Millennium Post

Hindu at the crossroads

Events during the past week [s] have once again put the Indian polity on the crossroads. The Hindu agenda for some time now, may be without design and by a sheer coincidence, been pushing hard to make it to the centre stage all over again. First there were the Bodo tribal versus the Bangladeshi migrant riots in Assam which is still to ebb.

The riots in Assam had its fallout in Mumbai, which witnessed the reactionary elements among the Muslims going on a rampage. It was followed by the exodus of the people from the North-East from the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In the midst of so much happening, the Hindi heartland has managed to keep its calm. This has largely been due to the Bharatiya Janata Party  [BJP] not forcing the issue as belligerently as they have done in the case of the alleged corruption in the allocation of coal block.

The BJP, however, following the court verdict in the Naroda Patiya case would find itself in an increasing dilemma whether to push the Hindu agenda with greater vigour or stick to corruption as the spearhead. The 28-year imprisonment to a former minister in Narendra Modi government Maya Kodnani and life term to a Vishwa Hindu Parishad  [VHP] functionary Babu Bajrangi has come at a time when Gujarat readies itself for assembly polls in November this year.

Naroda Patiya case should ordinarily once again ignite the embers of Hindu passion, which would benefit Narendra Modi, who is leading the BJP for the third time at the hustling in Gujarat. Though Modi for the past few years has attempted an image makeover from a Hindu hardliner to a moderate, it would be worth watching how he would manage the passions which would arise out of the Naroda verdict. 

The heat from Gujarat would create a bigger dilemma for the BJP at the centre, not just on the question of adopting Modi as its mascot but also on the issue of whether to let corruption remain the spearhead or replace it with a Hindu agenda.

The dilemma arises from the fact that the turn of the millennium has witnessed a change in the nature of Hinduism from being resurgent, puritanical, ritualistic and aggressive in the last decade of the 20th century. The Hinduism on the rise today, especially in the middle-class dominated urban centres, is moving towards what prominent social scientist like MP Singh, formerly of Delhi University, would call ‘syncretic popular Hinduism’. This is best manifested in not only the adoption but primacy wgiven to a Muslim Sufi saint Shirdiwale Sai Baba on the Hindu pantheon.

According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Religion there is at least one Sai Baba temple in almost every Indian city. According to estimates the Sai mandir in Shirdi is visited by around one lakh pilgrims a day and during festivals this number grows much larger. The Sai Baba movement has grown beyond the Indian shores and become a necessary adjunct of the Hindu Diasporas. Before we discuss the Sai Baba syndrome any further, let us briefly examine the definitive parameters of this phenomenon.   

Religious syncretism has been defined differently how ever there is a general agreement that it exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and it happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or practices.

Sai Baba till 1980s was largely looked upon as a Muslim Sufi saint who had a considerable Hindu following. There has been a tradition across the country of Hindus visiting dargahs of Sufi saints including the most famous ones of Moin-ud-din Chisti at Ajmer and Nizam-ud-din Auliya at Delhi. However, rituals, though much abhorred by the more fundamental Deobandi school, at these dargahs have always remained Islamic and in the hands of Muslims. The first pan-Indian popular depiction of the Shirdi saint was done in the late 1970s when Manmohan Desai had picturised a qawalli number, sung by Mohammed Rafi, in Amitabh Bachchan super hit Amar, Akabr, Anthony.

Devotion to Sai has, however, come a long way from Desai’s depiction. He has come to be depicted as a Krishna avatar by some of his biographers and is worshipped at Shirdi temple with such expansive rituals and ostentation that at times it matches, if not betters, the worship of presiding deities of some of the other prominent Hindu temples. On the other hand, his Muslim following has shrunk to negligible number and I wonder if any Muslim disciple ever would partake in a Sai puja. Even in case of Sai music, Sai Qawalli has been replaced by Sai Bhajans, which has a huge market.

The question which comes to mind here is that whether this transformation is a manifestation of reverse cultural conquest or a genuine desire to adopt the pacifist preaching of the Shirdi saint. This question should haunt the right-wing cultural nationalists much more than the proclaimed secular ideologues. Since cultural nationalists have a prominent role in drawing contours of right-wing politics, an answer would be known only from the line BJP would take post-Gujarat polls.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post
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