Photo by WERNER DORNIK, detail
Go to the current issue
Go to the current issue
  Between saints and secularists — 3  

  Vol II : issue 3

  Amrita Pritam
  Claudia Card
  K. Satchidanandan
  Daud Haider
Gagan Gill
  Merle Almeida

  Only in Print

Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

   Mail this page link
   Enter recipient's e-mail:

K. Satchidanandan

A Christian villager in the Dangs, and a wrecked church

The Hindu revivalist ideology practised in contemporary India deliberately ignores this second Sramana tradition of revolt and reform within Indian religion, or blurs the distinctions between the two traditions in order to absorb some of the populist aspects of Bhakti into its strategies of propagation. It is Bhakti vulgarised and emptied of its profound, egalitarian, radical content. The hidden agenda of this neo–Hinduism, what Romila Thapar calls ‘Syndicated Hinduism’, is a reassertion of the hegemony of the Dharmasastras and, through it, the retrieval of Brahmin ideology, now under threat from the awakening Dalit sections of society. The latter have very different traditions and practices of spirituality, a different iconography, and an alternative religion now half-submerged in the ruling rhetoric of the dominant religious discourse and marginalised by the conscious and unconscious processes of history. We know very well that a denomination called ‘Hindu’ did not exist until recently and the word merely denoted the people on the banks of the Indus. The Persians called the Sindhu river Hindu, the Greeks called it Indos and the Arabs, Al Hind. Muslim rulers and Christian missionaries used it as a blanket term to cover all those who did not belong to the Judaic religions, even while recognising the multi-religious nature of that population. The orientalist historians gave it a kind of theoretical legitimation by speaking about a Hindu civilisation and culture.

This was complemented by an opposite process where different Indian cults began to unite in opposition to those they perceived as the other: the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Divine Life Society, the Theosophical Society, the Swami Narayan Movement. They tried to unite these different non-Judaic, non-Buddhist, non-Jain cults and sects and construct out of them a religion largely modelled on the Judaic religions with a God, a prophet, a Book, certain basic principles and collective forms of worship. Brahma was interpreted to mean ‘God’ in the Western sense, Krishna took on the role of Christ, the Gita became the Sermon if not on the Mount, then of the battlefield. Concepts like atma, paramatma, karma, sansara and moksha received a new theological status; sacred-secular epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were turned into purely religious texts. The old Vedic gods like Indra, Mitra and Varuna lost out to Siva, Vishnu and Durga. While one cannot deny the significance of some of the social reforms initiated by a few of these organisations, one cannot but observe that the present monologic, mono-religious discourse of neo-Hinduism is founded on the tomb of plurality.

At the heart of this homogenising Hindutva lies the myth of a continuous and primordial struggle of ‘Hindus’ against Muslims as the structuring principle of Indian history. In this running construction of ‘otherness’, both the communities are to have been homogeneous blocs, though this myth has been entirely demolished by historians. Not the logic of religion but the logic of power had decided the nature of those struggles where Hindus have fought against Hindus (e.g., Saiva-Vaishnava) and Muslims against Muslims (e.g. Shia-Sunni). Both have also very often joined hands to crush someone perceived as a threat to sovereignty or royal power, whether Hindu or Muslim. And if Muslim kings had been invaders, let us remember, so were the Aryans. Only the communicational and economic integration of the last quarter of the nineteenth century provided sharply-defined identities and animosities with a larger expanse of space to spread across, and the forces of neo-Hinduism have managed to develop a wide-based institutional framework and strategic network to make full political use of this facility. Pride in the national past invoked during the anti-colonial struggle, the empowerment of the ‘other backward castes’ in search of new pastures of power and prestige, the growth of an aggressive middle class that seeks to manage society, the desire of the disempowered orthodoxy to retrieve their lost centrality in the power-grid: all these have in different ways strengthened the forces of revivalism and helped them expand their base. They are equipped now with a neo-Brahminical ideology well adapted to modern statecraft and in collusion with the forces of exploitation. This calls for new ways of perceiving ground realities, forging new alliances and reinforcing alternative forms of spirituality.

The Brahmana-Sramana paradigm is not confined to Indian religions alone. Christianity has its own brand of the Brahmana concept: the Vatican has been a major power centre whose growth has been over-determined by the power-systems of civil society from time to time. Hierarchy, priesthood, censorship against free enquiries and radical thought from those of Bruno and Galileo to Leonard Boff and Kazantzakis, alliances with the forces of oppression, with the Whites against the Coloured, with the Spaniards and Portuguese against the Indians in South America to hunt them down like beasts, inquisitions and crusades, the imposition of Western values and thought-systems on vast populations in the so-called ‘Third World’ who were forced to discard their own belief systems and traditions, support to colonialism of every kind and tacit support even to the Nazis, dictators like Somoza and to the CIA, as in destabilising the Arbens government in Guatemala: all these reveal the Brahmana streak of institutionalised Christianity.

But here again, it is not the materialists who have been able at least to pose a strong challenge to the theology of power, but the theologists of liberation, the Sramanas, the critical insiders within the church. This Sramana stream of Christianity is based on an emancipating reading of the Holy Bible that liberates faith from the level of the ahistorical abstract to project it onto the historical concrete of oppression and struggle. The gospel is perceived here as Word created for and handed over to the persecuted. Heaven is perceived as a just order to be created on earth, ‘deliverance’ is a transcendence and a freedom to be attained in this world; ‘sin’ is not individual but structural oppression and systematic discrimination, and loving one’s neighbour has a connotation large enough to embrace all of suffering humanity. It goes beyond the existing definitions of charity and believes in fighting with the oppressed against systems of exploitative power, in identification rather than in sympathy. Camillo Tores, Oscar Romero, Helder Camera and Fernando Cardenal of South America and Cantao Balveg of the Philippines have inspired Christians all over the world, including India, to carry forward this subaltern tradition within the church. Gustavo Gutierrez, James Conn and others have unburied a whole little tradition of dissent within the church where the Christ with the whip becomes as important as the Christ with the lamb and they complement each other. Down the centuries, Christianity has produced a line of radical reformers and saints who delved deep into the very sources of sainthood, from Francis of Assissi and Father Damien to the Coloured priests who united their populations against the White aggressor. This is also true of Islam where, despite the absence of a well-defined theology of liberation, mystics and reformers from Sufis to liberals have questioned the assumptions of priesthood (e.g. Bulhe Shah), fought fundamentalist bigotry and upheld the spirit of equality and fraternity that is central to the concept of Islam.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

K. Satchidanandan is Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. A major Indian poet
writing in Malayalam, he lives in New Delhi