Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Questioning the Equality Statue



Questioning the Equality Statue


(First Post, mid-January 2022)



On 5 February 2022, the revered Prime Minister, Sri Narendra Modi, unveils a giant five-metal statue of the 11th-century founder of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (“qualified-non-dualist conclusion-of-the-Veda”) philosophy and Ācārya of its concomitant Bhakti (“devotion”) practice, Śrī Ramānuja. Though the preceding philosopher Śaṅkara with his Advaita Vedānta (“non-dualist conclusion-of-the-Veda”) is better known internationally among intellectuals, in India he is more revered for his path-breaking organizational work in monasticism and temple worship, while it is Ramanuja whose devotional theism is far more entrenched in Hinduism’s religious orders and popular culture, including its variations in sects like the Nanak Panth (Sikhi) or the Swaminarayan community. In living Hinduism, which has many leading figures, he may not be such a household name as Shankara or Swami Vivekananda, but arguably his influence reaches the deepest.


This is a joyous occasion, we have no reason to minimize it. But, as is my wont, I leave it to others to applaud this event; I would rather offer a few critical observations.



1.    Gigantism

The Ramanuja statue is one of the largest in India, reportedly 216 feet high, standing on top of a 54-feet pedestal. It follows the trend set by Sardar Patel's statue in Gujarat, to which even overflying airplane pilots draw the attention of their passengers. But what purpose is served by this?

In the case of a political figure, one can understand that the public square is where he belongs. So, a century and more ago, national authorities strengthened their self-justification in the public's mind by visually commemorating those who had been pillars of their establishment. For a philosopher and religious leader, this overwhelming physical presence is less appropriate.


Secondly, making a statement about your ideological sympathies by means of a statue towering over the street view is rather obsolete, since our visual life has mostly gone into cyberspace. Statues belong to a past century, nowadays you can produce far more impressive images online.

Thirdly, why the gigantism? The best Hindu temples have an intimacy about them (as struck me especially in Ujjain’s HarSiddhi temple or in the present Kashi Vishvanath), and even the biggest ones are divided in compartments that reproduce this intimacy. They are meant for visits by families at times convenient to them, not for congregational worship fixed on Friday or Sunday. And they are meant for pilgrims, not the mass tourism that giant statues aim for.


A few years back, I was in Haridwar and Rishikesh, where a flood of the Ganga river had wrought some destruction, washing human constructions away. This included a recent giant statue of Shiva. The locals told me that this was Ma Ganga's way of showing her disapproval for this gigantism. A god doesn't need this kind of emphasis on his intrinsic greatness. In a way, it is disrespectful to his divine character. If you must, then make a giant statue of Patel, who after all cemented the Indian state, the ultimate authority sanctioning all these monuments. But Shiva can do without this, and so can Ramanujacharya.



2.   Trinkets

Whenever anything is done for religion, Leftists sourly object that the money had better been spent on prosperity-enhancing initiatives for the masses. Dharma-oriented people can take a leaf from the Leftists’ book and wonder whether the money spent on the statue (and to be spent on its upkeep in the future) could not have served a better purpose. Thus, local temples or Dharmic associations connected with those temples could have deployed more activity in the field of education, a field where Hindus are painfully absent compared to the Christian missionaries.

Since Modi came to power, many people have noticed with increasing consternation that several consequential legal anti-Hindu discriminations which could finally have been abolished by the BJP’s comfortable majority in Parliament, are on the contrary being perpetuated. The BJP not only left the existing inequality between Hindus and the minorities (who are given privileged autonomy by the Constitution, esp. Art.26-30) in school and temple management intact, it has actively thwarted attempts to correct this glaring inequality. When in 2018 BJP MP Satyapal Singh tabled a Private Bill to abolish these discriminations, it was not just cold-shouldered by his party; he was given a minor Minister’s post (bought off?) and nothing was heard of his proposal again.

Hindu places of worship are not autonomous, they are subject to or constantly threatened by nationalization and the siphoning off of their funds towards secular or even anti-Hindu purposes. This is highlighted by the race to the exit of the Hindu community by sects that want to invest in education and fear such government take-overs, such as the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission or the Lingayats. Similarly, Scheduled Tribe communities who have a status in a grey zone part Hindu part separate, are embracing the non-Hindu side, affirming their local identities as Donyi-Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) or Sarna (Jharkhand), because they gain from a cool “aboriginal” identity and have everything to lose with a demonized and discriminated-against Hindu identity. The alternative to leaving the sinking ship of Hinduism is to remain loyal, but of such loyal Hindu temple associations I hear from local primary sources that they sometimes contemplate initiatives in education but call these off because of this same fear of a hostile take-over. Instead of glittering statues, they could use extra funds to finance their juridical defence under the present power equation; or better still, a BJP-piloted abolition of these discriminations so as to lift this fear.

Instead, apart from giving privileges to the minorities in the vain hope of catching their votes (or in the equally vain hope of a pat on the back from his revered  secularists), Modi has merely made a number of empty Hindu gestures. These include highly televised temple visits, conspicuous public works in Ayodhya and Kashi, or the recent unveiling of a Shankara statue in Kedarnath. But the legislative jobs for remedying the second-class status of the Hindus in India, which only his government is in a position to do, he has left undone. As a former confidante of Modi’s told me, the BJP merely wants to “keep the pot boiling”, throw Hindu-looking crumbs to the Hindus to earn their votes, yet give them nothing substantial.

The highly mediagenic unveiling of the Ramanuja statue follows the same pattern. Hindus love all the pomp and circumstance, regardless of whom it is dedicated to (hence no eyebrows were raised when Modi recently gave glittering presents to the dargah of the anti-Hindu ideologue and invasion-facilitating spy Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer). Short of a high-powered campaign to raise their awareness of the discrimination they suffer, they won’t be up in arms about the disappointingly superficial performance of their Hindu government. Even if the BJP itself can’t convince the Hindu voters of any pro-Hindu commitment, it can count on the media: they will seize on any appearance by Modi in a religious setting to clamour indignantly that he is pursuing a Hindu Rashtra, an unearned reputation that only makes him more popular. It merely confirms him as the Hindu Hrdaya Samrat (“emperor of the Hindu heart”). Hindu jubilation after receiving yet another trinket only proves that a child’s hand is easy to fill.




3.   Egalitarianism


When honouring Ramanuja, the Government has taken care to give an ideologically useful name to the new monument: it will go by the name “equality statue”. In the 1960s the Jan Sangh, earlier incarnation of the BJP, veered into Socialist territory, rather explicitly in the case of leaders like Nana Deshmukh (whose slogan vikās/“development” is still central in Modi’s speeches), AB Vajpayee and trade-union leader Dattopant Thengadi, and even after the liberalization of the economy since the 1990s it hasn’t really vanished. In all three, this Nehruvian economic view went hand in hand with a choice for secularism: in both realms they simply followed the dominant ideology.

This is still the case today: the BJP, portrayed worldwide as fanatically Hindu, is in fact ideologically weak and ever-weaker. It has no ideological backbone and therefore turns with the reigning wind, or even dances to the tune played by its declared enemies. It has no self-respect but is a dedicated follower of fashion. Now, an international ideological fashion that even India can’t escape, is absolute egalitarianism.

So the great Sri Ramanuja is instrumentalized in the BJP’s egalitarian re-profiling. It emphasizes that Ramanuja assured everyone regardless of caste that he could achieve Liberation. Anyone can develop and cultivate devotion (Bhakti) to a God and intone His name as a Mantra.

This insight wasn’t all that revolutionary: none of the classics on Yoga (Katha Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Vasishtha, Shiva Sutra etc.), demanding though they may be in terms of Sadhana discipline, excludes anyone from the spiritual path. Thus, one of the most constant inequalities in society is that between men and woman, yet already in the Mahabharata the nun Sulabha defeats king Janaka in debate with her argument that “the Self (Ātman) is not gendered”, so that women are equally fit for yogic achievement.  

It is claimed that some Brahmin circles did transpose the inequalities in society to the spiritual realm. If so, it was but an intermezzo in Hindu Dharma’s long history, always counterbalanced by the view that the Self is nirguna (“without qualities”) and neti-neti (“neither this nor that”). Indeed, that the worldly inequalities do not apply to the yogic sphere is the more orthodox, more Vedic position. Whatever else may be up for criticism in the Arya Samaj, its endeavour to root its egalitarian reformism in the Vedas has a basis in fact.

And yet, though this same age-old position was expressed by Sri Ramanuja, the modern-sounding name “equality statue” is infelicitous. It is unlikely that he had ever heard of egalitarianism, and it certainly wasn’t what occupied his mind. He concentrated on the Supreme, as did the many Bhakti sects centred around variations on his worldview. I suspect that his assuring all men of Liberation provided they do the right Sadhana made no difference to their societal status.

The Leftists, whom Modi has been imitating in his zeal for secular social justice, won’t be impressed. When Karl Marx and the first trade-unionists took their stand in then-Christian Europe, they faced a similar ideological obstacle: the Church instilled in its flock the sense that vis-à-vis God they were all equal. They all had an eternal soul, tainted by eternal sin, but capable of faith and of receiving God’s grace, regardless of their status in society. That was what Marx called the “opium of the people”: the belief in some higher realm endowed with equality which made socio-economic inequality bearable. As St Paul wrote: there is neither freeman nor slave, for all have been freed in Christ – but this was a poor consolation for the slaves, for it made no end to worldly slavery.

For the present purpose, the situation in Vedanta is not substantially different from that in Christianity. Yes, in a yogic perspective, all are equally endowed: man and woman, rich and poor, master and servant. But their spiritual progress doesn’t make them leave the class they belong to. It may Liberate them from their limitations, but not from their societal category. It doesn’t make them equal in any worldly sense.  



The statue of Sardar Patel, who like Otto von Bismarck in Germany was the “iron man” and the unifier of his country, is sensibly called the “Unity Statue”: his main legacy is indeed India’s unity. In Ramanujacharya’s life, equality is only an incidental aspect of his prescriptions for spiritual progress. Commentaries and papers have been written about him in the intervening nine centuries without dilating on equality. The pursuit of equality is a typically modern phenomenon, alien to Jesus and Paul, and just as alien to Ramanuja.

We've often seen Hindus make flattered claims to modern equality, only to collapse when critically questioned by outsiders. They may find themselves very clever in projecting this contemporary value onto their ancient tradition, but others see through this ploy. That's why we warn them to think twice before making such claims. Neither the Buddha, another much-acclaimed purported egalitarian, nor Ramanujacharya had the power to change lay society. They could influence their followers’ minds and organize their monastic orders, but that was the extent of their reach. From a modern perspective, a certain amount of equality was incidental to their real purpose, but this purpose was not equality. Contrary to what Ramanuja’s statue’s name might suggest, his goal was not equality but Liberation.


Zackey the boss said...

Similar claims by leftists on islamic egalitarianism

drch said...

Dr elst, it is not project of bjp, or indian state.

It os project of chinna jeeyar swami, in his ashram.

sar-sanghchalak, and prime minister are just invitees for inaguration.

Arindam M said...

In my view, Bhakti movement did have a social impact. Public activities, like Nagar Kirtan, Annachhatra (the sikh version Langar is more famous, but observed in many temples) etc. evolved from the concept of spiritual equality, but manifested in social sphere.
But, agree that this is different from socialist/ communist concept of equality, which stem purely from political, and economic aspects.
Any way thanks for your enlightening views as always.