By SUGRUTHA RAMASWAMI
Sometime ago, the Sangh Parivar called on Indian Christians and Muslims to Indianize themselves by becoming pluralistic in religious thought. The request was to alter their scriptures and doctrinally become accepting, tolerant, and respectful of other faiths in general, and the majority faith, in particular. I began to wonder when the counter-call would come to examine our own Hindu scriptures to eliminate disrespect or diminishment of people based on caste and varna—that is, birth or profession.
Suraj Bhan, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, an autonomous body funded by the Indian government, has recently given that overdue call—to change our scriptures to exclude from popular practice demeaning references to Shudras and Untouchables. Although it has not generated any serious debate, sporadic responses from the left and the right curiously converge on a consensus that there ought to be no scriptural changes. The left wants a constant reminder of our alleged “historical shame” and the right thinks there is nothing shameful whatsoever. But Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) agrees that at least some texts like Manusmriti do contain objectionable material.
The questions raised so far: Will changing scriptures be beneficial at all, is not change in attitudes more important? Will we lose chunks of our history by deleting forever portions from scriptures? Since varna and caste are entirely different concepts, will it not be sufficient to explain the difference? Who reads the scriptures anyway, so why tamper with historical texts?
Firstly, changing scriptures alone is hardly sufficient, but it will certainly fuel changes in attitudes in due course. Secondly, I don’t believe Bhan is asking for complete banishment of the offending passages; he just wants them removed from popular practice. The unabridged versions can always be preserved in educational institutions just as specimens are preserved in museums. Neither does he suggest an elaborate witch-hunt into obscure texts.
Thirdly, varna and caste may be entirely different concepts, but the two have been locked together in a tight wedlock in the popular imagination. Fourthly, it is true that hardly anyone reads any scriptures anymore. But every Hindu broadly understands the concept of varna, its context in the scriptures, and its use as the basis for caste and profession-based spiritual and cultural elitism.
A well-publicized departure and distancing from this theory is vital to a fundamental change in attitudes toward birth and profession, and cultural and spiritual matters. Social hierarchies will always exist everywhere, but no civilization needs scriptural sanction for the essential existence of classes and class-conscious behaviors.
Let us hope that Bhan elicits a robust debate, if not his wished-for changes. Indifference will only reaffirm a certain innate varna-based elitism.
Sugrutha Ramaswami is an IT professional in New Jersey.
No, this is just motivated shadow-boxing
By RAJEEV SRINIVASAN
There is a lot of utter nonsense being propagated in the name of Dalit rights. This is generally the result of string-pulling by those with the money and marketing muscle for conversion around the world, usually rich American Christian cults. Hence, prima facie, it is a little hard to take this particular demand seriously.
For, consider the obvious questions. First, why is there no corresponding call for modifying Islamic or Christian scriptures? The Koran explicitly demands of Muslims that they “slay the idolaters wherever you might find them” (Surah 9.5). Perhaps Bhan can demand that this offensive (to “idolaters” including him) commandment be removed from the Koran?
How about the Bible’s assertion that “the sons of Ham shall be enslaved by the sons of Shem,” used as scriptural justification for slavery and apartheid? Is this why Dalit Christians (isn’t that supposedly an oxymoron?) are oppressed by the church? American founding father Thomas Paine tried expurgating all the offensive stuff from the Bible and found it became a very thin book indeed.
Second, why is Bhan asking the Indian government to interfere in anyone’s scriptures? The Indian government is supposed to steer clear of all religion. So why is this call going out by a government appointee to ask for a government-appointed commission to do said editing of Hindu scriptures?
Third, which exactly are these impugned Hindu scriptures that Bhan finds so offensive? Unlike Islam, Christianity, and Marxism, Hinduism has no single scripture. Who said the Manusmriti is scripture? The British assumed that just like in their religion, there must be a book in Hinduism that “gave the law,” and they arbitrarily declared that that book was the Manusmriti. But most Hindus don’t consider the Manusmriti scripture, merely the opinion of a clever and rather dyspeptic medieval man.
In fact, any fool can write a smriti and if he or she is logical and forceful enough, it will get accepted. Bhan could—and should— very well go ahead and write a Surajsmriti and see if he can convince people based strictly on the power of his arguments.
Alas, Bhan is tilting at windmills if he thinks bowdlerization is going to do the trick. Prejudice is universal. American W.A.S.P. Christians used to severely discriminate against Irish and Italian immigrant Christians; they oppress Christian blacks even today (see New Orleans). Arabs despise all other Muslims, and their own women. Marxists strut around like the superior pigs in Animal Farm.
So the change has to be in hearts and minds. And for that, this sort of rhetoric isn’t good enough. Bhan needs a lesson from Sri Narayana Guru: “Become enlightened through education, become strong through unity.” Blaming others is easy, but the answer is self-improvement.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this from Goa.