Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > India: We celebrate and we worry

India: We celebrate and we worry

Thursday 5 May 2022, by siawi3


We celebrate and we worry

Jawed Naqvi

Published May 3, 2022 - Updated 2 days ago

AS Muslims celebrate Eid after two years of Covid-related disruptions, there are still the usual things to worry about. Mosques are under attack, as they have been in the past, by Hindu extremists in India, and Muslim extremists elsewhere, in Afghanistan, for instance, most recently.

In India, routine Muslim observances are facing legal challenges and physical assaults, prompting the courts to sift what is integral to a given religion from what can be dispensed with. Reports say 65,000 loudspeakers have been taken down in Uttar Pradesh, presumably from mosques and temples alike. If done with an even hand, there’s little to quibble about. Is that so?

Read: No place to pray: Muslim worshippers under pressure in India

If loudspeakers were removed to usher peace between needlessly quarrelling communities, one could welcome it. A question arises, however. Are loudspeakers atop minarets of mosques essential to Islam? The simple answer is that minarets themselves are not intrinsic to mosques leave alone the loudspeakers, which are a modern invention.

Mosques abound that have no minarets, notably in Turkey, Iran and India. Students in Delhi did an experiment at the Mughal-era Jama Masjid. They climbed to the top of its minaret and read lines to colleagues below who could scarcely hear them. Minarets don’t necessarily help in carrying human voices to any distance. Loudspeakers do, but here the ‘muezzins’ are often ill prepared to offer the required clear and soothing delivery. The legendary muezzin of early Islam was an Ethiopian slave — Hazrat Bilal. He is cited as a model reciter of the azan, a far cry from what one gets to hear around Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin area, for example. A surfeit of loudspeakers makes it worse with off-key muezzins untrained to deliver a pleasant azaan.

There can be a discussion about the need for loudspeakers in mosques. What about the processions celebrating birthdays of an endless number of Hindu deities? Are they integral to Hinduism? The answer merits a detour through history and mythology. Unlike Islam or Christianity, Hinduism did not set out to be a proselytising religion. That being the case, how important are the processions, often wielding swords and spewing hate, to Hindus.

Hinduism didn’t seek or accept converts until the founding of the Arya Samaj in 1875. The new sect opposed the caste system of the rival Sanatan Dharm. It also disapproved of idol worship and sought the return of the mostly lower-caste Hindus who had migrated to Islam and Christianity. Decades later, the campaign got endorsed by Sanatan Dharm, the sect to which Gandhiji and his assassin both belonged.

What about the processions celebrating birthdays of an endless number of Hindu deities? Are they integral to Hinduism?

Not only did original Hinduism shun conversions into its fold, historians and chroniclers have struggled to explain another attribute among its ancient elite — the absence of wanderlust. A Hindu Marco Polo or Ibn-i-Batuta appears to be missing, and Al Beruni reports this shortcoming with unalloyed disapproval. Buddhism spawned monks who travelled far, but that’s a different story. From a curiously current angle too, Brahminical Hinduism’s penchant for insularity peeps out. The map of the proposed politico-religious Akhand Bharat envisioned for an undivided nation of India offers an insight. Flaunted by the ideological fountainhead of Hindutva as an abiding quest, the map of the Hindu rashtra is hopelessly circumscribed by ambitious boundaries etched on an insular dream.

M.S. Golwalkar, possibly the most revered ideologue in the Hindutva pantheon, quelled historical suggestions that Vedic Aryans had origins outside the perimeters of Bharatvarsh. He posited instead a strange view that Aryans did live on the North Pole but the North Pole was located in India, somewhere between Orissa and Bihar before shifting to its current location.

The denial of foreign origin of the Vedic elite congealed into a fear of foreign climes. The aloofness, spotted by visiting chroniclers, eased up somewhat when India’s British rulers encouraged members of the Westernised elite to board the ships to Europe. However, foreign lands remained a forbidding challenge for some more years. Even Gandhiji made a solemn commitment to his parents about a number of things he would or would not do in England to remain a worthy Hindu.

Aversion of ‘polluting’ influences links up with a stained glass painting one saw in Karachi at a fellow journalist’s home. The work of art from an antique shop depicted a Hindu legend. An angry fish was chasing a demon speeding away with a stolen book. The underwater incident depicted a common tradition, several actually, that are embedded in symbolism. In one version a small fish gets the mythical lawgiver Manu’s protection and grows to become a big fish that saves him and his world from the deluge. In later versions, Matsya, the fish form of Lord Vishnu, slays a demon who stole the sacred scriptures — the Vedas, and is lauded as the saviour of the scriptures.

Proselytising religions would scarcely quarrel with someone pocketing their scriptures. In fact, copies of the Bible and the Quran are placed in hotel rooms for the guests to read. Indian hotels now slip in the Bhagavad Gita likewise. Of late, Hindutva ideologues are seeking out converts in the image of their Semitic rivals. In ‘ghar wapasi’ however the assigned caste of new returnees remains unclear.

The retrieval of stolen Vedas reaffirmed their exclusive purpose for the elite. Greek mythology similarly portrays fire as the monopoly of the gods residing on Mount Olympus. Prometheus the rebellious Titan befriends the gods but creates the first living human from a figurine, which annoys Zeus. Newly created humans required fire to cope with a cold and dark world, something the gods forbade. Prometheus steals their fire and suffers a painful punishment for it.

And since Indian gods likewise wouldn’t share the secret of the Vedas with lesser humans, how intrinsic could religious proselytising be to orthodox Hinduism, India’s judges may wish to ask.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2022