Posts Tagged ‘Hinduism’

Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Upanishads & rape

23 December 2012

Devdutt Pattanaik, chief belief officer of Future group, in a column in Star of Mysore on December 13, before the gangrape in Delhi became headline news:

“For most of human history, the woman’s body has been treated as man’s property, in reality as well as representation. So adultery (where the woman participates) and rape (where the woman does not participate) were both seen as insult to a man’s honour.

“In the story of Parashuram, his mother Renuka experiences a momentary desire for another man. For this crime of ‘thought,’ her own son beheads her on the orders of her husband, Jamadagni. She eventually comes to be associated with the goddess Yellamma, who is associated with prostitution.

“In the story of Ram, Sita’s abduction by Ravan so taints her reputation, and makes her the subject of such gossip, that Ram eventually abandons her.

“In neither story is the woman actually assaulted. It does not matter. The idea of being violated is terrible enough. The idea that what is yours has claimed another in ‘thought’ (Renuka’s story) or has been claimed by another in ‘thought’ (Sita’s story) is enough to deflate honour.

“When we want to put Hinduism on the defensive, and want to establish Indian traditions as patriarchal, these are the stories we tell. We do not tell stories from the very same scriptures that say something altogether different.

“We do not tell the story of Ahalya, a certified adulteress in some versions, a rape victim in others, turned to stone by her angry husband, who is cleansed and liberated by the touch of Ram’s feet. This is the same Ram who abandons Sita.

“Why is the patriarchal Ram cleansing the adulteress? No explanation offered!

“Why is the patriarchal Ram not remarrying after abandoning tainted Sita? No explanation offered!

“Why are plots that reinforce patriarchy given more attention than tales of grace and forgiveness (liberating Ahalya) and tales of commitment (refusal to remarry)?

“We do not tell the Upanishadic story of a boy who goes to Gautama for education and is asked “Who is your father?” to which the boy replies, “My mother told me to tell you that she is a servant and has served many men in every way. So she does not know who my father is. Please accept me as Jabali, whose mother is Jabala.” For this honest answer, the boy is named Satyakama, lover of truth, and made a student.

“We do not tell the Mahabharata story of Shvetaketu who is horrified to find his mother with another man. When he complains to his father, Uddalaka, the father says, “A woman is free to do as she pleases.” When the son questions his paternity, Uddalaka says, “It is not my seed that makes you my child, it is my love.”

“Yes, there are stories where a woman’s body is treated as property. But there are also stories where a woman’s body is not treated as property, where women are seen as sovereign of their own lives. Why are the latter stories not told in schools and colleges and by secular, Left-wing and Right-wing intellectuals?

“I feel there is an imagination that is repeatedly reinforced that ancient times were misogynist and modern secular laws will repair the damage. This is absurd. Jerks who disrespect women in particular, and people in general, existed then, exist now and (I shudder as I write this) will continue to exist, Khap or the Indian Penal Code notwithstanding. Can we please put the spotlight on the non-jerks please?”

Cortesy: Star of Mysore

A Hindu Iftar for a good Muslim doctor at work

6 August 2011

A 2008 image of Mysore deputy commissioner P. Manivannan at an Iftar at the Muslim girls’ orphanage

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: The holy month of Ramzan, which is the harbinger of much happiness and good cheer to Muslims the world over, has come. This month marks a period of fasting, alms-giving and special prayers which Muslims all over the world undertake as ordained by Allah in a bid to cleanse and rejuvenate their souls.

All Muslims believe that it is a very pious and spiritually rewarding act to provide food for anyone at Iftar, the time when people break their fasts immediately after sunset.

So it is a common tradition among Muslims to arrange Iftar parties for their friends and relatives by turns which become occasions not only to enrich their souls but for happy socialising too. Many well-to-do Muslims with noble intentions arrange such parties to feed the poor too.

But we have been discovering of late that a new breed of politically motivated Iftar parties are becoming commonplace not with the object of winning any spiritual rewards but with the motive of winning the hearts of Muslim vote-banks.

While the head of a Muslim seminary has recently issued a fatwa or religious edict that Muslims should not attend such politically motivated Iftars he has been reminded almost immediately by many Muslim organisations through a fusillade of repartees that he has no locus standi to issue it.

Since everything is fair in love, war and politics there is nothing anyone can do about this unholy trend and I am sure it is here to stay and reap its earthly rewards.

But I would like to highlight here a different kind of Iftar party of which I have been a beneficiary for the past so many years and the kind of which we need to encourage to foster brotherliness and inter-religious harmony at a time when these qualities seem very elusive and intangible.

Every Tuesday I have my weekly outdoor clinic at the town of Kollegal which is a rather long drawn affair that goes on till late in the night. This has been a tradition that I have chosen not to abandon after I had to wind up my regular practice there nearly nine years ago when I had to move over to Mysore in search of higher education for my children.

Every Tuesday, unfailingly, during every Ramzan, O.P. Mahesh Kumar and Jagadish, my two Hindu friends there have insisted and ensured that I along with my clinic staff break our fasts with the freshly cooked, piping hot food they bring from their homes just before sunset.

They are ordinary souls of modest means with neither motive nor ambition but they do so with simple love and affection. Now, how is that for a really pious and holy act?

(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician, who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared)

Representative photograph: Mysore deputy commissioner P. Manivannan at an iftar at the Muslim girls’ orphanage in 2008 (courtesy The Hindu)

‘Ayodhya verdict belittles exalted Ram’s divinity’

2 October 2010

Like many liberal commentators, the former editor of The Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar, questions the wisdom of the judges in the Ayodhya case in placing the “faith and belief of Hindus” over facts and evidence. Padgaonkar also makes an additional point about making a divine figure a litigant:

“The verdict of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court on the title suits related to the disputed site in Ayodhya makes you wonder whether anything straight can ever emerge from the crooked timber of the majoritarian mind.

“Among the factors that led [the three judges to trifurcate the disputed land], the most intriguing by far is the cachet of legality that they have bestowed on belief and faith…. But by their very nature, faith and belief have no factual basis. They are above reason….

“Once faith and belief are factored into a resolution of a legal tangle, you embark, swiftly and surely, on the slippery slope of majoritarian conceit….

“The biggest infirmity of Thursday’s verdict, therefore, is that the court treated Lord Ram as a ‘juristic person’. In the eyes of the law, a deity or an idol is thus entitled to be placed on a par with flesh-and-blood litigants. The sheer brazenness of this stand, which belittles the exalted stature of Hinduism’s most revered divinity, makes you wince.”

Read the full article: The muddle path

Also read: High Court judgement or Panchayat pronouncement?

CHURUMURI POLL: The end of the Ayodhya dispute?

‘Hindutva-vadis have gorged on Ayodhya since 1947’

Ayodhya headline gets The Times of India in a  jam

‘Hinduism is in a crisis; there’s a civil war within’

4 December 2009

Kancha Ilaiah, professor of political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad, and author of Why I am not a Hindu, in The Times of India:

“Hinduism is in a state of crisis, facing a kind of civil war within. The primary reason for this is the stranglehold of the varnashram system which keeps 750 million Hindus subjugated and humiliated. These are the Dalits, tribals and the backward classes. Hinduism has failed to convince them that they are part of it, despite the fact that they were the carriers of all science and technology for centuries.

“Hinduism is the only religion that has failed to negotiate and engage with reason and science. No social reformer, except [Jyotiba] Phule and [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, challenged the caste system. Other religions are now competing to win over these people hence there is an imminent explosive crisis.”

Read the full interview here: ‘Edit all spiritual texts’

‘The notion of secular was not known to Hindus’

5 May 2009

Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) tears into the “preamble” of the BJP manifesto saying the party has not given up on its “feel-good” theme. In 2004, it tried to fly the kite of an “India Shining”; in 2009, it is recycling the myth of “India Glorious” from ancient times.

The BJP premable, signed by Murli Manohar Joshi, tries to sell India as “the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world”, when it was not. It talks of Indian farmers dazzling foreign travellers with their agricultural abundance when famine was common. It talks of a superior “indigenous education system” that compared with the best in England when there were no schools or colleges as we know them today. And it talks of a health care system complete with vaccines and plastic surgery.

“Most insidious is the manner in which the preamble conflates the “Bharatiya world view”, Hindu thought and secularism “in the real sense of the term”.

The notion of the secular was actually not known to the Hindus, as the secular requires giving priority to the human being irrespective of his or her beliefs. Hindus were concerned with establishing caste and sect.

Only the Buddhists expounded a view that might be called secular since they emphasised social ethics irrespective of other links. And the Buddhists were ousted by the Hindus.

Read the full editorial: India Shining to India was Shining

Brits divided & ruled. Our netas rule & divide.

25 March 2009

SUJATA RAJPAL writes: I often marvel at those who have the knack of identifying the religion/ region of a person just by looking at their attire, name, surname, or even accent.

I always goof up.

All Indians—Tamilians, Muslims, Malayalis, Punjabis, Parsis, Christians—all look the same to me. Of course, I can identify a turbaned Sikh from a non-Sikh, but that’s about how far I can get.

While growing up, we were told to focus on the inner quality of people, not their external features. We were told it was bad form to probe a person’s religion or language. We were told not to tease or taunt or make fun of their customs and traditions. Such sage advice now belongs to another world, another era.

That was then.

In “modern”, “new-age”, 21st century India, our politicians, irrespective of their political lineage, are falling over each other to remind us of who we are. And, more importantly, of who we are not.

The media is gladly playing along, and “We, the People” too no longer seem squeamish about joining in.

How many times in a day do we hear or read words that are predicated on our region, religion, language, caste? And what effect is such unconscious consciousness of who we are (and who we are not) having on us?

And our children?

And our society?

And our nation?

In the inter-religion vocabulary, the opposite of Hindu has become Muslim, and vice-versa. In the intra-country vocabulary, the opposite of Hindu has become non–Hindu.

The opposite of love has become hate.

Sanity has taken a backseat.

Be it the “struggle” for Kannada supremacy in Karnataka or for the precedence of the Marathi manoos in Maharashtra or the Assamese in Assam; be it the attack by the Sri Rama Sena on girls in Mangalore or Varun Gandhi‘s hate speech in Pilibhit; be it the ban on books or the burning of libraries; Kandhamal or Malegaon, the contours of  our public discourse is now so clearly defined by language, region and religion that it boggles the mind.

All this passes muster in the name of protecting what is “ours”—our land, our language, our region, our religion, our culture, our this, our that.

But, hey, can even an overdose of Ganga jal be toxic?

As per our Constitution—a document few of these hate-peddlers, venom-spewers, nuisance-mongers can be troubled by any longer—India is a “secular” State; a word that has now been turned into a pejorative.

It was inserted into the preamble by the 42nd amendment act of 1976, during the Emergency, and it does not mean what it has come to mean. It implies equality of all religions—and religious tolerance.

Every person has the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion they choose. The government must not favour or discriminate against any religion. It must treat all religions with equal respect. All citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs are equal in the eyes of law.

But it fails to state that every Indian has the liberty to form and practice his own definition of a religion and no one has the right to preach to others what Hinduism or any other religion is.

33 years later, we only seem to observe secularism in the breach.

The first lesson in Hinduism or Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or any other religion is tolerance and respect towards all religions and fellow human beings. How secular are we? Like many other things in life, the definition of “secular State” in our Constitution has become obsolete and needs modification.

Those who claim to fight for the protection of Hindu culture perhaps do not even really understand what Hindu culture stands for or else they would not be preaching others.

In these elections, the issues which threaten the very existence of India as one united nation like terrorism, growing intolerance towards people of other faiths, mounting crime rate, growing water scarcity, rising corruption in society, etc, have been summarily marginalized.

Our parties are happy to score over brownie points over each other on who is a true Hindu.

And who is not.

It is shameful that our politicians are trying to divide the country in the name of religion but it is even more distressing that we are allowing ourselves to be fooled by them.

Before 1947, it was British who tried to divide the country in the name of religion and they succeeded. The Britishers left but sixty years later their legacy lives on, happily but sadly.

First the culture police in mufti, now in uniform

11 March 2009

KPN photo

KPN photo KPN photoKPN photo

Editorial in Deccan Herald, Bangalore:

“If women have been at the receiving end of moral policing by Hindutva elements till now, it is now the turn of the Karnataka police to join the party by busting birthday celebrations…. The action has scant defence in law and is an intrusion into the private lives of people.

“Rave parties have been targets of self-proclaimed custodians of morality for long. A few months ago, Rakshana Vedike activists attacked a party and manhandled the participants and even stole some of their belongings. But Sunday’s busted party had nothing rave about it….

Police should respect people’s rights, but what the police love to do is to use a sledgehammer to persecute people. The revellers of Sunday are said to have been scantily dressed. Is it the business of the police or anybody to pass judgment on how people dress at a private party and punish them for it?

“Karnataka’s social life is already under threat from the senseless acts of a cultural mafia which bash up women in pubs, punish girls for talking to boys and do not believe in equal rights for all people. The police have been soft on these retrograde elements, probably because the political environment is conducive to these backward ideas and encourages such elements.

“Now the cops have gone a step forward, and are themselves trying to act as protectors of the false tradition these elements lay claim to. Law and order and culture should not be mixed up wrongly. The police in Bangalore have a lot of other things to worry about. Rather than misspend their energy on youngsters’ parties, they should try to make life safe for the City’s citizens.”

Read the full editorial: Morality play

Photographs: “Scantily dressed” girls arrested by the police during a “rave party” at a farm house near Dodda Aladamara in Bangalore on Sunday (Karnataka Photo News)

Also read: How girls pissing in their pants protect Hinduism

‘Dambar Dabbis’ at the mercy of Lord Rama

CHURUMURI POLL: Girls drinking beer not Hindu?

The most difficult bridge to cross is in your mind

4 October 2008

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: Three weeks have gone by since attacks on churches first took place in the State with all people of all communities with any goodwill keeping their fingers crossed.

Thankfully last Sunday went by in much greater peace and sanity than the two previous ones without any untoward incidents in the State even as reports of sporadic violence trickled in from other States.

Since I too was a little concerned and anxious that this kind of communal tension should quickly be defused, I was carefully scanning all reports that were appearing in the media about the problem.

While there were many views expressed by many intellectuals, thankfully one thing that stood out was the sentiment that the attacks on churches were unwarranted and unbecoming of a civilised society.

Thankfully, this was the view that was expressed even by all those who felt that conversions were the cause and conversions were very wrong.

Most people who wrote in favour of adopting strong deterrent action against violence also wrote in favour of acknowledging all the good that had been done to our society by Christians.

What surprised me was the fact that articles expressing these sentiments that appeared on the net far outnumbered the ones that appeared in print.

Gladdened by what I read therein, I felt that if only these could be read by more people it would have been good.

Sadly, despite the phenomenal growth of the cyber media even in our country, the net is still accessible only to a relative small minority of serious intellectuals while the newspaper and the local televi-sion channels still remain the main source of information to the common man.

It is noteworthy that Christians, who have been under suspicion of harbouring a sinister agenda in the present series of attacks, have by and large been a very peaceful community. Also, they have been the ones who have most comfortably adapted to a harmonious existence with all other communities with their hallmark being an immense re sistance to any provocation.

If excessive evangelisation and conversions had been the real provoking cause for the violence we all saw recently, I am sure the organisations responsible for it would certainly have heeded any advice against it without warranting or necessitating any violent resistance.

Personally I do not think that religious conversions, the causes of which have been analysed and discussed by many learned thinkers, are going to make any significant difference, let alone any dent on the demographic profile of our vast country.

It is important for every non-Christian Indian to remember the pioneering contribution of the Christian community in general and the Christian nuns and priests in particular who actually came to our shores as evange-lising missionaries, for all the good that they have done. Especially, their contribution to the establishment of good education and health care traditions and facilities in our country when almost none existed should never be overlooked.

Our present generations which have the best of both these facilities if they happen to dwell either in or around our cities, may not be aware of this contribution of the Christians but they need to be told about it.

Although we can now boast of almost world-class facilities in these two vital sectors it is no secret that we have still not fully succeeded in touching the lives of those fellow countrymen who still dwell in the deepest reaches of our remote villages and tribal areas far beyond the reach of all progress and development.

They have no other source of light except the feeble and flickering glow of the Christian candle.

Our great country has always been a crucible of amalgamation which has allowed the simultaneous flourishing of many religions, philosophies and cultures without any sense of threat to each other.

Conversions have been a part of every religion without any exception.

Our world famous Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebid which we all proudly present as one of the best examples of our rich culture was in fact built to commemorate king Vishnuvardhana‘s conversion from Jainism to Hinduism in the 12th century. But it does not provoke any resentment in our hearts whatsoever.

Today any effort, however small or big, which is aimed at increasing communal harmony and soothing bruised hearts, is what our nationhood needs to become strong and prosperous.

I shall give a very small but significant example to illustrate this point.

In response to an article about the spirit of Ramzan I had written four weeks ago, I received much feedback and many responses from readers. Many non-Muslims particularly were very appreciative that I had brought out many positive aspects about Islamic social justice which were hitherto unknown to them. While most people told me that what I had written was a good effort at creating better understanding between different faiths, one e-mail stood out apart from the rest.

It was from Nanjaraja Jois, a former professor of physics. He had written to say that he was deeply touched by the importance given in Islam to charity and alms giving and particularly to Zakath, the mandatory charity. In his letter, Prof Jois expressed his desire to personally get involved in this aspect of the Islamic spirit in his own way by visiting a Muslim orphanage and making a small donation to help the inmates there.

Overwhelmed by his sense of empathy and brotherhood I spoke to Abdul Azeez Chand, the secretary of the local Muslim girls orphanage who immediately asked me to inform Prof Jois that he was welcome to visit the place with his family even without prior notice.

On a prearranged date we met at the orphanage and in addition to his wife Leela and son Anoop, a full-time pranic healer, Prof. Jois was accompanied by Seethalakshmi and P. S. Balakrishnan who were closely involved with him in social work.

Impressed by what they saw there, the good Samaritans agreed in unison that this orphanage was the best maintained of the eight orphanages they had visited in the City. They announced the assistance that they had so kindly wanted to make, touching the inmates with their love and concern.

Uninvited they had come, crossing the great divide that we have ourselves created, thanks to the difference in our faiths and reached out to those in need of help.

After they left I felt that this is what humanity is all about and this is what all of us as human beings should learn—rising above our petty differences of race, religion and caste and responding to the needs of fellow human beings as children of one God.

(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician, who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where this piece first appeared)

What role should swamijis, religious gurus play?

8 July 2008


NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: The alleged use of “mine power” by the Bharatiya Janata Party to lure newly elected legislators from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka is passé.

The real story is elsewhere.

Star of Mysore reports that swamis “of Veerashaiva mutts” are in an “operation to woo” Siddaramaiah into the BJP. No matter that Lal Krishna Advani continues to condemn “vote-bank politics”.  Or that Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay rejected politics which impeded “integral humanism.”

Without commenting on what might, or might not, make Siddaramaiah politically eligible, the real story is how the BJP has given a new meaning to Swami and Friends: Should swamis, who are presumably living vows of renunciation, associate with particular castes?

Should they be playing such an avowedly political role?

Further, is communal advocacy consistent with Basava’s teachings?  Might it create disaffected communities, cynicism, bitterness; even lead away from the constitutional egalitarian ideal?

Specifically, should Shivarathri Desikendra Swamiji (of Suttur) and Shivamurthy Shivacharya Swamiji (of Taralabalu) visibly advocate for Veerashaivas? Should Balagangadharanath Swamiji (of Adichunchunagiri) bat for Vokkaligas?

These questions are not new. But they gain importance in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform and continuing reports of Vidhana Sabha candidates abusing caste.

But most interestingly, the swamis’ political activism exposes a severe disconnect between theory and practice.

Vedanta, the system of philosophy which forms “the foundation of the spiritual culture of India” (Swami Nikhilananda) lays an unequivocal emphasis on vairagya—a renunciation of temporal objects and of ego. 

Swami Vivekananda in Raja Yoga declares renunciation as the “real heart of all spiritual culture,” central to the four yogas of religious practice—Karma, Bhakti, Raja and Gnyana.

The goal of religious practice, Vivekananda writes, is to manifest the

“Divinity [which is] within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Separating religion and politics may not come easy in Hindu cultures because Vedanta prescribes merging of the temporal life with spiritual.  That’s why Hindu dharma is sometimes described as a pan-religious “way of living”. Still, that’s little threat to Western-style democracy or secularism, given that Hindu religious practice is inclusive and personal (non-proselytizing).

Karnataka has more than 50 large mutts which, together, possess real estate worth numerous billions, manage vast business and philanthropic empires in education or healthcare, and seem to be treated with kid gloves by reverential tax authorities.

The mutts are led by swamis who command the reverence of millions. Many swamis are renowned less for spiritual accomplishment, or for intellectual wherewithal, than for social service.

Which begs the question: What sort of religious gurus do we want?

Should they resemble spiritual giants such as Vivekananda or Ramana? Economic titans like Ratan Tata or Anil Ambani? Storytelling maestros like Morari Bapu or Bhadragiri Achyut Das? Intellectual hulks such as Rajneesh or Rajaji?

The “Veerashaiva swamis”, acting as BJP agents, are recruiting a six-time legislator whose persona is underwritten less by statesmanship than by an abiding frustration. From being part of a 1980s’ “dream team of second-line leaders” Siddaramaiah today seems clueless to confront Deve Gowda’s Machiavellian politics. 

So why is the BJP recruiting him other than to access the substantial Kuruba vote which he controls?

What should be swamis’ social role, if any?

Should they indulge in scholarly pursuits—explications of philosophy, tradition and ritual? Give us new interpretations of text? Prescribe tests for dharmic hypotheses? Or run schools and hospitals?

Or act as agents of political parties?

They should know best who own the least.

Photographs: (Left to right) Shivamurthy Shivacharya swamiji of the Taralabalu mutt, Visvesateertha swamiji of the Pejawar mutt, Deshikendra swamiji of the Suttur mutt, Balagangadharnath swamiji of the Adichunchunagiri mutt

For one godman & his devotees, ignorance is bliss

10 June 2008

In the dog-eat-dog world of godmen, rarely does one godman bite into another. But Swami Sukhabodhananda did precisely that on the “devotional” channel Aastha last night:

“We now have a ‘guru’ who proudly proclaims that he has no knowledge of the vedas. Yet, this swamiji goes around the world “representing” Hinduism.

“How can a swamiji who claims not to know the vedas represent Hinduism, and how can such a swamiji fill the holes of agnana in the hearts of his devotees?”

Who could this guru/ swamiji be?

‘Hinduism cannot be saved without Brahminism’

20 May 2008

T.J.S. George, the editorial of the New Indian Express, asked in his weekly column ‘Point of View‘ recently: “In the ageless tussle between Brahminic Hinduism and its challengers, is the balance tipping in favour of Brahminism again?

K.B. Ganapathy responds thus in Star of Mysore:

“After visiting a few important Hindu temples in the South recently, I am inclined to believe that the balance is indeed tipping in favour of Brahminism. And I am also inclined to believe that if Hinduism is to be saved, it is possible only if it has the patronage and protection from Brahminism. After all, Hinduism minus Brahminism is like a body without a soul.

“To the hardware of Hinduism, Brahminism provides the software that ignites spiritualism among all the followers of Hinduism irrespective of caste, creed and the individual religious rituals. It could be animistic or nature worship where meat and liquor are also offered after animal sacrifice to appease a deity.”

Also read: Meet India’s newest toilet cleaners: the Brahmins

Never quite top of the heap, now even lower

Just 4% of the population, but 7 Brahmins in Indian team

Link via Nikhil Moro

When religion enters the rat race of rankings

15 April 2008

“Hinduism is a local religion. Buddhism is a global religion.”

—Dalit writer Chandrabhan Prasad on Face the Nation with Sagarike Ghose

Also read: And the world’s second-fastest growing religion is…

In Ayodhya, Dasaratha’s wives gorged on idli-dosa

27 February 2008

D.P. SATISH writes from New Delhi: The late A.K. Ramanujan is arguably one of the best-known Indian writers worldwide. Ramanujan, who taught at the University of Chicago for decades, introduced India’s oral folktales to the West through his scholarly and fascinating writings and translations.

The Mysore-born Ramanujan died 15 years ago in the United States but he is now making news in Delhi, no thanks to our ill-informed and self-proclaimed custodians of Hinduism and Hindu mythology: the outfits of the RSS like ABVP and VHP. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas—Five Examples And Three Thoughts On Translation,” is embroiled in an ugly controversy created by the members of the saffron brigade.

In their protest, the lathi-wielding gang reveal that they don’t even know the basic difference between Hinduism and other religions.

Hinduism, which is described as a way of life and not a religion in the strictest sense, is highly pluralistic in nature. It allows greater freedom of expression than other religions, and the right to question the very religion, rituals and beliefs. In my view, that is what makes Hinduism the most tolerant and unique religion.

The ABVP activists who never try to understand these basic strengths of their religion, and are ignorant of India’s diverse culture and languages, are trying to trash Three Hundred Ramayanas as the work of a pseudo-secularist, intended to hurt the sentiments of Hindus.


Indians have been reading, writing and listening to the Ramayana for at least 2,000 years now. Most of our Ramayanas are in oral form, preserved and popularised by tribals and illiterate villagers across the length and breadth.

Valmiki‘s Ramayana isn’t the only Ramayana that we have. There is nothing called authentic mythology. Ancient Dravidian languages like Tamil and Kannada have Ramayanas by ancient poets that are thousands of years old. Kamba Ramayana in Tamil and Pampa Ramayana in Kannada treat the epic in entirely different styles. The story may be the same, but their interpretation is different.

The Department of History of Delhi University, which is facing the ire of so-called ‘Ram bhakts‘ clarifies its decision to teach Ramanujan’s work in the following statement:

“The sole purpose of this course is to create an awareness and understanding of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of ancient India among students, and to acquaint them with original sources. Apart from the reading mentioned in the letter, the course includes readings on Kalidasa‘s poetry, Jataka stories, ancient Tamil poets and poetry, ancient iconography, and the modern history of ancient artifacts.

“The essay is part of a unit titled ‘The Ramayana and Mahabharata —stories, characters, versions.’ It is accompanied by an excerpt from Iravati Karve‘s book, Yuganta: The end of an epoch. Supplementary readings include the Introduction of Robert P. Goldman‘s The Ramayana of Valmiki: an epic of ancient India (the most recent and most authoritative English translation of the epic), which gives a detailed, scholarly introduction to the Valmiki Ramayana.

“The late A. K. Ramanujan (recipient of several national & international honours, including the Padmasri) was a widely acclaimed scholar with impeccable academic credentials. His expertise in a range of languages including English, Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada was perhaps without parallel. His credentials as a scholar, writer, and teacher with extensive knowledge of ancient Indian literary traditions are incontestable.

“It is sad to see his name and work being subjected so such ill-informed controversy. In the article in question, he illustrates and analyses the great dynamism and variety in what he describes as ‘tellings’ of the story of Rama within India and across the world.”

The Ramayanas in the form of folk stories and songs in different parts of India have a distinct local flavour.

Indian folklore believes in anthropomorphism. They bring gods and human beings closer by imagining to behave them just like us. The gods of many ancient societies were thoroughly anthropomorphized, both in their form and in their familial and social relationships; for example, as presented in the folk tales and songs which were familiar throughout the ancient India, they get drunk, marry, quarrel, and make up just like we people.

In Assamese folklore, for example, Sita and Surpanaka are good weavers. It is so probably because Assamese women are traditionally good at weaving. Telugu folk songs speak of Kousalya‘s morning sickness and baby Rama’s bath, things that women can relate to.

A Telugu folk song titled, ‘Lakshmana‘s Laugh’, explains how, in order to guard Sita and Rama round the clock, Lakshmana prays to the Goddess of Sleep that he be relieved of the need to sleep. The Goddess agrees, but on one condition. The moment Lakshmana returns to Ayodhya, he would have to start sleeping again.

When Lakshmana returns to Ayodhya, the Goddess appears before him in the palace hall, and says, “The deal’s over. You start sleeping from tonight.” Lakshmana bursts out laughing. Now, only Lakshmana can see the Goddess. So every person there wonders if Lakshmana is laughing at him for some reason. This is a self-reflective folk song, because each character in the story reflects on himself.

A modern example of self-reflectivity would be a short story by Amba, in which Sita writes her version of the Ramayana, and calls it Sitayanam. Stories have a better appeal when they incorporate local customs and traditions.

Paula Richman, who has done in-depth research on various Ramayanas, says there is a Tamil folk song which is about the various dishes the pregnant wives of Dasaratha crave for. One of them wants murukku, one wants idlis, and another wants dosas!

Idlis in Ayodhya? A deft touch! Women in Tamil Nadu can relate to pregnant women who crave certain dishes.

Writer Pudhumaipithan contemporises Rama in one of his stories where a grandson of Rama is named Bharata. The story is set in the 1900s and Bharata is Gandhi! The allegorical touch is further strengthened when the writer dwells on the imperial powers discovering the culinary delights of India, and each wanting a monopoly over Indian food. Thus the humble dosa becomes expensive!

One night Rama waits for Sita, who is busy cleaning the kitchen. When she finishes, she massages the feet of her mother-in-law. Rama keeps asking her to come up to their room, but Sita continues to massage Kousalya’s feet. When Sita finally goes up, an angry Rama shuts the door, and locks her out. “You have time for others, but not me,” he says angrily. Thus goes a Telugu folk song! These are marital tensions that any couple could face.

According to a tribal folktale in Bastar district of Chhatisgarh, Ravana is an ideal man ‘Maryada Purushottama‘. Because he strictly followed the ethics till his death.

Do these modern retellings matter? “They’re important because, as A.K.Ramanujan said, they show how both folk stories and modern short stories improvise in order to make the epic contemporary,” says Paula Richman.

Why the special interest in the Ramayana?

“Many reasons,” Paula Richman says in an interview to The Hindu. “One of them is the portrayal of Sita as a strong woman who faces difficulties unflinchingly. When Rama banishes her, she brings up her children all by herself. The world’s earliest example of a single parent!”


A cultural fascist organisation like the RSS doesn’t believe in pluralism of any kind. It doesn’t allow pluralism or freedom of expression within Hinduism. The essence of Hinduism is free thinking. One can disown all rituals and beliefs of that religion and still remain a Hindu. As far as I know this isn’t possible in any other religion.

This isn’t the first time that the ABVP has taken objections to a Ramayana which isn’t in an ‘ approved ‘ format.

The same ABVP activists assaulted a noted Kannada writer and English professor, the late Prof. Polanki Ramamurthy in mid-1980s in Mysore. They were ‘ incensed ‘ by his audacity of writing his own Ramayana called Seethayana. Time and again they have demonstrated that either entire the Hindu population in India must accept their version of Aryan-centric Hindu mythology and religion, or be ready to face their wrath.

The RSS, which draws its strength from the Aryan thoughts and principles, has always been trying to impose its own version of Sanskritised Ramayana over all Hindus across India. For these self-styled protectors of Hindus, the different versions of epic are seemingly an insult to their religion and belief. After all, it has always been denying the existence of the Dravida race, Dravidian history, and, very importantly, Dravida mythology itself.

They must understand that there are a hundred Indias in one India, and a hundred Ramayanas in one Ramayana. All are equally imporant and equally vibrant.

I am for many Indias in one India—and many Ramayanas woven around one Ramayana.

CHURUMURI POLL: Are you a ‘Practising Hindu’?

21 November 2007

Hinduism‘s most remarkable characteristic is that unlike other theistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it is beyond narrow definitions. It is the oldest extant religion in the world, but is it really a religion? Or a religious tradition? Or just a way of life? It doesn’t have one god you have to pray to, one book you must read, one temple you must visit, one set of beliefs or commandments you should follow.

It is what you make of it and you define it at your own peril.

This is at once charming and infuriating. Charming to those who respect the multifarious nature of the human being, the vishwa manava, because it offers a startlingly simple rationale for a Hindu’s subliminal liberalism. But it is infuriating to those who cannot round up the devout at the crack of a whip like other religious followers, because they accept and assimilate “the other” all too easily.

Now, Britain’s first state-funded Hindu school has come up with a five-step definition of a “practising Hindu. And by that definition a Hindu is one who prays daily at home or at a temple, and observes the key festivals like Deepavali, Krishna Janmashtami and Rama Navami; one who accepts and follows Vedic scriptures, in particular the Bhagavad Gita; one who does voluntary work once a week at temples; one who follows a vegetarian diet, abstaining even from fish and eggs; and one who abstains from intoxication of smoking, drinking or drugs.

Questions: Is it right to define Hinduism thus? Is this definition reasonable or self-serving? Inclusive or exclusionary? Brahminical or all-encompassing? Will such definitions divide or unite Hindus? And by this yardstick what proportion of the 80 per cent Hindu population in the country would qualify as practising Hindus? Would you?

CHURUMURI POLL: Are all conversions voluntary?

6 November 2007

The Vatican has delivered a stinging Deepavali message to India. In response to persistent and even growing accusations that poor Hindus were being pressured to convert to Christianity by missionaries using a variety of blandishments, including money, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church has said it was impossible to forcibly convert anyone to another religion.

“There can be no coercion in religion: no one can be forced to believe, neither can anyone who wishes to believe be prevented from doing so,” Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, said.

Questions: Is the Vatican right or wrong? Are Indians converting to Christianity out of choice and on their own volition? Or are they being forced into it with money playing a not insignificant role especially among the poor in the vast tribal belts? Is the good work of Christian missionaries, especially in health and education, being undermined by the false and deceitful propaganda of Hindu fundamentalist groups raising the conversion bogey?

Also read: Should conversions be allowed?