Saturday, January 27, 2024

A QUESTION OF MEAT AND MORALITY

 

An abiding love for mythology can never be a bad thing and yet, somehow, we seem to have found a way to take something wonderful, toss it into the blender with faux Hindutva dogma, distort it past all recognition and use it to serve vested interests keen on divisive politics.

How did it come to this?

 For starters, everybody, it seems, is an expert after glancing through a book or two and listening with half-an-ear to granny’s tales, speed – reading a lengthy Whatsapp forward or having returned from a session with the friendly neighbourhood storyteller who likes to expound at length on Puranic lore while high on bhang. Considering themselves scholars who know everything there is to know about the veritable sea of obscure, oftentimes, contradictory facts that constitutes Indian mythology, uber-patriotic pests feel free to clump together and lynch or abuse those who are not infected with whatever it is that has turned their brains to mush and hearts to lead.

Nobody is exempt from the excesses of these modern-day rakshasas, but the so-called ‘evil eaters' of meat in general and beef in particular have been targeted with tragic results. While there is no denying that the cow is revered in Indian mythology, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that meat—any meat—was consumed with relish by the ancients, including the Brahmins. In fact, there is a tale from the Periya Puranam, which reveals how Shiva paid a visit to his devotee, Siruthondar, in disguise as a poor but haughty Brahmin and insisted that he must be served non-vegetarian (maamsam) cuisine. Being a poor man, who could not afford to buy any food let alone meat, the great man, slew his son, made his wife cook the choicest cuts and serve it. For this act of faith, which in this day and age would be considered to be the foulest kind of murder (rightly so), he received an express pass to partake of the vaunted delights of heaven and remains revered as one among the 63 Nyanmars. 

Sage Agastya, similarly, according to a tale from the Mahabharata, was a gourmand with a partiality for meat, and consumed the demon Vatapi, with great gusto. This rakshasa had a weird fetish for taking on the form of a goat, which his brother Ilvala would chop up and serve with misleading generosity to the Brahmins, some of whom would regularly bully their way into homes demanding 'maamsam' meals uncaring whether their unwilling hosts had the means to serve up such lavish feasts featuring meat as the main course. As for the rakshasa brothers hellbent on teaching the Brahmins a lesson, once the mutton had been greedily consumed, Vatapi would tear his way out from the entrails of the gluttonous Brahmins killing them instantly. They carried on this murderous sport for many years, till Agastya, famed for his iron constitution and superior powers of digestion put paid to their serial killer ways and prompted his fellow Brahmins to re-examine their dietary preferences.

 In fact, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that it was not till after the Bhakti movement believed to have taken place in Medieval times which saw a large-scale reformation and revival of Hinduism, that Brahmins adopted vegetarianism as a way of life. Prior to that it was the Jains and Buddhists who endorsed vegetarianism in the interests of upholding the rights of all living creatures, although by that logic plants should also be spared in this writer's opinion and we should all learn to subsist on love and not - so - fresh air.

 Chew on that for a bit before forming erroneous notions about how best to enforce the glories of a distant past that may or may not have even existed!

 If cannibalism in the case of Siruthondar and Agastya was not exactly frowned upon back in the day, then couldn’t there be a remote possibility that more than a few of the ancients especially revered beings born into the Kshatriya race had a partiality for meat? And surely, it is probable our famously compassionate gods would have partaken of the non - vegetarian fare offered to them in worship mainly because they cannot possibly be the jerks their extremist devotees clearly are?

 Recently, a furore was raised over the question of whether Rama ate meat. As a Kshatriyan Prince, it would appear to be in the affirmative. The warlike caste’s preferred pastime was hunting and since waste was the only thing that was considered a criminal offense in those days, it goes without saying that slain game was cleaned, cooked, consumed with the hide, claws, horns and every bit of the carcass stripped for parts to make sure that nothing went to waste. When Rama, Lakshmana and in a later age, the Pandavas, were sent into exile, they were allowed to take only their weapons and a basket into the forest so that they could live off the land using their skill as hunter gatherers. And it goes without saying that meat was part of their diet. However, insisting that the Princes subsisted solely on fruits, roots, nuts and berries which may have been included in their meals but not limited to it is pushing the limits of credibility. For all we know, even the fabled Akshaya Patra gifted to Yudhishtra by Surya, the Sun God might have produced a dish to delight the tastebuds of the true carnivore!

Some scholars point to a verse in Valmiki Ramayana where it is suggested that Rama took an oath with his mother, Kausalya, bearing witness that he would not touch meat for the duration of his exile. This is hardly definitive proof of anything because Valmiki’s Ramayana was never ever set in stone. Originally, narrated orally, the epic was verbally handed down for generations before written texts as we know it today emerged. The narrative must surely have undergone many changes over the eons in keeping with ever changing norms and codes of conduct, that are inevitable with the passing of the ages. Therefore, insisting that there is only one authentic version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, preserved exactly the same as when it emerged from his lips, disregarding the many regional texts and folk tales based on the Ramayana is an inaccurate as well as fanatical, extremist way of looking at things, bereft of the spirit of tolerance, compassion and acceptance that is one of the most beautiful aspects of Hinduism.

Surely, the gods in all their infinite wisdom would not see it fit to abuse, mistreat, or condemn to the thousand hells of Yama those among their mortal offspring who consume meat or live life as they see fit? Would they condone the senseless violence, hatred, intolerance and killing that is carried out in their name? I should certainly hope not.

Ultimately, anybody who knows anything at all about mythology will tell you that it is a constantly shifting narrative that is metamorphosing even as this is being written, and 100 years hence will be unrecognisable from what we know of it today. Therefore, it would be lovely if people stopped using mythology, religion, morality, or any of the flimsy excuses being bandied about for their insupportable and unconscionable behaviour that is a disgrace to this nation.

 

P.S: I have written many versions of this over the years. This piece contains bits and pieces from older ones (links below) and I have added inputs based on current issues, which is mostly more of the same old crap.

 When Mythology is Misused and Misunderstood

Vegetarianism does not Equal Virtue


Mom Myths and Murder

 

Few things can shake us out of our collective apathy, but the death of a 4-year-old, murdered by his mother has done the job. Public fury continues to mount as gruesome details are dutifully doled out by the media around the clock. People find it impossible to process the fact that a mother could do this to her child. After all, in India, we firmly believe that all mothers are miracle workers capable of juggling a billion demands, candidates for goddesshood, and master chefs who can whip up mouthwatering feasts in seconds. We turn a blind eye to the fact that it is a thankless, gruelling job which requires superpowers that no woman is blessed with or that few if any can do it without breaking down on a daily basis or plotting desperately to open a portal into an alternate dimension where newborns become fully – functioning, toilet - trained adults within seconds of birth so that their moms can get back to having a real life.

Yet, murderous mothers are not as rare a phenomenon as we conveniently like to think. A quick Google search reveals that there are too many cases where children have been murdered by their not so loving mums. In 2023 alone, an unmarried teen mother from Navi Mumbai allegedly killed her newborn by throwing the baby from her bathroom window; an 8-year-old was poisoned and killed by his mother, for having seen her in a compromising position with their neighbour; in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli, a mother poisoned three of her children, following a domestic dispute; at Halvi village near Kurnool, a 3-year-old and 6-month-old were  killed by their mother following a domestic dispute. If one has the stomach to go back further in time, there are many such harrowing cases featuring killer moms. Some like Indrani Mukerjea (who allegedly had her daughter, Sheena Bora, murdered by throttling) are famous and far from languishing in prison may be spotted at literary festivals while others don’t quite manage to capture public fancy but may have also eluded the less than exacting arm of the law.

Murder by mom, is not the only issue plaguing our poor kids. Different forms of child abuse are prevalent with child pornography and sexual exploitation of minors for commercial purposes on the rise. Millions of children across India are denied access to education, healthcare, clean water, or a home that is not a biohazard. The issue of childcare and child rights hereabouts is lamentable at best and the situation gets grimmer by the day.

In the meantime, we are content to pretend that it is mainly a mother’s job to ensure the safety of her child and that ‘natural’ maternal instincts will suffice to work miracles and keep the forces of evil at bay. If that were not bad enough, we will also pressure people to bring forth babies by the dozen irrespective of whether they have the emotional or economic resources to do the hardest job in the world, uncaring that the stakes are too high, and we cannot carry on allowing children to pay the price for adult folly.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Before Breaking News Breaks

 

Thanks to false modesty, I did not show off. But that is no longer an excuse because it is finally acceptable to brag about mediocrity across every available platform. In fact, if you are willing to embrace the holiday spirit, and discard the wise teachings of Scrooge pertaining to parsimony, you can Tom-tom the fact that you won an award (that you paid for) declaring you the International Human of the Year, and make sure it reaches the furthest reaches of the galaxy. My talent on the other hand is tremendous news. And it is related to the news. I can predict the news with pinpoint accuracy, long before it happens or supposedly happened. Feel free to share this news with everyone, so that I can get the recognition I richly deserve.

For sticklers who demand proof, I am happy to provide the same, provided you are willing to set aside disbelief, scepticism, and the tendency to think the worst of human beings just because most are fraudulent tricksters who will shove their kids or pets off the roof to make a viral video.

The breaking news tomorrow and in the days to come will be outrageous and defy all belief, which is precisely why people will believe it implicitly. Especially since they are not going to read anything beyond the headline. Readers are a critically endangered species, and nobody reads anything longer than 280 characters without the liberal use of emojis to hasten comprehension. Believable or not, this news will be forwarded on WhatsApp where more will hit forward, without reading it first.

You might already be gobsmacked, but I have more to ensure that your head is dangerously close to exploding unable to withstand my brilliance… In future, news will be bad. Much worse than today’s and yesterday’s news which was also bad, but since we have become immune to bad news, we will only respond to worse news which is on the way to becoming horrifying. If that is not exactly good news for people praying for peace in Gaza and an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine, it can’t be helped.

This is all true, because as a columnist for a major news publication, I cannot lie. Unless I am paid to. Which I am not, because the truth is, writers were paid peanuts long before they agreed to work for less since AI types don’t demand salaries or benefits. It is a good thing I am gifted. Now, I know. And thanks to me, you do too. It will rain again in Chennai and there will be flooding because politicians are too busy playing the blame game and siphoning away funds allotted for damage control and preventive measures. Tennis fans will argue over who is the GOAT and things will get ugly when Thalapathy Vijay and SRK fans jump into the fray. Bollywood will continue to make movies featuring nepo babies with less and less to recommend them by way of talent. I could go on… but what is the point? It is bound to get worse from here. Just like I predicted.

This column was published in The New Indian Express.


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Stop the Step – Motherly treatment of the Seven Sisters!

 


I was at the Arunachal Literature Festival, held recently, and enjoyed the ‘author life’. But this piece is not about the things authors do to convince themselves that despite the advent of AI, writing as they know it is not entirely redundant. Rather, it is about the things that struck me as I made the arduous, 7 – hour trip by car to Itanagar (after schlepping from Madurai to Chennai to Guwahati) because the flight thither from Guwahati had been cancelled at the nth hour. Some big-name authors used the excuse to absent themselves from the event, but not this author, who will do just about anything to convince people in far flung parts of the country, that they should read books in general and mine in particular.

It was appalling how little I knew about the Northeast. I was ashamed to realise that I didn’t even know which language was spoken in Arunachal Pradesh. I was told there are between 30 – 50 tribal groups in the state, who have their own distinct language, dialects, and sub – dialects. Most spoke Assamese, Nagamese, English and a smattering of Hindi which served as link languages.

During my session on ‘Reimagining Mythology’, I realized that my knowledge of folklore pertaining to the region was non – existent. My only exposure to it was from Easterine Kire, the award-winning author from Nagaland, whose work I have read and admired. Members of the audience wanted to know about the representation of tribal folk in the itihasas, and I was happy to answer though it must be conceded that the limited narrative is almost entirely problematic and needs to be part of a corrective discourse. Rama justifies his abhorrent slaying of Vaali, a Vanara by saying that a kshatriya is well within his rights to hunt and kill animals using any means necessary! We agreed that indigenous legends and myths must be reclaimed. You must be the ones to tell your own stories, I pointed out. Yes, they conceded, but nobody listens to us!

The main issue is that this part of the country has been treated shoddily. There is limited connectivity with the rest of India, poor infrastructure, and a criminal negligence of the needs of the people. Most Indians have vague notions about insurgency and security issues cropping up in these parts, the imposition of the controversial Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) leading to many human rights violations and vociferous protests led by the likes of Irom Sharmila. The AFSPA was withdrawn from parts of the region between 2022 – 23, but the Centre keeps a wary eye concerned about security threats from Myanmar and China.

It is not enough to pay attention only when gifted athletes from the area like a Sunil Chettri Mirabai Chanu, Hima Das and mighty Mary Kom emerge, though it is not like India deserves credit for nurturing these talents. We must do more for our brethren hailing from the seven sisters so that they can take pride in being Indian without being made to feel like unwanted children. It is to our eternal shame that we haven’t done so already.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Diwali Celebrations: Sugar, Sins and Salvation

 


The festival of lights is upon us! That time of the year when we overdress, overspend, overindulge on ghee laden sugary treats, and argue about whether we ought to burst crackers or not before doing it anyway. Feeling guilty over the excess, we wonder if there is a point to all this…

This is the moment when we dredge up legends of yore for their entertainment and edification value. My favourite Diwali story is the one where Narakasura, a legit villainous type whose every pore supposedly oozed evil was slain in a twist worthy of Hitchcock. Naraka was born at the end of Krita Yuga when Vishnu in his Varaha (Boar) avatar took out Hiranyaksha, another legendary baddie whose shocking shenanigans ensured that Bhumi Devi sank to the bottom of the ocean. While Varaha bore her to the surface on his tasks, a single drop of sweat which was the only sign of his mighty exertions, landed on her, impregnating the Goddess.

Besotted with her boy, Bhumi Devi, asked Lord Varaha to grant him immortality. She was gently refused but told that Naraka could only be slain by her hand. Breaking off his tusk, Varaha offered it to Naraka, urging him to stay true to Dharma. This advice was disregarded and Naraka, armed with the promise of invincibility began his reign of terror. His stronghold – Pragjyotishapura, was impregnably fortified and guarded by the deadly Mura.

Naraka eventually went too far, when he raided Indra’s capital – Amaravathi and carried away 16,000 damsels but not before snatching the ear - rings mother Aditi was wearing. Krishna was asked to set him straight. He was with Satyabhama, who had just been complaining that he was always too busy for her. Playfully, grabbing her by the waist he placed her on Garuda, and they took off on a date/perilous mission.

Krishna made short work of Pragjyotishapura’s vaunted defences and slew Mura, earning himself the title of ‘Murari’. Naraka acquitted himself more respectably and using the tusk gifted by Varaha, managed to strike Krishna in the chest. Seeing her husband drop in a dead swoon, Satyabhama realized her date was officially ruined. Enraged, she picked up a bow and released an arrow, which to their combined surprise, mortally wounded Naraka. It was then, that Krishna rose and allowed the truth to shine through. Naraka understood that Varaha’s weapon could not be used against an avatar of Vishnu and that Satyabhama was an incarnation of Bhumi Devi, his mum. Prostrating himself before his parents, he died peacefully having been cleansed of his sins, embracing dharma in his dying moments, fulfilling his purpose in the grand design of the universe, and achieving moksha.

A tearful Bhumi Devi asked Krishna to ensure that Naraka’s memory be preserved for all of time, his life and death celebrated with lights and sweets so that his legend may remind humanity to dispel the evil in their hearts and stay true to Dharma in order that someday, they too may be deemed worthy of redemption. Krishna acceded to her request. True to his word, Diwali has been celebrated ever since and we continue to fight the demons within and without, knowing that damnation is always closer than salvation, but that is no reason to stop trying to be better than we are.

An edited version of this piece was published in The New Indian Express.

A Simpleton’s Guide to Smart Solutions

 


Perhaps being an ignoramus is indeed bliss. Especially in a Fools’ Paradise which some compelling but not entirely credible types claim is what our planet has become. In this blasé and not so brave new world it is not necessarily the height of folly to be foolish. It might even be for the best to be a top of the drawer numbskull who has sworn off all forms of intelligence to better endure the travesty that is life.

Take the global warming crisis for instance. George R.R. Martin fans are not the only ones waiting in vain for The Winds of Winter, his long – awaited book, for their Game of Thrones fix, which it is hoped will make amends for the large-scale trauma inflicted on the unwary by that disastrous final season of the infamous show. This year has remained face - meltingly warm in October, which is definitive proof that global warming is not a conspiracy theory eco warrior nuts pulled out their grass – fed backsides but an unfolding reality. The intellectuals would no doubt have ingenious and commensurately mind – numbing solutions for averting an end – of – the – world crisis but it is better to ignore it in favour of doing something more enjoyable like wiling away rapidly dwindling time by logging in endless hours on handheld devices. Whoever said fools have more fun was not kidding!

The heat must be getting to everyone. It could explain why Russia and Ukraine have been slugging it out without a definitive outcome barring the burgeoning body count. Hard as that was to stomach for those invested in world peace, things worsened when a deadly terror strike launched by Hamas escalated into a full blown catastrophe with Israel, the aggressor and occupier of Palestine, receiving carte blanche from powerful allies like the US and UK to engage in genocide and ethnic cleansing which is what they have been doing to lesser and greater degrees for decades with impunity. Brainiacs with a firm grasp of the geopolitical situation and awareness that Hezbollah is not a euphemism for Hamas, would have some inkling on how best to restore peace. But for the rest of us dingbats, it makes more sense to tune into the cricket world cup because it hurts too much to see children slaughtered and civilians die en masse with the ringing endorsement of the so – called civilized world.

Speaking of cricket, while the performance of the boys in blue has been most heartening, the jingoistic misbehaviour of some of the home crowd evidenced during the matches against Pakistan and Bangladesh has been less so. Smart folks have been equating this with the hyper muscular Hindutva nationalism prevalent today but the fool’s move has been to dwell on preferred reality shows between matches and mine the harrowing footage of tragedy livestreamed worldwide for vacuous entertainment. Exploitation, intrusion, and voyeurism has become the opiate of the moronic masses because it allows you to snicker at suffering rather than become a part of it. Long live the dunces!

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sweep and Swab more for a Swachher India!

 Loving your country is a lot like loving your spouse. It is complicated. You get mad at him for responding honestly to your query about whether your grey hair is noticeable. But you wouldn’t be too pleased if he flattered to deceive. Honesty is a damnable thing because you are damned if you do and doubly damned if you don’t but according to some famous white and therefore indubitably wise dude, honesty is the best policy especially if money and the future is at stake. Which means, you have to be truthful, even if it makes people accuse you of being anti – national and ask you to remove yourself to a hostile neighbouring nation we play the occasional cricket match with and make a killing via jacked – up ticket prices but not before inundating you with death threats. Of course, I am spared all this because barring a few bots who can’t be bothered to bicker with me, nobody cares about my carping.

Therefore, I can complain about an oft ignored issue that has rendered our country grotesque. India is not just an EYESORE but an EXCRESCENCE upon the face of this planet. Of course, this nation is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, but we have only Indians to blame for literally crapping over it and begriming the bounties of Mother Earth with our disgraceful tendency to prioritize godliness and just about everything else over cleanliness and making a godawful mess.

Of the millions of tonnes of garbage India generates, precious little is segregated, treated, and responsibly disposed. Carelessly discarded trash that does not choke up every inch of available public space ends up in hastily erected dumps conveniently close to slums where they become the problem of the poor. The responsibility for dealing with detritus rests on rag pickers who receive no formal training and no safety equipment to protect themselves from hazardous wastes and safeguard their health. Indiscriminate burning in these sites causes pollution and the cancer – causing smoke which lingers thickly in the vicinity for days is a menace. A lot of the debris is discharged into sewers, drains and rivers poisoning our water and food.

A majority of the populace has no concept of waste management that requires you to reduce, reuse and recycle. There are too few dustbins for public use and even these are always overflowing. Worst of all, are the citizens who are forever littering, spitting, pissing, and defecating wherever they please. Our government has introduced solid waste management rules and apparently there is improvement in door – to - door collection of garbage, measures have been implemented to install waste processing and recycling plants, convert landfills to parks and preserve our water bodies but there is a lot more that needs to be done for stricter enforcement of hygiene measures over and above the nattering about Swachh Bharat by celeb types on social media. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before India is submerged in a sea of sewage.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

How do you Solve a Problem like Tragedy?

 Bad things happen. And all the positive thinking in the world cannot change that. We know that. Even so, when tragedy strikes, none of us are remotely prepared for the raw grief and sheer extent of the devastation it unleashes. If heaven forbid, the victims are in our personal or social circles, one is never certain about the correct response. How can we help those reeling from the aftershock of gut – wrenching personal loss? Do we even want to be encumbered with such an onerous task in these dark times when our hearts are no longer in the right place and have long since been swallowed up into the bulging gut of the internet and regurgitated into the bottomless depths of digital dreck?

One supposes that sensitivity, compassion, kindness, and empathy always helps, even if the aforementioned are in short supply nowadays and therefore, absolutely essential not to mention invaluable. But how much is too much? And how little is too little? Even genuine concern can be cloying if it is constant and alloyed with awkwardness. Lending a shoulder for the aggrieved to cry on and all the ice cream in the world can feel pathetically, hopelessly inadequate. But only because it is.

In the face of overwhelming sorrow, hope for a better tomorrow is the first casualty because it seems sacrilegious to even think it, when someone we love or even only vaguely know is trapped in a quicksand of infinite pain and endless sorrow, marooned there by the sudden onset of misfortune. At times like that, it is hard to believe in the healing power of time, when every agonized second feels like an aeon and a half. What is one to do? Who has the inclination and the much-needed patience to let trouble run its course? To wait for a wound to stop bleeding. To refrain from worrying it. To let the scabs form and allow the healing to proceed at the inevitably lackadaisical pace which is so hard on the nerves. To be there for the ones we care about. To give them all the time, space and care that can be managed without being intrusive, invasive, or insensitive. That is hard. And few can manage the feat, even if inclined to make the effort demanded, especially if truth be told, we’d rather expend it all on ourselves.  

It is far easier to go on with our lives, putting aside the guilt over the gratitude and relief we feel that the dreaded bad thing has happened to someone else. Most of us are fully convinced that we can ameliorate a nagging conscience simply by putting up what we consider a poignantly worded post commiserating over the injured party’s loss and suffering. We might even throw in a prayer or two for aggrieved parties and hope that it helps them get back on their feet so that we can all put it behind us and try to move on. Preferably to admittedly insipid and fleeting pleasures which have been rendered even more attractive because we have been confronted with the possibility of our own mortality and the impossibility of holding on to our already limited hoard of happiness.

 It doesn’t help that tragedy brings out the jerks and trolls in droves. Every family and friend circle has its unwanted share of insensitive, rude pricks who always say the wrong thing, ask probing or inappropriate questions, and with a depth of cruelty that defies belief do not demur at all from inflicting further pain on those who are already hurting. We see this everywhere and up close and personal, but it becomes even more horrifying when well – known figures suffer from personal trauma which quickly explodes into a public spectacle. It is truly nauseating to see the massive pile – on as internet crazies get busy with conspiracy theories and news outlets have a field day generating provocative headlines, indulging the ever-growing public taste for sordid sensationalism, scandal, and endless speculation.

All the content in the world cannot compete with real life drama for sheer entertainment value especially when played out on a scale comparable to the elaborately gruesome and macabre spectacles mounted in the infamous Colosseum of ancient Rome to keep the masses appeased and conveniently distracted with an unhealthy overload of blood and gore. Even if we have been reduced to genuflecting before the purveyors of entertainment, does it entitle us to tear them apart when they are down? Why have we allowed ourselves to become such base creatures whose only requirement is the constant appeasement of a ravenous appetite for pleasure uncaring that it comes at the cost of someone else’s happiness or peace of mind?

By incessantly seeking little more than instant gratification we are no longer governed by basic decency or even reason. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to detox a little bit, practise austerity, and abstain from amusing ourselves all the time. With a little time and effort, it stands to reason we may just find our souls again and put the human back in humanity. At the very least, we will no longer allow ourselves to grow fat on the misery of others and join the feeding frenzy every time we scent blood in the choppy waters of this great tragedy we call life.  

Friday, September 08, 2023

CRASS CASTE POLITICS BEHIND THE SANATANA DHARMA CONTROVERSY

 


Long before generating outrage became the rage for those looking to make a big splash, politicians were doing it with incendiary speeches and rabble – rousing rallies. They still do it, and the ramifications are as bad as they have always been times three in the big bad world of social media with its exaggerated focus on clickbait headlines and emphasis on ‘going viral’ to capture the fickle public’s fleeting attention. It makes sense from a political standpoint since divisive politics always serve to muddy the waters with misinformation and draw attention away from a typical politician’s multitude of misdeeds. From a practical perspective though, such ill – considered words and deeds do a lot more harm than good.

Even a demagogue like Udhayanidhi Stalin, son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MK Stalin, who claims to have called out an issue for the purpose of liberating the downtrodden, has not managed to achieve anything beyond arousing the anger of a large section of the populace. In addition to being ineffective considering the larger problem he tried to address, the minister (he holds the youth affairs and sports department portfolio) may have just shot himself in the foot with his sally against Sanatana dharma.

Dissecting a dirty business

Udhayanidhi, the scion of the DMK party, put himself firmly in the eye of the storm and stirred up controversy with his problematic statements on Sanatana Dharma which he equated to malaria, dengue, and mosquitoes, before calling for its complete eradication. In the face of mounting fury and a Rs.10 crore bounty placed on his head (an unconscionable and unpardonable call to violence by the chief priest of a temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya), Udhayanidhi held firm, refusing to apologise or retract his remarks, insisting that he had only condemned caste discrimination and his statements had been made in the interest of upholding humanity and human equality.

On examining his provocative pronouncements at length, one is forced to wonder why the honourable minister, if acting in good faith and seeking to eradicate the caste system had simply said as much instead of using the term ‘Sanatana dharma’ with its profound relevance to Hinduism, which in turn has guaranteed that clarity be decisively removed from the equation setting off a chain reaction of confusion and chaos. Hinduism’s overt and covert endorsement of the caste system is a glaring issue but our collective persistence in perpetuating this evil, despite knowing better is the bigger problem and the minister is being disingenuous by refraining from saying it as it is.

As always, the great majority who have taken to social media platforms to register their assent or dissent over this fracas in the most flavourful language imaginable seem to have very little understanding of Sanatana dharma and what it stands for in relation to Hinduism as well as the critiques against it by social reformist stalwarts like E.V. Ramaswami aka Periyar and Baba Sahib Ambedkar, whose teachings Udhayanidhi referred to in his ill – advised call to eliminate Sanatana dharma and by extension an entire religion.

Sanatana dharma vs Periyar and Ambedkar

A deep dive into the finer points of Sanatana dharma as well as the teachings of Periyar and Ambedkar is beyond the band – width of most who are too attention deprived to do anything other than form their opinions based on headlines and even quicker to censure on the strength of a succinct if misleading WhatsApp note. But it is important to do so to fully understand this controversy and form an opinion that is not entirely lacking in sense and sensitivity, all conspicuous by their absence not just in the statements of Udhayanidhi but others like DMK’s A. Raja and BJP’s Home minister, Amit Shah, and spokesperson, Amit Malviya.

In the simplest terms, Sanatana dharma refers to the ‘eternal way’ and implies the timelessness of the soul as it journeys through multiple incarnations via the cycle of births and rebirths. Believers will talk about the inherently diverse, tolerant, and pluralistic way of life embodied by this faith which is traditionally in favour of incorporating noble ideals into its belief system even if from other faiths. Detractors will point out that Sanatana dharma emphasizes belief in the caste system as well as faulty notions of purity which has subsequently resulted in the oppression and suppression of multitudes. Neither side is incorrect though both are inaccurate if they fail to see what Sanatana dharma stands for in its entirety. Choosing to adhere blindly to everything it purportedly conveys without weeding out the problematic parts or callously insisting on throwing the baby out with the bathwater are equally worthy of condemnation.

As for Periyar and Ambedkar, the former was the founder of the self – respect movement who advocated strongly against Sanatana dharma which according to him was being used to keep the lower castes chained to the needs of the privileged. He discouraged blind obedience to rites, rituals, and superstitions, urging his followers to cultivate a spirit of scientific enquiry, and a critical outlook bound by logic and rationale. Ambedkar, the brilliant lawyer and scholar who played a key role in framing the constitution blamed Sanatana dharma for the evils perpetrated against the ‘untouchables’.

Both men advocated strongly against the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Shastras, and Manusmriti while calling for a truly democratic society where human dignity and equality would be upheld at all costs. A lot of people today quote these two fiery thinkers and activists who condemned the discriminatory nature of Hinduism but unlike Periyar, an avowed atheist and Ambedkar, who embraced Buddhism, the intention does not seem to be to eliminate the caste system but merely use it as fuel to keep the flames of unrest and hatred burning bright in the interests of safeguarding a corrupt system that has made a laughing stock of the true principles of democracy.

Excising caste from the core of Hinduism

Udhayanidhi’s statements could have made a powerful case for the need to annihilate caste which is entirely doable if we come together as a united nation against this ancient evil but by conflating caste based oppression solely with Sanatana dharma believed to convey the essence of Hinduism as opposed to viewing it as a preventable injustice wrought by prejudiced and self – serving human agency which has cherry – picked through and subverted the sacred texts for unscrupulous reasons of enslavement, he has taken a Quixotic tilt at Hinduism itself which is ineffectual at best and hate mongering at worst. Calling for the eradication of a religious way of life through a sustained attack on one of its core tenets does nothing other than hold up a mirror to the fact that we as a nation have little interest in tackling the problem of caste with a firm hand. Instead, we content ourselves by saying things for shock value, get bent out of shape over the inanities uttered by the inept and carry on being uncaring about a pressing problem that is a matter of national shame.

The caste – system championed by some has contributed to endless exploitation and it cannot be glossed over or rationalized any more than the latent homophobia and misogyny evidenced by other religions. This is a many – headed Hydra that needs to be decapitated with Herculean labour. This is a cancer festering away at the beating heart and soul of Hinduism that needs to be excised immediately before it becomes even more malignant. This is what needs to be done at the earliest but by persistently participating in screaming pseudo wars over religion, genocide and the rest of the ridiculous rigmarole foisted on us by self – serving politicians we are missing the forest for the trees and have become equally complicit in preserving the very evils that have enslaved us.

An edited version was published in India Today

Saturday, September 02, 2023

TO MAKE ROOM FOR A VIEW OTHER THAN OURS

 

A quick scan of trending news feels like deja - vu. Those of us not over the moon with joy with the successful landing of Chandrayaan – 3 and taken off to the weird new world of Elon Musk’s mysterious X to celebrate the heroics of chess prodigy, Praggnanandhaa as well as Neeraj Chopra’s gold at the World Athletics Championships are busy lamenting the state of a country where a teacher egged on her students to beat up one of their own while harping on unforgivably about his Muslim identity.

In fair Madhya Pradesh, a Dalit woman was stripped, and her son killed by a mob, hellbent on pressuring her daughter to withdraw a sexual assault case she had filled. Those who had tuned out the news preferring to binge watch season 2 of the hit Amazon Prime series – Made In Heaven could not help notice the very public feud provoked by a controversial episode featuring a Dalit wedding where the protagonist played by a fiery Radhika Apte asserts her rights to have a ceremony that reflects her roots. The kerfuffle was between the Dalit director of the episode – Neeraj Ghaywan, Dalit author Yashica Dutt, who argued that her life and works had been appropriated without recognition or renumeration and Dalit legal scholar, Sumit Baudh who claimed in a tweet that Dutt herself had not given him credit for an idea she had appropriated from his article.

In all these instances, one can see the familiar pattern of charged encounters along the divides of national pride, caste identity, political affiliations and religious sentiment which has led to escalating conflict in a divided society where nobody gives an inch, and everybody spews out volcanic rage. Worse, there seems to be no resolution in sight but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone because these public altercations ensures that the people involved get some much-desired visibility and an army of like – minded followers, which appears to be a somewhat self – defeating and morally dubious end goal which nevertheless has the potential to be leveraged for big bucks.

The mainstream news media has long been playing its part in generating chaos and pandering to a simplistic, tidy narrative where in the interests of coherence and brevity, complexity and compassion has been severely compromised, creating a warped reality where one side is purely good and the other is entirely evil. We seem to have deliberately forgotten that all human beings are complex, contradictory creatures with varying views and moral ambiguities. This Us versus Them mentality has sucked the oxygen out of every heated discourse leaving us gasping for air, in a perpetual state of agitation with its ugly sister, aggression for company and our brains deprived of good sense.

In this era of slavish devotion to a politically correct narrative formulated by self – serving activists more committed to looking good rather than doing good, it is not surprising that we all have leaned into an innate confirmation bias where we increasingly choose to believe news and Whatsapp forwards that confirm our personal beliefs while dismissing all evidence to the contrary. Many no longer trust formerly respected news outlets because they are tired of being afraid and have had it up to the gills with the endless cycle of rage, rebuke, and recriminations that leads nowhere and does little to empower the downtrodden while bringing about the betterment of society at large.

If we wish to excavate deeper, life affirming truths instead of grappling in the dirt at a very superficial level, where core issues are concerned, it is necessary to make room for complexity and nuance with the view to listen and understand the motivations of those whose views are not necessarily aligned to our own. It won’t change the world, but we can hope that this might lead to a future where we are all polite to each other, choose to be nice rather than nasty and make room for real conversations on dicey subjects where everybody feels listened to and understood rather than condemned and scorned.