How and why did the name of a shanta murti like Sri Rama become a topic of national debate? Worse, an object of hate? Chanting Jai Shree Ram is an offence in Bengal today, where you may be arrested or beaten up, even lynched; Twitter trends #NoToJaiShreeRam; detractors liken it to an abuse among other things; yet others misuse the sacred name to indulge in violence, even killing those who oppose the chant. Given the current scenario, my reminiscences of the first stirrings of Hinduphobia, in the form of anti-Rama, anti-Hindu protests becomes most relevant from a personal perspective.
It was the official beginning of Hinduphobia in the country, when the Dravida Kazhagam–originally meant as a reformist movement—had started the denigration of Hindu Dieties in the ‘60s. It had been limited till then to the invaders and colonisers and those who tried to curry favour with them, which continued even after Independence. Today it has been turned into a topic of acrimonious popular discourse by the politicians and the ‘Brown-One-Percenters’, (as Vamsee Juluri refers to the ‘super-wealthy privileged elites’ in his book ‘Writing Across a Cracked World’).
Disclaimer: This a chronicle of some very personal experiences of over a half century ago, and I request the readers to remember this while reading. It is not meant to denigrate any caste or community or hurt anyone’s sentiments.
To continue my story…..
As mentioned in my previous post, I had begun questioning a lot many customs and rituals that we followed, having running battles with my parents about their need in the contemporary world. I had reason on my side on some points but for the rest, it was the result of the pop philosophy I had begun imbuing, without comprehending the depth of Hindu philosophy, or dharma. But there were many customs I still followed without questions or even conscious thought, so ingrained were they in my blood.
The main point of contention was Father’s lengthy puja routine followed by Ramayana parayanam and shloka recitation that seemed to go on and on. He would just smile and continue if I pointed it out with scorn. I smiled cynically, when I saw him close his eyes from time to time as he chanted. I quarrelled with my mother for her rigid observance of madi, a Brahmin custom where the person wouldn’t touch anyone, even young family members–not even their clothes. It involved a lot of inconvenience to her and everyone else, but she wouldn’t budge.
Mother also had a problem with the micro-mini bindi on my extra-large forehead. ‘Can’t you make it a little larger than mosquito-poo?’ she would ask me testily. ‘Have you seen mosquito-poo?’ I would shoot back, pretending to enlarge the bindi. There is this Tamil custom of applying a streak of vibhuti (sacred ash) above the kumkum/bindi. Needless to say, I didn’t apply it, except when we went to the temple. Mother applied it regularly. I would never have admitted it at that time, but it had a divine beauty to it.
Going to temples was another tug-of-war, which I always lost. I only liked a couple of them in that city and wrinkled my nose at the others, for my own irrational and prejudiced reasons. It was one long-suffering teen who tagged along, but once I reached the temple, the devotion-soaked grandeur of the premises, sucked me into its divinity.
Today, I understand the value of the rhythmic chanting, having experienced the calming effect myself. And yes, I close my eyes too from time to time, as I chant—soaking in the verses and have finally understood what Father must have felt when he did. Today thanks to scientific research, we have proof that many of our customs and traditions have scientific basis and others had been relevant at some point of time in the evolution of our cultural heritage.
As for visiting the temples, am I glad in hindsight that they had dragged me along! For, I had gone off them for decades afterwards and would have missed the spiritual bliss, which had enveloped me during those forced visits, and which has brought me back to them today.
In my new school, I had put my head down and concentrated on my studies, soon coming to the second spot in class. I followed the example of my classmates and tried to ignore provocations and insults, both inside and outside the class, one of which had occurred within the first few days of our coming there.
Our house being on one of the arterial roads of the city, we got to see this particularly shocking sight. My mother was outside, talking to some neighbours when we heard a noisy rally approaching. I left my books and rushed outside. The banners proclaimed it to be a rally by the Dravida Kazhagam (DK).
There was a canopied vehicle at the head of the procession, sort of like a temple chariot, with a big picture of Rama—the one where He is flanked by Sita and Lakshmana, with Hanuman sitting at their feet. Millions of Hindus across the world have this divine picture in their puja at home. Only, this was not a sacred procession but one where the Deity had a garland of chappals instead of one of flowers!
And instead of mantras, the goons shouted slogans of ‘Kadavul illai! Kadavul illave illai!’ (There is no God. There is/was no God ever). Had it been a rationalist movement, which is supposed to be against blind faith and which questions the existence of God, it would have had pictures/icons of Gods of other religions too. By their very exclusion, the rallyists made it abundantly clear whom they were targetting. EVR, the founder of DK, was known to be a great admirer of Islam and Christianity for their ‘progressiveness’, while he had a pathological hatred for Hindu dharma in general and Sri Rama and Brahmins in particular.
We might have got used to such indignities today, but back then, it had hit us smack between our eyes. The very thought of someone publicly defiling our beloved and sacred Deity was like a physical blow to us, who lived and breathed Rama’s name.
Agitated, we told the neighbours that we should protest, to somehow stop them. They replied that it was of no use and that the protesters were ruffians who would descend to physical violence if anyone were to oppose them. In fact they thought that it would be better if we went inside, as my mother’s traditional nine-yards sari (worn in the Tambrahm style) might enrage them! Being Brahmins on top of being Hindus was/is a double whammy in TN then/now.
We were helpless, angry and anguished. Father tried to reason: Hindus had survived worse things over the millennia when they were invaded, ravaged and looted by the Muslim hordes and later by the Europeans. It was saying something like, ‘This too shall pass.’
Only, it hasn’t passed; just got worse.
The meekness and complacence of Hindus (I won’t call it cowardice) have been taken for weakness to be amply exploited by all kinds of vested interests over the millennia. With the result that it has reached a point when the slightest protest or resistance on the part of Hindus is construed as ‘militant Hindutva’ today.
As if the defilement of Sri Rama was not enough, I was about to be exposed to more prejudices and psychological assaults in school. In fact, on the very first day, as I stood gawping at the church steeple, I experienced what can be called the reverse of caste prejudice. That was when a girl about my age–who turned out to be from my class–came to me asking, ‘Are you new?’
After a brief exchange about where I came from and about my earlier schools, she had asked, ‘Brahmin, aren’t you? I can make out from your language!’ she said.
I had nodded wondering why caste was mentioned at all, at the very first interaction, when it had never been part of any discussion in my previous schools in Maharashtra. And what was wrong with my language? I was speaking Tamil, wasn’t I?
As if in reply to my thoughts, she added, ‘Don’t use Hindi words when you speak.’ Her eyes held something akin to pity.
This was followed by several small and big incidents, taunts and downright insults inside and outside the school and I began reacting, often hitting out without pausing to think, defending my dharma, my language, and customs as best as a confused teen could.
I wonder how it is that when someone pulls down something dear to you, even if you are not aware of how dear it is, even if you have been pulling it down yourself–your hackles are raised enough to defend it tooth and nail. Often, vilification can make one get closer to the object being trashed by a third party, and even make one ready to gloss over the very warts that had been irksome earlier.
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