Indians in blood and colour have united, and are on a carnival of self-denial, self-denigration and self-incrimination, the like of which we have not seen raj ‘toadies’ were silenced by the fervour of the nationalist movement. There can be no other explanation for the spontaneous expressions of scorn that erupted at the recitation of the Saraswati Vandana (invocation to the Goddess of Knowledge) at the recent education ministers’ conference in the capital.
Critics of the BJP rationalise their opposition to the move to ‘Indianise’ and ‘spiritualise’ education on the ground that it promotes the religious values and culture of ‘a section’ (read Hindus), and thus runs counter to the country’s ‘pluralist’ traditions. After five decades of freedom the time has come to reject such perverse arguments, redress the injuries inflicted upon the national psyche, and call a spade a spade. Those seeking to invest Saraswati Vandana with sectarian colours and proclaiming a wholly untenable parity for all religions at all official functions, must be given a fitting reply.
There is no need for the government to go on the defensive regarding the merits of the hymn, or its own secular credentials. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee must unequivocally declare his government’s commitment to the civilisational unity and ethos of India, which is not going to be negated by claims of a grotesque religion-based parity, which will degrade Hinduism to one of many faiths in the land.
Unlike other creeds, Hinduism does not have a linear, one-dimensional character. The sannatan dharma is an eternal way of life as well as a religion; it is possible to owe allegiance to the former without observing the forms and rituals of the faith. The sannatan dharma thus epitomises the foundational ethos of India; its development parallels (if not pre-dates) the Egyptian civilisation that gave the world the Sphinx and Great Pyramids. What is more, unlike Egypt, we have maintained a continuity of civilisation (notwithstanding losses over time), proof of which can be seen in the fact that India has no collective memory of a pre-Vedic past.
This is in sharp contrast to the manner in which Christian and Islamic civilisations are haunted by the suppressed elements of their pre-Christian and pre-Islamic past. It would seem that as Vedic civilisation developed, it enveloped and cemented the pre-Vedic (if any) culture within its multiple folds. There was no eradication or intolerance, but a mature realisation that there are as many routes to the divine as there are souls on earth. This makes the sannatan dharma unique among all civilisations the world has known, and gifts us an unmatched ethos, to which all Indians are equal heirs.
In this context, it would be instructive to look at Mahatma Gandhi ’s view on the study of Sanskrit, the latest object of vilification by our secular brethren. The Father of the Nation stated unequivocally that “all Hindus should learn Sanskrit. Not just Hindus, but Muslims also, because Ram and Krishna are their ancestors too. Therefore, to know them, they should know Sanskrit” (Navjivan, 23rd March 1927].
I think the founding fathers subtly acknowledged this truth when they inserted the otherwise inexplicable phrase “India, that is Bharat,” in the Constitution. For a modern nation that shunned an explicitly religious identity as that asserted by the newly created Pakistan, the statement seems unduly mystical in an otherwise dry document. It makes sense only if we see it as asserting the common nationhood of all Indians as deriving from the legendary king Bharat, with all its Vedic connotations.
The unfortunate walkout by some education ministers during the Saraswati Vandana is not simply a matter of ‘insulting Hindus in their own country’ as VHP supremo Ashok Singhal has claimed. This would imply that the sannatan dharma constitutes the foundational ethos of India merely because Hindus are the majority. This ‘statistical’ argument was used by early Christians and Muslims to stamp out the original culture in the lands they overran.
My point is that because it is the original seed and root of the civilisation that grew and flourished here, the sannatan dharma (preserved in the golden verses of the Vedas and Upanishads) has pre-eminent claim to our loyalty and respect, irrespective of the religion we practice. As for Hinduism, the religion, it is a matter of private belief, and shall ever remain so.
Any right thinking citizen would have no quarrel with this position. I recollect that some years ago, when a similar brand of intolerance was being aired in society, the singer Yesudas made precisely this point when he lit a lamp at a public function and denied that this amounted to ‘forced Hinduisation.’ The Akali, Telegu Desam and National Conference leaders, not to mention Ms Jayalalitha, should be ashamed of the perverse and short-sighted stand they have taken in the matter.
It is not a question of whether these parties are allies or enemies of the government. The Akali leadership would do well to remember that from Nanak to Gobind Singh, the Sikh faith has derived almost entirely from Hindu sources. And before I am told of its Islamic roots and Islam-like aversion to idol worship (shared, incidentally, by a Jain sect), I may point out that Sikhism has borrowed from the indigenous, popular Islam of Sufis, bhakti saints like Kabir, pirs and dervishes. This Islam is reviled by purists, who have no empathy with Sikhism. In fact, Sikhism has a history of painful conflict with orthodox Islam, which does not bear repetition. Be that as it may, even if the Akalis have now forgotten that Sikhism was created as the sword arm of Hinduism, they should not label Hinduism as just another faith in India.
As for Dr Jayalalitha, one expects her to respect herself and stand up for what is right. The last time she was Chief Minister, she caused a stampede in which a number of people died, because she went to bathe in a holy river at an auspicious time, and the crowd rushed to get a glimpse of that ‘sacred’ spectacle.
There remains the issue of the imposition of Sanskrit that seems to have agitated Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Certainly HRD minister M.M. Joshi’s moves were uninformed, as the battle for the three-language formula has already been won. Dr Joshi should know that the proposal to scuttle Sanskrit learning and reduce the language to a 25-mark section of the Hindi paper had been mooted during the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi.
It provoked a nation-wide furore, not because of ‘incipient christianisation,’ but because the principals of leading public schools, students and parents, argued that Sanskrit being grammatically perfect and computer-friendly, was a language of the future. Since then, it is being taught with vigour in leading public (and government) schools, at least in the capital. It is taught orally from kindergarten, and formally from Class III onwards. This may not be the situation all over the country, as a recent Supreme Court ruling makes clear. But the matter of tardy implementation could have been taken up with the states concerned without raking up a controversy at a national conference called to discuss stagnating literacy rates.
At the same time, Joshi’s secular critics should know that modern middle class parents today are proud to claim their heritage and teach their children Sanskrit, hindustani or carnatic music, dance, et al. Nor do they fudge issues by de-linking religion from culture and tradition.
The Pioneer, 30 October 1998