Saturday, February 15, 2014

Opening up to new discourse - needs more freedom of intellectual expression

Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi The muzzling of creative freedom of expression in interpreting mainstream religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have been subject to radical reactions from affiliate groups — claiming authority to a specific stream of thought about the polemics of the faith concerned and its bearing on the society.
Interpretations of Hinduism and the canons of Christianity through the Upanishad, Purana and the gospels respectively have courted controversies over the centuries because of the inclusive and the liberal nature of the faiths - unlike Islam which postulates with more rigidity in its interpretations (through the Hadiths) as a monolithic structure resting on a code of living, conduct and teachings of a "singular" god head— the prophet. Over the ages, Islam has taught its scholars and followers that while the Quran is the central pillar of the religion and the "sharia "- its code of existence, the Hadith (interpretations of the faith by Imam) meant to preach Islam to people were mere primers — guidebooks for better understanding of the religion. The interpretations have remained unchanged since the time of Mohammed largely because of the sacrosanct nature of the religion that does not tolerate "misinterpretations" or "communication glitches" .
The only time the teachings of Mohammed, the Prophet, were alleged to have been misunderstood have been on occasions of civilian strikes by the "jihadis", who have misused the "precept" of the holy war or 'jihad' to push "expansionist" and terror" vendetta together with communal issues. The "jihad" in Islam is open to debate in the collegiums of the faith with scholars divided over "deploying" the notion of "jihad" in insidious machinations across the globe by minions of radical groups.
What is the Quranic commandment on the subject of extremism, terrorism and suicide bombing?Interprets Shaykh-ul-Islam Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistan-based Islamic scholar and peace activist (founder of MInnaj -ul- Quran), "The killing of mankind irrespective of religion, race and colour - unless a court of law requires a proper legal punishment or in self-defence - taking up arms and killing people on their own are totally prohibited under the Quran." A translation of a Quranic verse says the "killing of a single man amounts to killing of a whole mankind".
HInduism on the other hand is a multi-pronged faith that has been subject to "academic" , "civilian" and "innovative" deliberations for millennia. The evolution of the faith leaves it open to "deviant thinking" about what is "approved" and what is "illicit" in a milieu of comparative analysis.
The religion passed down by transmission was documented thousands of years after the first tribe of Vedic seers outlined a basic animistic belief system to appease the nature for "rain, harvest, cattle, prosperity and long life of the people" — who made their homes along the banks of the Saraswati and Sindhu rivers in the wilderness of the north-western frontier of the country.
The faith was initially practised as a rite-based religion by rote. The simplistic invocation tenets applied to the act of daily "existence" as well — where all were treated on par and assigned with specific sets of duties to keep the early Vedic village settlements functional. It was an animated faith which grew as it passed down the generations of practitioners assimilating from the local and more ethnic spiritual traditions to become polemical and plural— and much later universal in its spirit of contemporary inclusion in a globalised world.
The edifice of the Hindu religion rests on the four Vedas — the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda that brings to a structural mosaic the cycle of life. It includes include spirituality, daily rites of passage, economy, livelihoods, interpersonal relationships, communities and the cosmic order of life. The Vedas tramsmitted in Sanskrit - said to be complex language of the gods— were often unfathomable to the common man for whom it laid down ways to go about life. In an attempt to make the texts comprehensible for the commom man — at the bottom of the Vedic chain of transmission of wisdom — scholars of Hindu theology interpreted the essence of the faith and its "conceptual" ideology of salvation in the Upanishad, Puranas, Brahmanas and the Bhagawata- corollary scriptures that explained the faith with story-telling narratives and "sermons".
During the age of "bhakti" (or fervour in the later Vedicx age), the conceptual nature totems were given physical forms as pantheons of trinity and multiple god heads (running into thousands) — each endowed with mythical personas and vested with divine portends. The anecdotal feats were akin to Greek and Roman mythologies. The process of imbuing physicality to the cosmos and nature came to be known as the Vedic Hinduism — deriving its name from its cradle along the Sindhu river. The faith in its simplified version opened itself to more scholarly interpretations — and in the process more deviations, distortions, manipulations, subversions and radicalisation. It also simultaneously became a follower-friendly faith attracting large legions of disciples across spectra of life primarily because of its colourful ceremonial practises, room for diversity, beauty, aesthetics, the root piety and openness. The HIndu faith in India often serves as a escape zone from the daily struggle for survival.  
As the floodgates of "researches" into the pedagogy of Hinduism opened further, it became a tool for "vested interest groups" to espouse their narrow and populist agendas. A broad study of the interpretations of the Hindu faith at the beginning of the millennium shows signs of "repression" like an "entrenched caste system that addressed beyond the 'varnas' of profession (caste by trade), untouchability, denial of knowledge systems to certain groups, social heirarchy, expensive and elaborate system of rituals and gender discrimination.
Vedic scholar Manu in his scripture (Manusmriti) sounds almost fascist in his "reorganisation" of responsibilities for men and women — confining the later to the tending of the home and the hearth in a subservient social mantle. The segregation of the rights of the sexes is said to have brought on an entirely new "seamy underbelly" of darl rites rooted in lust, carnal appetite and greed. The deviant canons of Hindu tantricism - black invocation rites — meted out justification of the basal instincts of man by vetting dubious traditions like multiple partneting (many consorts), abuse of women, once revered as "Mahishis (scholars)" in the early Vedic age, limitations on the rights and freedom of women, wide use of intoxicants, violence, crime and deeper socio-economic inequities — that spill over even to this day in the nation of 1.2 billion people whose mainstream faith HIndusim continues serves the moral bulwark oif existence and polity in the 21st century. In India, HInduism has been has proved more engaged as a political "ism" than as a spiritual moorning for people to fall back as practitioners of living cultures.
American scholar of Orientalism and HIndu philosophy Wendy Doniger's book, "The HIndus: An Alternative History" which was removed and pulped by her publisher Penguin India last week after an Indian educationist filed a litigation accusing Doniger's book as vulgar" interpretation of faith, touch upon some flip sides of faith — and its implications for those who continue to languish at the bottom of the spiritual and cultural pyramid. It uses the present state of HInduism as a social pointer to disparities.
Doniger's crime is her "audacity of insights" but the scholar, who has authored several books on HInduism, does not fail to capture the spirit of discourse of the Hindu religion — that is traditional, conservative and modern like the same time like Christianity. "Right from the beginning, Hindu texts and practises tell of the simultaneous existence of polytheism and a broader belief in the ultimate oneness of the divine... To the question is HIndusim monotheistic or polytheistic, the best answer is yes. Not only have elements of both theologies been woven through HIndu texts for thousands of years, but different factions have argued passionately for one view against the other during the entire period — and the issue still raises Hindu hackles today," argues Doniger in her new book, "On HInduism".
Doniger says "the force of the passion of the contention" comes from the "political issues" that have often driven the question — particularly since the time of the British Raj and now again in the times of the Internet. If Doniger has managed to put her finger on the pulse of the intellectual argument over the nature and connotations of Hunduism in an age of Hindutva — and script it in ink on paper in a re-assertion of an old debate, then why do "hawks" of the faith bother to point their fingers at her assertions once again. Political insecurity and resistance to change, hazard groups of intellectuals.
The book is best "tackled" in a debate at a time, when "every ignited mind" in the country seizes upon opportunities to turn debates into greater public discourses.
Doniger analyses the root of the present controversy (over her previous book that surfaced in 2011) in her new book, "In our day, when fundamentalism raised its ugly head among the major monotheisms (Judaisim, Christianity and Islam), HInduism in India caught it too. The movement known as Hindutva while protesting that it is a reaction against European pressures, actually apes protestant evangelical strategies, including its fundamentalist agenda."
The reasons for the tirade against Doniger's book can be put to two streams of reasons — blatant sensationalism (for purposes of publicity) or political manipulations of intellectual discourses to subvert creative freedom in a democracy by a handful of politically polarised vested interest bent on espousing populist agendas for petty self gains. "The biggest challenge in a democracy is populism - which is self-destructive. Politicians use the flaws in themselves to appeal to the flaws in people," says theorist abd political commentator John Ralston Saul. It leads of widespread public anger and backlash —working to serve immediate political interest of particular groups.
Says publisher David Davidar, "Publishers are soft targets for radical elements to intimidate". Davidar, who heads the team at Aleph Book Company, has published Doniger's new book, "On Hindusim". The publishing houses admits an element of threat "but till such time, the company is actually targetted, the firm plans to wait it out". Curbs on literary freedom has been around for the last 25 years. "I was with the Penguin, when Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" was banned," Davidar recalls. Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, Salman Rushdie was "threatened" with a "fatwa" by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran for "blasphlemising" Islam in The Satanic Verses (the writer;s own interpretation of the faith). The hardliner demanded a ban on the book and clamoured for the writer's blood. Several death threats ensued and conflicts over Rushdie's "daring" work escalated over the years after the rejection of his apology by Iran. The reactions ranged from diplomatic rows to arson and bombings. The writer hounded into hibernation — managed to protect his "life and pen" in a triumph of free expression. The book banned in India in 1988 still remains blacklisted officially — though the curbs have eased after 25 years. The book is available on request to Indian readers from a handful of vendors — often surreptitiously.
The lingering bitterness over Rushdie's alleged critique of Islam continues to cast its shadow even today. Two years ago, the writer had to put off a visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival (in India) after Islamic hardline organisations protested his participation. Rushdie cancelled his visit citing threat to his life.
In an interview later to a national television channel, the writer said despite "a lot of personal disappointment, his overwhelming feeling is a disappointment on behalf of India, which is a country that he loved all his life and whose long-term commitment to secularism and liberty is something he had praised for much of his life life." "And now I find an India in which religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas at a literary festival, in which the politicians are too, let's say, in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them for narrow electoral reasons, in which the police forces are unable to secure venues against demonstrators even when they know the demonstration is on its way," Rushdie said, lamenting the "decline in public standards, and in the liberty of ordinary Indian citizens to engage in discourse, to hear differing points of view".
Mumbai-based lyricist, script-writer, poet and social activist Javed Akhtar warns that a "trend to ban everything against a set opinion is becoming contagious in the country (in context of The Satanic Verses). Such strictures against creative freedom comes out of insecurity, suggests Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, whose novel, " Lajja (Shame)" about a HIndu family persecuted by Muslims was banned in Bangaldesh in the mid 1990s. She sought asylum in Kolkata and currently resides in New Delhi. Nasreen like Doniger and Rushdie — dared to blur the line between the sacred and profane with her "bold portrayal of women, spirit of feminism, gender roles and the significanc of faith and religious conflicts in a conservative Islamic society.
At a recent twitter post at the International Kolkata Book Fair, she exhorted book lovers to buy her book, "NIshiddho (Forbidden) before the West Bengal government banned it".
Scholars suggest that the insecurity over faith among "prosletysers and those moral hadrliners striving to hold together the conventional socio-religious mosaic together" stems from the reluctance to embrace change - and allow people to be amenable to plurality of arguments and viewpoints. New interpretations are often known to destroy myths.
Oxford scholar Mary Beard says "one of the points of the classics is is their capacity to make debate. "Culture can look very different from different perspectives. One of my favourite stories is that of Rabindranath Tagore who's supposed to have wept at the Parthenon in Athens - not because of its overwhelming beauty but because it seemed so barbarically ugly. That lies behind a lot of what I mean by confronting (the name of her new book)... I don't know about the Wendy Doniger case - but it is sad that an opportunity of a debate has been lost," she said in an interview. Views are galore — despite the official ban on the book and discourses around it.              
At a recent housewarming party in the new South Delhi residence of writer-poet Vikram Seth, Penguin's inability to protect Doniger's treatise on HIndusim dominated conversation. While a section of artists like Subodh Gupta and Sudarshan Shetty present at the venue cited zenophobia as the cause of the "suppression of creative and artistic intellect", a section of intelligentsia said "it had to do with political will and market dynamics". In a country of nearly 300 plus English users and nearly 40 percent literate population, publishers - especially multinational entities— do not want to take chances with business despite deep pockets.  
The notion of zenophobia in gagging of freedom of expression, faith and the resulting chaos in contemporary India can be traced back to the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid debate between the "secular liberals" and the "right wing hardliners" in 1991 - when communal rage took its toll on a heritage relic whose identity was in doubt. Five years later in 1996, a magazine accused India's most visible contemporary artist M.F Husain of "offending religious sensibilities" by painting a Hindu deity in the nude. After a decade of legal presecution and right wing attacks, Husain exiled himself in Dubai in 2006 and died as a citizen of Doha in 2011.
"History is created by interpretations," says writer Reza Aslan, whose best-selling book, "The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" was criticised widely by the western media for "distorting the legacy of Jesus Christ" as a myth perpetuated by his followers. Aslan remains unfazed. In the early era of Greco-Roman monarchies, bands of "self-made prophets" roamed the Judean countryside to rally for the freedom of the "kingdom of god"— Israel (present day) - from Roman rule, all of whom were put to death by the Roman authority. The band of executed "preachers" included John, the Baptist and a peasant from Galilee, Jesus. "The cult of Jesus was cannonised by his disciples, who composed the gospel in texts extolling the divinity of Jesus over the other revolutionaries of time," the book says.
In the middle ages, when the Catholic Church built around the cult of Christ and his ministry rose to take over Rome - from the ashes from the Roman  autocrats — heathen texts espousing pre-Christain paganism were destroyed. When Hitler captured power in Germany in 1933, the first act that his Nazi Party organised was "mass burning of books by Jewish authors including theology" —as its manifesto of purification. History, across the Orient and the Occident, abounds in descretions of creative and intellectual freedom of expression.
But with the new "enlightenment" brought by deeper inroads of literacy, free media and television in the last century, the discourse is opening up, says writer Pankaj Mishra. "Books, arts, religions and traumatic histories which were taken off popular intellectual spaces are being addressed openly (especially in context of China and Asia)," Mishra says.
"It is happening all over the world— fundamentalists are targetting people everywhere . We should we feel the persecution. Eye for an eye makes the world blind. The solution lies in discussion and collective resolve," says art writer, curator and culture activist Ina Puri. "We must not stand back and watch it happen - but do something instantly," Puri points out.
Nowhere has it more evident than in India — where one of the country's most powerful progressive arts movement in contemporary times began 25 years ago after a theatre activist Safdar Hashmi was gunned down in the Ghaziabad area in Uttar Pradesh on January 1, 1989. The Communist playwright, theatre actor, poet and theorist who was campaigning for a more "liberal cultural movement in India" - at the forefront of the street theatre activism — was killed while staging a play "Hulla Bol". Hashmi became a symbol of cultural resistance against authoritarianism — bequeathing a legacy — the Safdat Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in 1989. Founded by likeminded writers and intellectuals, the organisation has been working to promote "liberal cultural consciousness with theatre, art, publications and related genres of cultures to address issues pertaining to the greater multi-cultural ethos in India today.
Art historian Geeta Kapur says, " SAHMAT has worked to build solidarity among the artists and intellectuals on questions of conscience in current politics especially in the areas of communalism. ... attempted more ambitiously to build a movement where an alert consciousness will anticipate fundamentalist tendencies in our national cultural life and provide a platform for those of us who should want to intervene in the social process…”
The war against the alleged "misinterpretation" of HInduism by Wendy Doniger might as well be a spur for a more inclusive debate on Hinduism — a faith that offers hearing room to all schools of thoughts, interpretations and discourses in the true tradition of the Shaivite HInduism that lays down destruction as the trigger for change — transformation
-Madhusree Chatterjee

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