When anyone talks of Indians as a benign people I am reminded of Tagore’s poem Pujarini which is usually performed as a dance drama but was made into a film (Natir Puja) in 1932. Inspired by a Buddhist tale from the sacred Pali book, Abadan Shatak, it shows that the bigotry that tragically took Rohith Vemula’s young life isn’t a new phenomenon.
Nor was communalism born of the challenge Islam presented to Hindu supremacy. The tale of Sreemoti, the young woman who sacrificed her life for her Buddhist faith, is 2,500 years old. The story goes that Ajatashatru, king of Magadha (491 BC to 461 BC), decreed that whoever worshipped the Buddha would be exiled or executed by being impaled on a stake.
That didn’t deter Sreemoti, one of the palace maids, who lit her devotional lamp at the Buddha’s neglected shrine one evening after the queen-mother and other royal ladies refused to join her worship, warning her of the dire consequences.
The poem describes how the palace guards, startled to see the glowing lamp, rushed to the spot and heard Sreemoti’s dulcet voice proclaiming her identity and faith in Buddhism. Such defiance could have only one outcome. If I remember the words right after more than 60 years, the last arati lamp was extinguished in the blood of the Buddha’s last worshipper.
Such stories always boast a wealth of contradictory detail. One version has it that the father Ajatashatru murdered to gain the throne was a devout Buddhist which might explain why he did everything he could after seizing power to stamp out Buddhism. Another version, apparently commemorated in the Bharhut sculptures in Madhya Pradesh, makes Ajatashatru confess his crime to the Buddha and beg for absolution.
It’s also said he rushed to Kushinagar when Buddha died and demanded a share of the relics. Some historians believe Ajatashatru was a Jain who switched to Buddhism; others say he called the First Buddhist Council at Rajagriha. Whatever the truth, monks and monasteries disappeared and Buddhism faded from the land of its birth which returned to Hindu orthodoxy.
Recent writing about Nathuram Godse suggests he would not have regarded Hindu restoration as only happenstance. He would have seen it as welcome proof of militancy whose loss he blamed on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on pacifism and non-violence which he felt had weakened Hinduism. The steely ring of “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” (Proudly proclaim you are Hindu) chant also inspired Karan Singh to form the Virat Hindu Samaj in the early Eighties. “Don’t you look for qualifying phrases when people ask if you’re a Hindu?” he explained.
That he gave up the enterprise because it sounded too much like a Bharatiya Janata Party outfit is another matter. What is relevant is that it aroused Jagjivan Ram’s hostility: the dalit leader suspected a conspiracy to bring back the Manusmriti.
It may also be relevant that the Samaj was founded just after 700 Tamil Nadu harijans converted to Islam in a highly publicised ceremony that sent shock waves through the Hindu ranks. Disregarding Ram’s criticism, Dr Singh promised that his Samaj would “provide a vast platform which can be shared not only by all sects of the Hindus but also by the offshoot religions of Hinduism.”
Perhaps he meant only that his Samaj would unite the 220 sects and castes that are said to divide 900 million Hindus, but the assertion sounded dangerously like the Bharatiya Janata Party’s insistence that all Indians are Hindus, regardless of what faith they profess.
Etymologically, the claim may not be too inaccurate. But most of those who voice it have little understanding of the secular geographical roots of the word “Hindu”. They would probably be less enthusiastic if they knew Hindu isn’t a Sanskrit word at all. Some scholars credit the ancient Greeks with inventing the description as a variant of Indus; some give that honour to the Persians.
Either way, it’s a foreign term and politically explosive at that because of the tunnel vision of the people who parrot it nowadays. They might flaunt saffron, but their thinking resembles that of Indira Gandhi who once argued India didn’t need Opposition parties because her Congress reflected all shades of opinion.
In the days when I edited a newspaper, people sometimes sent me articles that were blatantly Hindu propaganda. That didn’t surprise me. What did was their inability to recognise the outpourings as propaganda or even one-sided. One man, a stockbroker, told me in all sincerity that Hinduism covered Buddhism, Christianity and even Islam. Therefore, he said, my paper and I would be serving the cause of ecumenism by publishing an article that focused on some aspect of Hinduism. He was not a card-holding member of the Jana Sangh (this was pre-BJP) and I do think he believed his words. He was a family friend and we argued for a long time. I tried to persuade him that Buddhists, Christians and Muslims might not wish to accept Hinduism as their preferred label. That was immaterial to him.
All Indians were Hindus, and Hinduism projected all religions. He interpreted sanatan dharma in the narrowest sense imaginable. No wonder some saffron brigade stalwarts think B.R. Ambedkar was anti-national. One must assume that Hyderabad University’s former vice-chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, Union minister of state for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya, and Smriti Irani, Union minister of human resources development, took a not dissimilar view of the national interest, and what violates it. If so, Rohith Vemula paid with his life for a blinkered political vision that could do incalculable harm to the idea of India.