'HOLY Men Declared Sunday, 2 December 1992, auspicious, and more than 300,000 people gathered that day in Ayodhya. Most wore the saffron colour of Hindu nationalism. At midday, a vanguard among them broke down police barricades around a mosque called the Babari Masjid, built in 1528 by Mir Baqi, under the authority of Babar, the first Mughal emperor of India. Cheering men swarmed the domes of the old mosque and in five hours they hammered and axed it to the ground'. This is the opening sentence of Dr Ludden, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania, in his introduction to a collection of essays edited by him and published as Making India Hindu in 1996.
The story is now about a decade old and I am quoting it as the most succinct and picturesque description of a historic incident which meant not only the demolition of a Muslim shrine more than four centuries and a half old, but the demolition of the liberal and humane India created by Kabir and Nanak, Rammohun Ray, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and many others who gave the world an impression of India as the finest ideal of human unity. The question today is ' what have we, inheritors of this ideal, done to restore that lost image?
On the political plane we have gradually installed the party which encouraged this sacrilege against our culture to assume power at the centre and rule the country. Who can deny today the truth of the statement of the Danish historian, Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of International Development Studies in Roskilde University, Denmark, who begins his work, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton University, 1999) with these words: 'the Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, led by the militant organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), with branches and subsidiaries in many fields of life in contemporary India, has grown into the most powerful cluster of political and cultural organizations in the country'. And the reason for this supremacy of the RSS is obvious.
The present Prime Minister of India, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, made a public declaration that the demand for the construction of a Ram Temple on the site of the Babari Masjid was the expression of a national sentiment. And what gave the BJP its first taste of political power? It was certainly Lal Krishna Advani's Rath Yatra of September 1990 which covered some 10,000 km and was meant to resemble the chariot of Krishna of the Bhagavadgita calling the Arjunas around to a holy war. At the 1991 Lok Sabha elections the BJP won 120 seats, its popular support increasing from 11.5 per cent in 1989 to 20 per cent in 1991, less than a year after the Rath Yatra. Who could stop this force of Hindutva propaganda? Certainly not the Congress of Gandhi and Nehru which won world acclaim for its humane and liberal ideal.
The Congress had then fallen on evil days and was preparing to make it a party of courtiers to a queen in a few years. And since 1991 the BJP sustained by the Sangh Parivar, vainly trying to vaunt a secular mask, has been steadily gaining in political power, its strength lying wholly in an appeal to the Hindu imagination through a grand nationwide ritual of Hindutva. Who in our country today, which party, can raise a voice of reason against this exciting riot of ritualism. Large masses of our people are illiterate and uneducated. The Sangh Parivar does not depend on the written word to take the nation along with them. They make an impressive exhibition of the symbols of Hindutva and fills the skies with its cries and slogans.
Who can today initiate a movement against this militant Hindutva even in modest way? Who can tell our people and the world that this slogan of Hindutva is not really the true voice of India? There is nothing to assure us that even a small beginning has been made towards this goal. Our political parties are lost in the thought of their electoral fortunes. They are even at each other's throat to protect their interests. In the hideous noise of this power struggle there is no room for serious thought about the future of our nation.
What has been the spirit of India since our emergence as a modern nation in the early years of the 19th century?
Rammohun Ray (1772-1833) who is acknowledged, in the official history of the Indian National Congress, Pattabhi B Sitaramayya's two-volume The History of the Indian National Congress (1946-1947), as 'the Father of Modern India', made Vedanta the foundation of his reformed Hindu religion. But he made his first appearance in print as the author of a Persian work Tuhfat-ul Mu-Muwahhidin which was published with an Arabic introduction in 1804. Maulabi Obaidullah El Obeide produced an English version of the work which was published in 1884 as A Gift to Deists. This first specimen of Rammohun's work, a plea for monotheism on Islamic lines, is included in the Panini edition of Rammohun's English works published in 1906.
While Rammohun wrote devastating tracts on the Christian missionaries' attack on Hinduism he wrote The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness Extracted from the Books of the New Testament (1820). Rammohun's The Common Basis of Hinduism and Christianity is a collection of his correspondence with R Tytle and was published in 1823. It may horrify the Sangh Parivar to know that Rammohun, the architect of a Vedantic Renaissance in modern India, wrote a pamphlet entitled Hindu Authorities in Favour of Slaying the Cow and Eating its Flesh. Let us remember that the Sanskrit word goghna means a guest for whose meal a cow is killed.
As a devout Hindu Rammohun had respect for both Christianity and Islam and his learning in these religions prompted Monier-Williams to call him 'the first earnest-minded investigator of the science of Comparative Religion that the world has produced'. Religious Thought and Life in India, 1883, p 479). Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) lovingly mentioned Rammohun as my 'intensely admired and dearly beloved collaborator in the service of mankind' in his letter to him written in 1828. And Arnold Toynbee calls Rammohun 'the great syncretist'.
Following Rammohun, Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) said in a lecture given in Kolkata on 5 May 1866: 'Was not Jesus Christ an Asiatic?' And answering the question he said: 'Yes, and his disciples were Asiatics, and all the agencies primarily employed for the propagation of the Gospel were Asiatics.' (TE Slater, Keshab Chandra Sen and the Brahmo Samaj 1884). Keshab was equally respectful to Islam. In his lecture at a meeting to form a Theistic Association held in London on 20 July 1870 he said that he was 'distressed to find how many of the Hindu sects in India combine to war with Mahomedans whom they hate as enemies'. (Lectures in England, 3rd ed, 1897). Obviously Keshab found in Ramakrishna an embodiment of his ideal of religious harmony. The Sangh Parivar's movement is a blow to this ideal. They have given a new dimension to Hindu idolatry by transforming it into a kind of Ramolatry.
THE first great Indian exponent of tolerance and liberalism in religion is Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886) whose four words Yata mat tata path (All beliefs are ways to God) became the locus classicus of religious harmony in the modern world. When Arnold Toynbee said about Ramakrishna that 'his religious activity and experience were comprehensive to a degree that had never been attained by any other religious genius in India or elsewhere', he had in his mind the unique universalism of the Indian sage. Actually Toynbee refers to the fact that Ramakrishna 'practised successively almost every form of Indian religion and philosophy and went on to practice Islam and Christianity as well'. This ideal of religious unity made a profound appeal to Rabindranath who said in his verse tribute to Ramakrishna composed on the occasion of his birth-centenary in 1936: 'Diverse courses of worship from varied springs of fulfilment/have mingled in your meditation.' (for Toynbee and Rabindranath's words on Ramakrishna see Swami Lokeswarananda, ed, World Thinkers on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, 1983).
Swami Vivekananda made Ramakrishna's ideal of religious harmony the substance of his lectures in India and Europe. In his first address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago delivered on 11 September 1893, Vivekananda said: 'We accept all religions as true.' And in the peroration of this historic address Vivekananda said: 'I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.' (Vivekananda, Complete Works).
Actually Vivekananda was never happy with the word Hindu which is the key word in VD Savarkar's Hindutva (1923), the bible of the Sangh Parivar. In his address at Jaffna in 1897 Vivekananda said: 'The word Hindu, by which it is the fashion now to style ourselves, has lost all its meaning. I, therefore, would not use the word Hindu.' (ibid, iii, 118). And Vivekananda was equally allergic to our cults growing around our mythological figures. In an interview given to the Hindu in Madras in February 1897, Vivekananda said: 'The sublimity of the law propounded by the Ramayana or the Mahabharata does not depend upon the truth of any personality like Rama or Krishna, and one can even hold that such personages never lived."
And Vivekananda's attitude to the Indian Muslims is lucidly stated in his address on the Future of India: 'The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation to the down-trodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mohammedans. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be the height of madness to think that it was all the work of sword and fire.' (ibid, iii, 294). It was not distortion of history. It was a humane and intelligent interpretations of what happened in our country. Vivekananda gave a lecture on Mohammed at San Francisco on 25 March 1900 in which he said: 'Mohammedanism came as a message for the masses. The first message was equality.' (ibid, i 483).
We must not forget that the first literary work of Narendra was the Bengali translation of the first six chapters of The Imitation of Christ, the Latin work of the Dutch mystic Thomas Kempis (1225-1274), which was published in Suresh Samajpati's Sahityakalpadrum in 1889. In his preface to this work Vivekananda says: 'The reader while reading this book will hear the echo of the Bhagavadgita over and over again.' (ibid, viii 160). At the end of his lecture 'The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion' delivered at the Universalist Church, Pasadena, California on 28 January 1900, Vivekananda said: 'The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded.' (ibid, ii 374).
In his letter to Mohammed Sarfaraz Husain dated 10 June 1898 Vivekananda wrote: 'We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran.' (ibid, vi 416). In his address 'Indian Religious Thought' Vivekananda says: 'Christians can learn from Hindus, and the Hindus can learn from Christians. Each has made a contribution of value to the wisdom of the world.' (ibid, iv 190).
I have already mentioned Rabindranath's ideas of religious unity as it is expressed in the poet's tribute to Ramakrishna. In his Bengali work Brahmavidyalay (1911) Ajit Kumar Chakrabarti says that in 1909 Rabindranath introduced in Santiniketan a Christian festival to be celebrated on Christmas day. The poet's words spoken on these occasions and on Christ and Christianity in general are reproduced in a Bengali work entitled Khrishta published in 1959. In one of these addresses given on 25 December 1910, the poet asks his students to say 'You are ours very own, because in you we have truly found ourselves'. The poet wrote his only major poem written originally in English, The Child, inspired by a Passion Play he witnessed at Oberammergau in Germany in 1930. It was published in London in 1931. Mahatma Gandhi's respect for Christianity and Islam made him an enemy of the RSS and all who believed in its ideology. Gandhi in his autobiography, My Experience with Truth (1927, Eng tr, Mahadev Desai; 1982) speaks of his profound response to the Sermon on the Mount.
How Gandhi's attitude to the British was influenced by the religion of Britain we see in his remark that 'Jesus bade us love our enemies ' a hard task. But there is no escape from it' (Indian Opinion, 26 July 1913). Of Gandhi's equal respect for his own religion and Christianity and Islam the most quotable statement is: 'I do not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas. I believe the Bible and the Koran to be as much divine inspired as the Vedas.' (Young India, 6 October 1921)
Jawaharlal Nehru was a true disciple of Gandhi in his view of the Muslims. As a historian Nehru even said: 'It is wrong and misleading to talk of a Muslim invasion of India' (The Discovery of India, 1946). Nehru rightly looked upon the age of Nanak and Kabir as an age of religious synthesis which created the spirit of modern India.
But where is the India of Rammohun, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath, Vivekananda, Gandhi and Nehru? We hear the footsteps of men who are now determined to make India a Hindu state. As Dr Hansen says at the end of his The Saffron Wave: 'Hindu nationalist movement is now arguably the most authoritarian movement ever in power in the country.'