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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

In today's complex world, it is not dogma that is needed. It is adaptability, live-and-let-live

Amberish Diwanji, in an altogether well-meaning article on Rediff On The NeT suggested that it is appropriate for lower-caste and tribal Hindus to convert to Christianity or Islam to gain self-esteem. While there is much merit to the liberal Hindu perspective, this particular argument makes me laugh. I get a vivid image of someone suffering from appendicitis cutting his hand off as a purported cure: he will probably die from a ruptured appendix, but he is now bleeding to death as well!

The problem is not in Hinduism: it is in a very human tendency to exploit those weaker than oneself. While Hinduism does have the regrettable caste system, the Semitic religions have also frequently espoused or at least condoned severe discrimination. For example, Christianity has been invoked to justify apartheid in Africa and America, and the oppression of Latin America's natives; Islam has sometimes condemned women and even entire Islamic sects to semi-human status.

Casteism is definitely practised by Indian Christians: the very term 'Dalit Christian' should be an oxymoron, but isn't. Muslims, in my experience, are quite egalitarian, but they too retain vestiges of caste prejudice. And even in the small Jewish community in Cochin, there was a form of casteism. Thus the Semitic religions seem to have adopted the very worst aspect of Hinduism. How tragic, but how very predictable!

In my opinion, the only lasting solution is to create a new consciousness about egalitarianism in Hinduism. To simply reject Hinduism, which in its long and syncretic life has acquired or developed many useful concepts, is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. In particular, Hinduism is highly susceptible to reform based on moral arguments; and there have been instances of successful and thorough-going reform. These need to be considered; I touch upon one below.

In addition, I have the nagging feeling that the Semitic religions were created for a place and time far away and long ago: the harsh conditions of the West Asian desert two thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. It was a world of absolutes and of dicta -- if you did not follow certain simple rules, the ruthless desert would consume you. Hence the exclusivist dogmatism, and their jealous, unforgiving, Olympian deities. Marxism too, though more recent, fits into this Semitic mindset.

India today -- and all through history -- is altogether different. Pluralistic, diverse, India has always had to deal with those who question authority. Besides, the tropical abundance of India meant that one could survive without adhering to rules so strictly. Thus, goes my pet theory, the relative flexibility of Indic religions. Our environment must influence the Gods we create -- hence the playful, almost human, ambivalent deities of Indic traditions.

In today's multipolar and complex world, where ambiguity prevails, it is not dogma that is needed. It is adaptability, syncretism, live-and-let-live. Dogma leads, in Samuel Huntington's memorable phrase, to an inevitable 'clash of civilisations'. Transplanting foreign solutions to India is not the answer: we need appropriate and local solutions. Hence, if anybody really feels the need to convert from Hinduism, I would recommend Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism -- all local solutions to local problems.

Importing alien ideas or things wholesale is frequently disastrous. One example is the water hyacinth, an ornamental plant that has become a pernicious weed choking waterways all over India. Another is Fabian socialist central planning, which, many feel, has set India back economically by fifty years. A third, regrettable, import is western-style feminism with its bra-burning aggressiveness: a balanced, Manushi-style feminism is more appropriate.

Finally, I find, from my vantage point in the US, that the well-funded missionary movements here are about as far removed from the Christian principle of agape -- selfless, self-giving love -- as it is possible to be. They are primarily money-making, power-hungry business organisations. To entrust to them the salvation of India's downtrodden is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that I am by no means impugning India's Christians and Muslims. In my opinion, race and nationality matter more than religion. For example, I did not see America's Christians rushing to save Rwanda's Christians from slaughter; similarly, Indonesia's Muslims seldom went to Bosnia. Indians of all faiths are absolutely in the same boat, and need to pull together: we sink or swim together. My argument is merely that conversion is not the answer, but reform is.

Undoubtedly, the most thorough-going reform of Hinduism was the Reformation that led to the creation of Buddhism and Jainism about twenty five hundred years ago. Of course, the Counter-Reformation led by Sankara and the Bhakti saints about thirteen hundred years later re-absorbed these two traditions back into the Hindu fold. But reformers have continued to arise throughout the centuries. I would like to focus on some of the reforms within living memory.

Swami Vivekananda's pioneering efforts and Sri Aurobindo's and Mahatma Gandhi's impact are well known. But I wish to consider two lesser-known movements in the South earlier this century: Sri Narayana Guru's and E V Ramaswamy Naicker's. These are a remarkable contrast in approach, attitudes, and effectiveness, and interestingly enough, they were contemporaneous.

The South has, ever since the Counter-Reformation, boasted an unusual mix of castes: a small number of brahmins, and the rest are essentially all sudras, or those outside the pale of the caste system: practically no intermediate castes such as vaisyas and kshatriyas. Some historians contend, based on circumstantial evidence, that the entire South was Buddhist and Jain, and when Hinduism reasserted itself, the Buddhists and Jains were re-absorbed as lower castes.

Whatever the historical reasons, the South was home to a remarkably rigid and cruel system of caste-based discrimination until about a hundred years ago. There was untouchability and 'unshadowability', i e a person's shadow would pollute; remarkably there was also 'unseeability'. Certain castes were considered so polluted that they had to shout at the top of their voice that they were coming down the road, so that others might avert their eyes!

Swami Vivekananda, on a visit to Kerala, was so repelled by caste practices there that he declared it a 'lunatic asylum'! Yet, today, Kerala is perhaps the most egalitarian part of India: overt caste prejudice is essentially a thing of the past. Many can justifiably claim credit for this transformation: enlightened Maharajas who chose to educate their subjects, Marxists who initiated land reform, missionaries who converted many low caste people and offered them education, and so on.

But the pivotal figure in the transformation of Kerala's caste landscape was Sri Narayana Guru, who preached a message of self-help, self-improvement, and self-esteem for the disadvantaged castes. A devout Saivite monk and scholar, the Guru's goal was not to destroy Hinduism, but to purify it and improve it; he suggested to the lower castes that they appropriate Hinduism: that it was theirs, too -- Hinduism belongs not just to upper castes. Today, Kerala's different castes coexist more or less peacefully.

In contrast, E V Ramaswamy Naicker -- Periyar -- in Tamil Nadu preached an atheistic, anti-theistic creed as his reaction to caste excesses. In practice, this meant anti-Hindu, anti-brahmin teachings. Periyar succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of brahmins; but he has left behind a bitter legacy of hatred, as brahmins now feel, with some justification, discriminated against. He has replaced one set of tyrannies with another -- not a recipe for social harmony.

In addition, Periyar's effort to remove faith from the people has left them bereft: some now literally worship not the old gods, but the likes of M G Ramachandran and Jayalalitha Jayram, and, irony of ironies, Periyar himself. This is surely not progress: the simple rural folk of Tamil Nadu have been robbed of their dignity.

I think the Guru's teachings have stood the test of time better than Periyar's. Hatred is seldom the answer: in the long run, it corrodes all those who hate. Besides, it is impossible to remove faith from the minds of the people: the numerous cults in the West, and the resurgence of religion in communist societies attests to our very human need to believe.

Sri Narayana Guru was a 'Backward Caste' Ezhava, member of a numerous group that included mostly peasants, but some scholars and landowners as well. Ezhavas were denied the right to worship at Hindu temples; in general, their self-image was poor. The Guru exhorted them to educate themselves and to improve themselves through industry and thrift; but most of all, he preached the dignity of the individual: a universal message for our troubled times.

Because Ezhavas could not worship at upper-caste-owned temples, the Guru established his own temples. When challenged about a non-brahmin's right to consecrate a Shiva image, he replied, devastatingly, that it was an Ezhava Shiva that he had consecrated! When Ezhavas could not study at upper-caste-dominated schools and colleges, he established schools and colleges, open to any one. With the help of wealthy patrons, he encouraged the development of cottage industries.

But never once did the Guru attack Hinduism. He laughed at the pomposities of officious brahmins just as he did at the dogmas of Semitic priests, yet he never advocated hatred for them. 'No matter what the religion, man must improve,' he said. He personally believed the core of the Vedic teachings was eternal and truthful and universal. The social excrescences that had attached themselves to those sublime philosophies could and would be excised.

Within a single generation, the Guru's efforts helped transform all the oppressed castes of Kerala. Today, they are fully aware of their rights, and prepared to fight for them. No more lunatic asylum, this. In 1936 CE, the Maharaja of Travancore, in the epoch-making Temple Entry Proclamation, threw open the doors of all Hindu temples to every Hindu in Travancore. Like the Buddha, and Martin Luther King later, Narayana Guru had at last freed his people.

The Guru's is a remarkable story; so, of course, is Mahatma Gandhi's successful effort to infuse Indians with dignity and moral courage in the fight for righteousness. If Mahatma Gandhi was Yudhishtira reincarnate, then Sri Narayana Guru was Vidura: both righteous men who touched that moral sense ingrained deep in all of us.

This is why I believe Hinduism has the answers for Indians: there is a racial memory of righteousness that can be aroused by men of vision. It is naive to believe the simple act of conversion will solve our problems. It hasn't for the oppressed Mayans and Aztecs of Guatemala and Mexico and Peru; nor for the Maoris of New Zealand; nor for the blacks of Africa. Why would it for Indians?

I have occasionally watched the Sunday morning fulminations of various evangelical Christian sects on television in the US. It is an astonishing spectacle. They blatantly ask for money. They are full of hatred and insupportable dogma -- they seem to believe they have an exclusive and unique channel to God, and that all others will go to hell--and this includes not only 'pagans' but even other Christian sects such as Catholics!

Some of them also believe that non-whites are inferior races whom whites could enslave, and will quote the Bible about the 'sons of Shem' having dominion over the 'sons of Ham'. This was the argument used by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and the segregationist churches of the American South to provide divine sanction for slavery: blacks were considered the sons of Ham.

In general, America's noisy evangelists seem driven by the need to make money, or to gain power. Pat Robertson, who frequently calls Hindus 'devil-worshippers', was a serious candidate for the US Presidency. I think evangelism is very profitable, and furthermore, extremist Christians believe themselves to be in a race with Muslims to gain the most adherents worldwide. It is some sort of numbers game, exacerbated by their belief that the world will end in the year 2000 of the Christian Era.

These evangelists hardly fit the image of selfless service they would like to project. While it is true that some missionaries have in fact done some good, it appears to me that Indians are unhappily caught in the midst of the infamous clash of civilisations -- Christian versus Muslim versus Marxist. India's poor and disadvantaged are just so much brown cannon fodder in these battles.

Well, in that case, perhaps we should take advantage of the situation. Since India is rich in people resources, let us test the price elasticity of conversion. I believe evangelists make money per head they convert. Allow them to convert as many as they want; but let's impose a small 'conversion tax'--say $50,000 per head? That would balance the national budget pretty quickly, wouldn't it?

Rajeev Srinivasan

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