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  Opinion   Columnists  11 Dec 2021  Pavan K. Varma | Why it is dangerous to be Indian in Modi’s India

Pavan K. Varma | Why it is dangerous to be Indian in Modi’s India

The writer, an author, former diplomat and is in politics.
Published : Dec 12, 2021, 1:59 am IST
Updated : Dec 12, 2021, 1:59 am IST

Ultimately, whether in Hinduism or in Islam, the real enemies of dialogue are the bigoted

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (AP)
 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (AP)

If there is one thing that is seriously under threat under the BJP-RSS it is the art of civilised discourse, shastrartha. Dialogue itself happens spontaneously because of an inherent belief that truth is a byproduct of cerebral search, not fiat. In the Indian tradition, truth can be a theoretical assertion, but it must be accompanied by the intellectually elevating aversion to shallow certitudes. This is something we need to ponder about as we deal with the brittle certainties that dominate public discourse today.

Around 200 years before the birth of Christ, and possibly earlier, there lived a man called Bharat Muni. Bharat wrote the Natya Shastra, consisting of 36 chapters and 6,000 shlokas. At one level, the Natya Shastra was a compendium for the arts with a detailed manual of instructions — and this is remarkable enough. But the work’s real genius was that it was simultaneously a meditation on aesthetics, rasa, or what the anubhav or artistic experience should be, both for the creator and the observer.

The interesting thing is that for a long time it was believed that aesthetics as a philosophy began as a series of articles on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by the journalist Joseph Addison in the magazine The Spectator in 1712! The fact that India had a highly sophisticated and developed concept of the artistic experience millennia earlier — when in most parts of the world people had not yet come down from trees — is hardly known in the West or to our own high priests of culture.

Bharat’s notion of rasa was the result of a cerebral dialogue between the art object, its creator, and the observer. That dialogue cannot take place when the observer approaches art with an a priori conviction that it is undesirable.

Predetermined hostility — as is much  in evidence these days — asphyxiates the possibility of dialogue. It replaces intellectual suppleness with fiat. Art, then, is judged not for its intrinsic merit, but for its amenability — or not — to an extraneous agenda.

Without dialogue, Indian civilisation would not be what it is. If we pause to think for a moment, the three foundational texts of Hinduism are a dialogue. The Upanishads are a dialogue; the Bhagwad Gita is a dialogue; and the tikas or commentaries on the Brahma Sutras invariably incorporate the ideological opponent’s point of view. One of the great dialogues of our past, which became a turning point in the evolution of Hinduism, was that between Adi Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra in the eighth-ninth century. Shankara was a votary of the jnana marga, and Mandana of the karma kanda path. Ideologically, they were opponents. But they were prepared to sit down and discuss their differences, with Shankara able to defeat Mandana — not in a violent duel — but through dialogue. Few people know that in Kalyan in Karnataka, in the kingdom of King Bijjala II in the 12th century CE, there was constructed the Anubhava Mantapa or “the hall of spiritual experience”. Men and women from all social and economic backgrounds could come to the Mantapa to openly discuss spiritual questions, or any other matter of public importance. It was at the Mantapa that Mahadevi, also known as Akka, stood nude covered only by her tresses, and discussed bhakti with the great Lingayata founders, Basavanna and Allama Prabhu.

Dialogue assumes legitimate differences in points of view, and the belief that they can be harmonised through civilised discourse. That is why, Hindu philosophy has not one but six systems of philosophy.

That is why, too, Hinduism accepts as part of its fold, the Charvaka school of materialist thought, which considers the Vedas to be untrue. Our epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are replete with dialogues. In my book, Yudhishtara and Draupadi, I pay tribute to the amazing dialogue between Yudhishtara and the Yaksha in the Mahabharata. The Yaksha asks: “O, Arya, tell me what in this world is most wonderful?” And, Yudhishtara’s famous reply is: “Millions pass on, yet the living think they won’t die; what can be more wonderful than this wonderful lie.”

When the habit of dialogue erodes, the approach to knowledge suffers a fatal flow. It becomes silo driven; the entire emphasis is on the superficial rebuttal; and, there is a propensity to focus on the immediate rather than the holistic. Such an approach was seriously frowned upon by our seers. The ancient treatise Vishnudharmottara (mid-fifth century CE) has this revealing dialogue between a sage and a king. The king wants to learn the whole meaning of art, but the sage tells him to first know the theory of dancing. The king agrees, but is then asked to learn painting. When he accepts to do so, he is told that he must commence studying music. The essential point is that the shrill and narrow is an antidote to meaningful discourse.

The great Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605) was a follower of the more inclusive Chishti school of Sufism and was fond of open religious dialogue between scholars of different faiths under a platform he created, the Din-i-Ilahi. His religious liberalism can be gauged from his pronouncement that the wisdom of Vedanta is the wisdom of Sufism, and his belief that all religions are either equally true or equally illusionary. However, his religious broadmindedness was staunchly opposed by the powerful orthodox Islamic clergy, the ulama, who declared him a heretic, and even issued a fatwa for all Muslims to revolt against him.

Ultimately, whether in Hinduism or in Islam, the real enemies of dialogue are the bigoted. Islam has a lesser tradition of tolerance to heterodoxy, but Hinduism is a sanatana dharma precisely because it was, and is, inherently accommodating of diversity. Shastrartha, or civilised discourse, is the hallmark of Indian civilisation. If we destroy it, we destroy the central pillar of our civilisation.

Tags: modi governemnt, religious diversity, religious tolerance