Tag: Ram Puniyani

VIEWPOINT: Liberal Hinduism versus Sectarian Hindutva

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By Ram Puniyani

Banning or attacking the books in current times has been aplenty. There have been many reasons given for this intolerant attitude by different social-political groups. The cases of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, book on Sonia Gandhi Red Saree, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayans are some of the major examples. There is a tight rope walk between freedom of expression and hurting ‘others’ sensibilities, which keeps fluctuating for same political groups. Those from Hindu right will talk of freedom of expression for Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen, while the Muslim fundamentalists will talk of ‘Hurting religious sensibilities at the same time. In case of ‘The Hindus an Alternative History’ by Wendy Donigar or ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ the same Hindu right will assert the religious sensibility argument to get the uncomfortable things banished away. The overall victim of this intolerant attitude is freedom of expression and it also shows the ascendance of ‘Taliban’ elements in the social political sphere.

The ‘out of court settlement’ reached by Penguin to pulp its stock of ‘The Hindus-an alternative History’ is a very condemnable move from one of the most powerful publishers, who could have taken the matters further to the highest legal battles and preserved the right of a scholar to disseminate her views, and the right of readers to have access to it. It is in the fitness of things that well known Penguin authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadrajan have written to Penguin to pulp their books and cancel their agreements. The case against The Hindus… was filed by one Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). In his petition to the court, the book is described as “shallow, distorted…a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”, and …that Doniger herself is driven by a “Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”. Interestingly Doniger is no Christian, she is Jewish. In her preface she writes “Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism…to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks…It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”
The two central aspects of the book are, one a presentation of the matters related to sex, which has become a taboo for the self proclaimed custodians of Hinduism. One knows the great creations like Khajuraho and Konark and the depiction of matters related to sex, that’s how it was looked at as and that’s how it prevails in society, before the Victorian prudishness took over. One recalls the classic of Kalidas; ‘Kumar Sambhav’, canto 8, which gives the erotic episode of Shankar and Parvati. And same way Adi Shankaracharya’s, Saundarya Lahiri, which gives graphic descriptions of the goddess, sholaka 78-79 being two examples.
As far as attack on Doniger’s book is concerned it is part of the long sequence of the agenda of SBAS and the other RSS affiliates like VHP, Bajrang Dal etc, who became more assertive after the decade of 1980s. This is also the period when the touchiness about religious sensibilities and suppression of the freedom of expression became a phenomenon of regular occurrence. It is interesting to note that the paintings of M.F. Husain drawn in the decades of 1960s and 1970s came under attack much later, during the 1980s with the rise of the aggressive presence of politics, which began around the Ram Temple issue.

Batra, who filed the suit, is the head of the Vidya Bharati’s Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the patriarch of the Hindu right. The earlier major book under its attack was A.K. Ramanujan’s classic essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, which was part of the syllabus in Delhi University. This essay shows the wide prevalence of diverse telling of story of Lord Ram. These diverse versions are not in conformity with the version of Ram story which gels with the Ram Temple campaign. Even before the attack on this book, the RSS supporters had attacked an exhibition of many tellings of Ram story by Sahmat. In a similar vein RSS’s political wing BJP’s political and ideological partner Shiv Sena in Maharashtra had opposed the publication of the book ‘Riddles of Ram and Krishna’ as in this book Ambedkar, apart from other things, says that he will not regard Ram Krishna as Gods and nor will worship them.

Doniger has been a Professor at School of Oriental and African Studies in University of London. She has two doctorates in Sanskrit and Indian studies and has written several works of scholarship on Hinduism. She says that Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of compassion for deprived sections of society, women and pariahs as well. An example of this is in order, she is critical of Manu smiriti as it denigrates the women, at the same time she appreciates the sensitivity with which Vatsayanan’s Kam Sutra deals with women.

The tirade of SBAS and other RSS progeny against differing versions of Hinduism, and iconography is a part of its political agenda. It harps on the Brahamanical version of Hinduism bypassing and undermining the other Hindu traditions, Nath, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva, Siddha etc. The construction of RSS brand of Hinduism is a part of its Hindutva project, which took place during colonial period. Hindutva is the political ideology of this supra political organization, RSS. Hindutva picks up its version of Hinduism from the elaboration of European Orientalist interpretation of Hindu traditions. Orientalist scholars were in tune with the monotheistic worldview and that was reflected in their reading of Hinduism. In their rendering Hinduism got straight jacketed into monotheistic, monistic one and this puritan monolithic notion of Hinduism came to be presented as the Hinduism. The Colonial powers’ monotheistic worldview could not fathom the diverse richness of Hinduism’s philosophical, spiritual, religious and aesthetic expressions. Their understanding of religion revolves around a single Prophet. Hinduism as a religion as such is a conglomeration of multiple traditions which were prevalent here. Brahmanism was just one of them. During the colonial period by selectively projecting Brahmanical texts and values as Hinduism, the Orientalist scholars and British rulers gave legitimacy to caste and gender based Brahiminical tendency as ‘The Hinduism’. Brahmanism started becoming projected as the Hinduism. It is due to this that Ambedkar went on to say that ‘Hinduism is Brahmanic theology’. He was criticizing the social inequality prevalent in the name of Hinduism. Opposed to Brahmanical stream was the Shramnanic traditions of Hinduism, which by that time were out of the horizon of scholarship of Westerners and the British policy makers. In due course the declining sections of Hindu Landlords and upper caste resorted to the politics of Hindutva, which in the name of glorious Hindu traditions wanted to uphold the status quo of caste and gender, wanted to retain its hegemony in social and economic sphere. The freedom movement and its leader Gandhi’s Hinduism was away from this Brahmanical-Hindutva stream. It was more in continuation with liberal Hindu belonging to Shramanic tradition. It is the Hinduism with which the large sections of Hindus could identify.

Hindu Mahasabha and RSS brand of Hindutva was a marginal phenomenon as it was elite Brahamnical and harped on the values which were at deeper level undermining the status and dignity of women and dalits. That’s how RSS and the elite supporting them kept aloof from the social changes of caste and gender during this period, and stuck to their agenda of Hindu nation based on their own sectarian interpretation of Hinduism. The RSS, in pursuance of its agenda floated SBAS, which was the one which was instrumental in communalization of the history text books during the NDA regime, led by BJP-Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The same organization is the one which is at the back of the multitude of educational endeavors and promotes the divisive-sectarian history through many Sarswati Shishu Mandirs, Ekal Vidyalayas amongst others. So, for them Doniger’s book is a red rag as it talks of rich diverse traditions of the people and is not prude enough to suppress the narrations related to sex. Doniger talks of liberal Hinduism while RSS wants sectarian Hindutva imposed on the society. The struggle between liberal Hinduism and sectarian Hindutva is in full flow around the debate on this book. 

Source: Plural India

Religion, Atheism and Secularism

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By Ram Puniyani

Last three decades have seen an unprecedented presence of religion in social and political space. Somewhere the acts of terror, somewhere communal violence and somewhere the political influence of religious right on society and political processes, all these phenomenon have overshadowed the deeper inequities in the society, the aspirations of people for dignity and rights amongst others. Now comes a book which predicts that religions will become a minority vis a vis the practice of secularism in the decade of 2040s. The book is “Why Atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky” written by Nigel Barber. This book relates the rise/fall of the religion with economic power and makes an observation that atheists are much more in developed countries.

The book is based on the study of 137 nations conducted by the author and concludes that in the countries; more developed the welfare system; higher is the number of atheists. The book’s crunch line is, in countries where distribution of income is even, lesser is the number of religious people. The author is a prominent psychologist. He makes a prediction that people will feel lesser need of supernatural beliefs when the tangible world is providing them for their real needs. Also in a survey conducted in America 20% people identified themselves as Atheists.

There is some terminological confusion here to begin with, while the study is a very reasoned one, and links the lack of security with the belief in god and practice of religiosity. Surely many a religions themselves have atheism as a component of their structure. Some streams of Hinduism like Charvak deny the existence of God. Jainism and Buddhism also do not talk of a supernatural power, but it’s another matter that followers of these religions converted the prophets of these religions themselves as Gods and are worshipping them. In the broad umbrella of Hinduism there are many traditions, Brahminism, Nath, Taantra, Bhakti, Siddh etc. In Hinduism itself the concept of God is also very diverse, from the polytheism with multiple Gods and Goddesses, tri-theism (Brahma Vishnu Mahesh) to the single God; Ishwar and then to the concept of formless power all these concepts are coexisting together merrily today.

In India thee atheist tradition starting from Charvak, in present times it found a strong articulation amongst communists the epitome of which has been Bhagat Singh with his famous tract, ‘Why I am an Athiest’. Also radical social reformers like Periyar Ramsamy Naicker gave the atheist movement a powerful lift. The rationalists association is nurturing the same to a great extent.

Other religions, where there is a single God, the concept of God keeps varying between the God with form and body to the formless power. Many decades ago a plethora of books debated about the existence of God. But last three decades in particular have seen a very different phenomenon i.e. gross abuse of religions’ identity by the political forces of status quo. Earlier to this, one saw in the beginning of 20th century, in the decade of 1920s, Christian Fundamentalism was a response of the conservative sections of society to the process of social change brought about by the process of industrialization and education due to which Africa-Americans and women started coming to social space. Islamic fundamentalism makes a political appearance with the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Here it was the politics related to oil and the high handed politics of Western powers which foiled the popular revolution and brought in a cleric as the head of the state. It was during this period that conservative versions of Islam were promoted by some of the rulers who were scared of popular urges for democracy. Salafi version of Islam is one such which was used in Saudi Arabia to keep a tight leash over the popular aspirations so that the Saudi oil can keep flowing in to the tankers of oil companies controlled by US-UK giants.

It is the same Salafi version of Islam which was brought in to the service of US hegemonic interest to control the oil in the region. This version was taught in the Madrassas in Pakistan. These Madrassas were set up with US instigation, money and syllabus, through which the Mujahedeen, Taliban Al Qaeda emerged and played into the hands of US designs of throwing away Soviet army from Afghanistan. In India, the insecurity of the section of middle classes in the face of rising presence of dalits and women in social space in the decade of 1980s led to the political abuse of religion’s identity by BJP when it took up the issue of Ram temple.

While the author of the book is talking about the release of the hold of religiosity and God with rising affluence, today sitting in South Asia the scenario seems to be the other way around. In Pakistan the hold of Mullahs on the social affairs is a big obstacle to the firm rooting of democracy there. In Sri Lanka again thousands of Tamils were butchered while attacking LTTE, lately one is seeing an attack on Christians and Muslims there. Not to be left behind, in Myanmar, the retrograde political forces are attacking poor Rohingya Muslims in the name of Buddhism.

One must add that there is no contradiction between secularism and religion. The author of this book is not clear on this. With secularization process, the role of clergy was relegated to the private sphere of society but religion as such was there. God was there. It’s now that with prosperity going above the critical levels that more people are feeling less need to call upon God to help them live a secure life. In South Asian countries a complex process had been witnessed all through. While people with great amount of religiosity and belief in God like Mahatma Gandhi and Mualan Abul Kalam Azad stood for secular state, the non practicing Muslim like Jinnah led the movement for a state in the name of Islam and an atheist Savarkar, was the ideologue of Hindu nation. Many a leaders of Hindu national politics may not be so religious but in the political arena, they create mass hysteria in the name of religion and God.

One wishes to agree with the authors’ prediction. Hope it is not restricted just to Western countries. What is more important is to realize is that mass spectacles of religiosity are an expression of deeper social insecurities, which are being cashed in by the politicians of ‘status quo’, who are deliberately using this religious identity to ensure that social distribution of resources to weaker sections is stalled. Today in India one can see a clear cut battle between those who stand for social welfare, and struggle to bring in measures go in that direction on one side. On the other are those political forces that resort to polarize the communities along religious lines, around identity issues. The latter have a social base amongst the socially insecure middle classes and the backing of section of big corporate houses. Seeing the pains of this battle between two paths, one turns pessimistic at times whether if at all, South Asia can get over the imposition of God-Religion in political arena and focus on improving prosperity with equitable distribution in society. In many a propaganda-claims being made for ‘development’ the factor of equitable growth is missing and that’s where the real definition of development lies. The bluff of development by communal forces has to be countered and the emphasis on the growth with concern for equity, affirmative action for the victim religious minorities and dalits-adivasis is the core around which the battle against the blind religiosity and assertions of politics in the name of religion has to be taken forward.

Western countries though far from the ideal in prosperity and growth, at least do not have the baggage of politics of religion’s identity in such a strong way as is prevalent in ‘post-colonial’ states; that is dogging South, West Asia in particular. This book gives the hope as far as prosperity and equity is concerned one hopes that this applies to the troubled countries where abuse of religion’s identity is playing havoc with the concept of human rights and survival of large sections of society.
- Plural India, 10-08-2013