This shatters Hinduism’s age-old pluralistic, democratic spirit, birthing a singular, ominous force.
What appears as writing on the wall through history and yet remains outside the grasp of the common man is the idea that structures with mighty centres collapse the soonest. The common folk believe that any institution needs a powerful centre to be strong and enduring. Therefore, even as they set up a structure, they establish its centre firmly and keep consolidating its power. Whenever they feel apprehensive that the structure may weaken, they direct their energies towards strengthening the centre, thus adding to its weight. Until the entire structure falls apart, they keep reinforcing the centre, not realising that most structures come crashing down under the weight of their centres.
In referring to common folk, I include people from all walks of life. Millions believe that families with a strong patriarch ruling the household with an iron fist are, ergo, extremely strong units. The same mindset is shared by some who rule over entire nations too. This belief is, in fact, ubiquitous—from small businesses to large conglomerates, from local community organisations to mainstream religions.
Ironically, our own families often prove the notion wrong. Wherever an autocratic father is at the helm of affairs, family bonds quickly begin to strain and snap. On the contrary, flexible and accommodative families hold together through generations. Nations that have boasted of a formidable central authority have barely survived a whole century, the most recent example being the USSR.
Dynamic of contraries
Looking back at history, we see in Hitler’s Germany or the vast British Empire striking examples of the same phenomenon. The cause of their downfall is easily explained; in fact, it is the law of nature. Everything that exists in nature evolves only by a process of branching out continually. This diversification leads to a cycle of competing, conquering, and consolidating among the new individual units. Every established force immediately engenders its own equally powerful opposing force. It is through this dynamic of contraries that nature operates, which Western thought identifies as dialectics. Nataraja Guru in his writings explains that in the Indian tradition this phenomenon is labelled yogathma darsana.
Those who envision a strong centre tend to imagine it as a point that meets no resistance; seldom do they realise that nature does not permit such an aberration. Similarly, people who proclaim themselves Hindus today are unaware that the Hindu philosophical tradition makes no room for such a central authority.
Within the Hindu philosophical imaginary, every power has its opposite. In Puranic mythology, every deity encounters an equally powerful rival. The only absolute within this tradition is the Brahman as conceived by the Vedantins. It has neither beginning nor end; it is the be-all and end-all, the Being Without An Other. However, in this state, the Brahman is devoid of any potential for action; for it to become conative, it requires a counterforce: Vedanta envisages this as maya.
The origin of Vedanta is the Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda. This hymn envisions a Brahman which is integrative of and immanent in everything. What it posits is not a single definitive answer, but an indefinable question, a question that remains inexhaustible and, therefore, ultimately, ineffable. Instead of emphasising a single point as its centre, it sets one off on an interminable quest.
The ‘mei-gnanam’ tradition
This quest is what expands into the spiritual enquiries of the Upanishads, leading to the emergence of several paths of wisdom that constantly contradict one another; Saiva Siddhanta in south India, for instance, is but one such later outgrowth. The philosophico-spiritual essence of Hinduism—its mei-gnanam, or true wisdom—does not operate from a fixed central point, as other institutional religions might. The tradition of Hindu mei-gnanam is an endless space within which hundreds of individual spiritual explorations occur simultaneously. After all, the Upanishads declare that all paths lead to the same destination.
The Prime Minister of India claims that the construction of the Ram temple has gladdened the hearts of all the 1.4 billion citizens of this country, but I do not count myself among them. Far from being happy, I am only anxious and sad about it—as I have consistently expressed in my writings right from the start of this conflict. The present development goes against the grain of the Hindu mei-gnanam in its entirety and is sure to spell its doom in the long run. This I say not as a political pundit but as a staunch Hindu and Vedantin.
“The Ram temple is being conceived of as the single hub of Hinduism and projected as a keystone of the Hindu Rashtra, implying that every Indian citizen must unconditionally accept it. ”
The Ram temple is being conceived of as the single hub of Hinduism and projected as a keystone of the Hindu Rashtra, implying that every Indian citizen must unconditionally accept it. This idea, as reflected in the Prime Minister’s words, is germane to the spirit of neither India nor Hinduism. It is the product of a cultural nationalist mindset that originated in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The present dispensation merely mimics the same ideology, while selectively appropriating from the local religion a few cultural symbols, among which Ram stands out as the most iconic.
Ancient monarchies were mostly federalist in nature; the king held court as an administrative head over a cluster of relatively autonomous oligarchs and feudal lords. It was in 16th-century Europe that the sovereignty of the monarch became an inviolable article of faith. As a reaction, mob uprisings overthrew the hegemony of the crown, ushering in the age of modern governments, which were systems operated by establishing a strong central pillar of power. The means they employed to achieve their end was cultural nationalism—an ideology which, in turn, spawned dangerous dictators. The destruction brought about by theocracies and monarchies through world history came to be dwarfed by the cataclysmic cost of these dictatorial regimes.
Regression into moribund cultural nationalism
It is only in the wake of such tragedy that Europe began to move towards a free and flexible social structure, adopting accommodative federal systems of governance. It recast political authority as entirely a matter of economy and severed its ties with cultural aspects such as religion, race, or language. We, in India, having witnessed the carnage in Europe and the religious riots on our own soil learnt our lessons early on and fashioned for ourselves in 1947 an all-inclusive nationalism and a flexible federal structure of governance. Today, alas, we are brutishly regressing towards embracing a moribund European cultural nationalism.
How is culture pressed into service to create power centres? Aspects of a culture are first transformed into symbols of authority and then elevated to an unquestionable status. In the past centuries, European cultural nationalists created an elaborate iconography by erecting imposing statues and massive monuments to concretise and consecrate such cultural abstractions. They whipped up public passions using rabble-rousing rhetoric and catapulted themselves to positions of power. Individuals who had thus aggrandised themselves went on to project their own images as the public face of unassailable authority. It is worth noting the great lengths to which Bismarck, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin—all men cast in the same mould—went in order to memorialise themselves.
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Why are individuals with a dictatorial bent always keen on constructing enormous edifices? Because they know deep down that the inexorable march of time sweeps away everything in its path, and the prospect of being forgotten remains the only mortal dread of dictators. Even as they yearn for an everlasting name, they are assailed by the fear that their fame and power are ephemeral. Hence their longing to erect monuments more lasting than bronze.
Such a feeling is what finds expression in the gigantic statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel or the grandiose Ram temple at Ayodhya. These symbolic structures yield immediate results: they inflame public sentiments, turn people into mindless mobs, and consolidate the dictator’s complete control over them. However, in the long run, they generate equally powerful counterforces that inevitably destroy their dominion.
Authority exists in abstraction as a sort of tacit understanding. It arises from the hundreds of implicit acts of consensus taking place every second. Dictators wish to transform this impalpable concept into a clearly visible and easily recognisable institution. The magnificent edifices they erect are meant to strike awe and terror in the hearts of the common folk. They assume, vainly, that words might wither away but stone shall stand forever. Stone structures shall indeed remain, but once authority crumbles, they remain only as testimony to the evanescence of all earthly power, as history has repeatedly shown.
- Those who proclaim themselves Hindus today are unaware that the Hindu philosophical tradition makes no room for such a central authority.
- The Ram temple in Ayodhya is being conceived of as the single hub of Hinduism, implying that every Indian citizen must unconditionally accept it. This idea, as reflected in the Prime Minister’s words, is germane to the spirit of neither India nor Hinduism.
- The push to endorse a state religion is leading us down a dangerous road; such an attempt will ultimately prove to be the annihilation of Hinduism.
Democracy vs majoritarianism
In any discussion on large-scale monuments, the question often raised is this: were not temples built by ancient kings too? In attempting to answer this, we must remember that the age of monarchic rule was marked by endless wars and destruction. A temple established by one ruler would be ruthlessly pillaged and destroyed by another even if both belonged to the same faith. It is in reaction to the devastation wreaked across the world by such conflation of royal and religious authority that the idea of secular democracies was born. The arch-enemy of democracy is majoritarianism, an ideology that upholds the culture of the majority at the expense of all others and, in the long run, leads democracy to ruin.
A classic example is Sri Lanka. It was as recently as 70 years ago that the Lankan political structure assumed a religious identity, thanks to Anagarika Dhammapala who learnt his Buddhism from the Europeans. What he foregrounded was not the Buddhist faith but a typical European-style cultural nationalism dressed up in Buddhist robes.
“We in India learnt our lessons early and fashioned for ourselves in 1947 an all-inclusive nationalism. Today, alas, we are brutishly regressing towards a moribund European cultural nationalism.”
Buddhism soon became the state religion; even democratically elected rulers were anointed to power only by paying obeisance to Buddhist monks. At a certain point, the religious heads began to arrogate to themselves extra-constitutional authority. The consequences of this gradual power creep are there for all to see: a three-decade-long civil war, loss of innumerable lives, and the ensuing economic catastrophe.
When this power-hungry mindset trespasses on the field of philosophico-spiritual experience, it can have far worse consequences. At stake are not just historically contingent institutions such as nations or governments; these are but outward structures which, if they fall, can be rebuilt by others differently. What it threatens instead is to do irreparable damage to the intangible wealth of ancient spiritual wisdom that has emerged organically over many millennia; as a body of introspective experience gleaned by generations of visionaries, artists, and philosophers, an inward order inheres in our collective consciousness. If we end up losing that, our entire civilisation is at the risk of obliteration.
From a Vedantic perspective, Ram is one of many Vaishnavite imaginings of the divine with certain unique attributes. Simply put, Ram may be said to symbolise a king who personifies dharma; the time-honoured tradition of worshipping both paternal and royal figures converge in this particular icon.
However, it must be remembered that Vaishnavism itself is but one strand in the expansive fabric of Hinduism. To impose this icon of Ram as the singular godhead—the definitive image of the divine—that preponderates over the eclectic traditions of Hinduism can only be an act of oppression against all other forms of philosophical and spiritual quests within the religion. Hinduism encompasses sects that practise diverse traditions—ranging from the worship of deities realised as idols or as a formless form (aru-uru) like the Siva linga to Vedantic sects that altogether reject idolatry—all of whom are now being coerced into accepting Ram.
Should the present trend gain momentum, any repudiation of Ram may be outlawed in this country and treated as punishable blasphemy—a move that would ossify the religion into an inflexible institution. History attests that whenever a religion has favoured such strong centralisation, it has invariably provoked vociferous dissent from within its own fold. Such voices are labelled heretical and then persecuted for blasphemy by the self-anointed central authority that now represents the religious mainstream, thus transforming what was once mere ideological difference into a bloodbath. The same fate awaits Hinduism if the present centralisation continues in its trajectory.
The Vaishnavites are not to be faulted for erecting a temple for their deity, no matter how massive it might be. They are well within their rights to proclaim that Ram is the absolute godhead; after all, it is their faith. However, we veer ominously towards centralisation when the state takes it upon itself to officially build the temple and install the idol and when democratically elected rulers turn up to inaugurate it.
The internal dynamics of Hinduism have always been pluralistic, tolerant of internal debate, and therefore inherently against centralisation. Today, it comprises three major religious streams—Saiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta—alongside purely philosophical schools such as Vedanta. Besides, it includes hundreds of minor forms of worship and engenders new philosophical schools at every turn. These viewpoints grow by constantly refuting and critiquing one another. The emergence of a single centre signals the start of an oppressive order.
Perils of monolithic Hinduism
An unfortunate case in Kerala illustrates the perils of imposing such a monolithic Hinduism. Ram, as we know, is not portrayed alike across India. The traditional north Indian imagining of Ram—as popularised by the Vaishnavite sect of Pushtimarg—differs significantly from the south Indian imaginary. Kumaran Asan, the great poet of Kerala and a Vedantic follower of Sree Narayana Guru, composed the famous epic poem Chinthavishtayaya Sita (Sita Lost in Thought), which is still taught in educational institutions today.
In this classic work, Sita faults Ram for his dereliction of duty as father and husband in his lopsided commitment to his role as a ruler. When the well-known literary critic M.M. Basheer wrote about this poem in September 2015, he was subjected to a witch-hunt by the members of a Hindutva outfit in Kerala. The Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, which published the article, was forced to withdraw it and tender an apology.
Far from being a cause for celebration among Hindus, this episode was, in reality, a full-frontal attack on Vedanta and the tradition of wise sages such as Narayana Guru. The push to endorse a state religion is leading us down a dangerous road by turning Vedanta—the pinnacle of the Hindu mei-gnana tradition and the unifying force of the Hindu religion—into an enemy and attempting to destroy it; such an attempt will ultimately prove to be the annihilation of Hinduism. It is, therefore, the duty of every Hindu to fight tooth and nail what is happening now.
Translated by Iswarya V.
B. Jeyamohan is a writer and critic.
Iswarya V. is a translator and critic. She teaches English at the Department of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.