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Home > General > India’s "Om" Made Secularism

India’s "Om" Made Secularism

by Meera Nanda, 22 October 2008

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Economic and Political Weekly

One cannot fight the faith-based politics of Hindu nationalists and the similarly inspired initiatives of the Indian state unless one questions the very foundations of the beliefs and rituals of popular Hinduism itself. One cannot go on "respecting" people’s faith, but then turn around and start questioning them when they actually act upon that faith under the banner of Hindutva.

"New cars smell the same in India as they do in the US", was the first thought that came to my mind as I took my seat in my nephew’s new Hyundai sedan in which he had come to pick me up from the Chandigarh a irport. It was the first of August and I had just arrived in India for a short visit. My hometown was my first stop.

New cars in India may have the same leathery-plasticky smell as new cars every- where, but they look like nothing else in the world. The car that I was riding in, like the tens of thousands that roll out of auto-showrooms everyday all over India, was bedecked in red ribbons and had a garland of fresh marigolds strung around the number plates. The top of the front window had two swastikas and an "Om" painted on it in red colour. The driving-wheel had the "auspicious" red string tied to it. The Ganesh idol on the dashboard had the residue of burnt incense in front of it. My nephew told me that he was coming straight from the temple where he had taken his car for a vahan puja, a brand new Hindu ritual invented to bless the new vehicles that are clogging the Indian roads these days.

This being his first car - and the object of his loving devotion, at least for now - my nephew told me that he wanted to do something really, really, special for it. That is why, he told me, he took it to the temple where he had to shell out some serious cash for the ceremony, instead of getting a free puja which his dealership had offered as a part of the incentive package.

"What"? My ears pricked up. I must have sounded incredulous: "Car dealers offer free pujas? Do they have pundits on their staff now? Car dealerships have become new temples or what?"

My nephew looked at me as if to ask where I had been all these years! This is nothing new, he said. Knowing how popular vahan pujas are, more innovative car-dealers throw in free pujas for their customers. They hire full-time pujaris who do all the required rituals: break a coconut for auspiciousness, make you drive over limes to ward off evil spirits while they recite Sanskrit mantras whose meaning even they do not know. They give you prasad to take home with you. They even take a picture of the ceremony on a digital camera that you can email your friends and relatives all around the world. A puja in a car-dealership feels just like a puja in a temple, really. But he still prefers a real temple and that is why he decided to forego the freebie - my nephew told me this, all in one breathless monologue.

Car-dealerships with in-house pujaris! What a fancy idea, I thought, and how typical of Hinduism to cash in on this new opportunity to adapt to and thrive in these times of globalisation. The pujaris are happy as they can make more money sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of car-dealerships, I am sure. Car-buyers are happy as they can cross out "puja" from their to-do list without any extra money and time. Happiness and contentment all around! I bet even the coconut sellers are laughing all the way to the bank. (Regular coconut deliveries to auto-showrooms? Only in India!)

A Wave of Dismay

So, what is not to like about this Brahman-bania business model? Isn’t this simply a creative re-enactment of the eternal partnership between god and mammon?

Why, then, did I feel a wave of dismay sweep over my heart? Why do I feel sad at the idea of so many educated young p eople like my dear sweet nephew - whom I love dearly, and who is so touchingly proud of his first new car - believing that puja adds anything of value to their new vahans?

Something is amiss, I feel, in the way this generation of "modern" Indians is encountering the products of modern s cience and technology with an utterly medieval or even pre-medieval world view. While they seek out, and revel in every gadget and every creature-comfort created by a purely materialistic and rational understanding of nature, they seem to experience the world as if it is literally crawling with gods who have the power of life and death over our lives. God is as much a part of their taken- for-granted reality as stones, trees - and, indeed, their precious vahans - are. They are indeed suffering from "god delusion", because, to quote Richard Dawkins who coined the name of this very common disease, "they persistently hold this false belief that the reality we inhabit contains a super-natural agent who designed the universe, maintains it and intervenes in it with miracles, which are temporary violations of his own otherwise immutable laws." With their pujas they are trying to beseech this super-natural agent to keep an eye out for them. Puja is the premium they eagerly pay for the divine insurance against mishaps and accidents.

Of course, my nephew is worldly-wise enough to buy a real insurance policy. But why does he think he needs the puja over and above the certificate of insurance lying in the glove compartments of his brand new car? I wondered if he pondered over who or what is this protective power he is bowing to, as he breaks those coco- nuts and burns the incense? Has too much praying blunted his capacity to wonder and to ask questions? If he can bow to an invisible power purely on faith without asking any questions, will this young man dare to question the many authority figures he will be asked to bow his head to in the rest of his life?

Faith as Ideology

"There you go again!", an old friend remarked when I shared this bit about free vahan pujas with him when we met in one of the many canteens that dot the Punjab University campus in Chandigarh. He is quite godless himself, but thinks that intellectuals must respect people’s religiosity and not presume to be more "enlightened" than them. That way, he fears, lies avant-gardism of the Bolshevik kind.

He went on: "Don’t you, and people like you in America - all claiming to be so modern and secular - have your own superstitions? Tell me honestly: have you never worn your ’lucky’ dress for a job interview? Haven’t you ever avoided, say, taking a particular route at a particular time of the day? Even Barack Obama, so highly regarded by progressives like you, carries a handful of lucky charms, including a murthy of Hanuman, in his pocket. So why do you get so upset over harmless little quirks of Indians? Let them do their pujas if it brings them comfort in this harsh and cruel society that we are creating. A puja is not harming anyone, is it? Besides, don’t you realise that you are replicating the prejudices of English sahibs’ toward the natives? Are you not behaving like those Christian missionaries who labelled us as superstitious idolaters? If you want to reach ordinary people, you have to respect their faith and not look down upon them - like you often do."

Ouch! I have lost count of how many times I have heard such "friendly" advice to take my hat off, so to say, when speaking of religion. But no matter how many times I hear it, this idea of "respecting" other people’s faith will never sit well with me.

I happen to believe that indulging people’s irrational beliefs - like a parent puts up with a child’s follies - does not add up to "respect". In my rulebook, the best way to respect people you care about is to treat them as worthy conversation partners who can be persuaded by reason (or who may persuade you with better arguments and evidence). The way I see it, engaging people in an honest and open dialogue about the matters of ultimate concern, is to pay them the highest grade of respect that there is.

Besides, I have never been able to understand why my otherwise progressive friends bend over backwards to make exceptions for "the people’s" faith. Indian progressives take the lead when it comes to demanding good reasons and evidence when politicians, government bureaucrats, corporate bosses or the "west" try to sell us some phony idea or products. But their critical faculties seem to desert them when it comes to challenging the religious faith of "the people", even if that faith ends up causing so much unnecessary suffering all around. When it comes to the beliefs, rituals and the world view of popular Hinduism and other Indian religions, secular and progressive Indian intellectuals tend to behave more like caretakers rather than critics, even though they themselves are quite devoid of any serious religious conviction.

My secularist friends, for example, are on the forefront of the struggle against Hindu extremists - and I respect them greatly for that. But I am also puzzled at their handoff approach toward Hinduism itself. I have lost count of how many times I have heard them proclaim with all seriousness that "Hinduism has nothing to do with Hindu nationalism." Why is that, pray? Hinduism, they say, is a matter of "faith" (and therefore good) while Hindu nationalism is a "political ideology" (and therefore bad).

But I am afraid this raises more questions than it answers. Is it really the case that religious faith and ideology have nothing to do with each other? When has faith not served as ideology? Isn’t the story of Ramayana simultaneously faith and an ideology of a patriarchal and a caste society? Do my good secularist friends really believe that faith is like a pair of chappals that people leave outside the door marked "politics"? Religious beliefs, or faith, have always sup- plied the common sense understanding of the world which ideologies mobilise. A consistent secularist has no choice but to challenge both the common sense world view derived from faith, and the political ideologies that resonate with this common sense and harness it for their own ends.

I have yet another bone to pick with those who insist that we must "respect" people’s religious beliefs. Why should we respect beliefs that defy all possible evidence, which thumb their nose at all the accumulated knowledge about how nature works and which have played such a reactionary role throughout India’s history? Just because some beliefs come wrapped up in piety does not make them worthy of respect.

All these thoughts were racing in my head as I sat there under a tree. But I bit my tongue and did not say anything: I was enjoying my visit to the campus where I was once a student, and did not want a debate on such weighty issues just then. Thankfully, the chaiwallah (a young lad who should have been in school) came just then. We got busy with our chai and bread-pakoras. The junk food of my s tudent days still tastes as good as I remembered it. Some traditions definitely do need to be preserved!

Faith-Based Claims

I was still mulling over my friend’s words next morning when the local newspaper arrived. The headlines announced: "146 die in Naina Devi Stampede".

Naina Devi is a popular temple, about 100 km up north of Chandigarh. The t emple is supposed to mark the "exact" spot where goddess’ eyes (or "naina") fell when her body, reconstituted by her husband god Shiva after she had committed sati was blown into smithereens by the god Vishnu. There are at least 50 other such temples, or shakti-peeths, all over south Asia which lay claim to bits of the goddess’s decimated body. (Incidentally, there are at least two other temples, one in Pakistan, which claim the eyes of the goddess.)

What is so "holy" about this terribly violent story escapes me entirely. I also wonder how do they know that the right eye, or the big toe, or the upper eye-tooth of the goddess fell exactly at the spot where the temples stand? No one knows. Besides, it is not appropriate to ask such questions for these beliefs are based upon faith and therefore beyond reason. But wait: the same faith-based claims get t rotted out as literal truths when Hindu nationalists want to lay claim on Ramsethu or the Babri mosque or when government- run tourism departments want to promote these sites. The faithful want it - and are having it - both ways in the good old s ecular democratic republic that is India.

But I am rambling. Let me go back to the terrible stampede. Here is the clipping I saved from The Tribune, August 4:

More than 146 persons, most of them women and children, were killed in a stampede in the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh. More than 200 persons were injured, some of them critically.

Since it was the Shravan Ashtami mela on the second day of the Navratras and a Sun- day, the crowd of devotees, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 persons, thronged the popular hilltop shrine. The shrine has little space for such a huge congregation that waited in a serpentine queue to pay obei- sance to the deity.

So many lives snuffed out so tragically... My mind flashed back to what my friend had said yesterday: "harmless little quirks" is how he had described popular Hindu prayers to gods and goddesses. Well, it did not turn out to be all that harmless for these poor souls, I thought. I understand, of course, that stampedes can happen anywhere and at any event without
a dequate attention to crowd control - be it a rock concert in the US or a political rally in India. Yet, there was something so sad about so many people dying precisely when they had come all the way to ask for divine blessings for happier and longer lives.

. . . Even as I sit here, back in my home in Connecticut, USA, writing about the great temple stampede of August 2008, the national public radio brings me the news of the great temple stampede of September 2008. On September 29, nearly 200 pilgrims gathered at Chamunda Mata temple in the state of Rajasthan lost their lives in a stampede.

One more goddess, one more temple, one more stampede. So it goes . . .

Religion Lurking in the Shadows

Within a week of Naina Devi tragedy, there was another case of utterly unnecessary and perfectly avoidable death and mayhem, this time in the streets and on the highways of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Starting on August 11, and lasting for at least a week, there were daily reports of tens of thousand people from all parts of Kashmir marching toward Muzzaffrabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied part of Kashmir, demanding azadi from India. The protestors were trying to defy the economic blockade engineered against Kashmir by Hindu-right affiliated groups based in Jammu. Scores died in indiscriminate police firing and many hundreds were seriously wounded.

This fresh round of political unrest in Kashmir was sparked by religious enthusiasm for an ice stalagmite resembling Shiva’s lingam in the famed Amarnath shrine. Incredibly daft though it may appear considering Kashmir’s status as the "world’s most dangerous place", Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath temple has been actively promoted by a bunch of state functionaries committed to advancing Hindu interests in this Muslim majority state. The current row was sparked by an attempted land-grab of some 400 acres of forest land by Amarnath temple’s management board which, by statute, is headed by the gover- nor of the state (but only if s/he is a Hindu). After the Muslims protested, the land- transfer order was revoked. The revocation of land-transfer, in turn, provoked counter-protests among Hindus who demanded that the land be "restored" to the shrine. Hindu groups, most of them aligned with Hindu nationalist parties, blockaded the trade routes linking K ashmir to the rest of India, provoking the call for "azadi" among Kashmiris who began their march to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. It was this throng of Kashmiri protestors who had come under fire from the security forces, leading to so many deaths and injuries.

It appears that wherever you find political strife in India these days, you are bound to find religion lurking in the shadows. Religious enthusiasm is to Indian politics what a virus is to pneumonia.

Hinduism and Hindutva

These twin tragedies in the hills got me musing.

I began to see the connections between the relatively harmless (not counting the harm it does to the faculty of critical thought) middle class rite of vahan puja, the tragic fate of pilgrims to Naina Devi and Chamunda Mata temples, and the politically disastrous outcome of government- encouraged Hindu pilgrimage in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. I began to see, more clearly than ever before, how the same world view and beliefs of ordinary Hindus that makes them have pujas for their cars and undertake arduous and often life-threatening pilgrimages, also makes them sympathise with - and indeed actively demand - the open, state- sponsored Hinduisation of India that has been going on in recent years.

This led me to see the folly of the secularist argument that popular Hinduism has "nothing" to do with Hindu nationalism. When my secularist friends make such statements, what they mean is that Hinduism has no organic - that is, cognitive, aesthetic and moral - connections with Hindu nationalism, and that "bad" Hindu nationalism has "hijacked," "distorted" or "Semitised" the "good", "tolerant" and "harmless" Hinduism of the masses. I have never found this argument persuasive at all, because I believe that the Hinduism that the Hindu nationalists invoke actually is the Hinduism that the majority of Hindus love, cherish and practise. Even this whole business of making Rama the symbol of India does not really amount to a "hijacking": the god-king Rama and Ramayana have been central to the political imagination of Hindus for at least a millennium, if not longer.

So, I have always been a sceptic when it comes to "good Hinduism, bad Hindutva" kind of arguments. But after my travels in India this summer, I began to see more clearly than ever before that we cannot fight the faith-based politics of Hindu nationalists and the similarly inspired ini- tiatives of the Indian state, unless we question the very foundations of the beliefs and rituals of popular Hinduism itself. We cannot go on "respecting" people’s faith, but then turn around and start questioning them when they actually act upon that faith under the banner of Hindutva.

What is happening in Kashmir over the land-transfer issue is a perfect illustration of what I mean when I say that secularists cannot continue to "respect" faith while, at the same time, fight against faith-based politics. Let us suppose that out of "respect" we do not question the popular Hindu myth - which is endlessly repeated not just by priests but by the tourist and information departments of the supposedly "secular" state as well - that the naturally formed ice stalagmite in the Amarnath cave is "really" Shiva’s phallic symbol (lingam), and that god Shiva actually revealed the secrets of the universe at this spot to his wife, god-dess Parvati. If we grant all that, then on what grounds do we turn around and start criticising the mass mobilisations of Hindus that are taking place not just in Jammu but all over the country demanding that more land be given to Amarnath temple so that more and more Hindu pilgrims can witness the "miracle" of the ice-lingam? Sure, we can criticise political parties and the temple management for their attempted land-grab for a temple in such an ecologically and politically sensitive area. But if we grant that people’s faith - even it if confuses a natural phenomenon with a divine phallus - is to be "respected", then why should we not respect their right to demand more land to build better f acilities so that they can freely practise their religion?

I have always believed that as long as we do not challenge the world view, the background assumptions, the explicit and tacit beliefs that animate popular Hindu rituals and practices, we will be fighting against the menace of Hindutva with one hand tied behind our backs. For then, we will only allow ourselves to challenge the material and political interests of Hindu nationalist parties. But we will be in no position to challenge and change the mentalities, or the habits-of-the-heart, of the millions of ordinary people that incline them to support Hindutva politics, enthusiastically (by joining the many rath- yatras, pujas, yaganas, yoga-camps and other religious-political spectacles organised by the Hindu Right), or passively (through the ballot box only). Unless we question the basis of faith critically, rationally and scientifically, we will not succeed in stemming the popular support for faith-based politics. There can be no viable secular politics in India without a secularisation of consciousness and conscience of the Indian people.

Globalisation and the Gods

In the middle of all this rather dismal news, I found the time to take care of the main purpose that had brought me to India: I handed over the completed manu- script of one of my forthcoming books, God and Globalisation in India to my publisher (Navayana).

It gives me no pleasure to report that what I saw in India this summer fully confirmed the thesis of the book I had just completed. My nephew’s freshly prayed-over car confirmed one part of my thesis which states that the new middle classes are turning out to be more religious than the middle classes of the previous (aka "the Nehruvian") generation. I argue in this book that contrary to the expectations of the classical secularisation theory, economic and political modernisation is leading not to greater secularisation, but to greater religionisation. This heightened religiosity is evident in the invention of new rituals, gentrification of gods/ goddesses, and to a perverse kind of scientism in which Hindu meta-physics which teaches pan-psychism (i e, consciousness is a funda mental quality of even the smallest unit of matter) and v italism (i e, there is a special "life-force", or "prana" that accounts of life) is being sold as if it is supported by modern s cience. The emerging middle classes, I argue, are "modern" only insofar as they have become more or less savvy con sumers of global brand-names. These material accoutrements exist amidst the m ental furniture which harkens back to a world full of disembodied atman or shakti, which either roams free, or gets "embodied" in idols. The tragic events in Naina Devi and Amarnath confirmed the other part of my thesis which argues that a "state-temple- corporate complex" (STCC, my term) is emerging to fill the space left behind by the neoliberal state which is retreating from its public sector obligations. In the name of promoting economic develop- ment, this STCC is openly promoting "temple tourism"; in the name of promoting "Indian culture", it is promoting Hindu symbols, rituals and practices; and in promoting "values education", it is promoting pseudo-sciences like astrology, yoga, Ayurveda and vastu. Globalisation is turning out to be great for the gods in India.

Take this case of pilgrimage to Naina Devi. It would be wrong to see the rush of pilgrims as an index of the "natural" religiosity of Indian people, for this religiosity has been actively fostered by the supposedly "secular" Indian state. Just last year, the state of Himachal Pradesh where Naina Devi is located, received a grand sum of Rs 71 million from the central government for promotion of tourism. An unspecified but a large enough chunk of it was assigned to "promote temple tourism in a big way," to quote the relevant minister of the state. Taxpayers’ money was used to promote the state as the "land of gods", complete with the Puranic legends of Naina Devi as one of the Shaktipeeth temples — an idea that completely defies all reason. Such promotion of superstitions makes a complete mockery of the state’s constitutional obli- gation to p romote "scientific temper" among the citizens. Not only that, state bureaucrats on the government payroll acted as fund-raisers, advertisers and booking agents for the state’s pilgrimage spots.

The supposedly secular government put more of its resources in promoting a Hindu yatra than in actually preparing for the rush of pilgrims. Why are we so surprised that there was such a deadly stampede at the temple?

What happened in Amarnath is even more appalling. For years, the state governor, S K Sinha, actively and routinely par- ticipated in Hindu yagnas and darshans, bringing the prestige and the power of his office to the Vaishno Devi and Amarnath temples. In his capacity as the ex officio head of the management trusts for these two most well-known temples/pilgrimage spots, the governor acted more as a Hindu activist than as the head of the state which is supposed to have no religion. Tax-payers’ money was used not just to provide facilities for the pilgrims but to actively promote pilgrimage by organising cultural festivals including dance, drama, food and handicrafts. Why are we so surprised at the communal rift that has opened up afresh in such a geopolitically sensitive state as Jammu and Kashmir?

God-Deluded Countries

Well, after about a month in India, I came back to the United States.
I happened to attend a music concert in the Hindu Temple in Middletown, Con- necticut recently. There, among other notices, the list of "religious services" caught my attention. Among priestly s ervices for wedding and funerals, I found the following:

"Vahan Pooja: $ 31".

Well, why not? When Indians move from one god-deluded country to another, that is what they do.

So it goes...