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Faith accompli

It’s my sense that had the UPA not goofed up and converted the debate around the shipping project into an existential argument over the existence of God, the Sethusamudram may well have been on track today, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:04 IST

'I recognise Truth by the name of Rama. In the darkest hour of my trial, that one name has saved me and is still saving me. It may be the association of childhood; it may be the fascination that Tulsidas has wrought on me."

Depending on your religious and political leanings, those words could either reaffirm your own faith or make you distinctly uncomfortable. Either way, it could help you or perhaps confuse you even further to discover that they weren’t pulled out from the collected scraps of a right-wing pamphleteer or even from the proselytising rhetoric of a new-age evangelist. Instead, they were penned by a man we are still misty-eyed and reverential about — Mahatma Gandhi.

It's ironical that the week in which we marked our annual remembrance of Gandhi was the same week in which the Congress pretty much decided that it would have to say ‘yes’ to Rama and ‘no’ to the ‘sethu’ in Tamil Nadu. It was desperate damage control after an earlier government affidavit had informed the Supreme Court that there was no “scientific or historical evidence" of Lord Ram’s existence.

In many ways, the relentless controversy surrounding the ambitious Rs 2,400-crore sethusamudram shipping project is symbolic of the Modern Indian State’s tortured and confused relationship with religion. Hinduism especially — in the absence of codified rituals or a book of rules to circumscribe it — has always functioned as part philosophy, part mythology, leaving it open to competing and contradictory interpretations.

It's also perhaps no accident that the Sethusamudram canal was first formalised under Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in 1955, when a committee of bureaucrats was asked to study the feasibility of dredging a shipping channel across the Palk Straits, between India and Sri Lanka. They didn’t seem to worry back then that the natural shoal formations in the sea could be the bridge that Hanuman’s army built for Ram to march across into Lanka.

Nehru — who described religious mysticism as “vague and soft and flabby, not a rigorous discipline of the mind, but a surrender of mental faculties” — would have most likely had little patience for the protests that have stalled the shipping project for decades. Armed with a rationalist masterplan for India’s future, Nehru would have argued in favour of the obvious benefits. The canal, if completed, will allow a ship sailing between India’s east and west coasts a straight passage through India’s territorial waters. At present, the waters separating the two countries are so shallow, that all ships heading to Bangladesh or Indian ports on the east coast have to travel around Sri Lanka. A waterway could save thirty hours of sailing time.

Nehru — who would have preferred to worship at the altar of industrialisation (famously chronicled as his "temples for modern India”) — would have obviously had nothing in common with the BJP’s version of political Hindutva. And yet, even a party that has repeatedly used Ram as its political mascot must have seen something compelling in the project. It was the NDA government (notwithstanding its current protests) that first cleared the project in 1999 and declared that the digging of the seabed would be completed within three years.

It’s my sense that had the UPA not goofed up and converted the debate around the shipping project into an existential argument over the existence of God, the Sethusamudram may well have been on track today. Which is not to say that the ASI historians — who have since been sacked for not being able to provide ‘evidence’ of Ram — did anything wrong. It was ridiculous to put them in a position where fact was called upon to measure faith, and a court was then asked to play arbiter on questions that the greatest philosophers haven’t been able to resolve for centuries. Religion has always been rooted in the willing suspension of disbelief. Neither scientific laboratories nor excavation expeditions can unravel the human need to believe in a greater truth, a truth strangely made all the more grand and mysterious by the absence of empirical evidence.

If we began deconstructing the myths at the heart of every religion, we would be citizens of a Marxian Utopia. Did Jesus really walk on water? Is there a soul? Is there an afterlife? Was the Koran really revealed by Allah to the Prophet through an angel? Was there ever really a Vanar Sena? Believers probably even know that the logical answer to all of these questions is a resounding 'no'. But their faith may not be founded in the literal truth of individual tenets as much as a historical and cultural sense of community and belonging.

And so, in many ways, the dispute over the Sethusamudrum is emblematic of a larger question that Modern India debates every day: what is secularism? Is it the reasoned, well-argued and scientific tempered Nehruvian philosophy that demands a divorce between the State and religion? Or is it the more spiritual and benign strand of spirituality promoted by Gandhi that emphasised a blend of different faiths and unabashedly used religion as a political rallying point?

DMK chief Karunanidhi — a self-confessed atheist — sniggered aloud and wondered whether Ram was a marine engineer. But he missed the point at the heart of the matter. Even atheists and agnostics — and I’m an agnostic — can respond with respect to the cultural infiltration of religion into our everyday lives. It’s the same impulse that makes us cover our head in silent respect inside the cool shelter of a gurdwara or makes us spontaneously drop to our knees and light a candle when moved by the beatific grandness of an old church.

In India, even those who fiercely question the sagacity of institutionalised religion (count me in again) can be moved to tears when they hear Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan (I cry every time.) Perhaps, that’s why even the pragmatic Nehru quoted this passage on Hinduism from Gandhi, in the Discovery of India. “A man may not believe in God and can still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit of truth.... Denial of God we have known, denial of truth we have not known.”

Perhaps, in this the week when we mourned Gandhi’s death, we could learn from him to not see religion as the Eternal Enemy.

Barkha Dutt is managing editor, ndtv 24x7.