The Supreme Court has concluded its 40-day-long uninterrupted hearings in the Ayodhya land dispute, which has been litigated for more than a century. Both litigating sides have ruled out mediation and reaffirmed their desire for resolution through a ruling by the highest court of the land. Whichever way the judicial ruling lands, it is vital that sobriety and restraint is shown by both sides and the fourth estate. Matters must end decisively with graceful acceptance of the court’s verdict in the long-term interests of the country. Shrill political and religious discourses, which are causing divisions among individual friendships what to speak of wider societal harmony, must be allowed to die down, so that uncluttered focus on development dimensions can be given by the State.
However, posturing by both sides is worrisome. The claims by the party, which mounted an aggressive campaign a few years back reiterating its demand for restoration of disputed land in Kashi and Mathura, does not call for the obvious to be stated. More than legal settlement, the Ayodhya issue was always one that required a definitive socio-political resolution.
Age-old temples and religious structures, desecrated or destroyed by invaders from the 11th Century onwards, continue to be a major cause of communal disharmony in our country. Historians driven by their ideological biases have been unfair in interpreting facts. Those dominating the discourse for decades have taken liberty with realities in their virtual assault on our ancient past. In a subterranean sense, divisiveness was raised and nurtured in the written word by them. Some others, diametrically opposite, have been romanticising the distant past going to the extent of ignoring rituals-creep and other ailments. They find it convenient to attribute all ills in our present-day society to invaders and religious imports from across the Khyber Pass. Each lot has thus short-changed the other, and contributed to the confrontations between influential socio-communal groups.
Today, this is manifest in reactionary divisiveness, with strident calls for retribution by a few. Even the educated gentry is seemingly confused about historical facts, which are finding substitutes in angular interpretations. Social media, hardly known for verifying facts, has spread this contagion far and wide. It has resulted in sufferings of the vast silent majority. In this situation, it is vital that the polity, ruling and opposition, works to restore inclusiveness and assimilation of all faiths which has been at the core of our national ethos.
But will our polity rise to the occasion? Since Independence, ruling parties and aspirants have extracted political mileage one way or the other. Allowing socio-religious disputes to linger has had inevitable consequences; it hardened the stands of disputing sides besides raising hopes of claiming other places of worship. Diversionary and divisive, prompted religious non-issues, which have no place in an upward-looking mobile and progressive society, are crowding out all else. Leaders with vision, rather than becoming architects of a brighter future, are not doing enough to prevent our society from becoming a prisoner of its past.
Ancient scriptures do not lay emphasis on religious structures or temples. Places inhabited by seers/sages seeking salvation, despite not having any temples, e.g. Kailash-Manasarovar, are considered holy and visited by the spiritually inclined. Temple structures at Badarinath and Kedarnath go back in time to about a thousand years. Maths and temples in most parts of India were largely established in the medieval period by rulers and were meant to be centres of learning. Adi Shankara considered religious rituals no more than means for purification. Temple-visits multiplied since it has been felt easier to meditate upon an object or deity of the devotee’s choice given that the Absolute is nameless, formless and attribute-less. In this sense, when learning took a back-seat in temples with the passage of time, rituals expanded to fill the gap and Dharma became religion in a sectarian sense. The 2011 Census shows that the number of religious structures is more than the number of schools.
Dharma embodies the Soul of our nation. Diversity in socio-cultural and religious practices defines our nationhood. Atheists and believers of various pantheons have been equally respected. Hatred and discrimination never determined the social groupings formed in our distant past, the glory of which is sought to be restored by some of our religious preachers today. Those who fight for restoration of religious structures in dispute do not seem to have internalized the fact that places of spiritual pursuit, and rituals being performed there, are not to be used as means of livelihood or tools for communal or commercial gains. Indeed, changes in religious practices form part of our tradition. The Buddha said it aptly – “To be is to change.” It is paradoxical to find that what is happening or being propagated today is just the reverse of what the ancient scriptures actually preached. Thus, leaders and preachers of religious groups should try to remove irritants that affect inter-faith relations.
Interventions of governments in managing the affairs of famous temples is unacceptable to religious leaders. Not even a fraction of resources mobilised in the name of retrieving disputed structures is utilised in maintaining cleanliness and discipline in religious places. Barring some, priests of presiding deities can not recite mantras properly, and are better known for their high-handedness and outstretched palms towards visitors. To value the sanctity of holy places, temples and tenets of Dharma, religious leaders should internalize the ground realities and address the heightened distortions, including pernicious hatred towards those holding contrarian views. It is essential to continuously remain in respectful dialogue with other religious groups without becoming a hostage of the false notion of ‘my way is the highway’. Parties in power and in opposition could facilitate such dialogues in public interest.
(The author Dr Taradatt is a former IAS officer)
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