By Anand Sinha
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Recent development in the Sai Baba controversy over the past weeks has provoked a furore from both sides across the country. While the scriptural theologians of the Hindu Sanatana Dharma tradition have argued against worshipping Sai Baba in the most vehement language, the Sai Baba devotees have filed a police complaint against the religious leader Swami Swaroopananda of Haridwar.
Swami Swaroopananda recently argued that the scriptures of the Hindu tradition restrict the elevation of a mortal man to the status of god. Since Sai used to call himself a Muslim, ate meat and asked people to stay away from Ganges, he must not be worshipped, Swami Swaroopananda says. Sai is not a symbol of Hindu- Muslim unity as some claim. The worship of Sai is a conspiracy of West- based political and religious groups because they do not want India to become a Hindu state. Worshipping Sai and raising him to the pedestal of gods like Rama and Shiva is blasphemous to the Hindu religion. Many religious leaders from different parts of the country have come out in his support and have repeatedly said that Sanatana Dharma is the best religion and is being contaminated. The worshippers of Sai Baba have protested against Swami Swaroopananda’s statements, filed a police complaint against him and have asked for an apology from him. The protestors are not under any umbrella group as of now and are fragmented throughout the country.
The development over the controversy certainly raises a lot of questions about the place of religion in a state, India’s claim as a secular state, an individual’s right to faith and the right of expression. Faith is a very personal dimension of one’s life for every person in the world. Its systematisation and control by authoritative religious groups has been a pattern throughout the world over the centuries. It becomes very problematic in a country like India where there exists a large population with different religious affiliations. As it is, it can turn very hostile to the people who do not share the authoritative religious view. The readings of the scriptures is very subtle and each and every word has been a subject of heated debate over the centuries. So what is it that defines the authoritative and more importantly, definitive interpretation? Further, isn’t every individual free to read and interpret the scripture in his own way and make his conclusions?
Most Hindu religious leaders showing their solidarity with Swami Swaroopananda have again and again called the Sanatana Dharma the best religion and warned against its contamination. They have demanded that India be a Hindu state. They have accused (since they supposedly believe it to be a crime) the ones arguing for religious tolerance of being anti- Hindu and obstructing the establishment of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. The 1992 riots can never be forgotten from the hearts of millions of Indians but still it keeps resurfacing in the arguments of these demagogues. Doesn’t their claim of the Sanatana Dharma being the best religion challenge India’s claim of being a secular state?
Majority of the population in India follows the Hindu religion and a large percentage of it respect other religions also. They bow their heads before mosques, churches and synagogues, with a firm faith in their own religion. But if their action is viewed through the lens of some of these religious leaders, then they have committed countless number of crimes. So, should these people be barred from entering the Hindu temples? Should they be barred from bathing in the Ganges? In other words, should people with a secular outlook towards life be turned away from the Hindu religion?
However, the religious leaders argue that only the Hindus have to sacrifice their beliefs every time in the name of secularism. The traditions and practises of the Hindu Sanatana Dharma are being contaminated. But isn’t any religious belief itself a culmination of the harmony and conflict of different religious beliefs preceding it? Further, what defines the purity of a religion and who is the authorised party to define it, if there is meant to be any?
In a liberal, politically correct atmosphere, the views of Swami Swaroopananda are under attack from liberals. But the constitution of India gives the right of expression to him also. If his views do not conform to those of many people, it does not mean that he cannot express himself, politically incorrect though he might be. However, if the secular values of the country are violated, then, of course, he must be restrained.
The political class of the country has refrained from making any explicit comments over the issue, though has wished for a cordial resolution of the controversy. The political class also faces the dilemma about intervening into a religious controversy. It will either be accused of politicising the issue or of dereliction of duty regarding the preservation of the secular values of the country. The vote bank issue also can never be ignored by the political parties. Since the ruling party BJP has come to power at the centre due to its promises of clean governance and development instead of its stock Hindu propaganda, it is also shying away from making any kind of statement.
The resolution of the controversy seems highly unlikely since there are people with both kinds of beliefs. A critically unbiased and liberal debate over the controversy mustn’t be minded at all. But what is concerning about the matter is extremely fundamentalist outlook of some of these religious leaders; the tone sounds very demeaning to the Muslims at times. I won’t go to the extent of calling it an assault on the constitutional secular values of the country, but it is clearly visible that the controversy is doing enough harm to the secular claims of the country. There seems to be no place for religious tolerance and no sense of respect for different religious beliefs in the discourse. There is no agency or authority for now which seems to be able to contain the fundamentalist outpour of some of these demagogues.
Currently based in Delhi, Anand is an English literature student at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. After working as a content writer and editor for an online firm for a few months, he interned at Youth Ki Awaaz. Sinha defines his political stand as centre-left. His interests include literature, cinema, music, philosophy and world politics.