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RSS & the web of idol worship

Only a synthesised religious culture attracts conversion of other people. Before Hindus talk about ghar wapsi, they must build a common cultural ghar where the priest and the people, irrespective of caste and class, can sit, eat and drink together.

On the night of March 6, some Sangh Parivar forces vandalised a church in Hisar, Haryana. They removed the Cross, which was erected at the pulpit, and replaced it with a statue of Hanuman. They deliberately removed the symbol of sacrifice and replaced it with a Hindu idol to indicate that only Hindu gods should be worshipped in India.

Ever since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) came into existence, particularly in its post-Independence avatar, it has organised Hanuman vyayamshalas for youth from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to improve their physical strength. Thousands of OBC youth have, over the years, enrolled in these vyayamshalas, which give preference to physical power over mental power.

Around the same time, the enrolment of children of upper castes — particularly brahmin, baniya and shudras like Patels, Raos, Reddys, Marathas, etc. — into English-medium convent schools and colleges was gradually increasing. These Christian missionary institutions are often named after saints, such as St. Mary, St. Paul, St. Joseph, St. Ann, St. Stephen, St. Xavier and St. Loyola among others. The missionaries allowed the upper class children admission since their parents could afford to pay the fees. For a long time, Christian missionaries educated the rich and upper-caste children in English-medium schools but they never taught them the core philosophy of Jesus, that God is universal and that God is not limited to an idol form. As a result, the same convent-educated upper-caste children have become supporters of the idol-worshipping forces. They are the ones aiding and abetting church attacks now.

Since Hanuman was also unmarried, a brahmachari who lived in the service of the most powerful Vaishnava deity, Ram, he could qualify to be called “St. Hanuman”. The RSS could have easily started St. Hanuman English-medium schools and colleges and admitted all Hindu students, including OBCs, dalits and tribals. But no such schools were started, though one can find thousands of Hanuman vyayamshalas promoted by the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, all basically focused on improving the physical powers of the lower-caste male youth. Just as we cannot imagine St. Mary’s name getting associated with a vyayamashala, we cannot associate Hanuman’s name with education — that too English-medium education.

Idol worship does not mandate book reading as a necessary component of spiritual practice. Though Christians put Mary and Jesus’ idols, Bible reading remains central to their spiritual system.

If Hindutva forces feel threatened and want to compete with Christianity and Islam, what is it that they should have done?

They should have taken up a massive campaign against primitive idol worship which resulted in spiritual fragmentation, superstition and sustained caste-cultural localism. So far Hindu institutions have not constructed and projected a universal image of the Hindu God. Thus, there are national and local idol gods and there are huge cultural contradictions between them though Hindutva forces talk about one culture. Even in terms of the offerings made to gods there are huge variations and some practices are fearsome.

While Brahminic gods and goddesses are assumed to be vegetarian, thousands of village-level gods and goddesses — some of whom have now come to urban centres — are believed to be accepting animal sacrifice, including bull, buffalo and cow. Several lower-caste idol gods, by belief, need to be offered a massive number of cattle. In Telangana, near Suryapet, there is an idol god called Lingamanthula Mallanna. He is believed to demand one grown up ram from each shepherd family on the appointed day. On that day, thousands of rams are cut, converting the area into a sea of blood. The police tried to stop the practice, but believers protested and continued with it. At the Sammakka and Sarakka jatara, liquor and animal blood flows in equal quantities.

Some idols exist in lion, elephant, monkey, pig (spiritually called Varaha) form, and some goddesses exist in fear-generating postures.

Synthesisation of culture becomes possible only when the fragmented spiritual culture of idol worship is set aside and a common spiritual book that educates people is distributed among all those who belong to that religion. The RSS never made that attempt.

Only a synthesised religious culture attracts conversion of other people. Before Hindus talk about ghar wapsi, they must build a common cultural ghar where the priest and the people, irrespective of caste and class, can sit, eat and drink together.

In all idol-worshipping festivals from the village level to the national level, RSS activists take the lead — from annual Ganapati processions to small village-level idol worship festivals — with the notion of preserving Hindu sanskriti and promoting Hindu nationalism. In all these idol functions, beliefs in mantras that induce fear and death is paramount.

At the pan-Indian level, the RSS took up the campaign to build temples of Ram, Hanuman, Venkateswara and Narsimha, all gods of Vaishnava tradition as a major project. Some Shiv temples were also constructed, to indicate that the RSS is not against the Shaivite tradition.

But the RSS does not promote Krishna as much as it promotes Ram, Ganapati, Hanuman and Shiv in terms of temple construction. There is a suspicion among the Yadavs that the Brahminic spiritual intelligentsia does not like promoting Krishna as he is associated with the concept of Yadu Rajya. Yadu Rajya, apparently, did not give the highest place to brahmin priest-craft. The RSS constantly hegemonises a Ram Rajya-centered political system, because Ram did not do anything without consulting his brahmin gurus. Krishna claimed all powers for himself.

However, they keep promoting the Bhagvad Gita, a text Krishna himself is said to have narrated. The recent attempt by Union minister Sushma Swaraj to promote the Bhagvad Gita as the national book is well known. The two popular images of Krishna are those of a charioteer and romantic hero along with Radha (who is not his wife). Both have negative connotations.

Idol worship and spreading of superstition is the main agenda of the RSS in the spiritual realm. Theirs is not a reformist agenda but a revivalist one. The dalits seem to have understood its implications, but the OBCs have not.

The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. The opinions expressed in this article are person

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