Medieval and modern periods can’t be dismissed as centuries of shame

Bharat as yet may be far away from being a theocracy but some sections of society appear to have accepted the reality of anti-blasphemy laws.
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

Our brilliant and exceptionally articulate minister of external affairs, Dr S Jaishankar, is not known for pulling punches. On the contrary, he seems to take great delight in stirring the hornet’s nest. His recent book Why Bharat Matters is extremely thought-provoking. The author has traversed a long distance from his earlier book, The India Way. It isn’t just that by now Bharat has replaced India in the title.

The author argues persuasively that mythology, epics, legend and lore are what forge the identity of a people and shape their world view. The world—the West in particular—must recognise this. It is in this context that the Ramayana and Mahabharata assume great significance. One doesn’t have to be a devout Hindu to realise this. The larger question that rises is can the lines between metaphorical and literal be opportunistically blurred to suit political purpose?

We watch with bated breath what follows next, now that the bhavya and divya Sri Ram Mandir samaroh is behind us. It was undeniably for hundreds of millions a moment of fulfilment of a cherished dream that alas, doesn’t seem to mark a reconciliation or even an uneasy closure. The former Law and Justice minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and the erudite senior advocate who had argued Ram Lalla Virajman’s case in the higher courts has assured us that India would never become a theocracy and that the state would always treat all religions equally.

However, the way the pran pratishtha was transformed from a religious cultural ceremony of to a state-sponsored day of national rejoicing left behind serious apprehensions casting doubts about the reality of sarva dharm sambhav that is genuine swadeshi concept of secularism.

The central government declared half a day’s holiday to enable government servants to participate in this event symbolising, as we were repeatedly reminded, the unity of India that is Bharat. State governments ruled by BJP and its allies, banks, stock exchanges quickly fell in line. It was almost a replay of the tax exemption granted and holiday declared to encourage films promoting deshbhakti.

This time all stops were pulled. Even the Bar Council of the Supreme Court appealed to the CJI that lawyers should not be penalised for non-appearance on January 22. Advisories were issued that government officers should ensure that everyone has access to the live telecasts from the Ramjanmbhoomi. In our view all this was unnecessary. Once our charismatic Prime Minister, an ace communicator, had given a personal call to light five lamps and sing bhajans, the bhaktagan would have done what was bidden voluntarily. Remember how millions of compatriots had rallied to his call to chase the dreaded virus away during ‘Corona kaal’?

Another remarkable thing was that the critics weren’t confined to the biradari of usual suspects—libtards, urban naxals, agents of colonial conspirators. Shankaracharyas spoke out almost in one voice about how shastrik rituals prescribed in sanatana dharma weren’t followed and vitiated the process. One seer went as far as to state that politicians should keep out of religion just as there is no place for a religious person in politics. This prompted a retort about what have the Shankaracharyas contributed to our national life.

Many popular gurus and godmen joined the fray to fire their salvos to catch some fleeting limelight. We have absolutely no intention to get involved in this ugly spat but feel duty-bound to raise the question, ‘Are we witnessing the unravelling of the sanatana dharma?’ Who in future shall interpret the essential practices of this creed for the believers? Does the completion of the Ram Temple also marks the turning point where Rambhakti will in future be accorded primacy over Shaivas, Vaishnavas, Krishnabhaktas and Shaktas?

This isn’t just a question of sarva dharm sambhav but sarva sampraday sambhav. If this comes to pass what will remain of the glorious diversity that set the Vedic religion apart from other creeds that fettered the human spirit by prescribing and proscribing. None could match our confidence to proclaim—eko sad vipra bahudha vadanati. (To one people give many names.)

Bharat as yet may be far away from being a theocracy but some sections of society appear to have accepted the reality of anti-blasphemy laws. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences chose discretion over valour and cautioned its scholars to desist from participating in any dissent on January 22. Other premier educational and research institutions equated Rambhakti with deshbhakti and avoided treading on ground full of land mines.

Sanatana dharma it seems doesn’t have any space for difference of opinion. To answer the question ‘Why Bharat Matters’ isn’t hard at all. Bharat matters and will always matter because it includes not only India but also Hindustan. Our shared heritage is composite, inclusive and syncretic. The medieval and modern periods of our history aren’t less important than the ancient and pre-historic. These can’t be dismissed as centuries of shame.

Pushpesh Pant

Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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