Congress and BJP have descended on Sabarimala temple in Kerala to show their support for the people who are against women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the temple. It would do them good to see how ascetics, learned individuals, saints and more changed how modern Hinduism came to be defined. Especially the Congress that claims the mantle of the leadership of India’s National Movement, since the stance of the ‘grand old party’ in the 21st century is letting its own legacy down.
The pioneers of the Indian renaissance of the 19th century would hang their heads in shame if they saw the leaders of the nation marching against the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala. In a bid for election votes, both Congress and BJP have descended on Sabarimala temple in Kerala to show their support for the people who are against women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the temple.
It would do these senior leaders to go back and learn from the Indians who were forward-looking feminists, contemporaneous with the awakening, renaissance and winds of equality breezing across the globe. From the early medieval period itself, large parts of this region we call India, saw ascetics, saints, learned individuals, and political philosophers questioning the rigidity of caste and tradition, urging a spirit of deep questioning.
From Eknath, Namdeo and Tukaram in the region we call Maharashtra to Kabir who is the pride of Banaras, to 12th century Basavanna, who rejected caste rigidity, some or all of these questionings, in fact, caused a change and determined how modern Hinduism came to be defined. Others remained part of the ‘shramana’ tradition always at odds with the Brahmana one. But the battle between the ‘Shraman’ and ‘Brahman’ is as old as time, as recorded by Megasthenes in the early Indian period (elaborated by historian Romila Thapar.
Indian textbooks perfunctorily deal with the stories of the Brahmo Samaj and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. They narrate the contribution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Stories of the oppression and humiliation meted out to Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule find less space. The fact that Savitribai with her partner opened the first all-girls school in Bhidewada Pune in 1848 escapes notice.
Swami Vivekananda who merged western ideals with Indian Hindu ideals in an attempt to create the modern intellectual Hindu and to take the Ramakrishna Mission forward. Modern India stands on the shoulders of these people who were ahead of their times and caused the Hindu reform movement in the 19th century.
Most of our laws regarding the Hindu Marriage Act, the law against child marriage and dowry and the end of the Sati culture rest on the struggles begun by some of these reformers. Then why are the educated 21st-century leaders of today hell-bent on taking the country backwards and erase all the good that was achieved?
A deep dive into the Hindu reform movement
Colonialism gave Indians access to western ideology among other things. Many learned individuals sought knowledge and found that rationalist views were needed to reform human rights and bring social justice. Two crucial movements were born in Bengal while a far more fundamental issue was being raised in Maharashtra.
The leaders of the movements in Bengal were inspired by the ideas of rationalism and humanism. They laid great stress on science and education for the regeneration of Indian society. They carried on a campaign against obscurantism and inhuman customs and institutions, like the oppression of women child marriage and caste rigidity. As many social evils had acquired the sanction of religion, they also devoted themselves to religious reform. Through their deep study of ancient religious literature, they showed that all such practices and institutions were contrary to true religion.
Rammohan Roy’s campaign was a major factor in the banning of the inhuman practice of Sati by William Bentinck in 1829. The Brahmo Samaj founded by him in 1828, and revitalized by Debendranath Tagore and Keshub Chandra Sen, inspired similar movements in other parts of the country. Derozio, a young teacher, inspired the Young Bengal movement which questioned all traditions.
Roy was a Brahmin and faced oppression from his orthodox community at the time when he wanted to abolish Sati. He spoke against the caste system from which he benefitted. He quoted Vedic literature back at people to show them how they were treating other humans with such disregard.
“The present system of religion, adhered to by the Hindus, is not at all well calculated to promote their political interest. The distinctions of castes introducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions among them have entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling and the multitude of religious ties and ceremonies and the laws of purification have totally disqualified them from undertaking any difficult enterprise. It is, I think, necessary that some changes should take place in their religion, at least for the sake of their political advantage and social comfort,” he had said about the demerits of the caste system.
He was the pioneer of the reform movement in India and wanted education and equal rights for women and minorities.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a great scholar and reformer, dedicated his life to the cause of improving a lot of women, particularly the Hindu widows. A social reformer and upper caste Hindu Brahmin like a Vidyasagar wanted widows to have the right to remarry and found it cruel that they were forced to live a life of ascetics and celibates. He dined with the people who were considered lower caste and opened the doors of education or them at places where only Brahmins were allowed to study. He formed almost 35 schools for the education of children.
“The enactment of the Sati Abolition Act XVII 1829 and the Widow Re-marriage Act XV 1856, through a successful collaboration among Indian reformers, the British government and the society, motivated uprooting of sati and widowhood systems. Evidently, a legislation enacting social reform to be successful must not only be preceded by a vigorous public opinion but should also be followed by consistent efforts to educate the masses. The Sati Abolition Act, together with the public awareness programs taken before and after the abolition, proved to be highly effective. The alertness of local administration, the efficiency of law enforcement officials, and the strong public opinion against the evils of the practice helped uproot it. The sati system died down within a quarter of a century after the promulgation of the Sati Abolition Act of 1829,” wrote Prerna Dhoop.
Mahadev Gobind Ranade of the Prarthana Samaj fought against the rigid caste system. The Samaj wanted universal brotherhood and equality of all castes. Ranade believed that social reform was a must and that evil had crept into the old Hindu Vedic customs and the practices of the 19th century were besmirching the original Hindu ideal. “The change which we should all seek is a change from constraints to freedom, from credulity to faith, from status to contract, from authority to reason, from blind fatalism to human dignity,” he had said. He was against infant and child marriage and called it the greatest evil.
Jyotiba Phule along with Ranade found the Satya Shodhak Samaj. Phule fought the prevalent Brahmanical hegemony and suffered humiliation for setting up schools for Dalits and untouchables of the time. He wanted to ignite the fire for civil rights among peasants and people of the lower caste, strive for the emancipation of women and make them independent and shed the religious and social slavery imposed on them by Brahmins. His fight was the precursor to making untouchability a crime in the country.
Words from his book entitled Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustaka.
“All religious works are written by men and they do not contain truth from beginning to end. Changes were made by certain obstinate men in these books to suit certain occasions... and they give rise to divisions and cults full of hatred and envy.
God created all things. He is kind and desires that all should enjoy human rights. If the earth we inhabit is created by God why should the peoples of different countries be torn asunder by enmity and the madness of patriotism, and why should religious bigotry prevail so much? When there are so many rivers in different countries, how can a particular river in a particular country become the most sacred? That most sacred river does not hesitate to carry with its water the droppings of dogs. All men possess the same kind of features and intellect. Nobody is sacred by birth. Everybody has his virtues and vices as a human being…."
Move south to modern-day Andhra and there was Veeresalingam around the same time, close to 200 years ago, on the criticality of social reform. Kandukuri Veeresalingam (1848-1919) was also a towering figure of Telugu literature. The following excerpts on the importance of social reform are from his 'Last Appeal' published in the second volume of his Autobiography in 1916.
“For the nation's progress, the task of reform should pay equal attention to all aspects of life and not confine itself to one of them only. One-sided development cannot be equated with true progress…. Time was when the mere mention of the topic of women's education used to rouse the ire of the people in general. Now, there are girls' schools everywhere and women's education has made such rapid headway that many women there are, who are able to speak in public and publish their own books. Then there were no suitable books in the Indian languages even for men to read; now there are organisations to encourage the writing of books not only for men but for women as well…. I would, therefore, appeal respectfully to our people not to neglect the task of social reform.
One woman, single and strong stands out like a beacon amidst the men who spoke of Women and their rights. Savitribai Phule was her one other contemporary. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) had earned the titles of 'Pandita' and ‘Saraswati' for her learning. She founded the Arya Mahila Sabha at Pune ‘to work for the deliverance of women from evil practices which tradition and custom have continued in India from the Past'. On her return from England and U.S.A., where she had embraced Christianity, she started the Sarada Sadan for widows, and later the Ramabai Mukti Mission. Besides a number of other writings, she published a book entitled The High Caste Hindu Woman. What did Ramabai say about the Condition of Widows?
“Throughout India widowhood is regarded as the punishment for horrible crimes committed by the woman in her former existence…. But it is the child-widow upon whom in an especial manner falls the abuse and hatred of the community as the greatest criminal upon whom Heaven's judgement has been pronounced. A Hindoo woman thinks it worse than death to lose her beautiful hair. Among the Brahmans of the Deccan the heads of all widows must be shaved regularly every fortnight. Girls of fourteen and fifteen, who hardly know the reason why they are so cruelly deprived of everything they like, are often seen wearing sad countenances, their eyes swollen from shedding tears. They are glad to find a dark corner where they may hide their faces. The widow must wear a single coarse garment. She must eat only one meal during the twenty-four hours of a day. She must never take part in family feasts. A man or woman thinks it unlucky to behold a widow's face before seeing any other object in the morning.
“The relations and neighbours of the young widow's husband are always ready to call her bad names. There is scarcely a day of her life on which she is not cursed by these people as the cause of their beloved friend's death. In addition to all this, the young widow is always looked upon with suspicion, for fear she may some time bring disgrace upon the family by committing some improper act. She is closely confined to the house, forbidden even to associate with her female friends…. Her life, then, destitute as it is of the least literary knowledge, void of all hope, empty of every pleasure and social advantage, becomes intolerable, a curse to herself and to society at large.
And then a few decades down, in Kerala itself just where the current contestation around Kerala is being fomented. Shri Narayana Guru (1898-1928)p played a leading role in the awakening of the Ezhaws and the Tiyyas, the most oppressed castes in Kerala. Revered by people of all castes and communities as a saint, he summed up his teachings in the celebrated Mantra, 'One Caste, one Religion, ‘One God for man'. The following inscription was written by him on the walls of a small temple founded by him in 1887.
Without differences of Caste,
No enmities of creed
All live like brothers at heart
Here in this ideal place.
The following excerpts are from his Jati Mimamsa (A Critique of Caste)
Man’s humanity marks out the human kind
Even as bovinity proclaims a cow.
Brahminhood and such are not thus-wise;
None do see this truth, alas!...
Of the human species is even a Brahman born, as is the Pariah too,
Where is the difference then in caste as between man and man?
The Arya Samaj by Swami Dayanand Saraswati set up schools for men and women to educate them in Sanskrit literature and the Vedas among other Indian texts. Many national leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and GK Gokhale were influenced by the Samaj’s philosophy. They were also among the earliest freedom fighters who laid the foundation of a free India that we know today.
Swami Vivekananda had said that “A Hindu seeks to uplift himself by being the servant of all.”
The Pandalam royals held a special puja at Sabarimala Temple on Monday and Tuesday and turned it into a fortress. The ‘Sree Chithira Atta Thirunal” puja is meant to mark the birth anniversary of the last king of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. How ironic since he declared a proclamation in 1936 abolishing the ban on low castes or avarnas from entering Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore, Kerala.
Human rights vs animal rights
The Supreme Court decision on Jallikattu, where a bull is cruelly tamed for sport, didn’t find many takers in Tamil Nadu either. Animal cruelty has been a part of Indian culture since time immemorial. Bulls, oxen have been sacrificed and even beef has been offered to Hindu Gods in the name of traditions and rituals.
Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, a leading Indologist and expert in Vedic scriptures, quoted ancient Vedic scriptures which has many examples of gods asking to be fed beef. “Indra, who Hindus believe is the god of rain and heaven, ate beef, according to the academic. The Rig Veda, he said, mentions that Indra asks to be served 15 to 20 cooked oxen. Citing the Shatapath Brahman, a Vedic text, and Yajnavalkya, an ancient philosopher, Bhaduri, said, 'I eat it (beef) only if it is cooked till it is tender'” said a report.
“The Vedas encapsulate the essence of Hindu dharma. They are replete with instances of sages and even gods consuming beef. In fact, a guest in a Hindu household used to be referred to - according to the Vedas -as ' goghna' or he who is served beef as part of the hospitality ritual,” he said in an interview.
The insensitivity shown by the ‘fringe’ elements close to the ruling party when they said that the Kerala flood happened because its citizens eat beef is shocking.
“The veneration of the cow has been converted into a symbol of communal identity of the Hindus and obscurantist and fundamentalist forces obdurately refuse to appreciate that the cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical traditions—or that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat, was quite often a part of haute cuisine in early India,” said DN Jha, in a text which was the part of his 2001 book ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow.’ Many extreme right-wing elements called for the burning of this book.
“Self-styled custodians of nonexistent “monolithic” Hinduism assert that the eating of beef was first introduced in India by the followers of Islam who came from outside and are foreigners in this country, little realizing that their Vedic ancestors were also foreigners who ate the flesh of the cow and various other animals,” the extract reads.
“Fanaticism getting precedence over the fact, it is not surprising that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and their numerous outfits have a national ban on cow slaughter on their agenda. The [then] chief minister of Gujarat (Keshubhai Patel) announced some time ago, as a pre-election gimmick, the setting up of a separate department to preserve cow breeds and manage Hindu temples, and recently a Bajrang Dal leader has even threatened to enrol 30 lakh activists in the anti-cow slaughter movement during the Bakrid of 2002. So high-geared has been the propaganda about abstention from beef eating as a characteristic trait of “Hinduism” that when the RSS tried to claim that Sikhs were Hindus, there was vehement opposition from them and Sikh youth leader proposed, “Why not slaughter a cow and serve beef in a gurdwara langar?” Jha wrote.
“The communalists who have been raising a hullabaloo over the cow in the political arena do not realise that beef-eating remained a fairly common practice for a long time in India and that the arguments for its prevalence are based on the evidence drawn from our own scriptures and religious texts. The response of historical scholarship to the communal perception of Indian food culture, therefore, has been sober and scholars have drawn attention to the textual evidence on the subject which, in fact, begins to be available in the oldest Indian religious text, Rigveda, supposedly of divine origin. HH Wilson, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, had asserted that the “sacrifice of the horse or of the cow, the gomedha or asvamedha, appears to have been common in the earliest periods of the Hindu ritual,” the extract said.
How many innocent people have been killed by cow vigilantes since the present government came to power?
Had it not been for the reformers, female infanticide would have continued to be an acceptable norm, women wouldn’t have inheritance rights, dowry deaths would be an everyday phenomenon and infants would be married off as soon as they were born. Opposition to long-held beliefs are natural, what is unnatural is going back on all the progress made by the visionaries who saw a more educated and human India.