by Swati Thiyagarajan
So I am a beef-eating Hindu Brahmin, married to a South African of no religious affiliation. I am a trained Bharat Natyam dancer and I also love hip-hop, belly-dancing and jazz ballet. I studied Sanskrit and Tamil as second languages along with Hindi which I still struggle to speak with correct grammar and pronounciation, making English my first language. Tamil is my mother tongue. I love Yoga, I love chanting Sanskrit shlokas but over and above all of that, I am a woman and an Indian.
My culture - and I mean mine personally - is one of lovely contradictions. No one can tell me I am not Hindu. No text can tell me how exactly to be one. No, the Ramayana is a story, not the "Word" like the Bible or the Quran. In fact, I prefer the Mahabharata any day. My mother is a pure vegetarian, my father is not. He taught me that the sunrise, a little bird song, a tall tree are all God. He taught me that the observer, me and the observed, the universe are intimately entwined. He taught me if we do not see ourselves in others, then there is no beauty to being human.
So when dangerous nitwits try and circumscribe me into narrow boxes with their filtered jingoistic take on Hinduism, it makes me wonder what kind of people they are, and do they even see India the way I do? Let me say that I am not going to romanticize my view of India. I see the poverty, the helplessness, the garbage, the corruption, the violence. I wake up to stories of an old Muslim man killed by a mob on the suspicion he was eating beef. His younger son was also beaten badly. His older son is an engineer in the IAF. I wake up to news that a khap panchayat, that lovely bastion of patriarchal kangaroo court justice, ordered the rape of two sisters because their brother married outside his caste. Caste. Paint it whichever way you like, it's a sick degrading practice, as much an apartheid as the old system in South Africa, the country in which I now live. I have seen more racism in India than I have here in South Africa. I was called a "madrasi" casually by people who would be shocked if you told them they were parochial idiots. I have alternately been asked how I am not dark as all madrasis are and also been told by an acquaintance that her summer holidays made her as dark as me. On work for a shoot at the Taj Mahal, the ticket window guy argued that my camera person had to pay the foreigner rate because he was Korean. My camera person was from Manipur. I was flatly told we were lying as Indians did not look like him. It's not just North India but also South India that has all these issues. So, no, I have no romantic view of India.
But I have also seen another India, travelled in it, lived in it, been told stories about it. In that India, I have been fed without having to ask, been welcomed without questions, seen unbelievable dignity in the face of all odds. I remembered a story of how the great Bismillah Khan was once on a train and when it stopped at a station, he heard a most haunting melody, a raga he could not identify. It was a young boy walking through the train playing the flute. He stopped near the ustad, and the ustad was mesmerized by the tune. And just as suddenly as the boy came, he left. The ustad was convinced he had been in the presence of divinity. He swore the young boy who played for him was none other than Lord Krishna. Ustad was on his way to the kumbh mela to perform, in a profoundly Hindu festival. When he did perform, he played the raga he heard the boy play and that raga was called Kanhaira by him.
My Hinduism is simple. It is "aham brahmasmi" or "the core of my being is the ultimate reality, the root and ground of the universe, the source of all that exists." There is only one supreme being and it is the super consciousness, from which we all sprang and into which we will all be absorbed. Just as a seed carries the secret of a mighty tree within, we carry the supreme conciousness. When that is the central philosophy of Hinduism, where the microcosm and the macrocosm are linked in an infinite beautiful cycle, how can I ever accept what the extreme right wing would like to see as Hinduism? When Hinduism, a way of life, a philosophy that roots itself in a bedrock of tolerance, is twisted into narrow rules and regulations trapped by bars of hate, I cannot and will not accept it. When my Hinduism, asks me to believe in Athithi devo bavah, or "the guest is God", when it asks me to find God in myself because tatvamasi is the heart of the matter and therefore makes me find the divine in others, how can the rule makers separate us into individuals instead of humanity? My Hinduism is stories I danced to. When Bhakt Jayadeva wrote the Geeta Govindam while writing of the love between Radha and Krishna, he spontaneously composed a line, "dehi pada pallava mudharam" or "Krishna asked Radha to place her lotus-like feet on his head." Appalled by this thought that had come to his head, Jayadeva left the house to go bathe and clear his thoughts. A few minutes later, much to his wife's surprise, he came back and sat down and wrote and left again. A few minutes later he came back again. He sat down and then with great anger asked his wife how she could have written the words that were such an insult to God, his wife, most puzzled, said that he himself had just come back and written them and that's when Jayadeva knew it was Krishna himself who had done so. God was saying that in the presence of love, even God is the lesser. Yet, today, we hate, hate so much. That is not my Hinduism.
In our culture we will ignore that Charvaka is an ancient Hindu philosophy that embraces philosophical skepticism and rejects the Vedas, Vedic ritualism and supernaturalism. It encourages questions and arguments. Established by Brihaspati, one of our most venerated sages. Yet we will murder professors and social workers who subscribe to it. Our Gayatri mantra, asks for the benevolent light of the sun, the life giver, to inspire our intelligence, to inspire our understanding and to banish ignorance and bathe us in enlightenment. Where is any of that now? In our culture, we will ignore that all meat was consumed by Hindus in the Vedic times and erase that part of history. Indeed that over 60% of India eats meat is rejected. I reject that Hinduism. That narrow confined box.
You can call me a pseudo sickular liberal presstitute. I will just bow and say namaste, which means "I greet the divine in you".