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Between the sublime and the ridiculous
By Anuradha Dutt

There is a growing impression that the BJP agenda is being laid down by pujaris. The perceived attempt to saffronise education through the rewriting of history books for schools, and the induction of astrology, karamkand and Ayur Veda, hitherto the preserve of the priestly class, into college and university curricula, seems to support this contention. It has been reinforced by the fracas over the shila daan at Ayodhya.

The centre was seen to be held to ransom by the suicide threat of Mahant Ramchandradas Paramhans, chairman of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, which has been spearheading the temple movement. While the Mahant's motives may have been apolitical, the manner in which the Government's hand was forced, with rival pontiffs and prelates all trying to intercede, appears to have given legitimacy to the priestly class's attempt to determine state policy.

Antipathy to the Sangh parivar's revivalist agenda among groups that espouse the cause of oppressed castes, hinges largely on fears of a Brahminical resurrection. Over ages, new faiths and sects have sprung up as a reaction to the dominance of this class. Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and even the Bhakti cult, while adhering to the Vedantic principles of karma and rebirth, rejected the right of hereditary priests to mediate between God, truth and man. Apparently, all disowned the hierarchy that characterises Hindu society, and affirmed individual dignity. In recent times, the reformist Arya Samaj attempted something similar within the parameters of Hinduism.

But, so deeply ingrained is caste in Hindu tradition that it rears up to strike like a snake when provoked. The irony is that the very sections that are wary of a Brahminical revival, have welcomed the Mandal Commission's enhancement of caste based reservations in Government jobs. Such a provision is seen as a means for self-empowerment by the beneficiaries, even if it entrenches their place in Manu's hierarchy even more firmly.

The BJP, by convention, a party that represents upper caste interests, has been forced by political compulsions to accept the Mandal formula, so as to enlarge its votebank. However, the party's endorsement of the activities and pursuits of the priestly class, as a matter of policy, is very much in evidence. And nowhere is this more so than in the spheres of education and culture. The Human Resource Development Ministry seems to have provided ample bait to Hindutva opponents.

The appointment of supporters of the revivalist agenda to academic bodies as well as the exercise to prioritise the study of epochs of Hindu ascendancy and knowledge systems have triggered bitter criticism. The struggle to build the temple at Ayodhya is viewed as part of the larger design to Sanskritise India's political and social edifice. The conflict between the votaries of Hindutva votaries and the Left-secular intellectuals has preoccupied the media. While the former see these developments as a long over-due correction of an unfair historical perspective, the latter deride them as a retreat into obscurantism. The debate has focused on the motives of the progenitors of change, who have been charged with trying to subvert the nation's secular identity.

The fact that Brahmins have traditionally been the repositories and perpetrators of scriptural and esoteric knowledge, vested in texts compiled in Sanskrit and its offshoots, seems to have lent credence to the charge. Yet, the reality is that for the vast majority that has little to do with sanitised notions of religion and conduct, nurtured by the secular-liberal ethos, the old beliefs and customs are more relevant to their existence. Divested of them, their lives would be rudderless. They can hardly opt to survive in a cultural void by rejecting their distinctive evolutionary history, or replacing it with an inadequate substitute, lifted from some other cultural paradigm. Therefore, to keep on blaming Hindutva for perpetuating retrogressive practices is unjustified as astrology, karamkand and Ayur Veda are traditional support systems, that mark the rites of passage through life.

The demand to build the temple to sanctify Lord Ram's birth place is equally valid as he occupies a seminal place in the Hindu psyche and worldview, just as Prophet Mohammad does in the Islamic, or Jesus Christ in the Christian. Only the means needs to be dissociated from political aims. The charge of trying to resurrect Brahminical supremacy via the educational agenda also seems exaggerated as the traditional preserve is now open to even non-Hindus. But, knowledge of Sanskrit would clearly be necessary as the incantations and conceptual matrix are in the classical language. In this context, the UGC's proposal to set up over 400 Simple Sanskrit Speaking Centres makes sense.

The agenda can be faulted for a very different reason. Esoteric wisdom in all cultures is kept secret. This is implied in the Biblical injunction not to throw "pearls before swine."

Viewed thus, the UGC plan to set up a National Centre for Jyotir Vigyan and Other Occult Sciences, for the study of Tantra and other mysteries seems absurd. For, the disclosure of the "secret doctrines" would further expose them to ridicule by skeptics and misuse by charlatans. The end result would be to make them plebian.



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