Superstitious People, Unprincipled Politicians
Posted on 1-October-2007
During most of the last month, the people of India were treated to a cheap political burlesque which should be laughed at and forgotten about, were it not for its underlying tragedy. Some people had taken a case to the Supreme Court of India asking it to adjudicate on their opposition to a government plan to dredge a shipping channel cutting through what is known in modern atlases as Adam's Bridge and what is known locally in the Indian state of Tamilnadu as Sethusamudram which is a roughly 45 kilometre long chain of sandbanks, shoals and rocks stretching from Pamban in India to Talaimannar in Srilanka. Self-appointed guardians of Hindu tradition claim that this chain is in fact the 1300 kilometre long bridge that according to Valmiki's epic poem Ramayana was built by Ramachandra's monkey army to transport them to Lanka to give battle to the army of Ravana who had abducted Sita, the wife of Ramachandra (vide Monkeys' Bridge). They cite 'historical' and 'scientific' evidence to 'prove' that this natural geographical phenomenon was manmade, seeking to browbeat anyone who disagrees, unwilling to ask if their 'proofs' meet the standards required by the disciplines of history or science and closing their minds and eyes to the sum total of existing geological, palaeontoligical and evolutionary biological knowledge of the earth and of the creatures inhabiting it now and in the past. They say that dredging this channel would destroy an important part of Hindu religious and cultural heritage. The Supreme Court could have dismissed the case for the utter blather that it is, especially since the plan does not infringe on anyone's personal rights and is not violative of the Indian Constitution, but it decided to examine the various claims and counter-claims and asked the Indian government to file an affidavit presenting its point of view. One of the government affidavits based on the professional opinion of the Archaeological Survey of India said that all the available scientific and historical data suggested that the Adam's Bridge/Sethusamudram was a natural phenomenon and added for good measure that both the bridge and the people in the Ramayana story including the character of Ramachandra were mythical.
When the contents of that affidavit became public, various groups led by India's main opposition political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), organised protests and demonstrations in many places, mainly in North India, with varying degrees of success. They claimed that the government affidavit had hurt the religious sentiments of millions of devout Hindus. One leader of the Party also said that this was not an issue of history but that of people's faith--since he talked of faith he seemed to expect that people would suspend their mental faculties and not ask any rational questions about what exactly in the given context he meant by that statement. None of this was surprising from a political party which along with its affiliates has for long tried to gain political support on the ground that it was a defender of Hindu faith, pride and heritage and which in 1992 had, citing 'Hindu faith', aroused unruly mobs into demolishing a sixteenth century mosque which it claimed stood at the same place where Ramachandra, the main protagonist of the many versions of the mythical epic Ramayana was born. We shall come back to the irrationality of such thinking by and by.
After the BJP demonstrations, politicians of the Indian National Congress, which for years has claimed to be a defender of secularism in Indian politics and government and which is at the moment the main ruling party in the Indian federal government, have behaved like a gaggle of frightened geese. It was put out that the President of the Indian National Congress had asked the government to re-examine the affidavit it had filed in the Supreme Court. India's law minister said that the affidavit would be revised and the 'offending' sections about Ramachandra being a mythical figure removed. He also added that Lord Rama who was worshipped by so many people could not be made a subject of litigation--whatever that may mean!. Another minister said that if he had been the minister for culture--the tutelary of the Archaeological Survey of India--he would have resigned. The minister of culture, rather than own responsibility for something she had signed off on as befits a person with political authority over a government department, said that officials working under her command ignored her specific instructions and sent on the affidavit with the 'offending' paragraphs in it to the law ministry. She then said that the law minister who had finally cleared the text of the affidavit was also to blame. Another important luminary of the Congress party placed the blame on the minister of culture. Eventually the government took back the affidavit, promising to file another in three months. Two officials from the Archaeological Survey of India, an institution whose opinion in a matter like this should be decisive, were suspended from their functions for in effect giving--in this case sound and rational--professional advice. One Indian politician, the Chief Minister of the state of Tamilnadu has had the courage to say--no matter what motives are attributed to him by diverse scribes and pundits--that the Ramayana story and the characters in it were mythical. When people protested he reiterated that view. A leader of the BJP, who approaching the end of the eighth decade of his life still nurses hopes of becoming India's Prime Minister some day, reacting to what the chief minister of Tamilnadu had said, commented that if the chief minister persisted in his views there would be a civil war in India. Another member of the BJP issued a fatwa --strange that a member of a political party which does not often have kind words to say about Muslims or Islam should adopt this very Islamic idea--asking that the chief minister of Tamilnadu be physically mutilated or beheaded. Through all this noise, two of India's most powerful politicians, the President of the Indian National Congress and the Prime Minister of India in that order have said nothing. Silence, according to an adage in Sanskrit I was once told, can mean agreement; it can also mean disagreement: it can be an attribute of a wise man; it can also be an attribute of a fool. Can it also mean moral cowardice, I wonder?
The response of a large and influential section of India's politicians to the opposition on 'religious' grounds to this dredging project known as the Sethusamudram Project has been either dishonourable or pathetic because the campaign against the project is irrational, untrue to some of the most precious parts of India's spiritual traditions and in political terms sterile in the end. Let us first of all look at the irrationality of it all. Tulasidasa opens his Ramayana poem, the Ramcharitmanasa saying that his work contains the essence of the Vedas and the Puranas. If for a practising, devout Hindu the Ramayana story represents the immutable truth, then the older literature of the Vedas and the Puranas should a fortiori be beyond question making it impossible for anyone to say that Einsteinian cosmology represents the true picture and the cosmology contained in the Puranas is mythical without causing grave hurt to Hindu religious sentiments. On present showing some Hindu zealots of the kind whom the BJP associates itself with might some day threaten to destroy modern observatories and cut the throats of astronomers, set fire to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and vandalise the Indian Institute of Science. The Himalayas are sacred mountains in nearly all Puranic literature and therefore any road or bridge construction, any activity such as moutaineering, especially mountaineering by untouchable foreigners like Europeans which defiles them should be banned. Then, in the Ramayana story itself Ramachandra, his brother Lakshamana and wife Sita passed through and stayed in a hundred one places on their journey from Ayodhya to Lanka. They are all by definition sacred and should be protected from later human action. The reality is that many of these places are lost or buried in surrounding squalor, if not also forgotten. There is no particular reason why Ayodhya or Sethusamudram should be especially important for modern day guardians of Hinduism. The newly acquired religious importance of Sethusamudram seems intriguing because for millions of practising Hindus, the Shiva temple at Rameshvaram, being one of the four most important places of pilgrimage is holy and not what lies further south; Rameshvaram is where the southward journey of an extremely large number of Hindu devotees ends.
Dogged assertions that no questions can be asked about the reality of a figure like Ramachandra without hurting the feelings of people are in opposition to a valuable strain in Indian tradition. A long line of Indian teachers starting from those who composed the thirteen early Upanishads, those who formulated the ideas of Sankhya, through Mahavira Vardhamana, Gautama the Buddha, right down to the medieval poet Kabirdas and a host of others taught and encouraged the habit of asking questions about received ideas, beliefs and perceptions. They were not afraid to jettison rituals, received theories or to challenge established orthodoxies. The result was some of the finest intellectual and spiritual achievements of India. All of them would have found the BJP campaigns on Ayodhya and Sethusamudram--with the Indian National Congress pusillanimously in tow-- incomprehensible if not also risible, foolish and harmful.
In Hindu religious tradition there is room for many deities of whom one occupies a place more important than others in one region or in the minds of some people. For a very large number of people in Bengal, Orissa and Assam for example the most important deities are Durga and Kali. They would treat Rama or Krishna with respect but it is to Durga and Kali to whom they are passionately attached. In the middle Gangetic plains, in Bihar and in most of Uttar Pradesh large numbers of people are passionate about Rama while in western Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat people can get ecstatic about Krishna and in Maharashtra people turn to Ganesha for help in times of trouble. There is not one deity behind whom the entire Hindu society covering the whole of India can be mobilised for any length of time. If the BJP and its friends do not know that even their Rama campaigns in 1989 and 1992 left large parts of Hindu society in large parts of the country cold, they are woefully out of touch with Indian masses. It is difficult to see large numbers of Hindus from across India going down to the southern tip of India to defend from attacks by the ungodly engineers of the government of Tamilnadu the bridge Ramachandra's monkeys built in all of five days . Hindu peasants and farmers, Hindu factory workers and slum dwellers, people who form the bulk of the electorate in India are, like ordinary people elsewhere, concerned with problems of daily life and are appreciative of governments which deliver them economic well being or of those they can trust to deliver these. If they can be aroused at all to defend the honour of Ramachandra, that arousal can hardly be more than temporary. The truth is that many who march in protest in defence of one BJP created "Hindu cause" or another are manufactured crowds who are either completely ignorant of the best in Hindu tradition, illiterate or have nothing much to do. And they manage to frighten those who swear by secularism but whose political aims often look indistinguishable from those of the BJP.
In times when religious considerations invade the domain of politics one siren song often sung by the 'wise' in India is that in India secularism does not mean opposition to religion (in politics) but equal respect for all religions. The fact is that secularism has only one meaning, whether in India or elsewhere which is that government, politics and public affairs are conducted according to laws made by people for the welfare of their community and for serving their worldly needs without any reference to God or any other divine entity. Worship of a God and leading one's life according to His wishes is the private matter of a citizen for which he has full freedom as long as he does not infringe the legal rights of other citizens and as long as the practice of his religion does not affect the economic and social well-being of the community, defined as a nation or otherwise. In Europe secularism grew out of a long struggle between the Christian Church and the newly emerging nation states. In India secularism was a deliberate choice made by those who founded the Indian Republic in January 1950. Later experience has shown that in a multi-religious society like that of India, secularism is a necessity. Within such a definition of secularism there is no room for another popular Indian siren song which is roughly that whenever something is declared to be a matter of faith, the state and the government must hold their hands off: an Indian court must not interfere when a Muslim woman, tortured by her family in the name of Islamic tradition, approaches it for relief and the government must stop an economic development project if some saffron clad bearded people say that pursuing the project hurts their religious sentiments. Secularism means that in matters of criminal law, property rights, laws governing contracts, right to life, freedom of association, speech and association, in matters of social and economic welfare it is the secular law, the institutions of the state and government policy that must prevail over individual or group preferences howsoever they might be defined, including those preferences that are defined in terms of religious belief. In the recent Sethusamudram fracas India's two main political parties have shown how readily they can abandon this fundamental principle of the Indian state in an illusory pursuit of votes.
One of the saddest realities about modern Hindu society is that large sections of it are still sunken in superstitions of different kinds: witchcraft, astrology, archaic caste rules, voodoo medicines of different kinds. The other day in Orissa four women were burnt alive because they were believed to be witches. In Haryana the leadership of a certain caste group separated a young married couple and took away their child because they had violated the exogamous caste rule about not marrying within the same gotra--a gotra can be but is not always a group based on blood ties. Elsewhere the police found skeletons of two teenagers suspected of being victims of human sacrifice. Reports in Indian media of such incidents and of examples of similar dark and evil practices form a constant stream. Hindu reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men and women of great merit and substance, worried about this darker side of Hindu society and expended their energies on trying to eradicate superstition and diverse evil social practices. They rendered valuable service to Hindu society. Those modern Hindu politicians who pander to and foster irrational and obscurantist beliefs do great disservice. When they do so in 'defence' of Hindu religion, they are not merely disingenuous but also unprincipled and immoral.
Superstitions find fertile ground in certain kinds of mental states. The kind of man who refuses to accept that a king Rama who lived a few million years ago was a physical impossibility and stops all argument to the contrary by saying that such a Rama was matter of his religious belief is likely also to be a man who would not allow his daughter born under the sign of Mars to marry a boy other than one also born under the sign of Mars and who would say that he slipped and sprained his ankle that day because he met a one-eyed man as he was leaving his house. It is precisely this kind of mental attitude that the BJP encourages--and the Indian National Congress anxious that it might lose Hindu votes to the BJP follows closely on its heels--when it takes the positions it takes on the Ramayana story. In about a half to one decade most of the present crop of India's leading politicians will have passed into oblivion. The tragedy of Hindu society is that the damage they are causing to it by encouraging obscurantism and irrationality will endure for a long time after the politicians are gone. Would that Hindu society at large, mindful of its own future in a modern world guided by reason, rid itself both of superstitions and irrational beliefs and of those people who for their personal advantage encourage and exploit such beliefs.