Saturday, November 9, 2019

Ayodhya: Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Ayodhya means invincible. But anything with an absolute description like that is surely a metaphor. The town, its spirit and its history are defeated by the human battle over ground and walls and ceilings and this room or that room. The people perhaps defeated by being dragged into what ultimately are squabbles.

The idea... what is the idea of Ayodhya? I think of that para from the Valmiki Ramayana describing Ramrajya that I used to quote a great deal:

“Only more than a month has elapsed since you took the sceptre in your hand, O Raghava! And mortals have become strangers to disease, death does not overtake even men worn out with age, women undergo no labour-pains during parturition and human beings are well-built indeed. An abundance of joy has fallen to the lot of every citizen dwelling in the town, O king! Pouring down nectarean water clouds rain at the proper time. Even the very winds which blow here are capable of giving a delightful touch, and are pleasing and healthful. People living both in the cities and in the country, arriving in the capital, declare, ‘May such a sovereign be our ruler for long’, O king!” (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kandam XLI: 15-21)

Perfect governance feels like a mirage. An idea easily squashed by human stupidity and cupidity.


Ever since I saw the Ayodhya judgment was due today, I have been thinking of our obsession with a physical location.

I have also been thinking of Sita. Abducted and ensconced in a grove that we, with our obsession for tying ideas down to physical locations, identify with Ella, Bandarawela or Nuwara Eliya in today's Sri Lanka, we are told she still found Rama in her heart, with her, in every part of her day. As she was in his.

To paraphrase a book I love, if you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?

Shouldn't devotion to a deity or a divine idea be the same?


I have also been thinking of Rama's perfect and ultimate devotee, Hanuman. Rama does not sit on a throne in a temple. In virtually every traditional illustration, except these stylised angry new Hanumans, Rama dwells in Hanuman's heart.

Hanuman is known for physical strength and valour, for this devotion and for sagesse. He was wise. By holding Rama in his heart, he freed his faith and love and devotion of time and place.

"i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." The Internet is full of criticism of this ee cummings poem but to me it captures the kind of love you express to a beloved toddler--beyond reason and logic and trying to capture intense feeling in inadequate words: I love you to the moon and back. "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." No separation between you and me. Between Hanuman and Rama.


na jāyate mriyate vā kadāchin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śhāśhvato ’yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śharīre 
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 20)

Krishna, also in essence Rama, tells Arjuna that the soul is not born and never dies, does not come into being or cease to be. Then, what birthplace? What birthplace for one who is not born and does not die? One who is without start or end, as we learn in the Vishwaroopa chapter? 

danṣhṭrā-karālāni cha te mukhāni
dṛiṣhṭvaiva kālānala-sannibhāni
diśho na jāne na labhe cha śharma
prasīda deveśha jagan-nivāsa
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, Verse 25)

"Having seen your many mouths bearing your terrible teeth, resembling the raging fire at the time of annihilation, I forget where I am and do not know where to go. O Lord of lords, you are the shelter of the universe; please have mercy on me."

I forget where I am and do not know where to go. You are the shelter of the Universe.

But we will confidently pinpoint the location of the birth of the one who is neither born nor dies, who encompasses and embodies and shelters the Universe, although we scarcely know if we are coming or going. 


Invincible, are our hubris, our ignorance and our inability to love without limit. 


As we wait for the Supreme Court's verdict on the Ayodhya case, in which we have reduced the idea of Rama to the persona of a land litigant, prayers for sense or even magnanimity have failed so we must pray for peace. 

We just celebrated Gandhiji's 15oth birthday. In the words of his favourite bhajan: 

Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram
Pateeta Paavana Sita Ram
Ishwar Allah Tero Naam
Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Of cyber satyagrahis and citizenship failures

Today, there is a boycott of all communications devices being called for--no phone, TV, Internet, radio. The idea is to simulate the situation that Kashmiris have been forced to live with and to write about it what it feels like.

I saw this a few days ago and knew I would not join. Why? I am traveling, my elderly mother is at a distance, my organisation has a major event scheduled. And as I thought this, I thought, this is also true for Kashmiris. They travel, leaving families and offices behind. They have elderly parents, ailing relatives, young children in another location. They need to remain connected.

And this is the point, precisely.

For almost two months, the rest of us have gone about our lives using freely the devices and media denied to Kashmiris. We find them indispensable to speak our dissent, and we find them indispensable to suspend using them even as an expression of dissent.

Kashmiris have had no choice. Nobody asked them, "Is this a convenient time for you to be cut off from the world?" Nobody cares.

On Gandhi Jayanti, we are all writing commentaries on his importance. What he would really like, no doubt, is for someone to say, "End this." And to put their life on the line for it. To fast. To undertake a padayatra. Some kind of civil disobedience. Some genuine expression of solidarity.

I write this and think none of our political leaders would do this. And the question arises, why not me? Why am I not feeling like I can initiate this? Why is it not natural to me to step up and be the satyagrahi in this situation?

I can think of multiple answers to that question. But the challenge remains: Can one of us do what Gandhiji would have to help Kashmiris out of this terrible situation? Can we retain our deep discomfort and pain with this humanitarian crisis? On this day of many celebrations, I can only think that we have failed as citizens. And humans.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Independence Day Prayer, 2019

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Amma, I seek the courage to stand my ground and speak my truth regardless of how people will troll me and what might happen.

   Where knowledge is free;

Please open up all the locked in and locked down and locked out zones of the world, so we can see and hear what is happening there, and people within can learn that our hearts do beat for them as well. Open up all musty rooms with festering conspiracies and stinking closets with rotting secrets and shatter our silences once and for all—let us see what must be seen and call it out for what it is.

   Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Keep us together—different, diverse, debating, disagreeing, but together. We are, because of each other. Remind us of our common humanity and to be humane with each other.  

   Where words come out from the depth of truth;

The depth of truth is a dangerous place, Amma. Please protect us as we try to walk this path of understanding and action. Please watch over us.

   Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

There is so much to do on every front. Replace fatigue, frustration and fear with passion, commitment and love so we might work with focus, fortitude and ferocious energy.

   Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Show us the beauty of patient, thoughtful, attentive and deep learning and critical thinking, and teach us to listen to each other with brains and hearts both, and to sift from an appealing feast of fantasy, grains of fact and truth, and to filter from old custom and tradition, and formulate new and better ways of being.

   Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

These sinking sands are treacherous for those who will linger, whether in fear or in faith. Lift us, Amma, so we can see the world as it is and find within the space and freedom to speak of what we see and for truth and justice.

   Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

We, who are responsible for the vision of that ‘heaven of freedom’ and the instruction manual on how to build it, fell asleep. Wake us up, Amma. Let us recall and resume our labours.


[Posted with apologies to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore for marring his beautiful poem with my clumsy prose, just as we have let go of his dream of  a heaven of freedom with our apathy. His words, which once filled me with joy and hope and dreams now make me sad as they remind me of how we have failed ourselves.]

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Re-Discovery of India

First, let me apologise: I am so much a product of Nehru’s India that I could not think of a more original title. But this is the most apt summary for what this day (May 23, 2019) has brought to me—a re-discovery of India, a world that I thought I knew, but clearly didn’t.

In recent weeks, I have wondered if such a re-discovery was about to happen, and I have waited, with dread, to find out. Well, it’s here and today I learned many things about Indians—my fellow-Indians—that I might have learned earlier if I had not ignored hints and remained in denial.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians are people who don’t care much about other people. They do not care about those whose lives were destroyed in riots. They do not care about those who were lynched at random. They do not care about impunity for horrendous acts of sexual violence or those guilty for inciting communal riots or terror. They’re okay, and so all is well in the world. Today, I learned this about my fellow-Indians.

I learned that the misery caused by demonetization really did not matter to any of them. Today I learnt that flighty polemic is more real to my fellow-Indians than the real misery of those who depend on daily cash wages, those who lost their savings or those who were unable to access care because they could not access their cash. Even those who suffered were apparently okay with it.

Because my suffering pales when compared to the joy I get from endorsing violence against others. Today I learnt that my fellow-Indians live with a long list of ‘others’ that include virtually everyone else. People who speak other languages, follow other faiths, eat other food, are born into other castes and communities, don’t speak like us… the list is long and they are all ‘others,’ less worthy than we are. So, discrimination and violence against them do not matter, as long as we are alright. And as long as we can choose to believe in our strength and superiority.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians have very weak faith, especially my fellow Hindus. We have a philosophical tradition that is millennia-old, steeped in dissent and diversity and home to one of the oldest examples of skeptical poetry, and our pantheon is infinite and ancient. But we do not believe our ideas or our gods can defend themselves. Now, I thought our genius and uniqueness was our ability to embrace new gods and engage with new ideas. That is what I learned from our puja shelf which housed images of Balaji, Ajmer Sharif and St. Jude. Today I learnt that the divine powers in the universe need puny human Parliamentarians or armed mobs to fight for them, or so my fellow-Indians believe.

Today I learned that while we Indians believe we are among the smartest people in the world, the adage that 'the more you know, the more you know you don't know' does not apply to us. We are experts on everything. And therefore, we are always right. We firmly close the door on learning better or learning otherwise. We remain as Alberuni found us, ignorant, confident and combative about our opinions. 

Today I learned that each Indian is argumentative and brilliant and opinionated and right, but no one else is, and therefore, I was wrong, freedom does not matter. You cannot differ because I am always right and therefore, you must be wrong and if you are wrong, you had better not speak. Freedom is the preserve of the strong and today, I learned that strength lies in shouting, in controlling, in silencing and in the ring of certainty that I find frightening. Freedom belongs to people who are always sure of themselves and who believe that the world falls in line with their utterances. Today I learned the folly of believing that democracy is freedom.

“Democracy belongs to the majority.” Today I learned that this is what my fellow-Indians believe. Now, I don’t know whether this means I am entitled to democracy or not because the lines between us keep shifting. I may be part of the majority or I may not. But just in case, I gather I should keep quiet. I cannot express doubt or ask questions. I am not entitled to clarification. I cannot disagree. Even if I were a part of the majority that is entitled, these speech acts would disqualify me.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians actually have a huge inferiority complex. They need someone who sounds certain and confident and completely lacking in self-doubt. They need someone who can tell them what is good for them and how good they are. All the time. They crave a strong leader—a daddy figure—and while they are proud that they can do jugaad and break rules, they want someone who will punish others who do. Today I learned we do not really trust our ability to assess a situation and while we sit, starving, cowering and censoring ourselves, we are willing to believe someone who tells us we are wealthy, brilliant, valiant and free. As long as it is uttered with confidence, it must be true.

Today I learned that while our constitution enjoins us to "develop scientific temper," we've done better with "temper" than scientific on average, and "science" is a spectacle, not the habit of critical and analytical thinking. Never mind, I misunderstood that one.

Today I learned that while we boast about ahimsa and like to be seen attending Bhakti and Sufi music concerts, we actually do not value gentleness, compassion, honesty or humility in our politicians. We want them to sound like swashbuckling warriors ever-engaged in epic battles. We do not care for subtle reasoning or nuanced vision. It has to be all out there like the garish plaster-of-paris-meets-plastic baubles of television epic serials.

Today I learned many things about my fellow-Indians that I really did not want to know.

This is who we are—uncaring people who do not care about other people’s rights, freedom, culture or bodily integrity. The party in power ran a divisive and hateful campaign and we did not punish them for it. They lied to us about a thousand things and we did not care because it suited us not to challenge them. This is who we are, as deeply disillusioning as it is.

But what I was afraid of did not happen. The re-discovery of India—this India—did not devastate me. I see it, I acknowledge it and I am still standing. As are the hundreds of thousands of Indians who share my values, as I know they do.

My India—that beautiful, diverse, plural, inclusive, compassionate India—is still alive, even if it is now half-hidden under the crush of this brash India that celebrates the worst parts of our legacy—violence, hierarchy, discrimination and mutual disregard. In my India, there is room for everyone, no matter what discoveries we make about each other along the way. As the old school pledge went: "India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters." We are not identical, but this is our charm. Though charm can be toxic and nauseating, we cannot disown or abandon each other. We are one family, right? 

This is who we are. 

This is who we are and I am still here and I will still be when this moment passes, even if it takes years. And in that time, I will do everything I can to engage with my fellow-Indians, to challenge them, to remind them of the joys of inclusion and sharing and the gifts of compassion and empathy. 

In my first act of faith, I will bravely post this reflection. 

Written on May 23, 2019