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May 15, 1999


Which Sikh would forget New Delhi '84? Which Muslim would forget Mumbai '92?

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Anil Sivakumaran in Princeton

A few weeks ago when the writer of this piece, who is a member of the South Asian Journalists' Association, discussed the differences and commonalties between the Hindu and Islamic viewpoints and quoted Adi Sankaraacharya, he was castigated as a 'Pinko' by a pro-Hindutva SAJA lister. The following piece is Sivakumaran's reponse: The ignorance of the history of Hinduism displayed by some of those ostensibly speaking for the 'Hinduism is Indian nationalism' position is nothing short of galling, he says.

Over the millennia, doctrinaire religious figures and religious systems have dominated the landscape of human thought and determined the direction and condition of human society. Some of these figures caused immense evolution in our species and allowed us to come closer to gaining a grip on the questions that bother us when we feel a sense of the tyranny of time and the apparent meaninglessness of the human condition. Yet others caused destruction and suffering.

The twentieth century has perhaps been unique in history in the degree to which non-religious figures have directly affected the lives and ideas of ordinary people everywhere. The men of science, the social experimenters, the writers, the brutal authoritarians like Mao and Stalin, not to speak of villains like Hitler who perhaps single-handedly set in motion the most radical restructuring of the world to have happened in a single generation; all had a greater impact on this century than any religious notable one can think of.

Though some of these changes began to simmer with the Renaissance and did begin to reveal their global impact towards the late 19th century, the 20th century saw for the first time the rise of the nation state as a central icon for masses of people and the almost complete marginalisation of the armies of monks and religious soldiers who wrote the history of the centuries before the Middle Ages.

This change was heralded by the condemnation of the religious spirit as the opiate of the masses. And correctly so because religion had ceased to be the vehicle by which men and women aspired to understand their heretofore and hereafter. Figures like Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna had long become mere names that those obsessed by the need for pelf and power, self-gratification and aggrandizement used to provide a raison d'etre for hatred of the unseen stranger and the unfamiliar thought. A means whereby entire ethnicities and cultures were wiped off the face of the earth. Stalin and Hitler were remarkable in showing that when people needed a reason to hate, any fix would do. In the Soviet system, the dialectic was the opiate. And Hitler's minions thrived on hate as the basis of ideology. Not narrow ideology as the basis for hatred.

Those who may have thought that the Second World War was the last of the convulsions would be proved wrong again and again. The French and German peoples received an easy pardon for the erasure of the Jewish heritage in Europe and the victorious Allies winked at the creation of a Palestinian diaspora to accommodate the State of Israel so that Europe would not have to confront Jewish people in their midst. Hitler had won in death what he tried his level best to do in life.

The existence of Israel would do away with the need to demand from the Germans appropriate redress to the generations they uprooted and flung on the ash-heap of a cruel destiny. The crisp new Deutschmark would have to suffice as compensation while the memories of Jewish lives lived in Europe would melt away, albeit slowly, like an obstinate snowpile on the sides of a driveway resisting the thaw of spring. The Palestinians driven out of their land would roam the world adrift for over five decades, a people in search of a land.

The word ethnic-cleansing would be invented only much later when the echoes of the Crusades, Stalin, Hitler, and Palestine would be heard again in the Balkans. Now, as the world confronts the tears of Kosovo and the fires of Belgrade and Novi Sad, the Western powers offer their infamous experience in the art of redrawing maps to lead people from light into darkness. The English have seemingly forgotten the bloody absurdity of the Indian Partition.

And as new horrors confront us like serpents on Medusa's head, we forget the old ones. We forget the Cultural Revolution, we forget the crushing of the Prague Spring, we forget the bombing of Vietnam, we forget Pol Pot, we blink at the starvation of Iraq as we try to deny Rwanda and avoid Kosovo. We forget unless the pain is our own. Which Hindu would forget Partition and its fallout? Which Sikh would forget New Delhi '84? Which Muslim would forget Mumbai '92?

And where is religion in this world of ours? Seemingly, in the tears of refugees the world over, in the weeping woman and the emaciated child. In the demolished mosques, the burning churches and temples. And the mob, whether it be a mob of Muslim lumpen in Indonesia or a mob of Hindu lumpen in New Delhi, Mumbai or rural Orissa.

Everywhere but the human heart.

The turn of the century is witnessing a resurgence of religion. Religious parties that attempt to redefine patriotism towards the nation state in terms of affiliation to a religious identity have been voted to considerable power in societies attempting to abide by pluralism, like Turkey and India.

The India of the '90s is a land of tragicomic images like the Advani rath yatra of a few years ago accompanied by idiot box versions of Ram, Sita and Hanuman. One would laugh and shrug were it not for the grim reality of a nation driven to murderous frenzy over Ram Janmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid. Sadhvi Ritambhara and Bal Thackeray would be relegated to the world of cartoons where they truly belong were it not for the burning of Mumbai. And cardboard cutouts could be ignored were it not for the fact that the nation's Parliament is held in thrall by Jayalalitha, the biggest cutout of them all.

Yet, to many, even a behemoth of corruption like Jayalalitha is a goddess!!

Between the Congress and the BJP, statecraft is reduced to a combination of stagecraft and blood sport. A combination which is perhaps appropriate, given the fact that we live in a New World Disorder determined by Clinton and Milosevic.

What is the solution? They say one sets a thief to catch a thief.

Religious bigotry and fanaticism being at the heart of many of the crises confronting us, we must perhaps look to scripture to provide us with a salve for the guns of Ulster, the long knives of Algiers, the Kalashnikovs of Kabul.

All scripture agrees on the fundamentals of the equality of people in the eyes of the Divine. The injunction to free spirited inquiry and the cultivation of a high personal standard of conduct in one's relationship with fellow humans and with society at large is a common feature of all religious tradition. This return to fundamentals is the bedrock of true religious resurgence.

Writing recently in The Indian Express on the brouhaha in India over conversions to Christianity, Shashi Tharoor writes as a self-described proud Hindu on the need for Hindus to take Hinduism back from the extremists.

The ignorance of the history of Hinduism displayed by some of those ostensibly speaking for the 'Hinduism is Indian nationalism' position is nothing short of galling. In a recent exchange of opinion with one of them in a discussion on the The South Asian Journalists Association discussion list, the debate turned to differences and commonalties between the Hindu and Islamic viewpoints. When I quoted Adi Sankaraacharya, I was roundly castigated as being a 'Pinko', a term used by him freely to describe anyone he suspected of having leftist leanings. If quoting Adi Sankaraacharya, who predated Marx and the communist parties of Kerala by a millennium, determined my status as a 'Pinko', the ship of state of Hindu India is in knowledgeable hands!

The Bhagavad Gita instructs us about the need to resist the Kauravas in our midst. The scenario in Indian legislatures increasingly resembles the court of the Kauravas. The Congress party is dominated by buffoons. Despite the presence of a few elder statesmen like Atal Bihari Vajpayee among the ranks of the Sangh Parivar, it is the Shakuni mamas like Thackeray who determine the timbre of the Sangh Parivar's voluble rhetoric. This is true despite the mild falling out between the Shiv Sena and BJP.

Increasingly, there is talk of 'Hinduization'. Though many Western critics of the term are correct in being critical, I must point out that this suggested 'Hinduization' of the Indian polity is no different from the Anglicization that all immigrants to the United States are subject to as evidenced by the citizenship procedure, the dominant status of English in USA and the raging debate over the cultural rights of California's immigrant Hispanic population.

To the religious person wedded to pursuing the understanding of the fundamentals of scripture, it is clear that the right to just treatment by the state, protection of cultures and diversities as expressions of the Divine, the right to worship freely and the protection of intellectual inquiry, are all sanctioned and safeguarded both by the Bhagavad Gita as well as the Holy Quran. In fact, both texts define in clear terms what 'Dharma' is and when and how a battle may and should be joined as a Dharmic battle or Jihad carried out in submission to the will of God. This is the true fundamentalism and these are the true fundamentalists. Not the Mujahedin and the Ritambharas of this century.

The joy of understanding fundamentals is expressed beautifully by the Marathi folk poetess BahiNabai, one of the lights of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra, when she says in one of her songs composed: maajhi maai Saraswati
maale shikavite boli
leka BahiNiicya mani
kiti gupiita pErli...

The lines loosely translated say that Sarasvati as the Divine Mother teaches the poetess to speak and quietly plants in her heart many a secret knowledge, as if she were her own daughter. This is the central relationship between the individual and the Divine, whether the individual is Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or otherwise.

And as for the ordinary working Indian, whether Hindu or Muslim or Christian, who wishes to get on with his or her already arduous life and has the forces of religious confrontation ranged against him and is left with no weapon but prayer, the Mahabharata again offers solace. Offered a choice between His army and Himself, the Kauravas chose the former leaving Sri Krishna on the side of Dharma. This goes metaphorically to the heart of the existential dilemma faced by Indian society as a whole and every individual Indian in this midlife crisis of free India.

The strongest fortress and protection that Hindu and Muslim societies and the nation states of South Asia have against the 'tamasic' or Satanic fires raging within the belly of the Indian subcontinent is the investigation, understanding and application of the true fundamentals of Hinduism and Islam. The solution is not in nuclearization of the subcontinent.

It is time to lower the religious barricades and begin to set our houses in order.

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