek that it will also enable them to read some good erotic poetry! In a couple of essays in Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy says:
Since about the middle of the nineteenth century...there has been deep embarrassment and discontent with the lived experience of Hinduism...For nearly a hundred and fifty years, we have seen a concerted, systematic effort to eliminate these god and goddesses from Indian life or tame them and make them behave...these reformers wanted Indians to get rid of their superfluous deities and either live in a fully secular sanitized world in which rationalized and scientific truth would prevail or, alternatively, set up a regular monotheistic God, as 'proper' Muslims and Christians have done.
Those given to this modern version of religion find all other spiritual experience low-brow, corrupted and, thus, meaningless, uncontrollable and fearsome. That fear of religion of the uncontrollable kind (to which the majority of Indians of all faiths give their allegiance) is part of the fear of the vernacular, the democratic and the plural. It is the fear that the majority of Indians are religious in a way that is not centrally controllable and does not constitute a 'proper' religion in contemporary times.
As a slight digression , there is  an interesting story (probably apocryphal) that Ashis Nandy tells about the depth of devotion to Ram of the politically vocal Rambhakths. During his only visit to an RSS shakha, Gandhi saw the portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva like Shivaji and Rana Pratap on the walls. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi asked why no portrait of Ram had been put up as well. The  RSS leader who was accompanying him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose.’

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