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Sati and other outrages; and a response - The Indian Express

Amulya Ganguli ()
13 December 1996

Title : Sati and other outrages
Author : Amulya Ganguli
Publication : The Indian Express
Date : December 13, 1996

No sooner had the Miss World contest ended than the
worship of Rani Sati Mata started in Jhunjhunu, Rajas-
than, but there was not a squeak from those who had
threatened to disrupt the Bangalore show. Neither the
karate champion Sashikala with her cyanide-popping bri-
gade of female warriors, nor the BJP legislators, includ-
ing the most fiery of them all, Uma Bharati, nor the
bright young things of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi
Parishad, the future hope of Hindu Rashtra, who were so
eager to go to Bangalore, considered it necessary to
protest against the glorification of this most chilling
of Hindu customs.

Only a lone organisation, the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan
Andolan, took up cudgels against it and sought to goad a
reluctant administration in the BJP-ruled state to stop
the puja. But to no avail. According to a report in The
Hindu, "the mood was festive at the temple... Women
devotees came in their bridal finery to pray for the long
lives of their husbands." Given the fiery context, the
prayer was not surprising!

That the BJP should have maintained a deafening silence
is understandable. It is not only that one of its senior
leaders, Vijayaraje Scindia, had once publicly extolled
the custom, as a party of medievalism which is expected
to establish a "Hindu-oriented" government in the coun-
try, as a sangh parivar stalwart has said, the BJP can
hardly be too vocal against rituals which serve to bring
together the conservative elements in Hindu society. Any
sharp denunciation of the sati puja, or an expression of
disbelief in phenomena like the idol Ganesh drinking
milk, will confuse and alienate this section, undermining
its electoral position.

So the BJP generally prefers silence or a faint formal
denial of any support for the puja as a reluctant conces-
sion to having to operate in the godless Kaliyug when
ancient traditions are not respected. Its MPs like
Sushma Swaraj or Nitish Bharadwaj are far more insistent,
however, when calling for broadcasting bhajans on Rajdha-
ni Express or compulsorily telecasting religious epics.

An inevitable fallout of the politically motivated empha-
sis which the fundamentalist parties of all hues give to
religion is the strengthening of bigotry and supersti-
tion. It is not only that their purpose in propagating
religion is tainted, being intended less for spiritual
advancement than for boosting their political fortune,
the use of religion for such causes automatically brings
to the fore the less enlightened elements of the communi-
ty. The reason is that the emphasis is not on the broth-
erhood of man but on its exact opposite - a virtual call
to arms to fight the followers of other religions, wheth-
er they be infidels or invaders.

Unlike the followers of some other major religions,
however, which are based on the belief that their sacred
books express the words of God, Hindus are in a far more
advantageous position to oppose scriptural injunctions
not only because they are fortunate in having neither a

Prophet nor a Holy Book, but also because their sages
include atheists whose refusal to compromise with hazy
notions provides excellent basis for developing a ration-
al outlook.

Who can question, for instance, Ajita Kesakambala's stark
vision of reality: "There is no (merit in) almsgiving,
sacrifice or offering, no result or ripening of good or
evil deeds. ...There is no passing from this world to the
next ... There is no afterlife." It is surprising that
this aspect of our heritage, which underlines a remark-
ably clear-sighted attitude, has been neglected and,
instead, many hours of broadcasting time and columns of
newsprint are devoted to vacuous expositions of religious
themes. The less than salutary effects of such misguided
policies are evident not only in the glorification of
sati but also in the occasional reports of child sacri-
fices to propitiate a deity.

Scepticism, as well as a conscious promotion of the
scientific temper, are to be valued as an antidote to the
political misuse of religion and the prevalence of super-
stition. It is only in an atmosphere of blind faith that
charlatans posing as godmen can thrive, and it is not
surprising that India has so many of them on the eve of
the 21st century.

Instead of fanning religious fervour, it may be worth-
while recalling Bertrand Russell's words. "You find this
curious fact that the more intense has been the religion
of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic
belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse
has been the state of affairs ... You find as you look
around the world that every single bit of progress in
humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law,
every step towards the elimination of war, every step
towards the better treatment of the coloured races, or
every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that
there has been in the world, has been consistently op-
posed by the organised churches of the world. I say quite
deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in
its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy
of moral progress in the world."

Consider also Dayanand Saraswati's words to a rich mer-
chant who had spent a fortune in building two temples:
"You have spent your money in vain. ... It would have
been better if you had done a good deed that would have
benefited some people of this country. You could have
arranged the marriage of the daughter of a poor man; you
could have arranged the marriage of these many 30years-
old maiden daughters of Kanauj' brahmins; you could have
built a school for boys and girls, or opened a training
centre for arts and crafts from which the country and the
people would have benefited. Instead, you have wasted
your hundreds of thousands in vain."

Religion as a source of personal solace still remains
unparalleled in its efficacy. In its institutional form,
however, or as a source of aggressive mobilisation
against political opponents, its record has been unedify-
ing. Even now, what transpired in its name in the middle
ages; can be seen in Algeria, Ireland and Bosnia.

India, too, was partitioned on its basis and it is sig-
nificant that the ill-effects of this division are more

evident in theocratic Pakistan than in secular India.

The lesson is clear: religion must remain a matter of
private belief, to be kept strictly out of the domain of
public life where science must be given pride of place.


A response:

V Merchant

9-B, Suvas,
Rungta Lane,
Mumbai 400 006.

December 13, 1996.


Reading Shri Amulya Ganguli's ("Sati and other outrages", Dec
13) one would get an impression that the problem of
fundamentalism lies only with Hinduism. There is no need to
worry about fundamentalism of other religions. This is in
line with what Nehru had said in the 1950s, when he proclaimed
that majority fundamentalism is a greater danger than minority
fundamentalism. What is not of concern to the 'secularists'
is that while majority fundamentalism kept low, precious
little was being done about minority fundamentalism. In fact,
one can say that it was being nurtured for the purpose of a
vote bank. Shri Sultan Shahin, in an article in The Asian Age
(Dec 7, 1996), said, "Ever since Mahatma Gandhi decided to
support the obscuantist and revivalist Khilafat Movement in
the Twenties all politicians have continued to woo the
Maulanas and the Mufits. It is time the nation decided to
support and encourage a new and forward-looking leadership
among the Muslims."

While even one Sati death cannot be justified, highlighting it
in the manner that solving this problem will solve all the
problems of this country, does very little credit to
intellectual debate in the society. The problem of triple
talaq for Muslim women, and the denial of inheritance for
Christian women in Kerala whose husband dies without writing a
will, are of much more important problems, for which neither
Shri Ganguli nor the Mahila Atyachar Virodh Jan Andolan are
doing anything. What the alleged intellectuals are unable to
differentiate is the rule and the exception.

However, it must be said to the credit of Shri Ganguli, whose
raison d'etere is to denigrate Hinduism, that he does find
that it is only the Hindus who are able to 'oppose scriptural
change'. The main reason for this is 'because their sages
include atheists whose refusal to compromise with hazy notions
provides excellent basis for developing a rational outlook'.
Without in any way underplaying the valuable role played by
the atheists, the religious and the secular non-atheist sages
are equally responsible for this rational outlook. Mahatma
Gandhi said, "My belief in the Hindu scriptures does not
require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely
inspired....I decline to be bound by any interpretation,
however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or
moral sense." (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.
XXI, p 246.)

Yours sincerely,

(V Merchant)

The Editor, The Indian Express,
Express Tower, Nariman Point,
Mumbai 400 021.

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