The priest of a Swaminarayan temple in Surat has been taken aback by a public outcry over the attire in which the deity he tends has appeared before the faithful — the white shirt and atrociously cut baggy shorts of the RSS. Indeed, the outcry should have come from within the ranks of the Sangh, which is in a hurry to modernise and is adopting a snappy, new uniform featuring full-length trousers. Its cadres should be incensed at this renegade attempt to portray the organisation as a has-been with no smarts.
The priest protests that the deity is routinely dressed up in costumes donated by the faithful. That’s intriguing. How exactly was Lord Swaminarayan turned out before the RSS rig invited the scrutiny of the nation? What was the amplitude of the transcendental wardrobe? It is an important question, because Indian tastes in dressing up can be unusual. If an alien were to glance cursorily at the calendar industry, for instance, it would be convinced that Indian children grow up dressed in the uniform of the army, navy and air force.
Besides, there’s no accounting for religious taste. In 2015, a temple to the prime minister was consecrated in Gujarat and he began to be worshipped as a deity, to the embarrassment of the mortal prime minister. The Nathu La pass is guarded by the spirit of a soldier, who is formally worshipped. And Chandrakanta, an avatar of Durga, has become conflated in the popular imagination with Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri’s heroine, the animating spirit of a rattling good yarn from the 19th century. In this creative landscape, should we be surprised if a holy man from Uttar Pradesh who travelled to Gujarat in the 19th century is found kitted out for an RSS lathi drill in the 21st century? The only credible response would be: “Not again!”