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Vol. XXVII No. 18, January 1-15, 2018

The religious wave in Madras

‘These diverse – if also at times perverse – manifestations of religious fervour are perhaps not altogether irrelevant to the times we live in. Current events constantly remind us that the world has indeed advanced well into the dark age of Kali.’

If you happen to visit Madras these days, you are very likely to gather the impression that the city – and perhaps the rest of the South as well – is currently under the influence of a religious wave. On any fine morning, open the city edition of a newspaper and cast but a cursory glance at the engagements column: a long list of “discourses” virtually crowd out other mundane items such as a Chamber of Commerce meeting or a symposium on the ethics of India joining the nuclear race. Enter one of our ever-popular “coffee clubs” and, while you wait patiently for a plate of steaming idli-s, gods and goddesses all around smile down at you benignly from the varnished splendour of new calendars. Or step out into the sun, and from the roadside, popular film actors and actresses, emulating popular heroes and heroines of mythology, fix you with magnetic eyes from the garish expanse of giant-size posters.

These diverse – if also at times perverse – manifestations of religious fervour are perhaps not altogether irrelevant to the times we live in. Current events constantly remind us that the world has indeed advanced well into the dark age of Kali. And the reinstatement of Dharma being everybody’s concern (or at least, we are told, it ought to be), you must not really grumble that commercialism has entered the field or religion – or is it vice versa? – and that spiritualism is being brought down to the common man with the simplicity of, say, ten easy lessons!

I am not being quite fair, of course, when I bracket the religious discourses with the calendars and posters. In most case, these are conducted with the utmost dignity and sincerity. You do not have to be deeply religious to enjoy – or even profit from – a learned exposition on the role of bhakti in day-to-day life, or a not-so-learned, but more lively, discussion on the significance of Karma Yoga in the context of the new budget. You need not also be put off by the possibility that at such functions you run across a couple of dissipated film artistes or a few allegedly corrupt politicians. Their presence does not necessarily detract from the solemnity of the occasion – nor does it in any way unsettle the faith of the truly devout. The world is but Maya, and it is surely too much to expect that all who seek redemption can have the privilege of starting out with a clean conscience.

Religion has, of course, already made inroads into Tamil Nadu politics. Quite a few political leaders down South nowadays quote the Purana-s as facilely and unctuously as they quote the Constitution. And it is common knowledge that a new and totally ingenious interpretation of the Ramayana accuses the noble descendants of Raghu of having secretly harboured expansionist schemes. By the same token, the killing of Bali was given the ugly tinge of a political murder and Vibhishana was looked upon as the mythological equivalent of a timid but unscrupulous Leader of the Opposition. As for Ravana himself, he emerged far less black than we had foolishly supposed him to be – indeed a much-misunderstood hero, a rather sad and solitary figure, addicted perhaps to a few startling vices but otherwise quite a match for Rama in statesmanship and worldly wisdom. (“After all,” quipped a local wag, “ten heads are surely better than one!”) Neither history nor legend leaves us room to speculate whether an attempt was made in those days to impose the official language of Ayodhya on the innocent citizens of Kishkindha.

The man in the street, admittedly, is far less subtle or even blasé than the politician, and he is being constantly exposed to religion with all the devastating force that crude commercialism can muster. Mythological themes have always proved money-spinning charms for our film producers. I am told that as a box-office draw, they rank second only to sex. But the cinema being such a potent mass medium, it is only fair that it should be used to bring religion of a kind to the common man. We must not be too critical, but must try to cultivate the habit of looking at the brighter side of things. We all know that the average film-goer in India is notoriously gullible, or different – or both. He is easily entertained. He looks for happy endings – if not in everyday affairs, at least on the silver screen. It is, however, pointless to condemn him for these altogether innocent failings. If you accept that human nature has not undergone any major change through the ages, why should you find it hard to accept that even some of our Puranic heroes displayed a penchant for sermonising or delivering long-winded speeches whenever an opportunity came their way? Personally, I find Sivaji Ganesan far more convincing as Karna than as, say, a “roadside Romeo,” who was not been too keenly watching his calories. And when it comes to that, who can say with any certainty that, under extreme mental duress, Karna did not twirl his moustache, or even break into a song?

Newspapers in the South have also, in their own right, taken up the theme of religion with some gusto. Editors, contrary to common belief, are not necessarily dictators. Often they find it expedient to fall in line with popular taste. (One ageing editor I know keeps an eye on his paper’s circulation as apprehensively as he watches his own blood pressure!) A leading daily of Tamil Nadu, I believe, employs a special senior reporter to cover religious discourses. (Whoever would have imagined that one day the Gita would be taken down in shorthand or that a grammalogue would be evolved for, say, Anasaktiyoga?) The discourses are reported – pardon the pun – most religiously. They are normally given a place of honour on the back page, away, you presume, from such mundane things as ministerial corruption or a distant and pointless war in Viet Nam. Much imagination is displayed in giving punchy headlines to Puranic episodes, and apparently no effort is spared to give them a contemporary significance. While I give no credence to the claim of a friend of mine (he remembers a headline: “Adjournment motion in Ayodhya – Bharata’s return creates stir”). I have often been startled out of my morning sleepiness by a purely coincidental juxtaposition of headlines in adjacent columns: “Keep away from politics – Krishna’s advice to Arjuna” or “Student agitators lathi-charged – The triumph of Karma”. At least once I have seen Lord Krishna credited with this simple and pithy statement: “Honesty is the best policy”!

I have no doubt that this “publicity” for religion is well-intentioned and serves a good purpose. It is certainly not out of place in these times when a person has to buy a ticket (devotees often complain about malpractices at the booking office) or stand in a queue to have darshan of your favourite deity. It is not unusual nowadays to see a devasthnam advertising special puja-s and rituals in the newspapers. (Buy three kotiarchana-s and save 15% – or an offer to that effect, perhaps slightly differently worded, reminded me the other day of a popular slogan for an economy size toothpaste pack!) But, of course, if elsewhere in India, Ganesa can be represented wearing a Gandhi cap, or a waterproof wristwatch, we in Madras cannot also object if a picture of Siva and Parvati carries under it a bold caption: “Viswanath & Co. Ltd., Provision Merchants – 100% pure gingelly oil our specialty.”

Perhaps even Ravi Varma would only have smiled indulgently at it!

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