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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Weaponising faith: The Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Vishwanath dispute

The Gyanvapi order combined with the Supreme Court’s willingness to entertain a plea challenging the Places of Worship Act could open another communal front.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: April 13, 2021 8:47:18 am
The disputed complex in Varanasi on Thursday. (Express photo by Anand Singh)

There was something incongruous about the moment when I read the news on April 8 that the district court in Varanasi had directed the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a study of the Gyanvapi Mosque. This day also happened to be Kumar Gandharva’s birth anniversary. It was hard to resist playing his composition in Raga Shankara Sir Pe Dhari Ganga. There is a moment where he adds an extra “gang” before “Ganga”. The resulting “ganga/gagana”, is one of the most incandescent moments in all of Indian music — that extra Ganga literally drenching you in the full freshness and redemptive flow of the Ganga. It is always tempting to follow this exuberant rendition of Shankara, with another more meditative one — Pandit Jasraj’s Shankara. He sings “Vibhushitanaga Riputammanga”, the penultimate shloka of Panditraja Jagannatha’s Gangalahari. Reading the news of the Gyanvapi order, while these played in the background, almost felt like a defilement, a reminder that the spontaneous and erumpent spirituality of Hinduism was about to be again derailed by sordid politics.

The Gyanvapi order combined with the Supreme Court’s willingness to entertain a plea challenging the Places of Worship Act (Special Provisions), 1991 is going to open another communal front. In the case of the Gyanvapi Mosque, there is no real dispute. It is widely accepted that parts of the Vishwanath temple were destroyed and its walls may have been raised on the plinth of the temple. One also does not have to deny that many Hindus experienced and have a consciousness of Aurungzeb’s reign as being characterised by religious bigotry. Historians can debate the context and the motives of Aurangzeb’s actions, and the complexity of his rule. But minimising the significance of his actions has always been a little historically incredible and politically disingenuous. If we rest the case for secularism in contemporary India on establishing Aurangzeb’s liberal credentials, then secularism will indeed be on rickety foundations. It will also legitimise Hindutva resting its case on Aurangzeb’s credentials. Secularism will be deepened if it lets history be history, not make history the foundations of a secular ethic.

But there is no incongruity between accepting that a temple could have been demolished in the 16th century, and believing that the status quo on the shrines must be maintained. It’s hubris for me to think that Lord Shiva needs my protection. Yes, one can acknowledge a history of conflict, and believe at the same time that a new social contract has been written. In some ways, the Places of Worship Act, 1991 is a good expression of that thought. It freezes the status quo of all disputed religious properties as they were in 1947.

In the past, the destruction of religious shrines may have been the function of state power. But modern India cannot repeat the same logic. We cannot say that because political power has changed hands, so must the power to define the religious landscape. The demand that Kashi or Mathura be returned is exactly that. It is a raw assertion of majoritarian power. Now that power has passed to the majority, it must claim back or avenge wrongs committed five centuries ago. There is also a deeper logic. The purpose of reclaiming these shrines is not religiosity. Bhakti for Kashi Vishwanath has not been impinged or diminished by the existence of the Gyanvapi Mosque. The purpose of claiming it back is to claim that Hindus have power qua Hindus and they can now show Muslims their place. The purpose is not to craft a connection with Shiva or Krishna, the purpose is to permanently indict minorities. It is to use a sacred place of worship as a weaponised tool against another community.

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The new spate of lawsuits will stoke communal fires. Most political parties will be caught like deer in headlights, not knowing which way to turn. The fact that they are not defending the Places of Worship Act will further send a signal that the Indian state cannot make a credible promise to minorities. It is also an indication that Hindutva in its present form can never be satiated; it is an escalation of power that constantly demands more. Yesterday was Ayodhya, tomorrow Kashi, the day after Mathura. It has been emboldened by the lack of resistance amongst Hindus and the increasing isolation of minorities. In the guise of settling a score with Aurangzeb, Hindutva wants to commit hara-kiri on the Indian Constitution, individual freedom and minorities. Alas, we will let this pass too, with a judicial seal of approval to boot.

Panditraja Jagannatha, author of Gangalahari, is a fascinating figure. He was from Andhra. He spent time with Dara Shikoh before reaching Benares. He was a phenomenal poet, aesthetician, and polemically engaged with Appaya Dikshita. The details of his biography are obscure. Legend has it that he fell in love with a Muslim princess. P K Gode’s monumental two-volume Studies in Indian Literary History, one of the most meticulous sources on Indian literary figures, argued for the plausibility of the story, based on 18th century sources. This legend was the basis of a Tamil film Lavangi (“His lover’s name”) and a Marathi play by Vidyadhar Gokhale. There are different variations of the legend.

It is said that the Gangalahari is connected to this love story. For marrying a Muslim, Jagannatha was declared an outcaste when he went to Benares. Even the Ganga receded and did not receive him. He composed the Gangalahari to appease Ganga. With each shloka, the water rose one step on the ghat to receive him. I have read dozens of Hindi introductions to the Gangalahari. It is interesting how the story changes. In some versions, Jagannatha wants to be received by the Ganga so that he can be cleansed of his sins of marrying a Muslim. This is the more recent and more communal version. But there is an older version that held sway for a long time.

In this version, the Brahmins have declared him an outcaste. But after he recites the Gangalahari, Ganga rises and receives both him and his lover in its embrace, putting a seal of approval on their union. The sin was not his love, it was making him an outcaste. What speaks to the majesty of “pinaki mahagyani”, as Kumar Gandharva called Lord Shiva, or the purifying power of Ganga more? Moving on to build an inclusive, prosperous India? Or being intoxicated by a majoritarian fantasy of revenge? Looks like we are opting for the latter, and no Ganga will rise to redeem us of this sin.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 13, 2021 under the title ‘Ganga and Gyanvapi’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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