Giving Saraswati a bad name

Could it be that the insult to the goddess of learning in keeping millions of people illiterate is sought to be compensated by forcing school children to do in ritual what the government won’t do in reality?

It is reported that the Kalyan Singh government in UP intends to make Saraswati Vandana compulsory in
schools. At least three questions arise in this connection. Can a government that is supposed to owe allegiance to a secular Constitution be religiously partisan? Is coercion legitimate in religious matters? What does it mean for Saraswati Vandana to be turned into a political ploy? Of these, it is only the last question that concerns us here.

The wry humour of the situation becomes apparent when we recall that Saraswati is supposed to be the goddess of learning. UP is a state where illiteracy is endemic. Universal education for all children under 14 years of age, as mandated by the Constitution, has not been a priority with any of the successive governments this state has had since Independence. There is no basis to assume that the present government is an exception. Could it be that the insult to the goddess of learning in keeping millions of people illiterate is sought to be compensated by forcing school children to do in ritual what the government won’t do in reality?

My concern in this context is neither political nor legal. It is strictly religious. I am worried that the political misappropriation of the mythology, ritual and symbolism of Hinduism will do enormous harm to this great and tolerant faith. In this process the profound treasures of this way of life could be altered and corrupted beyond repair and recognition. Their symbolic meanings belittled, they could be employed as instruments in the service of fundamentalist interests. So we could soon have the mockery of turning the goddess of learning into a means for aggravating the educational backwardness of a particular community! Coupled with the mullahs’ proverbial penchant for knee–jerk reactions, the state imposed worship of the goddess of learning could result in increasing illiteracy, especially among the Muslims in the state, who are already educationally most backward. That would be Saraswati Vandana indeed!

There can be no doubt at all that worshipping Saraswati is a laudable thing. But what does Saraswati signify, and what does it mean, therefore, to worship her? Saraswati, as she is usually portrayed, is clad in pure, snow white, which symbolises purity. This is born out of the Eastern intuition that learning is inseparable from purity.

The book and veena held in her hands signify knowledge and artistic skills that harmonise in a holistic approach to education. The swan, the symbol of discernment, is her vehicle. Appropriately too; for what is education worth if does not train people to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong?

That being the case, to worship Saraswati is to be committed to her three–fold attributes of purity, all-round education, and discernment in our way of life as a whole. It is to endeavour to nurture a culture that upholds these values. Now think of the sacrilegious irony of forcing people, with impure and political motives, to worship the goddess of purity! It is an insult to Saraswati to be turned into a pawn in the hands of politicians who care little either for literacy (book) or for fine arts (veena).Insofar as their political move is based on the presumption that people have no discernment (swan), it perfects the insult to the goddess in question!

It is very astonishing that those who care for Hinduism do not voice their protest against this blatant misuse of the idea of religion in general, and of Hinduism in particular. The very purpose of religion, especially the genius of Hinduism, is to affirm and celebrate the oneness both of the human species and of the Ultimate Reality. There is nothing surprising about politicians wanting to ‘divide and rule’; for it is one of the oldest tricks in their trade. But can that be so for the religious–minded?

We have not seen a better Hindu in this century than Gandhiji. The essence of his Hinduism expressed itself in a life–long endeavour to hold the various religious communities together in the Indian context. Ingredients of this very religion now stand in danger of becoming instruments of alienation in the hands of politicians and religious fundamentalists.

To understand what this entails, let us consider what has happened to the symbolic meaning of ‘saffron’, if only as an illustrative instance. Not long ago saffron symbolised sacrifice, purity and commitment. It was a colour associated with sadhus and swamis. Not so any longer! Now in popular imagination this colour is more intimately associated with the Sangh Parivar! When journalists write glibly of ‘saffronizing’ education, surely they do not intend this to be a complimentary description. As one clad in saffron, I cannot help feeling awkward. My worry is that the fate of Saraswati Vandana will not be any better; and I protest!

Hinduism is neither Islam nor Christianity to flourish under state patronage. At the best of times, state protection and patronage were dubious blessings even for these religions. They were infected with the spirit of triumphalism, and Christianity in particular got enmeshed with colonialism to its own detriment.

In the unholy alliance between politics and religion, there is often a powerful tendency for politicians to abuse religion as a handmaid in the service of their whims and fancies. Religion becomes an accessory to political game plans. If we forfeit discernment at this juncture, Saraswati Vandana could well end up as a litany in the cult of political power that cares neither for education nor for Hinduism.

It is regrettable that those who are responsible for the well being of millions of people rake up non–issues at a time when we are beset with many burning issues. Perhaps the best way to sideline real issues is to fabricate spurious ones. The issues that fester on the body of this nation are poverty, illiteracy, the death–dance of preventable diseases, deteriorating quality of life, and the rise of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism that perpetuate our mental and material backwardness.

The need of the hour is to harness the energy and enthusiasm of every Indian to the cause of nation–building, and not aggravate alienation to dissipate our collective resources. Discrediting the discernment of the common man, politicians try to lead the people from gimmick to gimmick, and assume that they can keep the nation in appalling poverty and cancerous corruption without having to face the consequences. As long as this outlook does not change, the name of Saraswati will remain in our mouths an insult to her significance, and her vandana, a bit of ritualistic mockery in the political charade that goes on.

Archived from Communalism Combat, December  1998. Year 6  No. 49, Controversy 1



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