Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Will Ganpati bless Bhagat Singh?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
TWO events this week have got me leaning on a mix of counterfactual history and mythology for help. It was Bhagat Singh’s birthday on Sept 28, and, as is customary in rising India of late, not a word, not even a cursory reference came by on any TV channel to the legendary martyr. Remember he was only 23 years old when they hanged him for his revolutionary principles.
The other discomforting experience was being caught in long traffic snarls in western Uttar Pradesh on Sunday thanks to a religious festival that had been intriguingly transported from Maharashtra. I am referring to the 10-day long celebrations to Lord Ganesh — the elephant-headed god worshipped in Maharashtra as Ganpati.
One explanation why Bhagat Singh is shunned by Indian news channels may be that while nearly all TV entrepreneurs make big money from vending blind faith, the upright freedom warrior would be a threat to their commerce by making more sense with compelling reason. Bhagat Singh was a self-declared atheist who had evolved into a well-read, mature Marxist visionary.
According to Prof Chaman Lal, historian and author of many books on the legend, the Sikh hero was so certain of his growing distance from religion that he didn’t think twice before cutting his hair, a sacrilege for a Sikh. It must be for good reason that Bhagat Singh wrote his moving and persuasive essay Why I am an atheist just days before his execution at the Lahore jail.

TV is a disturbingly powerful medium. It can make the legend of Bhagat Singh vanish from the minds of the new generation

TV is a disturbingly powerful medium. It can make the legend of Bhagat Singh vanish from the minds of the new generation. When it does discuss him it does so by sticking to the ‘safe topics’, and avoiding his penchant for reasoning, his denunciation of superstition. What we experience though is Hindutva-backed Bhagat Singh Sena. It goes about attacking people who reject its extreme nationalism or its narrow version of how young women should think.
To compound the tragedy, Bhagat Singh who died for advocating an enlightened future generation of Indians, stands forsaken by a growing army of young men and women he had in mind. Though they dare not denounce him openly they have not spared any opportunity to insult his memory. Even celebrating the 10 days of Ganpati could do with better awareness of the tradition, something a scientific-tempered observer like Bhagat Singh would support.
The Hindu religion has its subtleties and nuances. And Ganpati is part of this rich lore. Unfortunately, as I found out, the garish revellers had missed the point as they drove through a chaotic day in Uttar Pradesh with their mega decibel speakers mounted on rented trucks. In other words, it would be frustrating for you to look for anyone among the Ganpati crowd I met near Rampur, with red hibiscus flowers. They are traditionally offered to the best loved deity in the Hindu pantheon.
Across Maharashtra, Ganpati is considered partial to the red flower, a fact I confirmed recently during a visit to one of his popular temples at Ganpatipole in the mango-rich Ratnagiri district. Gauri-Hara cha nandana, Gajavadana, Ganpati. Every Maharashtrian devotee of Ganesh knows the captivating song to the little child of Gauri (Parvati) and Hara (Shiva). It is usually sung in Raag Bhopali, the most popular version being rendered by the renowned Asha Bhosle. What passed for religious music in Uttar Pradesh was revolting.
Classical singer Kishori Amonkar’s composition in Raag Hamsadhwani also describes enchanting forms of the deity. Ganpati vighana haran, Gajanan, she sings. Vighan (or vighn) haran is similar to the concept of mushkil kusha, or deliverer from obstacles. In Uttar Pradesh though the role of the deliverer was hitherto assigned to the monkey god Hanuman. He was the sankat mochan — one who rescued people from any crisis.
The mandarins of Hindutva based in Nagpur and their much-advertised promotion of Hindu culture thus offered a garish substitute to what was once aesthetic and alluring in the Indian religious traditions. I quizzed a drunken reveller about the meaning of Ganpati Bappa Mourya written on his T-shirt. It is an endearing Marathi salutation to the deity. He said it was a Sanskrit greeting to Ganesh.
The appalling situation was not helped when the prime minister of India declared that the elephant head of Ganesh was proof of plastic surgery in ancient India. Plastic surgery? While scientific analyses of Hindu religion, including adulatory accounts, are currently frowned upon in India, a treasure trove of excellent research on the Ganpati lore exists nevertheless. One such explanation suggests the Ganpati beliefs are a set of pastoral tradition. Ganpati riding a rat, for example, has a slew of explanations.
“Conquest is very often symbolised in this manner,” anthropologist Balkrishna Atmaram Gupte says. “Shiva rides the bull he conquered; Krishna dances on the hood of the snake Kaliya whom he vanquished; and so Ganesh rides over the rat he destroys, as Lord of the Harvest. The origin of the gigantic head of an elephant on one side and the little field mouse on the other can thus be accounted for in his figure.”
Other interpretations speak of mice representing fertility. Farmers sprinkle crumbs of the rice-flour sweetmeat, modak, favourite of Ganpati, in the fields for the rats so that they will not harm the crop.
Meanwhile, the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi, hub of probing research in social sciences, looks primed to be stripped of its questioning spirit by the new administration. Since Ganpati is a generous and giving god with not an iota of mean-mindedness, is there hope that Bhagat Singh’s dream of a progressive India, unfettered by blind faith, stands a chance of being fulfilled?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn September 29th, 2015http://www.dawn.com/news/1209651

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