Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fear of falling

Big is NOT better, always

Recently, I was commissioned to do a cover story on one of India’s most renowned historian. Since I am not a student of history, before I met her, I did a considerable amount of reading of her works. The fascinating journey to the history of ancient India lead me to realise that when we look at our past, there is a lot of information that needs to be corrected, since we read Indian history written by the British.

For instance, for years I held on to the idea that Asoka, the Maurya king was complete transformation from within after the battle of Kalinga, which he won but the bloodbath changed him and he took to Buddhism. He was instrumental in spreading Buddhism throughout his kingdom, which was as vast as to almost cover the entire subcontinent. In fact, I remember clearly, when I visited Sanchi in 2009, I was overwhelmed with feelings when I walked through the vast remains of what is today a World Heritage Site (see      )

In the background of such emotional connection, my readings lead me to debunk my previous thoughts and relook at Asoka with a fresh critical eye.

To begin with, his conversion to Buddhism was not all of a sudden after all. During the period he was Viceroy of Ujjain, he had met and fallen in love with one Devi, the daughter of a merchant, in Vidisha, who was in fact an ardent follower of Buddhism. Through her he had had two children, a daughter and a son. However, he did not marry her and when he moved to Patilaputra (the capitol of the Maurya dynasty, which is close to present day, Patna, in Bihar) he married thrice, and his second wife Padmawati gave birth to two other children, again a boy and a girl. On his death in 233 – 232 B.C, the Maurya kingdom which lasted for 137 years, starting from his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya onwards ended in 181-180 B.C. The Maurya kingdom had been already divided into the west and east zones, which were ruled by two separate monarchs – in the west, with its new capitol as Taxila, his  son from Padmavati, Kunala, and in the eastern zone, continuing to hold Pataliputra as its capitol, by his grandson Dasaratha .

During the reign of Asoka, the Maurya Empire was under the influence of Buddhism, as he propagated dhamma although many other sects including Brahmins lived alongside. Asoka preached tolerance of all religions and directed his people to live in peaceful coexistence.

However, towards the end of his life, he almost became a bigot, and some of his edits literally force people to follow Buddhism, only.

As a religion, in as vast an empire as his, it might have been a good binding force or a strategy that could hold his people together by virtue of a common religion, but as a forced diet it was not palatable to all. This helped the rise of the Shaivites in the eastern zone under Dasarath, while the Greeks took over the western zone

India has always been open to people from other parts of the world, especially the Greeks and the people following Islam, for by virtue of its geographical location with the ocean on all three sides, it was always approachable by sea farers and much trade and interchange of commerce were happening for a long time. This meant that the people coming from outside, were intermingling and taking back with them, the wealth in terms of philosophy, legends and tales, art and architecture from us and leaving back with us, the same from their countries. While there are records of disturbances between sects in India, unless there was an invasion, which is only much later, there was a sense of peace maintained, between at least the people who came to trade with us.

The inappropriate notion that invaders came and ransacked our temples, looted and ran away with treasures, are a mixed bag of facts and fallacy. For example take the case of Somanath in Gujarat. As cited above, available evidence proves the opposite of what we are made to believe. And when we read about the fact that the same temple also had a mosque in the same premises at one time, the land given by the king to the frequent traders who came to trade in Somanath, we really have o re-look at what we have read so far.

We are told that in 1026, Muhamud of Ghazni came and raised the temple Somanath to the ground, plundered its wealth and breaking the idol there. Up until today, sections of the Indian community hold this incident to be the benchmark for continued violence against Muslims.

It is important to remember that the word Hindu was first mentioned in Arabic texts to mean people who live on the other side of the Sindu river. It had no religious connotation attached to it. It is we who are a nation divided by caste/sect where Brahmins are touted to be the highest, a self-given position, which has defied all rationality. The rigidity of the community and its practices has caused the birth and spread of more tolerant religions like Jainism and Buddhism. Indian history has proved that it is not Hindus, but the sect called Brahmins, who have over and over pushed their way around, and forced themselves over all other religions wiping out their history, burning their texts and forcing them to leave the country, as they did in the case of Buddhists.

If one looks carefully, one is bound to see, there is a method in this madness. It is always, burn, kill, massacre, obliterate.  A body of thought that cannot tolerate or is not open to another point of view, is a dogmatic one, no matter by what name you call it. So pointing fingers at others and blaming them for the violence in our country, is like blaming your neighbour for breaking your house when you yourself have been doing it yourself.

The truth is, we are presently, positioned for another major turn in our country, which mixes politics with religion and many of us fear that the democracy we so happily tout as the world’s largest democracy, may soon be lost to fascists if we are not careful.

What if the people running the country make bigger blunders than Godra in the name of wiping out the Muslims? What if, we lose our nation to foreign countries again, who propagate Christianity? What if our personal beliefs are threatened and we have to wear our kastis tied around our arms and not our waists, in order to hide it under the shirt, as they did when Parsis were faced with having to protect their holy thread in Hyderabad, to hide their religion, against the forces of a state that was majorly dominated by Muslims? We have seen at the beginning of this article that even a tolerant practice, such as Buddhism, will not do, if it becomes a fanatical point of view.

The great dilemma we are in at this moment is, can we ever be a nation governed by religion? Can we even tolerate a position of “religion is the opium of the people”? We in fact, must now realise, that we are standing at the threshold of an enormous challenge, that being, to find the way out of this impending mess of caste based, voter Bank politics in the name of democracy.
It calls for a complete makeover of a society which has been placing too much attention to the saffron tikka on the forehead and making much ado about a set of “personal rituals”. Such practices can never become a Rule applicable to all. And if we think it can, then we must admit we have become megalomaniacs.

Even the gentlest of rulers as Asoka, would in such a case make way for a nation to fall apart, once again. The dreaded fear of falling is looming over us.

Note: The views expressed here are entirely my own
Photo credit: Unknown but possibly from the net.