Sunday, November 11, 2018

Thoughts on Armistice Day

It is presently 11 a.m. on 11 November 2018, one century after the armistice that ended the Great War, later renamed as World War 1. In Paris, unreached target of the German attack in 1914, in Brussels, capital of "brave little Belgium" that moved Britain into joining the war, and all over the frontline in France and Belgium, it is a prosaic rainy weather, fitting for a commemmoration of four years in the mud.

In Britain, the atmosphere around these annual commemorations has been one of mourning, of national resolve, and of victory. After all, they ended as winners in this war that they had not wanted nor prepared for.  On the side, it also delivered them huge territorial gains in Africa, taking over the German colonies, and in the Middle East, semi-colonizing Ottoman territories in the Levant and the Gulf region.

In France, they also mourn as well as celebrate victory, having acquired smaller slices of these two areas and a large chunk of Germany. But there has also, to the exasperation of US president Woodrow Wilson and Versailles negotiations observer John Maynard Keynes, been a strong element of vengeance, and not so innocently: is was a major cause of World War 2.

At the present commemoration, French president Emmanuel Macron impressed on us the need "not to forget the lessons of World War1". He seems to mean that, now as then, nationalism is a force for evil, thus stabbing at his political opponents in France and the European Union, such as the Brexiteers. But then nationalism has precisely been the spirit of the annual commemorations, certainly in the interbellum but even after that.

In Belgium, the same line is followed as in France but with less fanfare and less grimness. It was also a victor and acquired Rwanda and Burundi as well as a small German territory on the border. Fortunately, nothing came from the plan to give Belgium, whose Godfrey of Bouillon had been the first Crusader king of Jerusalem, the League of Nations' mandate over Palestine. Moreover, together with the new national project of  colonizing Congo from 1909 onwards (before that, it was a private property of Belgian king Leopold II), WW1 and its memory created a new sense of national unity in this artificial state. Yet, in conformity with the drab and down-to-earth national sprit, the "patriotic duty" to celebrate this victory is much less than in France. There has also been a prominent pacifist interpretation of World War 1, crystallized in the slogan "Nooit meer oorlog" (No more war) in a Flemish monument at WW1 site Diksmuide/Dixmude.

My hometown Leuven/Louvain was, in the worldwide French-British propaganda, the proverbial site of German barbarity after the invading army had burned down the university library (it was later rebuilt with American money under the motto: "Furore Teutonico diruta, dono Americano restituta"; in it, the Sino-Japanese department, where I studied, was a gift from the Japanese emperor). Its landscape is marked by the memory, with the central street being called Bondgenotenlaan/Allies' Avenue and the central square Fochplein/Foch Square, after the French commander-in-chief, Marshall Ferdinand Foch. However, significant for the lack of any hurrah spirit over the victory, our mayor recently changed this name, explaining that "Foch was a war criminal".

It is undeniable that the army commanders on all sides sent numerous soldiers to the slaughter for extremely little military gain. That is why, as an India-watcher, I am really puzzled at supposed peace apostle (but British loyalist) Mahatma Gandhi recruiting for the British war effort, so that thousands of Indian young men came to die for nothing in the misery of Flanders' Fields.

At any rate, "we shall remember them": not for some great cause they could have fought for, but for their personal bravery and sacrifice.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Happy Diwali now with a Diwali Tree (though still missing a Bank Holiday)

This post is in reference to an initiative by Anil Bhanot of which the presentation is reproduced in appendix 1 below, viz. the introduction of the "Diwali Tree" (I don't know in how far the text in header is not already a sarcastic conveying of this novelty). Two things are problematic with this "Diwali Tree".

1/ Though it evokes a genuine scene from the Ramayana, viz. Hanuman's fetching the Sanjivani tree (I actually didn't realize it was a tree), or rather the mountain on which it stands, in order to cure Lakshman's wound, this scene is not the one that founds the Diwali festival, viz. the welcome home for Sita and Rama. A purist remark, but if you introduce new symbolism, you'd better start by doing it right.

2/ Justifying the leap over this anomaly is the NRIs' eagerness to Hinduize the Christmas tree, with Diwali being the principal festival the way Christmas is the principal one for Western Christians (for the Orthodox, the emphasis is more on Easter). This is the usual Hindu inferiority complex before "normative" Christianity at work. But the Christmas Tree is not really Christian, it is the Christian digestion of the older Yule Tree. This in turn is a symbol of the World Axis, physically the polar axis (pointing to the Pole Star, being the star on top of the tree), highlighted by the objective and measurable fact of the Winter Solstice, when the Sun turns northward and is, as it were, reborn. Hinduism always had this festival as well, at least since Vedic times, though the last 17 centuries it has been obscured a bit by the confusion with the precessionally progressing entry point of Capricorn (Makar Sankranti, now on 14 January and thus ever farther from on Winter Solstice, ca. 21 Dec.). But even the Makar Sankranti festival is colloquially equated with Uttarayana (= Winter Solstice), so it is still meant as a celebration of the Solstice/Yuletide. Now, everywhere on earth a straight tree (like the evergreen used in the north) is an eminent natural symbol of the world axis, and if tradition really evolve, they had better adopt and incorporate this universal symbolism rather than doing yet another kowtow to Christianity by clumsily adopting a transparent imitation now introduced as the Diwali Tree.

To sum up, my unsollicited advice to my Hindu friends is: simply accept the pressure (massive in the West, on the increase in India) to celebrate the Yule period with a Tree, but emphasize that you are divesting it of its (anyway historically incorrect) Christian associations. Many ex-Christian Westerners do adorn their houses with a Yule Tree and concomitant symbolism (e.g. holly), but without a cowshed with the Holy Family, as is typical is Christian Nativity art. Hindus are in the same position. So if at all they are ready to enrich their festival cycle with the custom of setting up a tree, let it emphatically not be a symbol associated with Christianity, but a natural universal symbol.

For a comparison: the use of green in the flag of Hindu organizations is often a sign of dishonourable kowtows before Islam (e.g. the BJP), but could just as well be interpreted in terms of the universal symbolism of the green colour: nature, greenery, growth. You can divest it of its Islamic association and (as Madhu Kishwar clarified to me) reclaim the universal sanĂ¢tana meaning of green.

Appendix  1

From Anil Bhanot, I received an announcement on 6 November 2018 under the header "Happy Diwali now with a Diwali Tree though still missing a Bank Holiday"

Diwali Tree – Launch on 2 November 2018 @Peepul Centre by Rita Trust with our VIP’s the Little Peepul Day Nursery Children 7000 years ago there lived a king Rama who along with his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakhsman were all having an adventure in a jungle living in a small garden hut called Vatika surrounded by many animals and colourful flowers and trees. Sita suddenly saw a golden deer hopping around their hut Vatika and she loved it so much she wanted to have it as her own pet so she could look after it. She asked her husband Rama if she could have it. Rama then tried to catch the golden deer but the deer was playful and ran away. Then both the brothers Rama and Lakshman went chasing after it to catch it for Sita. while the brothers were away chasing the golden deer, trying to catch it, Sita was left all alone in her Vatika hut. Then another bad king Ravana from a nearby kingdom came and snatched poor Sita and took her to his kingdom. Sita was very beautiful and Ravana wanted to marry her so Ravana proposed to her on his knees but Sita said No because she said she was already married. How can you have two husbands or two wives? You can’t. You only have one husband and one wife. But although Ravana did a bad thing to take away Sita from her Vatika hut he was educated and civilised and so he accepted Sita’s refusal of marriage. However now he had another problem, it was his pride and he didn’t want to return Sita back to Rama. He wanted to keep her against her will in his palace gardens and so he made her another Vatika palace there so that she wouldn’t miss her own Vatika hut in the jungle. He gave her maids and servants to make exotic foods, gave her lovely clothes but she just wasn’t interested. She simply wanted to be back with her husband Rama. She was very upset and crying all the time.
Well on the other side when Rama and Lakshman came back home to their jungle Vatika hut they couldn’t find Sita anywhere so they started searching for her everywhere in the jungle.
Then they came across a monkey king who ruled over all the monkeys in the jungle and he told Rama that the king Ravana had taken away Sita to his kingdom across the seas. Then Rama and an army of monkeys with the help of Hanuman built a bridge across the sea to go and get Sita back. There was a big battle between Rama and king Ravana, during which Rama’s brother Lakshman got badly injured and was on his last breadths. The doctor said he could only be cured by a magical herbal tree called Sanjivani which grew on a certain mountain Dronagiri in the Himalayas.
Hanuman the monkey king wanted to help and he flew to the mountain where the tree was and he brought it just in time so the doctor could make the herbal potion to cure Lakshman.
That herbal tree is what we call the Diwali Tree, for us a Bay tree which is ever green all year round and it’s good for us, we can grow it, water it, and let Mums and Dads use its leaves in cooking because herbs are good for our health like the herbal potion brought Lakshman back to life and made him strong again. The Basil herbal tree may be used too which is from the same family of Bay Tree. the way Rama rescued Sita from Ravana and then they came back home to their palace and all the people in the city celebrated their coming back from the jungle, where they had an adventurous time too, but now they were back home in their own kingdom and so people welcomed them by lighting lamps and that is why we call that day ‘Diwali or Deepavali’ – which means the ‘lamps lighting day’ – to signify ‘light over darkness’, the good winning over the bad people like Ravana who had done a very bad thing, first to snatch Sita from her own Vatika hut against her will and then to force her to live in his palace garden in a new Vatika palace, all against her will, like a prisoner, when poor Sita had done nothing wrong. That was all very bad.
On Diwali day Hanuman, the monkey king, who was always playful with all the children in King Rama’s kingdom would take the kids on flying trips, he’d give rides on his shoulders and bring them presents from wherever he had gone on his flying trips. The kids loved to play with his long tail too. Diwali people thank God for bringing Goodness into their lives, Hindus have done it for about 7000 years since Rama and Sita came home, the Jains have done it since Mahavira was enlightened by God about 2600 years ago on Diwali day and Sikhs celebrate it as ‘Bandi-Chhord’ day because on Diwali day about 400 years ago Guru Hargobind was freed from prison of another bad king’s holding people against their will when they’ve done nothing wrong. So when good things happen people thank God. There is only one God but like we are all different we thank him in many names and forms, as in different religions. In fact Hindus have many Gods but they are all part of the only One God, which people share as many Gods. We have to share everything like we share the one God, we share the Sun, the Air, the Earth and all its trees, which we must look after too. Our Diwali tree is evergreen so we can use it even as Xmas tree and so on every year if we look after it.
Diwali day is a day of family fun & games, gifts, foods, lighting lamps, planting and watering trees especially herbals ones like the Bay Tree, we are launching today as the Diwali Tree.
Anil Bhanot OBE
Founder Trustee Rita Trust
Diwali Tree Launch: Anil Bhanot, who conceptualised the Diwali Tree launching it today, dressed up as Hanuman and sitting in the Hanuman Cave designed by the Little Peepul Day Nursery, together with a forest tree and a golden deer, told the above Diwali story to the children, who later gave him a big thank you and they were seen telling their parents the Diwali message of ‘s
haring’ everything, including God.

Appendix 2: Anil Bhanot's feedback

Dear Koenraad

First of all I have the utmost respect for your academic works on Hinduism and your many corrections of ill-propaganda of Hinduism not only by the conversion led missionary zealots claiming exclusivity of their God but many Hindus as well. My approach however is less academic but more to be practical and thus I am narrating the part of story here just to make it more attractive to children and our youth who otherwise miss it altogether. As for the green colour it is one of the colours of a beautiful rainbow as are others all of which are presented in the signage. 

I hope people will like the idea of Diwali Tree and explain to children the Hanuman's story of Sanjivani Bootie and who knows maybe at Xmas people will start using this Bay Herbal Tree as its evergreen and has its uses too. 

I am with you on always correcting the wrongs but please stay with me on expanding the rights. 

Happy Diwali. 


Appendix 3: Answer to Anil Bhanot's feedback

Dear Anil,

Of course I can see the beauty of the artwork on the appended photographs and their use in imparting the Ramayana and Hindu tradition in general. I should have started by congratulating you with it. I was principally reacting to the element of imitation of the Christmas Tree tradition, possibly not at work in your own mind but certainly operative in the minds of many who will adopt it.

My general point, of which the present instance is but an illustration, is that the ongoing exposure to the Christian world need not lead to the acceptance of Christian doctrines, symbols or customs. Ill-informed Hindus tend to adopt elements from a tradition which they call Christian, often in its most Christian and least rational form. People like the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, RK Mission and Mahatma Gandhi remained totally blind for the scholarly deconstruction of the Bible which was going on in the West,showing how spurious Christian historical claims often were, or how borrowed "Christian" customs often were. Instead, they swallowed the missionary idealized image of Jesus and of Christian history hook, line and sinker and even made it part of their worldview and ritual. This may have been understandable in the circumstances of the Hindu Renaissance, but it is an unforgivable mistake to perpetuate such misconceptions today.

Sorry if with this debate I distracted anyone from Diwali revelry.


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