Low - cost for low caste

Letting the cat out of the bag

By A.J.Philip

SHANKARACHARYA of Govardhan Peeth in Puri Jagatguru Nischalananda Saraswati was in the news for "reconverting" 72 tribal Christians in the same area where Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons were roasted alive. Presumably, the conversions did not contravene the special laws that exist in Orissa. Nobody should grudge His Grace for his mission as long as he uses persuasion, and not force.

Today in Europe and the US, the fastest growing religion is Islam. At its present rate of growth, Muslims will outnumber Christians in a few decades. Nobody can say Islam is growing at the point of the sword. This only proves what Sir Thomas Arnold in his classic Preaching of Islam had asserted, it was the "quiet, unobtrusive labours of the preacher and the trader", which spread the message of Islam. I wish the same could be said about the re-conversion drive launched by His Grace which has as its fulcrum the project to bring all the Christians and Muslims who converted after 1947 back to the Hindu fold even when the tribals insist they are animists.

It had always baffled those who know the caste system in Hinduism, how exactly the neo-converts would be placed. By no means could they be included in the four varnas or categories - Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra - that the Vedas speak of. Obviously, they had to be outside the Varna system like the Dalits and the Adivasis, who are being rechristened Vanvasis. His Grace has graciously removed this confusion. And when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad approves of his position, it becomes an interesting proposition.

The Shankaracharya has promised to build "low-cost" temples, "as prescribed in Hindu texts", all over the country where converts from Christianity and Islam can jointly worship. What's more, His Grace has even promised them all the rights and privileges of Hindus except entry to existing temples "to avoid any embarrassment" and the right to marry Hindus. They must, of course, banish all thoughts of entering the "magnificent temple" which will come up in Ayodhya.

Thanks to His Grace, Christians and Muslims know where exactly they will be if they convert. They will have low-cost "Swastika" temples dedicated to Lord Ganesh. But without "communion" relationship with Hindus, they will not be able to "garve se kaho hum Hindu hein" (say with pride we are Hindus). For those who know the Shankaracharya, this is nothing surprising as His Grace had stated in an interview, women should not read the Vedas.

Thus the Christian women, who convert will not be able to substitute the Vedas for the Bible, which, incidentally, is called Vedapustakam in Malayalam. To be fair. His Grace had clarified that it was not because he wanted it that way but because the Hindu scriptures did not allow women to read the Vedas. It is a different matter that Pandita Ramabhai had converted, not because she did not read the Vedas but because she read it and found some of their prescriptions against women distasteful. It also explains why the famed Gorakhpur Press, which is doing a splendid job by publishing Hindu religious texts at affordable prices, does not publish or, at any rate, popularise the Vedas.

Not only that, the neo-converts will have to make a lot more sacrifices to go to that "low-cost" temple, if His Grace has his way. In the interview I quoted, the Shankaracharya had also argued that women should not be given the right to property because "in every situation she lives under the guardianship of a man". This will be a tall order for the Christians and Muslims, who do not subscribe to the theory of karma and the cycles of birth. This has a lot to do with their religious traditions.

For instance, the concept of equality was alien to early Christians, who looked down upon the Gentiles, "lepers" and tax collectors. The opposition to dividing mankind into "clean" and "unclean" was formalised as a non-negotiable part of the new religion by the first church council held in Jerusalem. The council was called because some of the apostles had started mingling with the Gentiles. The early Jewish believers thought Christianity was another Jewish sect. After an intense debate, it was resolved that this part of their Jewish tradition had to be discarded. Thus Christianity became a religion distinct from Judaism precisely at this point of rejecting the distinction between the "clean" and the "unclean".

So for those with such a background to told that they will not have equal rights in Hinduism should they convert, is difficult to digest. But then allowance has to be made for the fact that Hinduism as a hierarchical social order and democracy as an equalising social force are antithetical to each other. Take the case of the social reformer, Mahatma Phule, who was approached by the "nationalists" to forget the social inequalities that existed in the society and join wholeheartedly in the fight against the alien rulers. He was well aware of how the Brahmins had used Marathas against the Mughals by temporarily making them Kshatriyas. But they were made Shudras once the Peshwas superseded the Marathas. Phule, therefore, replied that the caste discriminations were not a corruption but a natural outcome of the Hindu worldview. As Ambedkar argued later, Hindus do not practise Untouchability because they are more cruel than others, but because it is part of their religion. So His Grace can hardly be blamed.

However, his offer demotes a fundamental change. In the past, a whole battery of terms was developed from the late 19th century onwards as Hindu expansionism, directed towards marginal groups and tribals, became more organised. The attempt was to raise the social status of the convert and not to bring it down, to make the religion attractive. UN Mukherji's Hindus: A Dying Race (1909), which skilfully used some census data and projections to develop a horrifying vision of Hindu decline as contrasted to Muslim growth, provided the intellectual underpinning to the reclamation attempt. He pinpointed the subordinated castes to be the Achilles' heel of Hindu society and his remedies amounted to a kind of planned Sanskritisation from the top at brahminical initiative. The shuddhi movement to purify or reconvert marginal groups became a major pursuit in Punjab and other places.

But this time round the Shankaracharya does not even promise a social uplift for the converts. So for the pre-1947 Christians, a majority of whom are Syrian Christians, it is only low-cost temples that are on offer. It is they who had taken pride in their Brahminical ancestry and kept their religion out of bounds for the low castes till the Europeans came and allowed the breezes of equality to blow into the churches. Small wonder that Arnold Toynbee, who had developed an affinity to Hinduism, answered in the negative when he was asked whether he would convert to that faith. As he explained, the Hindus would have found a new caste to dump him in

The Following Article Came in the New Indian Express , Chennai Edition Centre Editorial Page article on 9th June 2000


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