The weight of the dying bird

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 09, 2018

Rush hour: The supposed absolution from guilt and sin, not by atonement, but by its transference to a waterbody is the idea behind religious congregations such as Ardh Kumbh and Kumbh melas.   -  Reuters

A nation suffers when morality is shackled to the twin beasts of religion and culture

The world’s largest act of faith or mass hysteria involved 30 million credulous humans commemorating an ancient hoax. They descended on the floodplains of a river on February 10, 2013 and bathed in it to expiate the sins and offences they might have committed in this life or a previous one. For the river to rinse out their sins, the power and benignity of a certain celestial ordering was required — the benevolent orb Jupiter (Brhaspati) had to enter Aries (Mesh), and the sun and the moon had to be in Capricorn (Makar) on a new moon night.

From January to March 2013, over 55 days, 120 million people showed up at Triveni Sangam to bathe in the Ganga. In the mythology of the ancients, it was here, adjacent to the river, that Vishnu, morphed as the siren Mohini, sloshed a bit of amrit out of a Kumbhful. On the sarkari website of the 2013 Kumbh Mela of Allahabad, Prayag was plugged with the following description:

“Creation of the universe is supposed to have originated here and it is supposed to be the center of the earth. Prajapati Brahma, the God of Creation, is said to have created the Universe after conducting the Ashwamedh Yajna at the Dashashwamedh Ghat here.”

A sort of hucksterism was used to exhort the faithful to bathe:

“The holy bath of the Kumbh is equal in piety to thousands of Kartik snans (baths), a hundred Magh snans and crores of Narmada snans. The fruits of a Kumbh snan are equal to the fruits of thousands of Ashvamedh yajnas and lakhs of journeys around the earth.”

Apart from the blindingly obvious elemental question of how ritual purification is possible by sousing oneself in a river that is part sewage, part effluent, with a surface-active scum made of rotting marigolds, coconut husk, ash and plastic; and the moral question of how spontaneous absolution from guilt and sin, not by atonement, but by its transference to a waterbody, can be, by any reckoning, edifying, even moral; and the aesthetic question of how sublime the processional spectacle of ash-coated Naga babas (having the first right to bathe) flourishing their tridents and swords and pendulous intromittent organs is; and its corollary about the point at which the foisting of myths on the unsuspecting and the credulous, by contagion, becomes culture; and the political question of whether the State spending on the Kumbh melas (₹1,214.37 crore in 2013) qualifies as a subsidy to Hindus; there is the other, more important question to be asked: what in the life of a nation and its people is more valuable than religion and culture?

In 2015, a year of scarcity and hydrological drought, the State of Maharashtra, breaching its own water policy, released 4.50 TMC water from the Gangapur dam complex on the Godavari river for the purpose of the Shahi Snan, for the benefit of a crore pilgrims. This when sufficient water was not available for drinking, agricultural, industrial, and environmental purposes. A sum of ₹2,380 crore were spent on the arrangements for the Nashik-Trimbakeshwar Kumbh mela. This included paving the riverbeds and the banks of the Godavari with concrete in Nashik, choking the acquirers leading into it. The river, at its origin in Brahmagiri, was sequestered in a 300m pipe with a concrete slab over it to ease the movement of devotees. The hills flanking the river were gouged out to make akharas for the sadhus.

What should be allowed to prevail over an individual’s right to freely profess, practise and propagate their religion? What if bathing in a holy river (for its sale of pardons) on Mauni Amavasya was an essential religious practice (for 96 crore Hindus), protected under Article 25(1) of the Indian Constitution? What if it was, in all its absurdity and profaneness, consistent with the requirements of public order, morality and health to which Article 25(1) is subject? What if the discharge of nirmalya into waterbodies and the immersion of idols was an essential religious practice? What if it had the highest scriptural authority? What if there was scriptural and sacerdotal sanction for having strontium and lead and antimony in firecrackers that are a cultural pivot for Diwali festivities? Will that prevail and continue as the tribal morality of the Hindu samaj?

What is the meaning of morality in 25(1)? However thick one may lay on the paint, if the meaning of morality, in its essential parts, is how ought we to live, is reverence for life and salubrity not a fundamental principle of morality? Is the grievous harm to the life-giving properties of our ecosystem not an injury to morality? If a religious act is unedifying to man and woman and repugnant to reason, does it continue to be moral? The Constitution, in the 27th year of our republic, was amended for the 42nd time to include our fundamental duties. It shall be the duty of every citizen, it says therein, to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform. Is that not how we ought to live?

Amongst the properties that were lost in the fripperies and the accreted inheritance of our ancient traditions were the Brhaspati sutras. These were texts not about Jupiter, the auspicious planet, or a certain golden-bodied Vedic god, but writings of the sage and philosopher Brhaspati, who wrote the most uncompromising theories of materialistic atheism. Its tenets laid down the foundation for the Charvaka school of Hindu philosophy. The Charvakas rejected the Vedas, religious rites and all forms of spiritual quackery. They challenged metaphysical notions of reincarnation and the extracorporeal soul. Their dialectics refuted ideas of heaven and hell, fate and the accumulated capital of karmic merit and demerit (by the performance of certain deeds).

If one could nominate an absolute tragedy of our collective past, it would be the disappearance of the Brhaspati sutras and the writings of the Charvakas. Had we not been sundered from them, at least some schools of Hindu philosophy could have felt the pull exerted by them; they could have continued as a living tradition and more of us might have become carriers of anti-supernaturalist philosophy rather than of solipsistic rituals.

For is it not a dull conscience that mourns the loss of culture rather than injury to a child’s lung? In mourning the plumage, wrote Thomas Paine (in a completely different context), we forgot the dying bird.

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer;; @ AmbarishSatwik

Published on November 24, 2017

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