Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Talking Stones

This December 6, there will be the same old drum-beating drill about Hindus tearing up an unused mosque in Ayodhya twenty years ago. Independent of the merits of the actions of the group that day, excavations prove beyond reasonable doubt that a monotheist victory-prayer hall was built by trampling upon a preexisting Mandir-like structure, mocking an sacred and pluralistic geography revered by a billion Indians, including non-Hindus. However, come 12/6, another generation of gullible Indian kids who check 'Hindu' in their school application forms will be selectively indoctrinated into feeling guilty for the rest of their life about their amazing,  inclusive faith that attracts new followers everywhere else in the world without any proselytizing. They will receive subtle guidance from textbooks to recognize the trouble that temple culture causes by coming in the way of progress and unity - without ever being allowed to examine the facts. Impressionable youth will be shown pop-cultural examples to let them know that a modern Hindu is a non temple-going 'cool guy' and 'hip girl' who discards the superstitious Ishta Devta of his/her boring parents and subscribes to the supremely intellectual notion of a single sys-admin with super-user privileges.

There is much echoing power in the orchestrated sounds coming from the now-fallen masonry that was erected by a triumphant but murderous tyrant. In stark contrast, the broken Murthis of Halebidu and Hampi have performed their penance in mutilated silence for more than half a millennium now; they once welcomed thousands of despairing innocents into a magnificent Karmic oasis when nearly all hope for natives was lost and desert dogma reigned supreme in the land. However, it's not just these ancient temples that gave so much and asked so little in return, which appear to be so quiet now.  Many temples are strangled and turned into retirement museums called "national monuments". Now even the active, working ones seem to be tired. Like the one I met the other day.

Trash strewn around her, unclean; deserted; the premises unmaintained and uncared for. It seems a lot of Hindus around that area lost their jobs and moved on, so there was a shortage of funds. It's hard not to notice the well maintained Chinese church just a few hundred yards away. Everything there seemed to be shiny and well crafted, perhaps even made in America. Irritated to find that the temple had closed her doors to me so early in the day, I checked the time in my watch and as I turned to leave that depressing place, she wondered if I too would be deserting her? I got defensive. "It's not my job. It's not fair ...", before the sheer inertia of a defeated mind stopped me in my tracks and and the weight of despair dragged me down to my haunches. It is after all an unequal and unfair battle.

Just two weeks ago, I chatted with the young, dynamic, English-speaking priest of that temple who left his wife and little child in Bangalore to serve the small Hindu community here. He had saved enough to make a trip to India last week. It took him more than a year of struggling with paperwork to just get a driver's license here and was left to his own resources. Some priests in domes can conjure up an peaceful mob after a prayer. Others in cathedrals can go one better and have loving human-rights people and media microphones serenade you on-demand. Our priest cannot even afford an Internet connection in his tiny apartment in a lonely land, and is the lowest in the pecking order within the community he serves.  Temple-priests and their children will be encouraged to pay for their ancestor's real or imaginary crimes even as the voices of December will warn you to cease and desist from applying the same sickening logic to others.

Sure, my community wants the services of this priest - just not the profound Sanskrit mantras (and he chants them beautifully and explains their meaning too), but quick mumbo-jumbo at a discounted price. They petition him to provide them with any auspicious date for a family function as long as it is on a weekend. A white American lady seeking solace within Hinduism once showed up at that temple with deep questions for our priest. An avid temple-going, prosperous Indian-American, a dentist by profession, who happened to be there at that time, volunteered to translate the accent. At the end of a very positive three-way conversation, the dentist informed the lady that "Hinduism was the worst religion in this world"... As we cleared some of the trash, I hoped the Murthis would feel just a little better about their American home now. How often do we go to a temple to return a favor?

Many important voices will be speaking for the December stones, and I have no problem with that. My temple stones are not mute, and they need to be heard too. Not by the government, the media, or anybody else, but by us. If we listen carefully enough, we may perhaps begin to rediscover our own voice of Dharma.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Contemporary Discussions on Feminist Issues in Hinduism - 1

This page, like others in this blog is a work in progress and will try to collect links to useful and data-driven discussions on topics like Sati, Karva Chauth, and Agni Pariksha, etc, which are moderated by informed Hindu scholars and historians. A superficial reading of these topics may suggest to some that texts of Hinduism target women, and indeed there are many ignorant Hindus who try to "enforce" such practices. Hopefully these discussions (using an Indian/Dharmic point of view rather than regurgitated western paradigms) will bring more clarity to those seeking answers to these questions.

Hinduism is the only religion that also worships the divine in a feminine form, and these feminine forms are approached first when Hindus pray for wealth, prosperity, education, and even military strength!. Shakti is another fundamental concept of Hinduism that differentiates it from History-centric faiths, and for which there is no equivalent in those religions. A non-trivial chunk of the Vedas was authored by women. The breath-taking debate between Mandana Misra and Sankara was moderated by Misra's wife. Both Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are fought to right the injustice against the main female protagonist (Sita and Draupadi). In contemporary India, Women have occupied the highest positions of political and economic power, are an integral part of the Indian armed forces, but much progress needs to be made in terms of repairing the broken law and order apparatus of India, especially in terms of safeguarding women's rights and curbing violence against women and children.

It will help immeasurably to distinguish between the individual actions of those born into Hindu families and the Dharma-based texts of Hinduism. Steve Jobs disregarded medical advice to delay his cancer treatment and paid the price. That doesn't mean that medicine is inhuman :)
However, it must be conceded that if a person wants to deliberately twist facts and the words of a text to suit a polemic and score points rather than honestly look for lessons in self-realization or seek to reform, then there is no defense against that.

The Practice of Sati
In this post, Sandeep Balakrishna, a genuine and outspoken authority on Hindu Dharma and Indian history rebuts an English writer who wrote:
"It was the British, let us not forget, who outlawed Indian slavery, infanticide and the horrendous practice of suttee, whereby widows were burned to death on their husband’s funeral pyre."

Sandeep: "That’s a new one. Indian slavery! One would want to ask how Mr.Sandbrook defines this term or show us exactly one instance of “Indian slavery.” On outlawing infanticide, it’s no thanks to the British but largely the Indian reformers who persuaded the government to outlaw it. Also note the spelling of “sati.” Nothing like the good ol’ “suttee” eh? While I do cringe at Sati, let’s not forget the era we’re talking about. The whole “liberation from Sati” like the “evil caste system” is exaggerated. Sati was by and large a voluntary practice by the wife. Sati and Jauhar are in many ways synonymous, a practice that held death preferable to dishonour. Perhaps Mr. Sandbrook would like to read accounts of how Indian widows were fair game for Brit officers."

Is Sati sanctioned by the Rig Veda?
NO. The reason is your average Western idologist of the 20th century with limited Sanskrit skills, wrongly translating crucial words into English. For this, we don't even need to look far. Even the simplistic and much maligned Wikipedia has some data.

" it [Rig Veda] explicitly states that the widow should return to her house.
उदीर्ष्व नार्यभि जीवलोकं गतासुमेतमुप शेष एहि |
हस्तग्राभस्य दिधिषोस्तवेदं पत्युर्जनित्वमभि सम्बभूथ || (RV 10.18.8)
Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman — come, he is lifeless by whose side thou liest. Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover.[65]
A reason given for the discrepancy in translation and interpretation of verse 10.18.7, is that one consonant in a word that meant house, yonim agree "foremost to the yoni", was deliberately changed by those who wished claim scriptural justification, to a word that meant fire, yomiagne

Karva Chauth:
Ritual fasting is prevalent all over the world. The complaint is that KC targets women. What i've seen of this is largely from bad Bollywood movies where the leading lady always volunteers to fast on a particular day as a token of her love for her husband.

[watch this space for updates]

Agni Pariksha:
This topic (trial by fire of the blameless Sita) was recently debated during Diwali. There are some excellent and fairly impartial blogs that present their views.

The second, and more recent post is by a lady (and a feminist to boot :)

The third one is by Vijayendra Mohanty, and is a wonderful exposition on the Dharmic principles underlying that incident of the Ramayana.

A fourth, and very good article on this topic is by Sri. Aravindan Neelakandan, co-author of Breaking India.

Part-2 will focus on collecting articles on the practice of female infanticide and dowry deaths (it should come as no surprise now that neither is sanctioned in the texts, and would be considered extremely Adharmic).