Gujarat Pogrom













Contact Us


Hierarchies Of Hindu Rituals

By M.S.S. Pandian

A couple of months back, in a rare moment of unity, most of the political parties in Tamil Nadu came together to speak the language of rationalism and science. The occasion was to condemn the Hindu ritual of burying children alive for a moment — a ritual performed at a temple at Peraiyur near Madurai. The Minister who witnessed the ritual lost his job and the ritual itself was swiftly banned by the State Government. Whether the rank and file of these political parties, drawn from the poor and mostly of lower castes, agreed to the reformist zeal of their leaders is, however, a moot point.

Now yet another ritual is being drawn into a web of controversies. It is the ritual conducted on Mahasivaratri at a temple near Periyanaickenpalayam in which the temple priest, wearing sandals of nails, walks over women devotees. The objections are familiar. Medical opinion is diligently employed to claim that the ritual can paralyse the devotees and wreck their lower limbs. The ritual is also objected to as grossly opposed to human dignity and a violation of human rights. The inseparable twins of science and universal humanism, in their obsession with modernist reform, are actively at work here.

The openly expressed discomfort of the State Government, various political parties, and social activists, with these rituals, and their commitment to the welfare of the Hindu devotees, could very well be genuine — at least as genuine as the faith of the devotees in their rituals. But honest, well-meaning acts, carried out in the name of science and humanism, are no recipe for non-partisan politics. Often, they reproduce the worst forms of inequality in society and camouflage them as radical politics.

What kind of religious practices offend the sensibilities of these pro-active Hindu reformers of our times? It was, for most part, the ritual practices of the lower caste Hindus — from fire-walking to blood sacrifices to raiding graveyards on Mahasivaratri. Implicit in the choice of the rituals for reform, is a hierarchy of different ways of being Hindus. In treating these lower caste rituals as out of step with science and humanism, the lower caste Hindus and their religiosity are primitivised. They, in other words, belong to a world that is a mere residue of the pre-modern past and should be denied a future.

Beneath this not-so-flattering story about the non-Brahmin Hindus lies an unspoken consensus about what is the right way to be a Hindu. The stony silence (and the rare protest) which often meets the innumerable Brahminical religious practices that can no way be defended by the discerning yardsticks of science and humanism is a sign of this consensus. Is carrying Hindu religious leaders in palanquins an affirmation of human dignity? Is disallowing lower castes and women into the sanctum sanctorum of temples based on science? These and other similar questions are most often consigned to the realm of silence. When they do surface in the public domain — often brought up by a small band of unrepentant atheists — they do not draw the same zeal from these Hindu reformers. Consciously or unconsciously, for them, the true way to a Hindu is to be Brahminical. Tellingly, science, in this context, becomes wary of atheism.

Unfortunately, there is nothing original here. It is an old script staged anew. The hierarchy of Hinduism(s) which informs these new reformers is not different from the one constructed during colonialism by the unique partnership between the colonisers and elite Indian nationalists. As much as the mainstream nationalists vociferously demanded the colonial state to stay away from Hindu religion, they too egged on and collaborated with it to stigmatise and tame lower caste Hindu religious practices. Reform, now as then, institutes Brahminical Hinduism, its scriptural texts and moral codes as encapsulating what is truly and authentically Hindu. And most of the Hindus can only await the cycle of karma to become true Hindus.

This blatant politics of caste, played out in the name of science and humanism, is only part of the story. On another register, these reforms, intentionally or unintentionally, align with the fascist agenda of the Hindu right. Despite its uninspiring refrain about "Hindu unity in diversity", a monolithic Hinduism, refashioned on the basis of Brahminical ritual practices, is the not-yet-realised (and perhaps never realisable) dream of the Hindu Right. Its fervour for the cow, which justifies the slaughter of the Dalits, is just one instance of this elusive desire. For the Prime Minister of India death is of course more welcome than to embrace the culinary culture of the Dalits.

The lofty ideals of reformers may not openly bay for the blood of others. They may instead present themselves as the sole possessors of scientific temperament and inspired by the noblest human sentiments. That is not adequate solace. The ritual practices which the reformers decry, are exactly those practices which the Hindu Right feels uncomfortable about. The practices that they refuse to critique or are unselfconsciously part of are basically the practices which the Hindu Right endorses. The mix of science and humanism can, in their selective practices, produce disastrous politics outcomes.

Religious rituals could be dubious. But science and humanism are no holy cows. They too could play the most dubious politics. In a perverse polity where aggressive promotion of vegetarianism dons the robes of green politics and cow protection fanatics claim themselves to be animal rights activists, this seemingly strange coming together of science, humanism and rightwing politics, may not be all that strange. Then an alternative political agenda cannot but critically resist the seduction of science and humanism, even while appropriating their promises for radical politics.

(The writer is Honorary Visiting Fellow, Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)

March 9 2003