Sunday, May 25, 2008

Spiritual Renewal the Hindu Way -III

Signs of Renewal
Arun Shourie

The super-speciality hospital which Satya Sai Baba has set up in Putaparti, the water schemes which have been inaugurated in Anantpur district to mark his 70th birthday will, of course, make the difference between life and death to vast numbers. The other point about projects undertaken at the direction of these teachers is their managerial excellence. The projects are invariably completed on schedule: it took just three years from the permission being granted for the temple in London to its being opened for worship. The execution is a model of excellence, the costs are minimal: just three years ago the Swadhyaya began movement recharging wells to help the drought-stricken in Saurashtra and Kutch -- the water table there had fallen from 15 feet to 500 feet in places: already they have recharged close to one lakh wells: the cost has been Rs. 500 per well -- that figure is one-tenth of the norm prescribed by Nabard.

The congregations that participate in the functions of these movements are enormous -- almost three lakh Swadhyayees gathered in Allahabad for the Thirtrajmilan in 1986, lakhs visited the Swaminarayan Amrut mahotsav in Bombay last month: though huge, each gathering is a model of self-discipline and purposefulness. From running kitchens for such vast numbers, from keeping the sites clean to financing the occasion -- there is innovation at every step.

For that Thirtrajmilan at Allahabad the cloth alone which was needed for making tents for the Swadhyayees to stay in cost Rs 40 lakhs. There was no way but to spend the money. There was also no way but to incur a substantial loss on this count: it had, of course, been decided that after the gathering was over and the tents had been carefully dismantled, the cloth would be resold: the resale value of that used cloth, however, was going to be only about a haft of what the cloth had cost. Yet there was no alternative to buying the cloth and making up the loss later. But during the function, participants from a Gujarat village came up with a proposal which saved the day: we have puja places in our homes, they said, we use cloth to sit on while praying what could be better cloth for us than this cloth -- which has been part of such an auspicious gathering, cloth which has sheltered us, cloth which we have got at sacred Prayag? Therefore, they said, let the cloth be cut up after the function and sold at the original cost to anyone and everyone who wants it for this purpose. That was eventually done. And the entire cost was recovered.

We were in my study one day when I mentioned this as an example of ingenuity and participation to a modern -- and, of course, very secular -- friend. He pounced: That is the trouble with your Hindu leaders, he said, making money of poor, ignorant sods. Not one to let go of an opportunity to promote adult literacy, I picked out von Grunebaum's from the book shelf Muhammadan Festivals and pointed to the description to the Kaba and the kiswah, the cloth which covers it: "The kiswah is generally provided by the Egyptian government... the description read, "It is changed every year and sold in small pieces to the pilgrims..." He could have stuck to the charge and said, "But that too is capitalising on ignorance. "He didn't - to my surprise, should I say?

But to get back to the projects undertaken by our reform movements. As I mentioned, they are exemplary even on merely managerial criteria. And our management schools would do well to study some of the ideas and techniques they use. Several factors make the difference, but the main factor is faith -- Faith in the Guru, in the Swami: faith in the tradition he tells us to live up to: faith in his proclamation that in reviving that tradition we are performing a sacred duty: faith in his exhortation that by participating in and completing these projects and thereby helping our fellow-beings, we are truly doing Dharma-work. But this is the very faith which fifty years of secularism has taught us to be ashamed of.

As will be evident, that faith is kindled by individuals. That such individuals continue to appear from time to time has been the secret of our tradition, and that it lead us to hearken to such individuals is its strength. The Paramacharya of Kanchi -- himself one of the great exemplars of the dictum -- put the point very precisely. People do not follow a religion because of some abstract doctrine it adumbrates, he said. What happens is that from time to time persons appear whose very life personifies the principles of that religion or tradition: people see these living personifications of the teaching and get convinced that yes, the teaching and tradition are worth following.. Bengal was failing to the missionaries by the day -- the missionaries and their cohorts, the scholars had succeeded in making people ashamed of our beliefs and practices, specially of idolatory. And then Ramakrishna Paramhamsa came, with his visions of the Mother. The people saw his veneration for the idol of the Mother, they learnt the deep meaning which was enshrined in the idols in their homes, and thence they learnt that there was no reason to be ashamed of their beliefs and practices. The way of Karma and Bhakti were similarly revived by Swami Vivekananda, by Mahatma Gandhi: vast numbers were awakened once again to the way of mysticism and Gyan by Shri Aurobindo, by Ramana Maharishi. The life and example of the Paramacharya became the great, the unanswerable argument for the teaching and tradition of the Vedas.

That such persons rise from time to time has been the secret: that is why in spite of the state having for a thousand years been in the hands of forces which were out to stamp out our religion and tradition, our religion and way have lived.

But that is just half the secret. The other half is that each of these exemplars has been an uncompromising reformer, many of them like Swami Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji -- have been stern reformers: they have identified what was wrong in our own conduct and told us to first change those ways. Even this would not have been enough. What has made this characteristic of theirs' effective is another feature of our tradition: our religion and tradition have always acknowledged, indeed accepted that persons of their kind -- persons of their spiritual insight, persons of their moral conduct-do indeed have the authority to reform, recast, reformulate the tradition. Nor is that feature fortuitous: it comes from the fact that in our tradition it is direct perception, darshan, direct experience which is the touchstone, not some book or "revelation", or even person. In a word, persons of such insight have continued to appear on the scene, they have focussed on what we needed to do and rectify, and we have not held up a book against them, we have paid heed to them.

Persons like Shri Pandurang Shastri Athawale and Pramukh Swami Maharaj are of that same line. Their reformulations go deep. They insist on reforming and overturning performing rituals as a substitute for serving others... The central point about all these reformers has been and is that they teach us to make demands on ourselves, not on others. When Gandhiji addressed Harijans he asked them to make cleanliness their god, he asked them to give up liquor, to give up eating carrion, to make sure and educate their children. On the other hand, when he addressed Brahmins he told them to live up to the ideals of service and humility and learning and austerity which had been set out for them, he asked them to shed presumption vis-a-vis other castes. The Swadhyayee is not taught to organise morchas to compel government or someone else to concede a concession. He is taught to after his own conduct -- not that government should recharge wells in Saurashtra but that he should, not that government should organise cooperatives for fishermen but that he should help them set up and man the Matsyagandha...

It is because of the same, deep reformist impulse that these leaders do their work not so much through full time social workers but through the lay volunteer -- they do not aim so much to build a full time cadre, a sort of posse of knights-errant for attending to the work of others, they cause each person to make service and altered conduct a part of his or her daily life. If the focus had been on the band of full time workers, the rest would get into the habit of leaving the work to them. Similarly, if the focus had been on doing something pious on a particular day -- keeping a fast on Tuesday -- the person could well go on doing wrong the other six days and "wash it away' by that pious gesture on the seventh day. The focus of these reformers has thus been the ordinary adherent, the lay volunteer: and on his making those better deeds a part of his day-to-day ordinary life.

Because reform is so intrinsic to these movements, because they work at reforms in this deep sense, the consequences of their work are so totally different from the consequences of the "Work" of our "secular" leaders - for instance the traders in unions, and of the work of leaders like Ambedkar.

The former have actually brought about revolutions. The latter have only shouted about revolution.

The legacy of the former is to take us one step further towards self-reliance, towards actually improving ourselves and our society by our own efforts. The legacy of the latter -- to adapt words that Maulana Wahiduddin Khan uses to describe what their leaders have led the Muslims into-has been the Denounce-Demonise-Demand-Bully formula.

The former way renews communities. The latter does the opposite: it leads them to blame others, to externalise the problem, and thereby to neglect the task of reforming their own conduct. It thwarts renewal. And it paralyzes the country.

The true sign of renewal, of renaissance, my friend S Gurumurthy once told me, is not that one great man has appeared again, but that hundreds of persons and groups have spontaneously begun that kind of work in their own little areas. That we have today movements like Swadhyaya, like the Swaminarayan movement, and a number of other organisations all over the country: that they are all drawing inspiration from and reviving our Sanatana Dharma: that they are all reforming and reinvigorating bits and pieces of our life - these are sure signs of renewal.

May these myriad efforts cohere, may they join up as rivulets into a mighty river.

Part I - The Indian Way of Seeking The Almighty

Part II - The Buddha's Garment

The Observer
January 26, 1996

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