“India belongs to the Hindus, the Mohammedans, the Sikhs, the Parsis and others. No single community can rub over the rest. One day’s fight brings permanent loss to the country. It brings disgrace upon us.” (MM Malaviya at Congress Session, Calcutta 1933)
One wonders how this fierce upholder of unity and equality, founder of the Banaras Hindu University, would have felt at the sight of some 20 students sitting outside the university’s Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan, raising slogans against the appointment of a fully qualified assistant professor, Firoze Khan, on grounds that he is a Muslim — they reiterated their protest but called off the 15-day dharna on Friday. Their leader, Chakrapani Ojha, says that as per Hindu shastras, a Muslim cannot teach dharma vigyan (theology). Never mind the fact that Khan was shortlisted from 30 applicants, duly interviewed by a (mostly Hindu) panel of experts from the university and finally selected on the basis of proven merit and learning.
It is obvious that these students and their faceless instigators are not aware of the 1962 collection of the BHU founder’s speeches on the concept of dharma. The learned educationist says, again and again, that ultimately there is only one Supreme Being whom peoples following different religions worship under different names, but the concept of dharma must undergo a constant and vigorous churning of philosophical ideas, traditions and practices prevalent at the time. The truth, he writes, will rise to the surface on its own.
Holding on to this inclusive concept of dharma, he travelled through the country, raising funds for realising his dream. Among the generous donors for the cause of learning, there were Indians from all communities. Among the royals was the then Nawab of Rampur, a Muslim who donated Rs 1 lakh, a host of Hindu and Muslim students of Darbhanga who donated a purse of Rs 1,000, a Muslim beggar who gave Re 1 and many chaprasis and patwaris at Bilhour, many of them Muslim, who donated a month’s salary each.
“Universities”, said Annie Besant, at the court meeting of December 12, 1920, “are made by love, love of beauty and learning”. “For students,” Malaviya ji wrote, “their religion is acquiring knowledge”.
So why these protests at the BHU, whose founder’s “spirit of accommodation” and selfless service Gandhi ji mourned on his death, as he grappled with communal fires in Noakhali? Why was this motley crowd permitted to use a redundant scriptural ruling to bar all non-savarna, non-Hindu males, and by extension, also all females, from the teaching and learning of Sanskrit and/or debating the veracity of the so-called scriptures and rules they quote? How could a handful of agitators dare to block a duly appointed professor, force him to return to his native city of Jaipur?
Contrast the indulgence shown towards the disruptors with the severe beatings to the JNU students in Delhi when they demanded a roll-back of the steep increase in their annual fees. It is obvious that dharma in the context of Sabarimala, Ram Mandir and the BHU agitation can be a near obsolete idea but, boy, look how it will command the joint forces of custom, tradition, money and institutions of a secular state. Subjected to scrutiny, each time the state blessed version of Hindu dharma turns out to be basically a cluster of several unformed and half-formed idea atoms, swirling furiously without a God particle of their own.
Semantically, the word dharma emerges from the Sanskrit verb “dhri”, which means to carry and to protect, call it a set of universal principles of justice. This is the dharma that, in Mahabharata, a Brahmin is ordered to go learn from a lowly meat-seller selling dog meat in a drought ravaged town. But in India, over the centuries, as Pali, Prakrit and then Persian became court languages, Sanskrit gradually came to be understood by very few and spoken by even fewer, most of them Brahmins. Sanskrit scriptures began, then, to be glibly quoted by this inbred circle that guarded their language as though the laws of Rta and those of Manu had all been divinely created at the same time. They were not.
Concepts such as the superiority of brahminical forms of learning, the inferiority of women and Shudras were mostly shaped and consolidated during the medieval period by the priestly classes. This was the Hindu response to the challenges of Islam. With this firewalling of old texts, the concrete and open-ended live public discourses between Indian peoples of various faiths became obsolete. And this epistemology went on to create discriminatory caste, gender laws for various communities.
As a Brahmin woman with some first-hand knowledge of this version of Hindu tradition and Sanskrit, I watch the TV discussions on recent incidents in Ayodhya, Varanasi, Sabarimala and Delhi with shame and alarm as the grand concept of dharma as timeless fundamental laws of justice, is reduced to political fodder by divisive agendas. Doesn’t the Rig Veda talk of dharma as Rta, fundamental laws of Nature that bind and protect the universe, including not just a variety of life forms but also the stars, suns and moons? Hasn’t the Prithvi Sukta (Atharva Veda) further underscored that the earth (Prithvi) that carries followers of various communities and faiths is itself held together by dharma? It is to dharma as the timeless and universally applicable arbiter that Vyas bows in the Mahabharata. How many of us care to recall that at the end of the great fratricidal war, a guilt-ridden Yudhishthira renounces the throne of blood and leaves on foot, accompanied by dharma, in the form of a dog?
The Varanasi agitation is proof that Hindutva has force-fed many with an atrophied concept of Hindu dharma. Debates raging in Parliament further underscore that many of those who have, for centuries, existed outside the pale of Hindutva, shall now fit within no NRC, have no allies. No politician shall represent their case. No state they can appeal to would dare support their demands for compensation, or even political asylum. They were even described as deemak, woodworms, by a major political leader.
When Heinrich Boll was laid to rest, writes close friend, Gunter Grass, a band of Europe’s most unwanted, the gypsies, led the pall-bearers. “It was Boll’s wish. It was what he wanted to play him into the grave, that deeply tragic, despairingly gay music.” Some ideas are not new but keep having to be affirmed from the ground up, over and over again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2019 under the title ‘The stunting of dharma’. The writer is a senior journalist and author. The article appeared in print under the title ‘The stunting of dharma’.
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