May 01, 2016

India: Interpreting that religious component within (Prof Apoorvanand)

The Tribune - 1 May 2016

Interpreting that religious component within
Prof Apoorvanand
I suppose I would always be considered a Hindu by name, notwithstanding any of my reasoned denials to the contrary.

WHY do you not write anything against Muslims" is an oft-heard question that confronts not only this writer but also others of his ilk. Behind this question lie an accusation and a firm belief that we write exclusively against Hindus. How can the query be answered? It happens to be true that in the articles, you would find a preponderance of writings that express concern or anguish at the majoritarianism prevalent in this country. Hence, a vast number of those articles would seem critical of the representatives and spokespersons for these majoritarian groups. In India, the majority can only mean the Hindu. There are quite a few people who do not find it necessary to even the scales of the majoritarian debate by mentioning "Muslim communalism" in the same breath.

I suppose I would always be considered a Hindu by name, notwithstanding any of my reasoned denials to the contrary. My friend, Farah Naqvi, once told me that if I were ever caught in a communal riot, my name alone would be decisive. On such an occasion, no one shall debate whether you are a practising Hindu, whether you are an atheist or an agnostic.

I do not deny Farah's argument. The dire conditions that she describes here preclude any kind of rational debate or reasoned thinking. If that were not the case, why would communal riots even exist! But in calmer times, we can debate such an existentialist question. Could it be said that my circumstance of being a Hindu itself probably decides the bent and direction of my writings? Or perhaps, in spite of it? Or, as a transgression towards it?

A lot of reasons could be possibly attributed to the "Hindu-ness" in me. A mother who would eat only after her daily rituals, who maintained so many fasts, could be one such reason - she, whom we used to call "Ammi", inspired by our elder brother who addressed her as such. Or, it could be childhood trips to my paternal and maternal ancestral homes in Deoghar where visiting the Shiva temple or collecting the leaves of the bel tree for the worship was de rigueur, or even listening to the daily evening 'kirtans' or watching the adornments of Shiva prepared and sent by the inmates of the Deoghar prison. It could anything from the Pran Pratishtha to the blood-spattered sacrifices to the Bhagavati during Navmi, or even participating in the processions leading to the ritual immersion of the deity during Dashami or listening to the mantras intoned by my paternal grandfather during his early morning ablutions on a daily basis.

I do not recollect whether I have ever confronted or debated this subconscious, or even half-conscious Hindu-ness in me.

There may be innumerable people like me who bear this Hindu-ness within themselves. But does the weight of this consciousness ever burden us? Those who do not sense or bear this burden of religion within themselves, can they be then rightfully called True Hindus or True Muslims or True Sikhs? Or are they, therefore, irresponsible followers of those religions that played such an important role in forming their very identities -- they who never formed any consciousness towards the religion nor were obliged to carry a concern or responsibility towards it?

There came a time when it began to seem logical that true Hinduism did not reside in its idol worship and rituals since those were superstitions or blind faith. Later, it was realised that this was merely an effort to interpret and legitimise religion in the language. Religion, like science, must remain disembodied, formless and paramount and must remain unbiased under all circumstances. Could we then possibly find a method based on first principles to help us discern the True or Pure Hindu religion that is now subdued under myriad belief systems? Does it have a fundamental source, a Gangotri so to speak, where an absolute and infinite source of its pure waters may be found?

Along with this came the question whether such an investigation would end up in futility. Should we spend our efforts in discovering this 'pure' religion or should we, instead, imbibe as dharma the recognition and the sublimity of the sum of all those experiences and perceptions that we come across in daily life, as has been experienced by innumerable people, generation after generation, since times immemorial? Indeed, these experiences or perceptions may be infinitesimally small, or limited to even one person amongst all, and maybe bound within a village or a social group.

For many, the worship of their family deity or their Kul Devi may be enough, and for many others, offering water in worship to the peepal tree or the sun may be enough, in order to sense that which we call a religious conscious or a spiritual experience. Of those, there may be very few who would insist that the rest of the people follow their beliefs, that the rest do what they do.

In transforming the infinitesimal to the universal, the sectarian to the majoritarian, it is possible that those who may wish to do so would also be loathe to lose something they consider personal and as a symbol of their identity. In a similar way, if my Ram and my Krishna are the same for everybody, then what happens to my "special relation" with each? It would then be useful to remember the scorn the Gopis showered on Uddhav.

This temptation to clarify the unclear, to shed light on every single topic, to dig up every single secret and mystery, to speak the unutterable or indescribable - should we surrender ourselves before it or should we learn to control it and subdue it?

What could be the meaning or import of the acceptance of religion then? If human being is indeed human being, then he cannot escape the responsibility to ponder his existence and his actions, while also being aware of and being perceived as intelligible to the others like himself. Therefore, it is not enough to escape by saying that I am religious but I am not willing to define what that religiousness signifies and I shall not bother to explain it either. Hence, it becomes incumbent upon each one of us to understand and interpret that religious component within ourselves.

To understand Gandhi's self-confidence in his Hindu-ness, to understand why he was immune to feeling a sense of inferiority or the arrogance of superiority in spite of his varied contacts with Islam, Christianity, Sikhism or Judaism, took us an inordinate amount of time. He did not take upon himself the responsibility of religious reform, either, as Swami Dayanand did. He was not interested in giving it a status of majoritarianism, nor universality. Neither have we discussed Gandhi's belief that all religions lead to the Truth, but they are not infallible. It also means that each succeeding generation could add to the understanding of its own religion as well as be influenced and transformed by its contacts and discourses with other religions.

We often remember Vivekanand as the first modern Hindu, but it is also true that he himself was not unanimously acceptable to the Hindus of his time. What kind of a Hindu was his own guru, Ramakrishna Paramahansa? But, Ramakrishna himself had no qualms about worshipping in a mosque or a church. Neither of them was prey to either a superiority complex or an inferiority complex.

Do I, or others like me for whom religion was acquired effortlessly or unconsciously, feel disturbed by the majoritarianism of this aspirational, militant Hinduism and does it, thus, trigger the desire within us to keep the memory of our subconscious Hindu-ness alive? I cannot say decisively that this is a complete answer, but it could certainly be one of the answers. It is their responsibility towards this memory, the de facto memory that pays homage to and empathises with those from whom we inherited these experiences - that people like me are forced to write what is perhaps perceived as being against Hindus.

The writer is Professor of Hindi Department, University of Delhi. The article is translated from Hindi by Kishore Tejaswi. Published in Hindi by Satyagrah.