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A spanner in the chakra

Religious groups co-exist by maintaining separate identities. Gujarat should know that, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2006 22:50 IST

Human groups are more than masses of humanity which can be characterised at will. While ways of defining them have been as various as the groups themselves, there is supposed to be a logic which attaches to all group description. Simultaneously, there are also many forms of illogic which can be more easily identified. The social engineering exercise underway in Gujarat is a common case in point.

Consider the facts: with a singular sleight of hand, the ruling BJP’s legislators have piloted through the Assembly an amendment that submerges Buddhism and Jainism into Hinduism by treating them as denominations of it. So, in case you chance upon either a Jain or a Buddhist in or from Gujarat, please remember, you are only seeing a Hindu in disguise.

But this is dubious disguise with a difference. It has been crafted to cover up religious conversion. After all there can be no inter-faith conversion by adherents of religions that do not have an independent status. To put it another way, the logic of this amendment suggests that even if a Hindu chooses to become Buddhist or Jain, he will remain a variety of Hindu since those are supposed to be denominations of Hinduism.

Does the Bill violate the Constitution? Will it survive the scrutiny of the courts of law? Can the Governor be expected to withhold his consent? Above all, how do Jains and Buddhists feel about the fate facing their faiths that are in danger of falling off the official religious map of Gujarat?

Most certainly, this experiment is likely to lend new life to a persisting pattern of tension in Gujarat, as is evident from the street demonstrations and verbal rows that have erupted. Surprisingly, in their coverage of the controversy, the media seem to have overemphasised the pattern of inter-faith harmony among Jains and Hindus there, and the support that Chief Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed among the Jain community of Rajkot from where he won a by-election in 2002. What has been forgotten are the tensions that have surfaced since then among these communities. Some of these concern places of worship that are shared by Jains and Hindus in Gujarat. Contrary to the legislative bulldozing of Jains into the Hindu fold, at places of religious intersection, the lines of distinction seem to be sharply drawn.

What may be singled out here is the series of events that unfolded at Junagarh’s Girnar Hill, some years ago. In 2004, an ugly dispute exploded around a shrine on the fifth peak of Girnar. Here the object of devotion is a set of footprints that the Jains regard as those of Neminath, the 22nd Tirthankara and which, Hindus worship as the imprint of Dattatreya, an avatar of Vishnu. In March 2004, police complaints were apparently filed by members of both communities against each other. A Hindu swami, Muktanandgiri, alleged that some Jains had threatened to beat him up and damage the shrine of Dattatreya. The Jains, in turn, claimed that it was the sadhus who had beaten them up and were preventing them from visiting the peak. Police security checks were subsequently set up and the dispute eventually reached the Gujarat High Court.

It is not necessary to delve into the intricacies of the legal dispute here. It is necessary to emphasise, though, that the exacerbation of tensions in Girnar seems to be connected with  special privileges being given to a Hindu trust there to build a small shrine of Dattatreya. Generally, worship proceeds without rancour at  multi-religious sites when no sect enjoys ‘superior’ rights. However, such religious coexistence can as easily get threatened when State authorities intervene and contribute to a situation where one group is granted greater representation in relation to the other. This seems to have happened at Girnar.

Certainly, from the websites that have discussed this at length, it would seem that Jains in this part of Gujarat see themselves as members of a separate religious faith that is  being browbeaten by a rival Hindu group. In fact, the sense of discrimination among them is very real. It is highlighted, for instance, in an email  reproduced on a Jain website from an eyewitness to the incident. Girnar,  according to an Anekant Jain “is captured by Hindu pandas, when I went there at fifth tonk of Neminath on October 28, 2004, they quarrelled with our Jain brothers, and told them that there is no entry for Jains, entry is only for Hindus. The government of Gujarat is supporting them because they are in majority.”

The fact that blows were exchanged and charges were hurled at one another at Girnar is especially unfortunate because the area has a  history of positive tolerance and sharing. It is in its vicinity that the Mauryan emperor Asoka’s message of non-violence with its Buddhist overtones and its simultaneous exhortation to show liberality to Brahmins and Sramanas is inscribed. There are also rock-cut Buddhist caves here. Many writers and scholars have highlighted the variety of religious structures on the hill itself, especially of the Jain and Hindu temples. Among the finest of such descriptions comes from the 1892 testimony of a Junagarh resident.

The person and the context in which this was offered is worth mentioning. This was Jata Shankar, a Vaishnava Brahmin who, along with two Jain members, was asked to testify about the status of symbols like ‘charan padukas’ which were commonly worshipped at Girnar. This was done because these were worshipped and respected by both Jains and Hindus as symbols of separate deities, while similar footprints in another place of common worship, the Bawangaza hill of Barwani in central India, had become a matter of dispute. Quite naturally, the arbiters in that dispute were curious about the character of sacred worship at Girnar where there was a culture of coexistence, unlike at the Bawangaza hill where the same religious groups were quarrelling about the custody of footprints.

Jata Shankar’s answers to the questions put to him drew upon the multi-religious character of Girnar in general and the worship of common symbols in particular. Seven summits and their sacred spots are described. Some, such as those on the first summit, had only Jain temples dedicated to the Tirthankaras. Others, like Gaumukh on the second and third summits dedicated to Shiva and Girnari/Ambaji, attracted Hindu worship. Still others were marked by deities that both sects worshipped. The most famous of these was the fifth one called the Dattatreya summit. “There is a small temple,” the Junagarh Brahmin tells us, “in which are the footprints of the deity Dattatreya. These footprints are called the footprints of Mahavir ‘Svami’ by the Jains and as the  footprints of Dattatreya by the Hindus other than the Jains.” There was only one pujari there on behalf of the Hindus. But here, as at all summits except the first, people of all sects were allowed to worship at any time of the day.

Girnar appears, through Jata Shankar’s words, as a palimpsest of religious interests where pilgrims performed worship in accordance with their own faiths. Certainly, this was not a unique situation. Indeed, the subcontinent is littered with sites sacred to Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, and Buddhists and Muslims, what to speak of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

There is, though, a lesson here for the law-makers of Gujarat. Junagarh and Girnar hill have had a special place in the region’s sacred geography, because religious sites and religious groups coexisted while maintaining their separate identities.  These religions with long historical roots in Gujarat are unlikely to disappear because politicians have concocted an entirely fallacious form of Hinduism that seeks to divest them of their independent existence.

So, instead of attempting to homogenise multiple religious groups through unsustainable legislation, Gujarat’s legislators should scrutinise and set their state’s strained heritage of composite worship in order.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches history at Delhi University