Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India


“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins. And as long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.

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