By Arun Ram
28 November 2009,
The secret is how to die. Since the beginning of time, the secret had always been how to die. The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms. The skull was hollow, like a bowl, filled with blood-red wine. Drink it, he told himself. You have nothing to fear...
- At the House of the Temple, 8:33 pm; initiation of Mal'akh as a Freemason in Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown has done much for Freemasons, one of the oldest yet little-known fraternities in the world. A group of Indians, all members of this furtive, secretive tribe, may just have done far more. Almost 800 years after its obscure origin somewhere in Scotland - some say England - the closed society of Freemasons is slowly opening up. And heralding this change are the 18,414 members of Freemasons India.
On November 21, as Freemasons India installed a new Grand Master during a ceremony in Chennai, the proceedings, for the first time ever in the Masons' hushed history, were thrown open to the world. A TOI-Crest team was there among an incredulous gathering of non-Masons to witness the landmark event.
Though brainstorming on this proposed "demystification" has been happening for a while behind the tightly-shut doors of Masonic halls, the occasion did take Mason watchers across the world by surprise. But Dr Balaram Biswakumar, the Chennai-based neurologist and new Grand Master of Freemasons India, thinks it is time.
So, is the secret how to die? "It's actually how to live - a better life," he says, smiling widely. "We are not a secret society, but we are a society with secrets. These are just modes of recognition among the brethren - nothing more, nothing less." What about the sinister wine-drinking ritual then? "Oh yes, there will be wine after the ceremonies , and a little whiskey if you like," he chuckles as you visualise a neurologist drinking crimson wine from a human skull. "But not from skulls. We are normal people who find glasses more convenient."
Normal they certainly are. Doctors, judges, lawyers, industrialists, bureaucrats and even Marthandavarma, the Travancore scion, are members of Freemasons India. For a 'lodge' (which for Masons roughly translates into 'community' ) started by the British in India way back in 1729 - which in 1961 became the Grand Lodge of India - 18,414 is still a modest number, but it's the way the fraternity likes it. They are averse to soliciting membership indiscriminately.
A Mason has to nominate another and the lodge has to clear the name after a thorough background check first and then a vote. On the face of it, prerequisites for a membership are simple enough: an abiding belief in the Supreme Being, being a conscientious citizen, and having brotherly love. In fact, it could well be the most practical form of secularism, what with the fraternity encouraging its members to practice any religion without considering itself one. And yes, it diligently keeps away from politics.
Not easy being a mason
The Lost Symbol has triggered hundreds of inquiries for membership, but dropouts are a matter of concern for Masons. "The dropout rate does worry me," says former chief justice of Andhra Pradesh high court Devinder Gupta, who stepped down as Freemasons India Grand Master last week. "It could be because some young initiates mistake the fraternity's meetings as a place of social and business networking despite the briefing we give. When their expectations don't match with reality, they tend to leave."
V J Masurekar, a corporate director in Mumbai and a Freemason for 25 years, agrees that balancing the duties of a Freemason, a professional, and a family man can be demanding. "The first advice I got from a friend before joining the fraternity was to expect nothing. Later, I realised that it also involved giving much. The monthly meetings of the lodges (there are 366 lodges at 142 locations across the country) that go on for three to four hours test your commitment," says Masurekar, who has campaigned hard within the fraternity to open up.
Many like him faced stiff opposition from the more conservative brothers who insisted that the installation ceremony should be a private affair. "I faced great difficulty in convincing many of the senior members," says Gupta, who foresees women's Freemason lodges in the country in another five years. "Right now we can't do it because our affiliates, including the Grand Lodge of England, have not permitted women Freemasons though there are some unaffiliated women's Freemason lodges in France and England. The latest 'open' installation ceremony is a beginning."
Being a closed community has also deprived Freemasons of due publicity for their charity work. The community has spent close to Rs 1.5 crore on rebuilding a tsunami-ravaged village in Tamil Nadu, runs a polyclinic in Chennai which sees 70 patients free of cost, and has a 150-bed hospital in Coimbatore and a clinic in Delhi. As a symbolic gesture, every Mason gives a handful of food grains every day to the lodge he belongs to. This is donated each month to homes for the destitute.
Both Biswakumar and Gupta have a good word for Brown though. They feel the author has graduated from being a critic of the Freemasons (in The Da Vinci Code) to a virtual proponent of the fraternity in The Lost Symbol. Flipping through The Lost Symbol, the Grand Master tells you how public perception of the fraternity is not as bad as it used to be. "Earlier, we were seen as practitioners of black magic. One reason for opening up some of our ceremonies is also to tell, at least to our brothers' families, that we are not into anything evil. Till some years ago, people used to identify Freemason lodges as haunted houses," he says.
Biswakumar's eyes sparkle as he pauses on page 99 - that's where symbologist Robert Langdon (played by actor Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code), after opening the fingers of the severed arm of Mason Peter Solomon in Capitol Rotunda, tells CIA Office of Security director Inoue Sate: "For the record, ma’am, the entire Masonic philosophy is built on honesty and integrity. Masons are among the most trustworthy men you could ever hope to meet."
Trustworthy they may be, but why insist on codes for mutual recognition among Masons? Some things will remain a secret.
Source: The Times of India