By Gurcharan Das
Sept 6, 2009
I was born a Hindu, in a normal middle-class home. I went to an English-medium school where I got a modern education.
Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru who inspired him with the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The guru was a Radhasoami saint, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, Bulle Shah and others from the bhakti and sufi traditions.
Growing up Hindu was a chaotically tolerant experience. My grandmother visited the Sikh gurudwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim peers, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when someone died or was born. Her dressing room was laden with the images of her gods, especially Ram and Krishna and she used to say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would laugh at her ways, but my pragmatic uncle thought that she had smartly taken out plenty of insurance so that someone up there would eventually listen.
I grew up in this atmosphere with a liberal attitude — that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past. Young, successful Indians, at the helm of our private and public enterprises, have no time or use for the classics of our ancient tradition.
A few years ago, I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the Western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my chagrin, I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party soon after.
“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked my hostess, “Aren’t there any new ones?” She gave my wife a sympathetic look.
“Tell us, what you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant who had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi. He spoke casually as though he was referring to the features of a new Nokia phone. I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata. “Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”
I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai who said that she had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fiercely secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.
With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit to being Hindu for fear they will be linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims abroad have had the same experience. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion — intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian for whom religion gives meaning to every moment. Secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, so they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.
Part of the problem stems from ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics, certainly not with a critical mind as youth in the West read their works of literature and philosophy in school and college. In India, some get to know about epics from their grandmothers; others read the stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials.
If Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy in school, English children can read Milton and Greek children can read the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all kinds of devious activities. But so are Dante, Milton and Homer filled with God or gods?
I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life and he would have approved of what V S Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.
As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.
(The author examines modern moral dilemmas using the template of the Mahabharata in his new book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma)