Category Archives: Religion

Our ‘beef’ with secularism

The Indian state of Maharashtra has, in a new law, banned the possession and sale of beef. This has been made punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine. I think this development merits some discussion. It also requires a reflection on what secularism is, and why we need it.

But before I go on, it will be important to define what I mean by secularism. This phrase has a lot of meanings and confusion is easy. So for the purposes of this blog, secularism is a view or a framework which requires the state to treat all religions equally, and to promote religious tolerance in public life. Be aware that I have chosen this definition because the kind of strict Church state separation that is often associated with secularism, is very hard to maintain in India. Religion, all religions, are so important to the Indian people that they bleed into public life. Sometimes, religion is culture. And lest the Hinduta-vadis (i.e Hindu fundamentalists) get too smug at this, I think in India there is a tendency for all religions to expand and take cultural significance. We have seen this with Christmas, which the young in India celebrate with gusto. We see it with Eid, which though not as culturally mainstream as Christmas, is seen often as an occasion to  celebrate some wonderful cuisine. I know that when I was in school, irrespective of what religion we belonged to, we would hug and say Eid Mubarak, just like we said happy Holi. That was not a sanitized secular environment, but it was a secular environment.

These days, when I speak to some people on the Hindu right wing, they say that secularism is the pet of the upper class liberals, with no resonance for the common man. Of course the people making this statement often happen to be N.R.Is or those working in high paying jobs in Indian metropolis. I lack their perspicacity, but I have never been able to figure out how they get the right to speak for the ‘real India’ (whatever that means). But I don’t buy this argument that secularism, as I have defined, is something only the elites believe in. Yes, India is peopled with those who are deeply religious. But the same people often live in harmony with each other. Despite the importance of religion to Indians, it took a long time for a Hindu right wing party to form a Government in India, and even longer for them to get a decisive majority. And while instances riots and intolerance get publicity, instances of Hindu and Muslim girls getting together to celebrate Durga Puja (and Eid and Christmas) are not publicized. This lets people get away with the lie that secularism is the pet of the liberal elite. Sure, some versions are. But to say that Indian masses have been tricked into accepting the idea of secularism which they don’t believe in, is to say that the people are idiots. And no, that is just not true. Further, to think that the ‘masses’ represent one entity, with no difference of opinions, that thinks with one mind, is the height of condescension.

My mind goes back to a time, when religion really interested me. Not just my religion, all religions. I had heard of the incredible sense of peace that comes from praying in a Mosque, and I decided to try and enter one. So one day, while I was walking around in a small town in Orissa, that I shall not name, I chanced upon a small mosque, really a room against a wall. I wanted to go in. However, I felt that I should (in all fairness) tell the caretaker of the mosque that I was Hindu. When I mentioned it to him, his reaction was to laugh. We don’t discriminate between people, he said, and let me in to the mosque. This man may not have traveled much, but he showed a wisdom so many of our political leaders lacked. He was not a part of the liberal media nexus, just a man who was incredibly secure in his faith. So that makes me ask, isn’t his Islam and my Hinduism, versions that seek harmony with each other, as real as the chest beating of the fundamentalists?

We have a richness few countries are endowed with. We have diverse languages and religions that co-exist without crushing ethnic strife. This is a gift for a country to cherish. And if we are to cherish this gift, doesn’t the idea that the State should not play favorites, make a lot of sense?

Now, speaking of playing favorites, I want to deal with the issue of cow slaughter. Legally speaking, I don’t think a ban on cow slaughter is necessarily bad. Given the fact that even the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, mentions the prohibition of cow slaughter. My problem is, however, with the provisions of this particular Act. Up to Five years imprisonment for cow slaughter, is disproportionate punishment. This, combined with the fact that the people caught under the ambit of this law are going to be poor, given that beef is often a meat eaten by the poor. I don’t even want to talk about the fact that making beef akin to contraband is going to make it out of reach for the poor, diminishing their nutritional status. There is a more fundamental problem. If you begin prosecutions under this law, the poor (you know, those guys that can’t afford good lawyers), are going to be caught in its net. Given the deplorable state of our prisons, do we want people to spend 2, 3, 4 or even 5 years in jail for possessing and selling beef?

But that does not begin to address the problems with this ‘cow slaughter is criminal’ political discourse. Imagine if passions are whipped up about this, and someone floats a rumor that there is cow meat being sold in ‘so and so’ locality. Does that not seem to be a fertile ground for a riot to spring up. If you need evidence on what the politics of polarization does, just have a look at what his going on in Uttar Pradesh.

So here is a small request to our policy makers. If cows mean a lot to you, then work on building shelters for them. Take them off the roads, where they imperil themselves and people. Improve their nutritional status. Crack down on the leather industry. Convince people that cow slaughter is not a good idea. If you must ban it, then have fines. But whatever you do, don’t impose disproportionate punishments for things that are really, well, religious crimes. This is not too different from bans on apostasy or blasphemy (and those who will make the argument that it is about helping all animals, well… note the fate of the water buffalo). We do not want to be a nation where state power backs one religion over all others. Because the people who lose are not just the minorities. We all lose a bit of ourselves.

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Why I am an atheist Hindu.

The durga of an artists imagination

No, that was not a typographical error.

I am an atheist Hindu.

How is that possible you will ask? Aren’t the ideas of atheism and religion antithetical to each other.

Well sure, maybe for some religions, but I have never come across a rule that says atheism and Hinduism are antithetical to each other.

So here I am writing about the religion I grew up with. What gives me the right some might ask. Me and the ‘sikularists’ of my ilk have spent so much time bashing the caste system, the militant aggressive Hinduism of certain fundamentalist groups. Do we have the right to write about Hinduism? What gives me the right, when I don’t go to the temple ever, and think that the Ramayana was really the tragedy of a woman called Sita?

Well the thing is, it is as much my religion as that of anybody else. And while it is true that organized religion is a huge juggernaut hurtling towards something with an unstoppable speed, with all its experts and pundits on board, religion is also something deeply personal.

I grew up listening to stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I was enthralled, as a child, at the exploits of Krishna, when I first heard the story of how Krishna managed to join the Pandavas.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana)

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata)

The story goes somewhat like this. (I heard this a long time ago, so I may have got some details wrong):

Arjuna and Duryodhana both go to recruit Krishna on their side before  the battle of Kurukshetra. While Duryodhana actually arrives early, he goes and sits near Krishna’s head. Arjuna comes a bit late, but goes and sits near Krishna’s feet.  When Krishna wakes up, he first sees Arjuna and exclaims with joy. But then Duryodhana points out that he came there first. Krishna then says that ‘Duryodhana, since you came here first you definitely have a claim on me. But I happened to see Arjuna first, so he also has a claim on me. In order to do what is equitable I give you a choice… On one side is the WHOLE Yadava army. On the other I stand. Alone. Unable to bear arms for either side. Pick whoever you want.’

Duryodhana of course picks the Yadava army, thereby nailing his own coffin. When he comes back to give the news to his camp, someone (Shakuni, I think)  reportedly tells him ‘You picked the 1000 sheep, and left the lion behind’.

Well Lions are legendarily lazy (given that lionesses do all the hunting), but I love the story as illustrative of the particularly wily nature of Krishna.

Something that I often wondered was, how Krishna-the-political-strategist is so different from the Krishna-of-Gokul. Are they the same person? If so, how could he forsake Radha and never call for her. Did he ever wonder how Radha was doing? Whether she missed him?

But when I read bits of the Gita (the bits that I can understand), I see that he did put into practice his idea of nishkam karmayog. After the Gokul chapter was closed, he did not look back, simply because his Dharma did not allow him to.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita)

Another incident that comes to my mind is the first time I learnt about Pap-and-Punya. On a hot summer afternoon in Bhubaneshwar, when I must have been four, one Bhagirathi (an Oriya boy about 20 years of age) told me about what Paap (sin) was, and how we acquired Punya (I don’t know what the English translation of Punya is, virtue doesn’t quite cut it). But his idea was (and a rather crude one it was), if you did good things you got Punya and would  be born as a higher life form in your next life. If you committed Paap, you would not be born as a  very nice life form. And the two things tended to cancel one another out.

Now this system really made sense to me when I was four.(though I later learnt that there are far more intellectually sophisticated schools of thought in Hindusim). So the next day I was on the lookout for ‘good’ things to do. As I lay in ambush I saw a Gecko in our compound wall, stealthily approaching a moth. The moth seemed blissfully unaware of what was going to happen to it. Quixotically I stepped in, and shooed the Gecko away.

I then went to Bhagirathi and reported to him that I had done my good deed for the  day. Bhagirathi was pleased at his pupil’s sincerity, but delivered a crushing blow to me by saying ‘But you deprived the Gecko of its food! It will have to go hungry now.’

That was when I, as a four year old, realized how complex right and wrong were. It is sad that so many people, baying in the name of religion, don’t understand this simple truth that was evident to a four year old child.

I also remember going to the temple every evening as a child. This was the red brick Ram-mandir in Bhubaneshwar. It had a lot of shrines dedicated to different Gods. The Rama shrine was the biggest of course, but I never took to it. Firstly because it was big and impersonal, and secondly because even as a child I did not like what Rama did to Sita. But my favourite was the Krishna shrine, because I loved the god, the Hanuman Shrine, because no one visited him much, and I felt a little bad for him. I am very ashamed to admit that I went to the Shiva Shrine simply because the pujari used to bribe me with sweets. But hey! I was seven.

Later ofcourse I saw Shiva as the radical God that he really was, and some what of a destroyer of the status quo. (Primarily because he just destroyed stuff when he got mad, so the status quo had to be very careful, as one Daksha learnt when it was to late). I will now go to a Shiva shrine gladly. Bribe or no bribe.

One particularly sweet memory is that of listening to the story of Mahishasur-wadh in Oriya on a cassette player. My baby sitter and indefatigable housekeeper had this tape that he loved playing. In the afternoons I would sit by his side and listen to him play this cassette till the point that I had memorized it.

I remember why Durga was created, and how she was empowered. I remember listening to how Mahishasur taunted her till a great battle ensured, and how she killed the demon.

Ujjal Chakraborty, an uncle of mine, gave this a beautiful interpretation. He designed a Durga idol once, for a pandal in Kolkata. The Durga was a tribal girl, armed with beautiful birds. Wearing a white saree with her  dark hair flowing, she was slaying the colonial conqueror. The demon was a European man, come to drain the country of her resources, and Durga was a slip of a tribal girl, standing up to him..

So yes, Hinduism is as much my religion as that of anyone else. To me it was never an insecure religion. You could believe anything you wanted, you could form your sect, have your beliefs and it would embrace you and your new ideas. Its beauty was that it did not need to discredit others or make them feel small, to be big (I doubt any religion does, but then I am not an expert). But this was the religion I grew up with.

And slowly I began to read history. I learnt about the caste system and the terrible ways in which some castes were exploited. I also learnt about how wiser, greater men than most, tried their best to fix it. I learnt about the unforgivable horrors of the partition, and the lie that two big religions could not co-exist. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Partition)

After that I got bitten by a radioactive bat and turned into a ‘sickularist’.

Of late focus has shifted away from this tolerant beautiful Hinduism. People feel the need to assert it aggressively. I don’t know if I have a right to comment on that, since religion is deeply personal. But such chest-thumping distracts one from the beauty of the religion, its many nuances.  I just wanted to show you, dear reader, what this religion can be.

I can say no better thing about it, than the fact that it lets me be an atheist Hindu.