CivilSociety: Unity in divinity

The very ability of hinduism to express itself in its multiple cultural aspects depends on the vitality of myriad cults that exist within its fold. Is it fair to denounce Sai Baba devotees?

Zee TV carried an interesting interview session on July 6, 2014, about the stability of the cultic aspects of syncrestic religion in India with sadhus, sants and the residents of Saket in Delhi . The sadhus believed that shankarcharya of Dwarka and Badrinath was right in denouncing Sai Baba cults, since the first Sai Baba was thought to have muslim blood and distributed biriyani as prasad. Now, for sai devotees, who believe in the ishta deva principle of hinduism, this comes as a rude shock. The very ability of hinduism to express itself in its multiple cultural aspects depends on the vitality of these myriad cults.

While it may seem like a circular argument, it is necessary to show that the animistic aspects of hinduism, as well as its assimilative aspects, must not be seen as its extreme ends. On the other hand, it is this that has allowed hinduism to establish itself in cultures as close as Sri Lanka and as far away as Indonesia in historical periods before homogeneity became the trademark of religions in the modern world.

The process of homogeneity becomes crystallised when societies feel themselves to be at risk or when they whip up emotions to push the “other” into the corner. Economic or political crises, the sense of being threatened by “others”, make people use beliefs and ideologies to put pressure on one another.

Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati represents an ancient unifying force in hinduism, of which the official representative is allegedly none other than Adi Shankara of Kalladi. The sense of impending doom that the present shanka-racharya feels is apparently akin to that experienced by the historical shanka-racharya when faced with kshatriya domination and buddhism expansion. However, Adi Shankara was willing to learn from the Chandala, who questioned him. His present office bearer is loath to recognise that the manifestation of Shiva may well take the form of Sai Baba. Of course, he did communicate that a temple dedicated to Narendra Modi by sycophants, or fans, were equally unacceptable to sanatan dharma.

There is a problem with this ban in modern India, where for the last 40 years, some people are unable to make a distinction between cricketers, gods, actors and politicians.

Protecting the legacy of Adi Sankara would mean accepting that the varieties of the gods is the essence of diversity and the essence of hinduism. It is not surprising that when there is homogenisation in the embodiment of Rama, then Sita is sent off to the forest and is asked to jump into the fire.

Everyday lives are not lived in mythic time necessarily. People work out their worries and anxieties by attaching themselves to local temples, shrines or the acceptance of local devtas wherever they are. Adi Shankara wanted people to understand the presence of the self in each one of us — the atma and parmatma —as part of a cosmic chain, where divinity, masculinity and feminity are all conjoined with the universe and everything in it.

There have been many who incorporated the self within their own being, such as Ramanamaharshi in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. Devotees called him bhagavan and so over time there is a gradual process of deification, as Ramana becomes absorbed as an aspect of Shiva or Krishna, leading perhaps to the calming down of Iyer/Iyengar propensities to conflict in south India.

Narayana Guru in Kerala offered the idea of a mirror as a temple, where one could see oneself as the self. The self respect movement was generated by the Ezhavas accepting Narayana Guru’s motive, which was the shedding of symbols of caste identity and more profoundly access to water for all people equally. By saying that magic and miracle are the reasons that the cultic forms predominate the religious culture of India and should be banned, the shankaracharya is putting himself in a theological muddle regarding the myths and legends surrounding Adi Shankara. Was it not a form of magic to enter the body of a dead king and defeat a woman well versed in the shastras? The story goes that he then dedicated her as a temple goddess, with her husband as the presiding priest, in a temple in South India. Where cults resort to violence or to corrupt practises or inhumane acts, we can be assured that the citizens of India will feel free to represent their views boldly.

(Susan Visvanathan is professor of sociology in the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, and the author of Reading Marx, Weber and Durkheim Today)

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