Exploring Religions

Religions of India

1.    `The religious meaning and social purpose of Hindu temples have changed dramatically over the past 300 years.  Write an essay in which you compare one temple that Joanne Waghorne discusses with one other temple drawn from what we’ve read and talked about in the course (e.g. the ideal-typical South Indian temple of Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge’s article)

A way in which to connect with the divine can be seen through the tirthas in Hinduism.  Tirthas are a way in which devotees link themselves not only to a greater cosmos, but also to the, literally, ‘crossing over’ of the divine.  These places of worship are often decorated with koyils, or temples, although sometimes not.  The fashion of construction and ritual that precede and follow the formation of these temples has changed rapidly throughout the course of the 21st century.  As seen by Waghhorne’s description of the Virpaksheeswara (say that ten times fast…woah) temple and Appadurai’s portrayal of the ideal temple the experience that these temples offer  have transformed from a reciprocal and controlled, hierarchical one to a more democratic, shared interaction. It is not the cultural identity of the temple that has altered, but rather the process and management style in which the temple is organized around.

Appadurai describes the temples as a place devoted to the royal sovereign.  The deity is the reason for the temple and the processions that surround this sacred space.  The temple stands as a place to worship the deity and ensure personal commitment to it.  Appadurai states that “religious sacrifice has a contractual element, in which men and gods exchange their services and ‘each get his due’” (196).  The temple represents a larger redistribution system and a transaction with the deity.  Yet, in the Virpaksheeswara temple it is not the deity who is in control of the temple, but rather the volunteers and neighborhoods surrounding it.  The temple itself does not necessarily represent a specific connection to a deity, but rather a reflection on the self-made attributions of the middle class.  The reconstruction of the Viraksheeswara was not for the sole purpose of “getting their dues” from the deity, but rather as a communal way to adhere to convention in a new, innovative way.  She recalls that “expressions of divine intervention in their lives for the sake of wealth or even jobs was rare” in the conversations she held with the Viraksheeswara temple devotees (119).   The temple still contains divinity within its entrance, but it is a type of sacred that permits peace of mind, rather than the stress of distribution.  Therefore, while Appadurai describes the temple as an autonomous form of participation in the overall ritual and redistribution process, Waghorne cites the temple as a place of not necessarily revolving around the central role of the deity.

In the eyes of Appadurai, the temple is a place devoted for giving the deity puja and in return gaining left-overs and blessing.   The temple is a shared space, yet devotees who take part in the processes of the temple do so independently and in private. Temples, like the Vaisnava ones, are place of order and hierarchy that link the worshippers to the deity, as seen by the placement of the Sri Satakopan, a symbol of Vishnu’s feet, on the heads of the worshippers.  These public places are created for the sole purpose of redistribution and devotion.  For Waghorne, the temple is still a place of propriety and peace, but it is more a place to relax and Still practice puja and Prasad, but the Virpaksheeswara temple’s purpose is more of a global link and neighborhood symbol, rather than a

Both temples reveal processes of communal efforts, but Appadurai’s temple is one of a hierarchical nature.  Since the reigning deity is made of stone, authority is given to the agent appointed by the deity.  In other words, the hierarchical system in this temple begins with the deity in the sacred world, which is limited in its actions in the profane world, and so gives power to the ruling authority.  There is a certain order that accompanies this hegemonic structure of the temple: “depending on whether one was the donor, a temple servant, or a worshipper, and depending on the particular ritual event in question, one’s share in the ritual process would have a different concrete content” (198).  The temple becomes a place of unequal power in the structure it creates.  This hierarchical nature of the temple is held together by the shared orientation and dependence on the autonomous deity.

As for the middle class temples in Madras/Chennai, the hierarchical relationships may be still there but they are minimal.  These innovative temples are based around democracy, and commonality.   There is a common concern for public propreiety and orderliness.  There is still a type of order found within the Virpaksheeswara temple, yet “these sensibilities became modus operandi—a working principle of orderliness, felt continuity with the past, localization—but all in the context of a world system” (Waghorne, 119).  There is propriety still involved in the procession of this temple, but it is not as rigid as the former south Indian temples.  The Mylapore middle class constructed the temple project within the context of rapid globalization. And within this global context, they created a more inclusive, local environment.  They collaborated in a process that “cuts across caste lines, crosses class distinctions, and bridges the urban-rural divide” (133) rather than form these divides, as in the case of the Appadurai temples.

This transformation in the organization and management of the temple reveal the dynamic nature of Hinduism.  Temples are a part of the Hindu cultural identity, but they are also a part of an innovative process.

2.    If he were alive today, how would Rammohun Roy view the conflict over the Ramjanmabhoomi/Babri Masjid?   What would be the most relevant features of the conflict, for him?  Who would be the heroes and who would be the villains of his narrative of the conflict? 

Rammohun Roy is known as the “Maker of Modern India,” yet he could never have anticipated the circumstance that India finds itself in with the conflict over the two pinnacle religions in the South Asian region: Hinduism and Islam.  Roy built his life around the abolishment of idolatry, social bigotry, and social evils, such as sati.  The conflict over the Ramjanmabhoomi dovetails Roy’s argument against sati since it deals with idolatry; yet, in some ways it agrees with Roy’s beliefs that the Muslim rulers in the Mughal era trampled upon the religious rights of the Hindus.

Roy believed that nothing on earth could define the nature of the sacred.  This misinterpretation of using the idealized temple in as a place of worship is a misinterpretation of the scriptures.  “no object animate or inanimate that has been, or shall hereafter be recognized as an object of worship by any man, or set of men, shall be reviled” (The Trust deed of the Brahma Samaj,105).  This decision produced a type of Hinduism that was closer to the tenets of Islam and so because of this disgust of idolatry Roy would disapprove of the Ram campaign.

The conflict over the Ramjanmabhoomi/Babri Masjid became a source of idol worship.  Ayodhya transformed from a place in Hindu mythology to one on Earth that could accessed by the profane.  As the Metcalfs elaborate upon Ram worship became an epic “blockbuster commercial event, not only the initial production, but the associated sales of cassettes, the franchising of spin-offs, and the piggy-backing of publications and other products that tapped into the new ‘Ramayana fever’ “(Metcalf, 276).   Anything associated with this mass distribution of Ram would be heresy, as perceived by Roy.  The idols and pilgrimages that the Ramjanmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid conflict initiated would go completely against the tenets of Roy’s arguments. Thus, the hours devoted to organizing and planning the destruction of Babri Masijd in a form of a pilgrimage defeats the notion of what his Hinduism embodies.

On the other hand, Roy grew in a time period where he understood the pluralism and coexistence of the Muslims and Hindus during the Mughal era as a time of brutal devastation of the Hindu faith by the Muslims.  Roy desired to create a type of Hinduism that was orthodox, but could live in context of his time without The Metcalfs state that “even the liberally minded Ram Mohan described the centuries of Muslim rule as a time when the ‘civil and religious rights’ of India’s ‘original inhabitants’ were ‘constantly trampled upon’” (88).  In the end, Roy would consider the Hindu fundamentalists to be the heroes of the conflict because they are standing up for the Hindu faith.  He would side with those that are willing to fight for Hindus at all costs, yet he would have some reservations about the way in which they were fighting, especially in terms of the idol worship.

The Ayodhya conflict may have permitted a greater formation of Hindu identity for some devotees, but overall it weakened the morality of the nation and the faith that other Hindus held for the one another.   Roy may have agreed with some aspects of the conflict, but overall I believe that after the riots and hundreds of deaths he would see that this path was not the solution to the retribution of the Muslim rule in the Mughal era.

EDITED OUT: Roy read metaphorical language in scriptures allegorically.  His understandings of Hinduism ideology was one that held shruti texts more authoritative than smriti ones, with the exception being the Law of Manu.  Therefore, even though it may be anachronistic, he regarded the Vedas are the source of answers for any questions regarding the practice of Hinduism.  He reinterpreted Hinduism during his contemporary time as one that did not practice idol worship.

3.    What is gained and what is lost when religion, or a religion, has been made the basis for a vision of the nation in a religiously pluralistic country like India?  

India is a vast country, peopled with diverse and ancient civilizations.  One of the chief features of this unique country is its complex religious diversity.  The decision for the secular government to “engage with, and so sustain, all of India’s various religions” in religion instead of put up a wall in front of it reflects on the ethnic and cultural mosaic that India embodies (Metcalf, 233).  Without embracing religions, India loses its meaning in the global context; yet, from the interaction of these religions India is stuck in a position of helplessness.

India is home to the birthplaces of various forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.  Its rich history is heavily fused with religious events and timelines.  Since religion is so intertwined with the culture and history of religions, taking away this diverse religious relationship would loss the diversity that India cultivates.   India is envisioned as a country in which religious communities are the primary players.  Religions are a part of the identity of not only the communities within it, but they are a part of the identity of the county itself.   If India did not embrace religion as they do today they would lose not only a part of their history, but also a part of their culture.

Then again, there are many costs of being a nation surrounded by and interacting with multiple religions.  The distinction and recognition of religious communities, especially Muslims and Hindus, has created a nation that is full of turmoil and underlying tensions.  The situation in Ayodhya is just one example of the loss that India receives when all religions are recognized. These types of effects are especially disastrous in the global context when it can hurt not only the economy of India, but also the morality of the nation.   As these Ram devotees had moved closer to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya they created an exclusive community that India could not afford to have.

Conversely, in creating a nation that allows Hinduism to become the basis for the nation, it would create greater loyalty to the country, as well as religion, because they would be the same.  Hindus would no longer be divided in their loyalties because the nation would intertwine with the dominant sect of Hinduism.  The dominant Hindus could strengthen their bonds with their countrymen and Sanskriti descendents.   This nation would be the homeland that Savakara envisioned.  It would be one in which the race-jati would rule (Savakar, 85).  No longer would there be conflict over what type and approach is needed to education the younger generations because there would be a mandatory education.  In Savakar’s world, everyone would learn the tenets of Hinduism and the Hindu scripts.  There would still be grave differences among the different factions and castes in Hinduism, but these variations could thrive in the new environment, or they could be suppressed by the domination of the dominating sect of Hinduism.  Most likely than not the RSS, VHP, and BJP would dominate the political and social scene in India.  This transformation would create a situation in India that could improve the situation for many Hindus, but more likely than not would produce greater hegemonic relationships in the Indian community.  Thus, the minority religions in India would dissipate without the protection of them in the Indian government and Hinduism (I cannot say what type, although I am pretty sure it would be Brahminical or orthodox) would thrive.

Lastly, the recognition of all major religions in India permits the celebration of all major holidays.  Even though these holidays slow down the economy and political production of India, it also brings a sense of unity and identity to the people of the country.  Religions tie people to the land and the areas that they love.  These renowned holidays and pilgrimages permit not only the formation of identity for many Indians, but also a sense of community among people of all religions.  The holidays are time for enjoyment and festivity.  In that way, India is special.   Indians may not know how unique their country is in the global context, but those who understand realize that their identity can both embody the vigor of India and the spirit of their religion.

The decision to use embrace the religions of the nation was a brave, yet controversial one.  Part of the appeal of India is its attempt to balance and engage in the nation’s religions.   With the interconnectedness of the world, India is not only competing within itself, but also with other developing nations.  Even through the conflict and terrorism that India has endured from the decision to recognize all religions, it has been able to move forward and hopefully in the future make peace with all religions as a basis for the vision of the nation.  If it does not, then tourists, like myself, would have no place to go to find enlightenment.  J

4.  India is unique in that it is a country composed of fifteen national (state) languages.  How has the use of language, or the use of words, expressed religious beliefs during the changes in India?  How does this relate to the sacred and profane?

Throughout the semester, we have seen language, through either scriptures or dialogue, play a representative role in to the sacred in various contexts. The shift in access and use of certain languages, such as Sanskrit and English, reflect changing roles in religion and public culture.  Some languages have represented the way in which the profane can connect to the divine, such as Sanskrit, whereas other languages attempt to separate the two worlds in order to ease issues in the profane world, like English.  Anderson argues that the main causes of nationalism, and therefore the imagined communities, form from the reduction of privileged access to particular script languages, as well as the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism.  These trends can be seen in the context of India where the Sanskrit language has become available to millions with the mass publications of Vedas, Upanishads, the Law of Manu and other sacred text.  Sanskrit is still used as a vessel to the sacred, but throughout the history of India, this linguistic connection to the divine has been used by Hindu reformers in order to progress certain agendas.  Today, Sanskrit is still used as hierophantic language, but English has begun to occupy a greater role in the world of the profane and ultimately, with the emergence of the middle class, the sacred.

Beginning with the Old-Indic age, Sanskrit emerged as “as the sacred language of legal and ritual tradition cultivated by Brahmans” (Metcalf, xxiv).  Gurus, Brahmans and their disciples used specific word to connect to the divine through the mantras.  These mantras were manifestations of the sacred in their sounds and syllables. The Sanskrit language allowed certain devotees to feel connected to the divine.  Other religions also used vernaculars to connect to the God, such as in the Sufi romance, Suz-u-gudaz: Burning and Melting by Muhammad Riza Nau’i, where the poet pushes the listeners and readers “to attune ourselves to the language, not to allow its mannerisms to distract us” (5).   The story, but more importantly the words, brought the readers closer towards God and the realization of Unity.

These ancient languages revealed forms of divine.  The use of such sacred languages were employed by those seeking spiritual connections.    Sanskrit represented this connection to the divine through the use of it in the scriptures and customs:

Words can into the world as precious pearls,

Through them the Guru taught enlightenment.

The maker fashioned the four holy Vedas,

And the world became manifest on Earth.

Words came down from heaven to earth,

Sent down by the Lord himself.

[…] the word is too precious to be described or sketched.

The word belongs to God, who has neither form nor line (Madhumalati’s “In Praise of the word”, 12)

Words were gifts from the gods.   They were a part of the divine.  Before the British, different languages coexisted with one another as the religions did, especially in the Mughal era.  The sultanate and Mughal era was a time of “enduring ethnic and linguistic pluralism of both the ruling elites and those ruled” (Metcalf, 5).  Even though Muslim rulers dominated, these sultans allowed languages to proliferate and take form.  In this period, “creativity and vigor of cultural life on all sides was shaped by pluralism” (Metcalf, 6).  Overall, a mix of coevolving religions used language as a way to connect with God through poems, mantras, scriptures, and recitations.

Sanskrit was and is used as a vessel for the sacred in the early history of India, as well as today.  Yet, as the technology of writing became more prevalent and the printing press emerged, Rammohun Roy observed that sacred practices were misinterpretations of the words and allegories of the scriptures.  He himself used technology of writing and printing to circulate his opinions on sati and idolatry.  His arguments, in English, for a relook into the customs of Hinduism created a new lens to view Sanskrit. The meaning of the Sanskrit further changed with Gandhi.  He used his roots in Sanskrit to compose words that propelled a non-violent social movement, such as satyagraha, swaraj, and the redefined ahimsa.   His use of Sanskrit words reflects his subtle preference for the Hindu culture (as further argued by Peter van der Veer, 94).  Gandhi desired to create independence through coexistence of Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikh, Buddhists, and all other Indian religions.  He was “anxious to create a language that would bring people together, [and so] advocated the use of the shared north Indian vernacular, called Hindustani, written in both Nagri and Indo-Persian script” (Metcalf, 228).  Gandhi called for the unity of languages to end the turmoil of India and create a nation of self-rule.  He desired to use the sacred language of the Hindus to create a united nation.  Both reformers used their knowledge in Sanskrit to form a new of Hinduism and a renowned sense of Hindu nationalism.

The use of Sanskrit, and Hindi, as the sacred languages begins to take an even greater turn through the ideas of Savakar.  Savakar used “Sanskriti” to unite Hindus and create an exclusive Hindutva nation:

Thought, they say, is inseparable from our common tongue, Sanskrit.  Verily it is our mother tongue—the tongue in which the mothers of our race spoke and which had given birth to all our present tongues.  Our gods spoke in Sanskrit, our sages through in Sanskrit, our poets wrote in Sanskrit.  All that is best in us—the best thoughts, the best ideas, the best lines—seeks instinctively to clothe itself in Sanskrit.  To millions it is still the language of their gods; to others it is the language of their ancestors; to all it is the language par excellence; a common inheritance, a common treasure, that enriches all the family of our sister languages. (Savakar, 95-96)

Savakar used Sanskrit to exclude communities that did not take root with this Sanskrit language.  He formed a closed imagined community through the exclusion of Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians who did not have Sanskrit, and thus the Hindutava culture, at the origin of their language. Savakar’s desire to create a culture with roots in Sanskrit reemerged again and again throughout the late 1990s in the Hindu nationalist organizations, especially the RSS, VHP, and BJP.

Meanwhile, another language emerged on the scene with the colonization of Britain.  For years, English represented high society, since only those fortunate enough could afford to master the English language.  Yet, after the British left, English expanded and became a communication tool since it allowed people of various regions to connect with the each other through the language.  More specifically, in 1965, after much deliberation, English became the associate language of India (Metcalf, 248).  This gave educated Indians greater access to the global economy and world of the profane.  It also left many impoverished Indians without a way to communicate with members of their own nation and thus sink into the reality of their profane world.  But, as the Metcalfs claim, the anti-Hindu sentiment that propelled English as the associate language revealed the strength of India’s democracy (Metcalf, 248).  English promoted the influence of Western culture and proliferation of the profane.

India allowed regional cultures and religions to ensue with the use of state indigenous languages.   Language still reflected religious tones as seen by the campaign of the Sikhs to create a Punjab-speaking Punjab state.  The Sikh realized that Nehru’s government would not allow them to create their own state for religious reasons, so they used linguistic reasons to try to gain separation (Metcalf, 242).  Ultimately, the domination of English symbolized the secularization of government. The move to create English as the national language of India reflected the decision to engage in India’s religions, but to separate themselves from any religion and become a secular body.  The government did not favor the Hinduism language of Hindi as many assumed it would.  Overall, the use of English as the official language reflected the desire for separation of religion and government to allow all religions, and not just Hinduism.  Language still holds religious meanings, but the national language of India is moving away from these sacred connotations and closer to the profane purposes.

This topic is important because today India still is bound to many dialects, which are divided between the sacred ones, which are Hindi, Urdu, and indigenous languages that preserve culture within their use, and the profane ones, which in this case is English.  However, with the exchange of ideas and technology English has begun to take on a new meaning.  Waghorne claimed that gurus have now begun to teach their disciples in English, the language of business and commerce.  These gurus (from Thailand, I believe), offer lessons on “engineering the spirit” in order to allow the engineering students to relate their lives to the sacred.  English is beginning to transcend from the profane world to the sacred.  But will using English alter the religious experience?  Or will it make religion more relatable?  Could the use of English be more inclusive to the Indian community than exclusive, like “sanskriti”?


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