Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MM Kalburgi and the death of rational enquiry?

Can a log which chisel and hammer cannot split
be split with axe and sickle?
Would a mind which
after being chiseled with the nectar of elders’ vachanas …
yield to the axe and sickle of the Veda and aagama?
It will not. 

The 17th century vachana poet, Hemagalla Hampa might well have been writing of the 21st century vachana scholar, M M Kalburgi, who was shot in his home on August 30th. Kalburgi was a Kannada epigrapher, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for his collection of essays Marga-4, and Vice-Chancellor of Hampi university. Can a clear, penetrating mind ever be vanquished by the petty tyrannies and guns of those who claim to own faith? Kalburgi’s name will live on, while even the police don’t seem to want to know the names of his killers.

In a time of ‘God-men’ and ‘God-women’, who market hope and miracles to the stressed and the sorrowful, and the proliferation of those who want to reach God through the ladder of consumption, it is a seemingly uphill task to ask people to have faith in reason alone. These are not good times to be rational, leave alone a rationalist. But as Hampa said, 

How can I feel right 
about gods you sell in your need,
and gods you bury for fear of thieves?

The 12th century Shaivite sharanas who authored the vachanas came from castes and occupations as diverse as cow herding, rope making, shoe making, oil milling, and included both women and men. As H S Shiva Prakash writes in his survey of medieval Kannada literature in a Sahitya Akademi publication, the sharanas “placed great emphasis on personal experience and the enquiry of truth to the exclusion of slavish dependence upon traditional scriptures and customs. Most, but not all, sharanas rejected temple worship probably because the doors of temples were open only to the high castes.”  

The Anubhavamandapa or meeting hall set up by Basava, the greatest sharana, was open to men and women of all castes, who argued with each other and criticized superstition; they even arranged an inter-caste marriage between an ‘untouchable’ boy and a Brahmin girl.  By the 13th century, however, the radical edge of the sharanas had been lost, blunted by upper caste repression, and the appropriation of the sharana tradition by the Virashiva priestly class. When Kalburgi’s research cast new light on the history of Basava, his wife Neelambike and nephew Channabasava, the Lingayat powers-that-be were outraged and forced him to recant. But what has been brought to light cannot be erased so easily, any more than the priests can destroy Basava. Throughout India’s history, indeed the history of the world, this has been the story – of a struggle for equality and rationality, its suppression or appropriation by the ruling powers and conservative forces, and its rise again in new forms and by new forces.

Religious intolerance may have managed to kill rationalists like Kalburgi in Karnataka and  Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in Maharashtra, and forced people like Sanal Edamaruku, the President of the Indian Rationalist Association into exile. But will it really be able to destroy the entire history of Indian philosophy, the Charavaka tradition, the Bhakti and Sufi schools, and the critical atheism, agnosticism, pantheism and common sense of millions of ordinary Indians? 

Dog in the manger

While one is optimistic about the future, it cannot be denied that the Hindutva forces pose a clear and present danger. When Bhuvith Shetty, Bajrang Dal leader tweets, “Then it was UR Ananthamurthy and now MM Kalburgi. Mock Hindusim and die dogs (sic) death. And dear KS Bhagwan you are next”, why is Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the RSS, the parent organisation silent? They are otherwise so busy advising the country, and calling upon others to condemn everything and everyone around them – Muslims must condemn ISS, human rights groups must condemn Maoists, and so on and on. And even more pertinently, why did neither the Prime Minister or President condemn this on Teacher’s Day – particularly when the men who shot Kalburgi claimed to be his students?

But for all its protestations of worshipping Saraswati and shikshaks, the RSS has never been respectful of knowledge or teachers in practice. Why else would an ABVP leader accused of being involved in the murder of Ujjain Prof. Sabharwal be co-opted, a mere month after his acquittal, to advise the state government on education?

The Hindutva groups want Muslims to ‘assimilate’ but they cannot be allowed to assimilate so much as to write on ‘Hindu’ themes like the Ramayana, as Malayalam literary critic M M Basheer found to his dismay, when he was flooded by abusive phone calls. On the other hand, even Hindus are not allowed to write on the Ramayana, as one discovered when A K Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ was pulled from Delhi University’s history syllabus, under pressure from the ABVP, the RSS student wing. Soon, only the Gita Press version of the Ramcharitmanas will be acceptable reading, and the rest of India’s Ramayana scholars can simply retire.

This too shall pass

From Basava, however, comes another gem, translated by AK Ramanujan, in his Speaking of Siva. For those who despair of the present, as well as those who take pride in their violence and control over the state, let both remember that all things pass:

The rich
will make temples for Shiva,
What shall I,
a poor man do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

*The vachanas by Hampa are taken from the site This article appeared in India Today,