Sunday, 20 July 2014

Gods on Earth: Shankaracharya says no to worship of Sai Baba

Ram Puniyani

The phenomenon of God is probably the most complex one in the World. For believers there is a range of belief system about the supernatural powers. For agnostics it is ‘I don’t know’ and for atheists there is no supernatural power. The systems of thought relevant to the topic range from Animists (nature worshippers), polytheists (multiple gods/goddesses), tri-theists (Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh or Father, Son and the Holy spirit), Monotheists (single Universal God) to Atheists. In the concept of God we have ‘god as a physical being’ to formless the God. Adivasis are animists, worshipping the nature and spirits of their ancestors. In different religions the concept is very different, including the fact that some religions do not have the concept of God like Buddhism and Jainism. Polytheism prevailed in Greek society, with different Gods and Goddesses endowed with special virtues. Ancient Aryans also had polytheism, with multitude of Gods and Goddesses looking after different virtues and aspects of the life on Earth. We have a Goddess each for wealth (Laxmi) knowledge (Sarswati) and Power (Durga) We also have a God each for lightening (Indra) air (Marut) sex (Kamdevta) liquor (Som devta) amongst the plethora of the divine powers. Hindu mythology is a rainbow exposition of the diversity and complexity of the lives of Gods and Goddesses.

There is no fixed timeline of the phenomenon of God. Diverse concepts begin in different time periods.  From animism, the most ancient concept to polytheism-monotheism and atheism come up over a period of time but not in a sequential fashion. Simultaneously, there come up the traditions of Charvak, Buddhism and Jainism which either do not talk about God or deny the existence of God. While today the prophet based religions like Christianity and Islam have a definitive concept, the Hindu religion has plethora of divine powers, Hinduism also has assimilated the diverse concepts, which merrily co-exist. That’s how in my childhood while reciting Hanuman Chalisa and reading Ramayan, (Lord Ram) I could reverentially go through the text of Mahabharata, with many Gods playing their different interesting roles. My family-community, worshipped Banyan tree on one hand and on the other had parallel worship of bullocks, of snakes and what have you. I vividly remember taking the wooden bullocks to neighbors and getting some sweets or small change as a reward. Every Saturday, mendicants with a vessel filled with oil used to come and my grandfather used to slip some coins in to the vessel, while at the same time performing the puja of Lord Ram.

Last three decades in particular while on one hand one saw the plethora of Godmen like Mahesh Yogi, Rajneesh, J.Krishnamurthy, Asaram Bapu, Satya Sai baba (Bhagwan) coming to the fore, the popularity of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Mata Vaishno Devi has gone up exponentially. Bhagwan Satya Sai, who died few years ago, had vast following and he was regarded as the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai baba. At the same time Shirdi Sai pilgrimage became very popular and his temples came up in most cities. Sai Baba of Shirdi has a beautiful syncretic background. While he was born in a Muslim family he came up more in Sufi tradition and intermingled with equal affection amongst Hindus as well as Muslims. His major focus was bringing Hindus and Muslims together. One major landmark in his life will give the essence of his efforts. In 1896 he instituted the annual Sufi ‘urs' festival with the explicit purpose of bringing these two communities together. In 1912 he combined this Urs with Hindu Ram navami festival. This effort of his strengthened his Sufi initiative of co-operation, symbiosis and tolerance. During the festival Hindus would worship in the mosque along with Muslims, each community following their own rituals. The Baba would put the sandalwood paste on the forehead of Mlahspati, the priest of local Khandoba temple, who in turn would reciprocate the gesture. Baba was deeply steeped in humanism, the core of all religions, and so initially Muslims as well as Hindus started respecting him.

By and by more and more of Hindus started worshipping him and today he is more of a Hindu deity than a Muslim one. In Hinduism as such there is a scope for new Gods and Goddesses also (e.g. Santoshi Ma, Satyanarayan). Apart from Sai Baba; Swami Parmhans is another one who has been raised to the level of divinity, and his more famous disciple Swami Vivekananda, also started a mission in his name.

The controversy around worshipping of Sai Baba was raised by Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand (June 2014) who described Shirdi Sai baba as a Muslim ascetic, and proclaimed that he cannot be worshipped like a Hindu deity. He also said that his campaign is to protect the Hindu religion and that he will continue irrespective. Sadhvi Uma bharti currently Union Minister of Water Resources, who was one of the prominent figures in Ram Temple agitation, leading to demolition of Babri masjid and deepening the communal divides, is also worshipper of Sai baba. In a letter to Swami Swaroopanand she explained the rationale behind her statement where she had said that looking upon someone as a god was people's personal choice.

While Sai Baba has been accepted as God by large sections of Hindus, it is probably for the first time that someone, Shankaracharya, has objected to this popular trend. As such Hinduism is a collation of multiple traditions. The clerical Brahminical tradition to which Shankracharya belongs is rigid and orthodox, while the other traditions of Nath, Tantra, Siddhanta and Bhakti are more flexible and adapt to the situation very easily. The Hindu practices have evolved continuously. On one hand the clerical ones emphasize on the status quo, the non Brahminical traditions have flexibility and fluidity. It will require a deeper study to understand as to why the worship of Jai Mata Di, Sai Baba, Santoshi Maa has become more popular during last few decades, surely it is part of broader inclusive Hindu practice as well. One needs to realize that the religious practices of different religions are not uniform. Even in the Universal, Prophet based religions; there are sects, Catholic-Protestants, Shia-Sunni, Hinayan-Mahayan, Digambar-Shetambar, to name the few. The orthodox versions of religions have been used as the base of politics within every religion. South Asia is today in the grip of rising religiosity on the one hand and growing assertion of politics in the name of religion on the other. The more conservative orthodox versions are picked up for political abuse, Wahabi version from Islam, Brahminical version from Hinduism, and similar conservative version from Buddhism in Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand in particular.

People should be left to their own wisdom and choice in matters of the faith. Imposing, asserting a particular version from the interpretation of the texts does complicate the matters and creates strife, the way the controversy raised by Shankaracharya is doing.   

While on the topic of God, recently a book has come out, “Why Atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky” written by Nigel Barber. This book predicts that religions, believers, will become a minority Vis a Vis the practice of secularism in the decade of 2040s. This book relates the rise/fall of the religion with economic power and makes an observation that atheists are much more in number in developed countries. This book is based on the study of 137 nations conducted by the author who concludes that in the countries; more developed the welfare system; higher is the number of atheists. The book’s crunch line is, in countries where distribution of income is even, lesser is the number of religious people. The author is a prominent psychologist. He makes a prediction that people will feel lesser need of supernatural beliefs when the tangible world is providing them for their real needs. Also in a survey conducted in America 20% people identified themselves as Atheists.

While we wait for the realisability of such prediction, we should respect the people’s choices about their faith, this is a message loud and clear given by the followers of Sai baba in response to what Shankaracharya said.

Debating Secularism in a Communalized Society

Ram Puniyani
In the aftermath of the recent elections Congress, Communist parties, Samajvadi and Lalu’s RJD, which can be called secular in some sense; bit the dust.  In the review of defeat the major opposition party Congress, which has been in power for maximum number of years, one major opinion from its top leader A.K. Antony came forth to say that the secularism practiced by Congress was seen more as an appeasement of minorities (read Muslims) and so the large sections turned against it emasculating it to a mere 19% votes with 44 seats in Lok Sabha. In a free for all; different opinions on secularism, and failure of Congress are coming forth. 
AK Antony
BJP with glee and confident assertion came to claim that it has the correct opinion of secularism, "We (BJP) have always said secularism should mean justice for all, appeasement of none, discrimination against none” Ironically this assertion, which negates the very concept of a democratic and secular society, has come to be perceived by many as ‘the secularism’. Many a commentators opined that Modi could demonstrate the hypocrisy of secularism and went on to take the cake of power. Sometimes victory can be taken as the proof of correctness!
In Indian scenario, secularism has been a much debated word, more so after Independence. At the time of Independence critics went on to say that state is not curbing religious practices in official places and called it an erosion of secularism. What we see today in most public places, the pantheon of Hindu deities adorning the Government offices and vehicles, and is passé’ was criticized by many earlier. Hindu practices like Bhumi Pujan (worshipping land) before construction of Government buildings became part of ‘normal practice’. Sarswati Puja, Surya Namaskar in some Government outfits by now is becoming a matter of routine. When Nehru was asked by Andre Malraux about such religious practices going around, Nehru did confess that we have a secular constitution but the society is in the grip of religiosity. Today a Prime Minister-elect performing a Ganga Aarti is part of the official menu and the tables are turned on those who question such practice of secularism by state and party.
As such the beginning of secular values and practices has been very different in India. While the Kingdoms and feudal lords were ruling in close alliance with religious clergy, the process of secularization in India began with the coming of industrialization and modern education during the British period. With the rise of newer classes, the industrialists, workers and modern educated classes, the concept of India, ‘India as a nation in the making’ started coming up. The kings and feudal lords, who were later joined in by a section of elite upper caste/educated section of society came up with communal outfits, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. While the rising classes were all inclusive, incorporating people of all religions, the latter declining sections-communal formations were restricted to Muslims or Hindu elite respectively. The triangle of British policy of divide and rule on one hand and Muslim and Hindu communalists on the other led to the formation of Pakistan in the name of Islam and ‘India that is Bharat’ on the basis of plural, secular values. While Pakistan went through a painfully long trajectory where after the demise of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, a leader with secular soul in the communal body of Muslim League, led to the blunt and assertive upsurge of communalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, dominated by Mullahs and Military in the driving seat. It went through different ups and downs; its situation worsened by the US intervention which went on strengthening the communal elements there. Lately the secular elements in Pakistan are trying to come up from the stranglehold of the domination of Islamic fundamentalism.
In India the trajectory had been very different. After Independence the communal outfit Hindu Mahasabha soon went into oblivion; while the progenitor of Hindu nationalism, RSS went on to float different organizations to achieve its goal of Hindu Rashtra. Initially it helped to form Bhartiya Jansangh with elements drawn from Hindu Mahasabha, later RSS was in total command and though it was not in the forefront in electoral arena, it kept spreading ‘adverse common sense’ against Muslims in the beginning and later against Christians. The communal version of history was made popular, ‘Muslims are more loyal to Pakistan’, and the atrocities of Muslim kings became the cannon fodder of painting the negative image of today’s Muslim minority.
In this scenario three factors shaped the nature of things to come. One, the wide prevalence of adverse ‘social common sense’ against Muslims became part of social thinking. Two, the communal violence in which; most of the victims have been Muslims; shook the deeper psyche of the community. This in turn led to strengthening of orthodox elements and dominance of Mullahs and communal politics within Muslim community. The third factor was the marginalization of Muslim community in the economic and social sphere. It is in this backdrop that Congress tried to walk the talk of secularism and faced severe obstacles. Irrespective of the propaganda that Congress is responsible for communal violence; those on ground know the reality of the impact of communal politics. Congress itself had many communal elements within and the leadership at times played an opportunistic role by compromising with communalism on regular basis.
So Congress did try the things which in a democratic society a secular dispensation should be doing. In the matters of communal violence against Muslims and in the matters of economic issues, but its attempts were half hearted due to the factors outlined above. As an umbrella party with secular ideology and plethora of communal opportunist elements within, it could not go far in taking the affirmative action for the community so instead it went on appeasing the orthodox elements, as was most visible in Shah Bano case.  The community as a whole remained a victim of violence on one side and discrimination on the other. The statistics about violence data and reports like Gopal Singh Commission, Sachar Committee and Rangnath Mishra Commission tell the story not only of the Muslim community but of the travails through which our democracy had to pass, where a big chunk of population remained neglected.
While all this was on, the communal elements sensing the possibility of coming to power through polarization of society, took up identity issues on regular basis, Ram Temple issue being the major one. They were successful in projecting that Congress is appeasing the Muslims. As a matter of fact, Congress policies have not benefitted the Muslim community in any way. The words and pronouncements of Congress fell on the hard rock of communalized polity. Making the statements like ‘They have a first right on national resources’ was used to show the partisanship of Congress. As a matter of fact seen in the context of a caring state, to say that weaker sections have first right on national resources should be the sign of a state committed to welfare of all. So Congress dilemma of wanting to implement secular policies, protection of minorities and affirmative action for them, fell flat. At the same time it did give a handle to the communal opponents to project as if Congress is there only for Muslims. The UPA I and II showed that the caring affirmative action was targeted not only for Muslims but also for other different disadvantaged sections of society as well. Same way the attempt to bring Communal violence prevention bill was nullified through a vicious propaganda.
So Mr. Antony may be partly right, but the problem is deeper. It relates to the semi-secularized society, the ascendance of communal politics, majority and minority both, and so finally landing up to mere electoral arithmetic of talking (not implementing) of schemes to win over the minority votes. Congress has not kept up the ideological commitment to secular values. Its workers hardly think differently on the issues related to communal propaganda. Many of its leaders come from communal stock, for many others standing upright for secular values is not important at all. There is a serious need for introspection, not only for Congress but for all those wanting to uphold the values emerging from our National movement for freedom.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Striving for Gender Justice: Overcoming Obstacles

Ram Puniyani

While on one hand a PIL has been filed for UCC, there is another significant development in this direction. This relates to the personal laws of Muslim community. That ‘Muslim women are subject to more domination and gender injustice’ has been a widespread perception. While as such the Personal laws of different religious communities are not giving due justice to women, the popular focus is mainly on the Muslim community. This despite the fact that there are number of Muslim women’s groups who are striving for gender just civil codes within Muslim community. The recently released Nikahnama (Marriage Norms) by Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) is one such leap by Muslim women to overcome the shackles of patriarchal grip on the Muslim women.  Model Nikahnama released by BMMA (June 23, 2014) is an important step in this direction, in the direction of empowering Muslim women This tries to give the solution to various problems faced by Muslim women. It outlines the various steps for which the large section of Muslim women is longing for. 

This Nikahnama calls for registration of all marriages, calls for denial of second marriage unless there is a valid ground like death of the first wife etc, calls for minimum age of marriage for girls to be 18, (for boys 21), wife should have due place in the household even after the death of husband, divorce should be permitted in the physical presence of husband and wife both and it should be supported by legal documents, and in case of women demanding divorce, her voice should be respected and she should be allowed to keep personal belongings.

The notion that the present plight of Muslim women is due to Islam holds no water. Islamic scholars and reformers like Asghar Ali Engineer contributed tremendously to the many basic points of this Nikahnama, which is a sort of Muslim Personal Law. The major highlight of this draft is that it represents the opinions of thousands of Muslim women due to whose participation the drafting of this one took final shape. The future challenge is that this Nikahnama has to be made the basis of the personal laws and a major campaign has to be launched in support of this. While the directive principles of our Constitution call that state should attempt to evolve a Uniform civil code, the issue as such came to the forefront in the wake of historic Shah Bano judgment, where a Muslim divorcee women was granted the maintenance by the court. The opposition to this court judgment came from the orthodox section of the community and the judgment was reversed by an act of Parliament by Rajiv Gandhi Government. This was a serious mistake.

The women’s movement has been asking for gender justice and many a concerned groups have been struggling for this. As we know the personal laws have been a continuation of what British had introduced and pertain only to marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance. While the civil and criminal laws are the same for all the religious communities, the personal laws have been based on the traditional customs, primarily patriarchal. The severe flaw in these laws is that they are heavily weighted in favor of men. While initially there was some lack of clarity about the concept of Uniformity, the women’s movement in due course called for gender justice as the basis of these rather than mere uniformity.

Uniformity can very well be an amalgam of unjust laws picked from different traditions and put together. That’s not something which women’s movement wants, that’s something which is not in consonance with the concept of gender parity. That’s not what a civilized society should have. The twin aspect of the need for newer personal laws has been the gender equality in front of law and their introduction through a process of social reform rather than imposition by dictat from the top.

The efforts of Muslim women’s groups face obstacles due to the domination of orthodox elements in the community. This situation is worst confounded due to the sense of physical insecurity following the communal violence. During last several decades the percentage of Muslims getting killed in the communal violence is close to 90%, while their percentage in the population is close to 14%. Communal violence is also the ground where women from minority community are subjected to serious sexual and physical abuse. This is what creates the sense of social insecurity, weakening their movements in a serious manner. It’s not that Muslim women don’t want reforms or parity in social matters; it’s not that Muslim men are able to hegemonize the situation due to religion or due to what Koran says. The issue at stake is the physical insecurity due to which Muslim women’s groups have remained comparatively weak and unable to assert themselves within the community and society. There surely are number of groups from amongst the Muslim community asking for equality, their movement is unable to get strength due to the cancerous phenomenon of communal violence and its soial-psychological aftermath.

The Hindu right wing’s cry for Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is not because it is seeking for gender parity. It has been seen that this UCC can be used as a political tool to beat the Muslim community with so it has been made as a basic part of the so-called ‘Hindutva’ agenda. This also needs to be seen from another angle. As a matter of fact the term Uniform has to qualified in proper perspective. It should not be a compilation of different unjust laws from different religious customs. What we need is an overhaul of the personal laws in all the religious communities and that the new laws have to be formulated on the grounds of gender justice. And secondly, they have to be evolved through the process of discussion and debate within the communities, where the women, who are the major sufferers of the prevalent laws, should have a major role in formulating them.

The step by BMMA shows the way for the communities to march in the direction of change in personal laws. On one hand this Nikhnama has been evolved through an extensive process of community participation, on the other it articulates the aspirations of Muslim women at large. Surely the laws pertaining to other religious communities also need to go through the process of similar exercise where women have a major say and the laws then act as a major mechanism for overcoming the patriarchal norms on the society.  Such positive steps by social groups need a welcome modification to further broader participation to make it more representative in character.       


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