Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Wages of Calumny

The Wages of Calumny
Arun Shourie

The traditions of India were rich as can be. They had attained insights of the first order. A person who has reflected on what the Buddha has to say on the workings of the mind for instance, one who has even a little acquaintance with Buddhist works on psychology will find the writings of, say, Freud to be high-school level reductionism. The traditions informed all of life: The mingling of literature art, music and religion is a ready instance.

And they were inclusive. A person devoted to a tree was not traduced as an "animist", a person devoted to a bull or an elephant, or a lion, or a snake or even the lowly mouse was not laughed away.

The objects of his devotion were received with reverence -- they became parts of a rich pantheon: The bull was honored as the mount of Shiva and one could approach Shiva only after paying obeisance to Nandi, the elephant became the head of Ganesha and the mouse his mount, the lion became the head of Narsimha and the mount of Durga, the swan of Saraswati, the peacock of Kartikeya, the snakes became the necklace and amulets of Shiva, the girdle of Ganesha.

As a confluence of the colors of the people, Rama and Krishna were pictured as having been blue, Venkateshwara at Tirupati, the child Krishna at Nathadwara, Kali in the East were pictured as pitch dark...

Nor was this artifice. The inclusiveness flowed from deep conviction, from what had been experienced at the deepest -- it flowed from experience which yielded premises which were the diametric opposites of the religions originating elsewhere.

There are many levels to reality, the traditions taught. There are many ways to realise it. The ones who have gone before have left books and suggested practices which will help you. But these are just aids, and there are many of them as persons with different tempraments, at different stages of preparation will find one device more helpful than the other.

You must yourself understand yourself, and gauge the stage at which you are. By dividing your nature and your progress you must assess the suitability of the device, of the text. All this was not licence, it was assigning responsibility, it was the call to be "mindful" to look within. It gave an unassailable sphere of autonomy to the individual.

Everything in human affairs ossifies. Many things in this tradition did too. But no one could impede reform by an appeal to the "fundamentals", for these fundamentals made the individual's own, inner experience the ultimate referrant.

That everything should reform and transform, the tradition regarded as natural. Differences were harmonised through discourse -- witness Shankara's journeys and the shastraarthas on the way.

Even Islam was eventually tempered: The Sufis who had been set upon in one Islamic country after another, so much so that secretiveness had become their mark, they did not just find a home here, they found honour, reverence.

But all this, the missionaries traduced. The inclusiveness they condemned as being a sinister stratagem to swallow up other religions. The efflorescence of different speculations they condemned as cacophony. The openness and tentativeness they condemned as intellectual flabbiness. The inner-directed search they condemned as morbid life-denial. The offering of many ways they condemned as unsettled mush.

The many gods and goddesses they condemned as chaos. What had become the norm for Islam was now made the norm for Christianity: Freedom of speech meant the freedom only to laud it, freedom of inquiry meant the freedom to discover only its glories.

The pressures were less subtle than they had been in the case of Islam, but they were no less potent. Asymmetry was the principle: As in the case of Islam, conversion was held to be, and acted upon as something that was an essential principle of Christianity; but when a person like Swami Vivekananda or Swami Shradhanand argued in favor of taking back into the Hindu fold the converts who wanted to return, they were condemned as persons who were inviting a practice for which there was no warrant in Hinduism!

The viciousness of the distortions and misrepresentations of the missionaries, the virulence of their abuse, the length of time over which they kept up the barrage -- we cannot imagine these today. Swami Vivekananda had to face these at every turn, Gandhiji knew them well.

"If all India stands up", Swami Vivekananda told the Christians in America about this propaganda, "and takes all the mud that is at the bottom of the Indian ocean and throws it up against the western countries, it will not be doing an infinetesimal part of that which you are doing to us..."

"It is not true that I am against any religion," the Swami told the Madras audience on his return from the USA. "It is equally untrue that I am hostile to the Christian missionaries in India. But I protest against certain of their methods of raising money in America."

"What is meant by those pictures in the school-books for children where Hindu mother is painted as throwing her children to the crocodiles in the Ganga? The mother is black, but the baby is painted white, to arouse more sympathy, and get more money. What is meant by those pictures which paint a man burning his wife at a stake with his own hands, so that she may become a ghost and torment the husband's enemy?"

"What is meant by the pictures of huge cars crushing over human beings? The other day a book was published for children in this country (America), where one of these gentlemen tells a narrative of his visit to Calcutta. He says he saw a car running over fanatics in the streets of Calcutta."

"I have heard one of these gentlemen preach in Memphis that in every village of India there is a pond full of the bones of little babies."

"What have Hindus done to these disciples of Christ that every Christian child is taught to call the Hindus 'vile', and 'wretches', and the most horrible devils on earth? Part of the Sunday School education for children here consists in teaching them to hate everybody who is not a Christian, and the Hindus especially, so that, from their very childhood they may subscribe their pennies to the mission..."

That is Swami Vivekananda talking about missionary propaganda a 100 years ago. And here is what Ram Swarup reads in a recent pronouncement of the Texas- based Gospel for Asia: "The Indian sub-continent with one billion people, is a living example of what happens when Satan rules the entire culture... India is one vast purgatory in which millions of people... are literally living a cosmic lie!"

"Could Satan have devised a more perfect system for causing misery?"

The blacker they painted -- and paint -- India, and Hinduism in particular, the better the sincere are inspered to leave their homes and take up the task of saving souls that are in such torment so far away, the easier it is to raise funds, and all means are automatically rationalised.

That is one point: The calumny was based on falsehood through and through. But there is another point too: Was the Christianity of the missionaries different from what they were calumnising?

A Hindu bowing to a statue of Durga was a superstitious idolator. But a Christian beseeching a statue of Virgin Mary was touched by divine devotion?

A Hindu bowing to a stone as Hanuman, and circumambulating it was an ignorant idolator. But a Muslim prostrating to the Black Stone at the Kaaba and circumambulating it was one who had broken through to a higher level of spirituality?

A Hindu bathing in the Ganges and taking its water for rituals and ablutions was a primitive, superstitious nature-worshipper. But the Christian seeking cures from the water at Lourdes, and the Muslim seeking it from the water of the Zam Zam at Kaaba and taking it for ablutions and the rest, they were merely being scientific?

The rich symbolism of the Hindu rituals, of the motifs was dismissed as mumbo-jumbo. And what of the symbolism of the Euchrist -- of eating the "body" of Jesus and drinking his "blood"? Caste and untouchability are the peculiarity of Hinduism, the missionaries insisted. Christianity (and of course Islam on the telling of its advocates) is the religion of equality -- it does not recognize castes.

In fact, castes survive among Christian and Muslims to this day -- as the Supreme Court has narrated in its recent judgement on reservations. And the Church (as well as advocates of Islam), having proclaimed for two centuries that untouchability was a curse peculiar to Hinduism, has been in the forefront in demanding that benefits given to Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be made available to Christian Scheduled Castes and Christian Scheduled Tribes also!

Not one missionary organisation has protested that by extending caste-based Reservations to Christians (and Muslims), the Supreme Court has put the axe to a basic tenet of Christianity (and Islam)!

Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji and other reformers often drew the attention of the missionaries to these blind-spots. They made another vital observation. In condemning and calumnising a Hindu practice like idolatory for instance, and the beliefs behind it, the missionaries missed the deep potential which was inherent in it.

As the same human pains and predicaments made their communities -- and them personally -- seek the same sorts of solace in the same sorts of devices, they soon enough became idolators of the most primitive kind. The idol as an aid for gathering one's awareness, as the embodiment of values which by honoring it and reflecting on it one imbibed; the reverence for all animal life, the reverence for the peepul as the entry-point from which to develop reverence for all inanimate nature; each of these as a device to break down the barriers between man and animals and inanimate materials; the harmonious view of life which resulted from these in contrast with the instrumental view of the latter which man-centered traditions (Christianity, Islam more so, and Marxism-Leninism most of all) inculcated; each of these as a device, a stepping-stone in breaking mind and matter -- this great healing potential, this potential for opening horizons of a vast and deep knowledge was foreclosed by the calumny. And the statue of Virgin Mary became a mere wish-fulfilling thing.

How true the warning of the Dhammapada: "A wrong action may not bring its reaction at once, even as fresh milk turns not sour at once; like a smouldering fire concealed under ashes, it consumes the wrong-doer..."

Missionary scholarship, or scholarship inspired by the missionary impulse, has been even more lethal than the calumny. Its effects have lasted through the century, and they have reached matters far afield. A number of the notions which color our minds to this day can be traced to the seeds that were sown by that scholarship: That the white Aryans massacred and drove away the dark-skinned Dravidians, that India is not a nation but a heap, a zoo of different nationalities...

As has been shown, there was not the slightest evidence for the notions, on the contrary all the evidence pointed the other way: For dating scriptures like the Vedas, for instance, Max Mueller is the foundational authority; he dated the Rig Veda to 1200 BC not because of any evidence, he had none -- neither archaelogical nor any other kind; he put the date of 1200 BC because he firmly believed that the world had been created at 9 am on 23 October 4004 BC, and that because the Bible says so, that given the intervals mentioned in the Bible for events down to the Flood, the Vedas could not have been composed before 1200 BC! Moreover, the ones who put the notions in circulation did so, in many cases, with specific objectives - of undermining the regard of the people for their own culture, of pitting sections of them against other sections. They often explicitly acknowledged these motives in their private correspondence, which, as in the case of Max Mueller, has since been brought to light. Recall, for instance, what Max Mueller wrote to his wife about his translation of the Rig Veda: "...this edition of mine and the translation of the Veda, will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3000 years."

(For a telling and succint accounting in the case of one of these seeds, see Dr Navratna S Rajaram's important lectures: Aryan Invasion of India, The myth and the truth, Voice of India, 1993, from which the Max Mueller examples are taken).

So deeply have these notions got imbedded in our discourse, so potent is the divisive politics that swirls around them that today to show these notions up as having been put out without any evidence, as being contrary to all evidence which has come to light in the last century, as having been put out for the specific and conscious purpose of dividing and undermining India -- to do so is denounced as chauvinism and communalism!

That these notions remain so lethal to this day is not, of course, the doing of the missionaries: The principal responsibility for that lies with Indian intellectuals. But while one lense of the spectacles of these intellectuals has been fabricated by the Marxists, the other one, the original one, was certainly fabricated by that missionary-imperialist scholarship.

The Observer
February 18, 1994

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