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