Saturday, April 21, 2007

Open Up Guruvayur

The Guruvayur Devaswom Board is sitting this week to decide on whether or not to allow the entry of the legendary singer, K J Yesudas, into the precincts of Guruvayur temple or not. This was prompted due to the renewed efforts by Devaswom Minister G. Sudhakaran who has written to Guruvayur Devaswom Board chairman Thottathil Ravindran, seeking entry for Yesudas to the temple. The Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple, located in the Guruvayur town of Thrissur district in Kerala is one of the most sacred and important pilgrimage centres in Kerala, dwarfed in terms of popularity only perhaps by the Sabarimala temple. Unfortunately despite all its holiness, its image has been somewhat sullied by its refusal to allow non-Hindus entry into the shrine.

Yesudas, who has sung several songs in praise of Lord Krishna, has not been allowed entry into the temple because he is a Christian – Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, a Catholic Christian hailing from Kochi. A few decades ago, the Guruvayur temple authorities stopped him at the gate but let in the rest of a concert troupe, led by his Guru, the late Carnatic maestro Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. The Guru walked out and his heart melted at the sight of Yesudas, standing outside in the dark, in tears. The Guru then led the disciple to an impromptu venue outside the temple and held a nightlong concert in praise of Lord Krishna.

Scores of Keralites have grown up listening to bhajans sung by Yesudas, but never have we thought of him as a Christian singing Hindu hymns. The purity of his voice has enthralled all of us and for years we have been listening to hymns in praise of Lord Krishna flowing melodiously from the vocal chords of this great singer. When asked about the Board’s decision to discuss the issue regarding his entry into the temple precincts, Yesudas says:

I and my family are thankful to the Minister. But a situation should evolve on its own when temple doors will open for all those who have boundless devotion for the Lord. My entry to the temple should not be at the expense of thousands of devotees who reach out to the Lord suffering a lot of hardships. By any measure, the extent of my devotion might count for much less than those who are often made to wait their turn merely to accommodate VIPs.

Poet Yusufali Kecherry, who has penned some of the best Malayalam songs on Lord Krishna, has similarly not been allowed to enter the Guruvayur temple because he is a Muslim. A few years ago, when Congress General Secretary Vayalar Ravi's only son was married at Guruvayur, a punyaham - ritual cleansing- was performed to cleanse the temple premises because Ravi’s wife, Mercy, is not a Hindu, but a Christian.

But the temple has its share of people it is willing to accommodate, despite its avowed policy. Recently, the temple authorities allowed Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse offer a gold crown to the Guruvayoor temple and to pray for peace in his country, along with his wife. The temple put an explanation saying Jain and Buddhists are within the larger definition of Hindus. Smart thinking!!! Jainism negates the existence of God and Buddhism has been silent on this, but they can still be allowed while a devout Christian cannot!!! Even atheists and agnostics can be allowed but not non-Hindus???

In a state where there is such a substantial non-Hindu population and where religion has not been too much of an issue (at least when compared to the rest of the country), isn’t it retrograde to follow such religious practices? There have been arguments that if Yesudas so badly wants to enter Guruvayur temple, why doesn’t he convert to Hinduism? But why should he? Are we so short-sighted that our culture cannot look beyond a man’s religion? Religion is a way of leading one’s life and is not a life in itself.

There has been justified criticism in certain quarters of Christianity and Islam not allowing Hindus into their fold (except for proselytization purposes). If non-Muslims wanted to go to Mecca/Medina, would they be allowed? Since they also practice such restrictions, we are also within our rights not to allow non-Hindus into temples. Fair enough to win an argument but do we need to compare ourselves with other religions and try to do a tit-for-tat policy.

I had written about the Jayamala-Sabarimala controversy earlier and expressed my view that women must be allowed entry inside the shrine. There are different views on this with many women themselves asserting that this is not a gender issue and should not be treated from that angle. That may or may not be accurate but the Sabarimala controversy needs further debate, keeping in mind the larger cultural perspective. However, in this case, what is the justification that can be provided here other than historical precedents and cultural issues?

Certain things that have been happening in a particular way should continue in the same way, they say. But then, aren’t we moving ahead in life? Do we still need to carry such historical baggage? Popular culture is a by-product of several social and political conditions prevailing at a particular point if time. As time progresses, we need to shed many of the layers that we have been sub-consciously bearing and give way to progressive changes. Resistance to change is a basic human condition but if we need to liberate ourselves, we need to start changing with times and not cling to age old traditions which may have had relevance at some point of time in the past but no longer now.

Though not a regular temple goer, I have often felt a certain sense of peace in Kerala temples which I find missing in other temples like ISKCON (Bangalore), Birla Mandir (Hyderabad) and Siddhi Vinayak (Mumbai). This is purely a personal view and people may feel otherwise. Many people opine that this temple ethos is largely due to the efforts of the temples in Kerala to maintain their traditions and stick to many of the old rules, established in temples. Strict adherence to dress code and many of the temple rituals and traditions have managed to keep that sense of halo intact in the temple there. But as time goes, certain norms become redundant and need to be cast away, keeping in mind, the larger purpose served by temples. Can they match that fine balance between tradition and modernity, without falling victims to the whims and fancies of the people involved??

Only time will tell but till that time, we can only hope to see Yesudas singing one day within the walls of the Guruvayur temple….

Friday, April 06, 2007

Blame it on the Bandh

April 4th was a red-letter day for many of us here. Not because Greg Chappell felt that coaching kangaroos is a less stressful experience than the Indian cricket team (Though the likes of Aaj Tak, CNN-IBN and the rest of them may think that this is only thing that matters to all of us). This day is significant because this was when the Government of Andhra Pradesh and Opposition joined hands, in a rare show of unanimity, to help the poor masses of Andhra Pradesh. The Opposition called for a State wide Bandh and the Government chipped in to provide legitimate, moral backing for this wonderful event. But then, YSR was not acting in an unprecedented fashion; a couple of days back, Karunanidhi called for a total bandh in Tamil Nadu to protest the Supreme Court’s verdict on the OBC reservation tangle.

The Supreme Court in August 2003 upheld the Kerala High Court's judgment declaring bandhs as illegal and unconstitutional way of collective bargaining, whatever the cause "just or unjust". The Bench opined: "Strike as a weapon is mostly misused, which results in chaos and total maladministration. Strikers cannot hold society to ransom." The Shiv Sena and the BJP were even penalized for damaging public property and we all felt that maybe, finally, we will stop being blackmailed by unions, that too in the name of social and economic justice. But then, I guess, that was too much wishful thinking; trust the democratic polity to uphold the finest traditions of democracy by staging strikes and protests at the drop of a hat.

The state of Andhra Pradesh went on a general bandh with the state-owned APSRTC calling off its services and the result - APSRTC suffered a loss to the tune of Rs 10 crore. Social justice was achieved because it gave an opportunity for the auto drivers and six seaters to mint money at the expense of the general public. So, minimum fares shot up from 10 Rs to 25 Rs just because we had no other option. There were office- goers like us who got away merely because our employer was thoughtful enough to arrange trips through private buses to tide over the crisis. Despite 2,800 city buses remaining off the roads, city roads were as busy as any other day with commuters hiring auto-rickshaws or hitch-hiking their way to their destinations. Banks and other commercial establishments remained open though the attendance was thin.

Take a look at the estimated loss due to lockouts in the country. The Labour Bureau figures state that West Bengal contributed more than 60 per cent - the highest of any State - of all mandays lost due to strikes and lockouts in the country last year. The next two biggest contributors to mandays lost last year were Kerala, with 30.6 lakh (13.5% of the national figure) and Rajasthan, with 19.3 lakh (8.29%). For Kerala, this was an almost five-fold increase from the previous year with officials attributing it to the labour crisis in the plantation sector last year. For Rajasthan, it was a 45% increase. Clearly, all signs of Shining India!!!

Even though bandhs are illegal, I can understand the Opposition parties calling for a hartal but what happens when the ruling party, duly elected by us, decides to stop all public life. Don’t the elected representatives owe it to the people to take care of their needs? Can they violate the rights of the people in the name of spirit of democracy? Mahatma Gandhi was the pioneer of strikes and hartals but he would never have thought that a day would come when his strategy would be so counter-productively used by our leaders.

Can our leaders explain the reason for calling a strike and putting thousands of us to this kind of inconvenience? Moral support for the OBC cause could be done through more democratic means but why does it have to come through calling off work? We all know it’s a joke when we are told that it was a voluntary strike by the masses and not something done through coercion. There were a few petrol pumps and shops which were subject to stone throwing because they were open despite the call.

As stakeholders in the country, we need to question the irresponsibility of the State and Central Govt. (both are run by Congress) in causing deliberate loss to the State’s treasury by abdicating responsibilities. If the State, who has to protect its citizens, puts the lives of its people at peril, who will protect the people? We need to estimate the loss suffered by the exchequer due to this and then probably take some punitive action against the callous attitude of the government. YSR cannot do anything about the land acquisition disputes or the immovable traffic in urban areas but he can support a bandh against a Supreme Court order??? Where are the government’s priorities?

We may take pride in calling ourselves a genuine democracy but let us ask ourselves where we are headed when it becomes a play tool in the hands of spineless governments who are least bothered about public welfare . There is no point in merely sneering at Chinese and Singapore polities and accusing them of lacking in democratic institutions, when we really can’t deliver with our half- baked approaches towards governance. Freedom of expression is a very fundamental feeling we all cherish and the ability to criticize the Government may give us a high but if that’s the only thing I can do, what’s the point?

It has been only AP and Tamil Nadu till now, surely the bastion of strikes, Kerala, cannot be behind. With a fundamentally crippled economy, it lumbers ahead as communists continue to milk the state dry and leave the state to the Gulf expatriates. Even Iraq may not have called for a strike when Saddam Hussain was hanged, but my dear state went on a strike!!! West Bengal is trying to do a metamorphosis by shedding the red colour but the Kerala comrades, unmindful of the stupidity involved in its deep entrenched Trade Unionism, continue to perpetuate unemployment. God save HIS OWN STATE…

As the dialogue in Spiderman goes " With great power comes great responsibility", the leaders must realise that there are more mature ways to handle disagreements and disputes among people. A greater tolerance of individual and collective views and mutual respect for different opinions is required before we start feeling smug about ourselves. Merely criticizing others is no way ahead; we need to learn from our mistakes and the success of nations how to march ahead.

There are teething problems but I remain an optimist; without a hope or a dream, there is no survival...