In this festival season from Dussehra to Diwali, an Indian watcher of life in America notices a minor yet interesting trend: an apparently widening acceptance of Hindu (and other eastern) prescriptions for calming the mind during an emotional storm.
It is no longer a surprise when a TV commercial on a mainline U.S. channel features a white American, male or female, sitting in the padma or lotus posture with eyes closed and the face serene. Nor is it a shock when a non-Indian is seen extending the wonderful, no-contact, namaste greeting. Our Covid times have caused this gesture to spread far beyond India's shores to other races on the planet.
In this favourable global climate, India's Hindu world tragically offers some sickening images. Like that of the yati who is based near Delhi in western U.P., is associated with a historic temple, evidently commands a large following on social media, and who apparently asks for nothing less than "the removal of Muslims from the face of the world".
Hindu India has also lately offered the video of one of its priests in Ayodhya, evidently enjoying fervent local support, who threatens to immolate himself if by a certain date (about which he fortunately displays flexibility) if India is not declared a Hindu rashtra and Muslims and Christians are not stripped of their citizenship.
Then there are the images of actual and brutal extinction, like that of 24-year-old Arbaz Mulla of Karnataka, whose mutilated body was recently found on a railway track between two small stations (Desur and Khanapur) that lie about 30 km from the city of Belagavi. Arbaz paid the ultimate price for that primeval human folly: falling in love. The message was that "Hindu India" will not only not allow a young Muslim man and a young Hindu woman to fall in love. It will discourage that impudence in an unforgettable manner.
Murderous prevention of human love is poor advertisement for any religion or nation. It becomes the essence of immortal tragedy and is the source of poetry, music and social change in age after age. Down the ages it has also been the hallmark of tyranny. Stung by it, will we use it as a fuel for reform?
I will say more on this last point, but first let me point out that police in Karnataka seem to have arrested several people in connection with Arbaz's murder, and that FIRs have evidently been filed against the yati in question, even if not necessarily for his wild statements about Muslims.
Let us recognize, moreover, that Hindu extremists like the ones I have mentioned are not on the same page with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who probably faces more hostility from fierce champions of a Hindu rashtra than he does from political parties opposed to the BJP. Politics linked to religion, whether it is Hinduism in India, Islam in Pakistan, Buddhism in Myanmar, or anything else, seems to invite sharper enmities from "within" than from secular antagonists.
India's government and security forces can doubtless recall Pakistan's bloody July 2007 confrontation between the army under Musharraf and the extremists who had occupied Islamabad's Lal Masjid as also the adjacent residential madarsa for Muslim girls. That operation resulted in hundreds of deaths and an attempt to assassinate Musharraf. The Modi Government will not want to allow any possible build-up towards that sort of situation.
Disappointment that our constantly communicating and famously fluent Prime Minister is silent when innocent lives of farmers, Dalits, adivasis and Muslims are snuffed out has been expressed by some and felt by a great many more. However, my purpose in this column is to point to another conspicuous silence: the silence of Hinduism's gurus and swamis. In an earlier era, India mercifully found some Hindu thinkers who denounced untouchability and insisted that the shameful practice violated Hinduism's central injunction about the sameness of all human beings. In 1916, Gandhi told a Chennai audience: "Every affliction that we labour under in this sacred land is a fit and proper punishment for this great and indelible crime [of untouchability] that we are committing." Two years later, he said, "If slaveowners can be said to be fit for swaraj, then perhaps we are."
Candid acknowledgments of this kind led, among other things, to the outlawing of untouchability in free India's Constitution, even if the practice continues in subtler forms. In an earlier age, thank God, brave Hindu intellectuals like Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had attacked the heinous sati custom.
Before and during this Diwali, there will be innumerable celebrations, sermons, songs, and open-air displays featuring the victory of good over evil. Children will play with excitement. Gifts will be exchanged, and new clothes will be put on with delight. Learned discourses will be offered from neighbourhood platforms and on TV. Amidst all that, will some Hindu voices from some Hindu platforms - from religious, spiritual, non-political platforms - denounce atrocities against helpless and cornered humans? In plain, unmistakable language? Calm, serene, silent faces that avoid looking at cruelty, or wink at it, can only disgrace Hinduism at a time when the global climate seems to be friendly to it.