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Imperious Authoritarianism In Garb Of Modernity

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t has become all too common for T.V. anchors to demand that an M.P. or minister who makes a frivolous or politically offensive statement should be forthwith forced to resign by his party or that a spiritual guru who holds antiquated views must be taken to task and immediately disowned by all his devotees as scum of the earth. Some of the TV anchors turn outright abusive to prove their reformist zeal. For example, much as I disliked Asaram Bapu’s stupid statements on rape, the abusive harangues he was subjected to in absentia for hours on end, the tsunami of pejoratives used against him, the attempt to bully Sri Sri Ravishankar, Baba Ramdev and Guru Vasudev Jaggi into calling him names made me far more angry at the TV anchors who exceeded all limits on January 7 than I was at Asaram’s stupid statement. Fortunately, each of these spiritual gurus stood their ground and remained dignified in distancing themselves from Asaram’s thoughtless statement.

To spend so much time flagellating nonsense on a day when major tragic events were taking place in the country is the height of irresponsibility and narcissism.

Rahul Easwar: Invited and yelled at whenever such an issue crops up
Rahul Easwar: Invited and yelled at whenever such an issue crops up

Apart from sense of priorities gone haywire, the bigger question is: Do our media men want to create a world in which everyone thinks alike, everyone mouths politically correct platitudes? A world in which there is no space for divergence of views or foolish people? A world in which anyone who makes a statement which does not meet the moral and political standards set by TV. anchors and their handpicked guests must have their heads roll instantly — be either locked up in jail or banned out of existence? All such self-appointed social reformers should remember that even authoritarian Nazi, Stalinist or Maoist regimes — each of which carried out unprecedented genocides to create an intellectually homogeneous society — failed in their mission.

What if the same logic is used by the government to take strict action against those who offend the sensibilities of the ruling establishment? What if a large mass of people — who feel extremely agitated at the partisan politics of our news channels, the politically dubious role played by many media men, were to demand strict censorship laws to bring under control all those who misuse their position as journalists, editors and News Anchors — many of who convert TV studios into daily kangaroo courts to demand vigilante style justice?

Therefore, in their self-interest, our media persons should know their legitimate domain and limits. Their job is first and foremost to inform and not to browbeat people to “reform”. This world must have place for all- the foolish, the mentally retarded, self-hating, as well as those with “conservative” views. The only lakshmanrekha we need to draw is that you can’t act to harm others based on your misogynist or foolish views. When you cross that line, the law enforcement agencies must step in to refrain you and hold you to account.

The Sabarimala temple and its deity
The Sabarimala temple and its deity

Even gods and goddesses not spared
Their demand for uniformity does not stop at political views on contemporary issues. Their diktats extend to religious practices, rituals and even the conduct of gods and goddesses. I decided to write this after witnessing poor Rahul Easwar, one of the young hereditary priests of Sabarimala being flagellated on Tv for the Nth time on 7 Jan 2013, for allowing the presiding deity of his temple to shun the company of female devotees.

Just as our colonial rulers with their faith in the superiority of their monotheistic faith, despised Hindu religious practices, with their millions of gods and goddesses, our modern day missionaries can’t stand the temperamental nuances of our diverse deities. They have no problem in accepting that women are barred inside friaries meant to house Catholic priests who have taken a vow of celibacy. But they can’t stomach the idea of a male deity who has likewise vowed eternal celibacy avoiding the company of women. They take it upon themselves to cure this kink because in their moral universe with its borrowed vocabulary, this amounts to misogyny and gender discrimination! Rahul Easwar has asked each TV anchor who has grilled him over the years, how would they deal with all those temples which only allow female devotees, where the presiding goddess forbids men’s entry? Would they likewise force “women only” temples to open their doors to men? Not one has ever condescended to answer this simple question; nor did any of the anchors tone down their aggression or hostility towards Rahul’s intelligent defence of his faith and his Ishta dev.

Outrage out of ignorance

Following in the footsteps of our British rulers, who despite their disdain for our gods and goddesses, took away shiploads of priceless ancient idols to display as art objects in their museums and their living rooms, so also our Westernised elites have taken to displaying paintings, bronze and stone carved idols of diverse gods and goddesses as decoration pieces in their homes as proof of their aesthetic lifestyle. But their disdain for those who treat them as objects of worship remains as ferocious as that of our colonial rulers.

If that were not the case, they would have no difficulty in appreciating that Hindu divinities are not unknowable, distant creatures like the God of Semitic religions. They have distinct personalities, character traits, likes, dislikes. Even in matters of food, floral offerings, pooja ritual, each deity has his or her preferences. For example, Ganesh loves modak but Hanuman ji prefers boondi ka laddoo. There are Shiv temples where devotees offer ganja as prasad. Some devatas only accept liquor as an offering. Even though all goddesses are different manifestations of the great Shakti, yet in their different avatars, they have their unique demands. Vaishno Devi cannot stand even the smell of meat, so the entire area is vegetarian. But in her Kali roop at Kalighat, devotees believe she demands animal sacrifice. If you ’t respect their unique temperaments, you are free not to worship them and choose the devata or devi that suits your taste.

Even the most illiterate and illiberal among Indians do not insist on uniformity of rituals or modes of worship. They let each faith group, each sect decide for itself how to define their relationship to their chosen deity, what foods to offer her, what modes of worship they think appropriate to express their devotion and how they interpret her likes or dislikes. This spontaneous, mutual respect for differences in ways of being, ways of worship, singing, dancing, clothing, cooking and so on, is what enabled the rich diversity of India to survive through ages.

But our self-proclaimed modern liberals can’t deal with these lived forms of diversity. They can only relish in museumised versions such as folk dances on Republic Day or as consumer goods. For example, possessing a collection of Kanjeevaram, Ikat, Chanderi, Patola sarees, Madhubani and Worli paintings, Moradabad brassware, wood carving from Kashmir, Tanjore paintings, Rajasthani miniatures etc. is a fashion statement. But the moral universe of those who create these diverse art objects is unacceptable. It is assumed that they all need a dose of reform to cleanse them of antiquated beliefs and values.

I won’t be surprised if tomorrow a group of overzealous diet freaks decide to reform the food habits of our gods and goddesses saying, for example, that modak and laddoo are both high cholesterol, high-calorie food items. They encourage devotees to have pot bellies. Therefore, they should be banned in favour of sugar-free diet chocolates!

It is time the imperious missionaries of “liberalism” understood that our temples are not meant to be tourist centres where entry must be free for all. Most of our traditional temples are run by specific sects for the devotees of that particular deity. If you ’t like the values of that sect, if the preferences of that particular deity are offensive to you, just avoid going to that temple. There are lakhs of others to choose from.

If I walked into the homes of our self-appointed reformers and insisted that they change their lifestyles and food habits, I’d be shown the door and asked to mind my own business. What gives these non-believers the right to dictate to Lord Sabarimala how he should live and act in his own abode or dictate terms to harmless little sects among Hindus who prefer to indulge in whims and wishes of their chosen deities?

Our deities are willing to move heaven and earth to please or come to the aid of their true devotees. That is why young Rahul Easwar has kept pleading with all news anchors to please learn to engage respectfully with faith leaders if they are serious about catalysing changes in allegedly outmoded customary practices and cultural values. In the Hindu faiths, nothing is written in stone. Devotees have the right to dictate their deities to change with changing times.

But our Deities can’t be ordered around by those who only have contempt for them. They cannot be bullied into surrendering their unique Being and become colourless, soulless robotic creatures that yield to every new wave of political fashion we import from our intellectual mentors in distant lands.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu of 17 January 2013 under the title "Don't Like This Temple? Choose Another". It has been reproduced here on the author's request.

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Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Fellow at CSDS, founder editor and publisher of Manushi, founder president – Manushi Sangathan, based in Delhi

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