(J Sai Deepak is a Counsel in Supreme Court/Delhi High Court who has caught eye with his arguments in favour of Sabrimala temple. Indeed, his book Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation and Constitution has catapulted him into a foremost voice on Indic culture.
Sai Deepak is in conversation with Gayatri Chauhan in this YouTube video for BuzzOnEarth which is extremely illuminating. It’s transcribed by Bhumika Arora and presented in a condensed form here.)
Temples And Nature
So what is a character and nature of a temple? What functions in performs? Surely, its places of sanctity and worship. Its rituals have their own knowledge systems.But how does it reconcile that Hinduism is all about seeking and not about belief?
The truth is Hinduism is both about religion and belief. And the logic is belief and knowledge can’t be understood by all. That’s where bhakti and devotion comes in. For knowledge without conviction is dry logic. And conviction without logical basis is fanaticism.
You can’t understand Dharma without understanding the role of Nature in it. But colonial powers looked at Nature differently. The notions of human development index, quality of living comes in the way of respecting Nature. The fundamental identity of Nature has gone for a toss.
Why do you think there is a significant number of places in the mountains and hills which are treated as pilgrimage spots? And people are expected to observe a certain austerity? For it reduces the ravaging of nature. Be it Sabrimala or temples in Uttarakhand or elsewhere, you are expected to reach the destination on foot, minimise the vehicular traffic.
How Nature Got Subverted To Mankind
Ever since human civilization learned agriculture, it moved towards urbanisation. IT brought new respect to production of goods and wealth which hadn’t existed in the past. It’s not to say we as a civilization didn’t respect the value of “Arth”—it’s Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. But Nature was integral to human lives.
But you can’t cut yourself from Nature. You can’t think of a life outside it. The pre-Christian say of life had a significant amount of theological basis in the form of animism or nature worship. Our deities have vahanas or vehicles which are based on animals. It was the Puranic basis to create respect for creatures other than human beings too. IT’s recognition of right of the non-humans towards their habitation as well.
But when Christian theology comes in contact with non-Christian theology, what they call Pagan theology, the attitude is condescending or patronizing. For them nature is an object and human beings are subject. When you call something object, you basically treat it as inanimate, you have reduced it to lifeless creature, meant for domestication. It may have life but it lacks soul.
So the presence and absence of soul determines the position of certain beings and creatures in the hierarchy of Christian theology. So Nature was treated as inanimate and non-Christian tribes and communities were treated as, let’s say, lesser creatures which also paved the way for slavery, justification of the massacre of communities. It’s when you disrespect their value system, you disrespect their respect for Nature. It’s a fundamentally different relationship with Nature as a consequence of Christian theology.
In my book I have mentioned a mountain of literature on this subject. In the first section, I have discussed the impact of colonially on education, nature, castes and all that. This literature, according to me, has been hijacked and shackled in the academic ivory towers. When colonization is addressed which itself is driven by religion, it’s impossible not to discuss religion and its role in colonization.
In fact, before we go to non-Christian communities outside Europe, the first community to have converted significantly to Christianity, in a very institutionalized manner, are European themselves. The degradation of Nature from pre-Christianity days is significant.
In my book I have come out with certain pictures from historical sources where trees are destroyed by Christians because they believe this is worshipping of Saints and all.
The New Sustainability Thrust
The colonizer himself now realizes the impact that his life on Nature today. But unfortunately, he is not able to respect any other way of life, other than his own. He looks at Euro-centric solutions to problems created by his own Euro-centrism. The problem is he continues to look at Nature as a natural source for exploitation as opposed to that some fragile ecosystems must be left alone. For there are other species which have rights over it.
So they realize that traditional Christian way of looking at it won’t help. They start looking at traditional or indigenous knowledge and suddenly they realize that the people we have enslaved and called barbaric, seem to be better at preserving Nature and seem to crack the code which we are unable to. Unfortunately, as opposed to giving credit to the indigenous community, from whom they have taken this knowledge, that this is something they have realized on their own. But the fact is they have copy-pasted solutions from other communities. So notwithstanding the claims to openness and diversity, the Western mindset is fundamentally incapable of recognising that non-Christian societies have a lot of knowledge to give.
You have called it magic, superstition, irrational, unreasonable and lacking in scientific value all this while. They rigged up a system of having a peer-reviewed jungle that did not exist in tribal society for they lack empirical knowledge. The inability to realize that there is more than one pattern or one way of learning, sensing, building and creating knowledge is the fundamental aspect that de-coloniality extensively focuses upon.
The Western mindset has significantly created what is known as the geopolitics of knowledge where it controls the production of knowledge, how knowledge is supposed to be perceived and what is knowledge and reason.
But you can not dictate to the rest what they already know. You have no idea how these systems function. After all these are societies that have survived for millennia—the Indic society has survived close to 6,000 years out of which we have witnessed the 1100-1200 years of multiple waves of colonisation and yet our knowledge systems are reasonably intact.
Our oral traditions have protected us—that’s one of the reasons we are able to survive. Otherwise, the burning of a couple of libraries has effectively finished the knowledge chest of Egypt. Whereas despite multiple libraries being burnt in this country, our systems are still alive.
It’s important for us to sometimes recognize that while the written word has its own value, the oral word also has an equal value. We have that tradition where there is a huge oral transmission of knowledge. Be it Smritis or the learning of Vedas, they expect you to not write down but listen and retain and that is what we focus on. It’s not recording history of documentation but a different kind of documentation.
There’s a very popular example—assume for a moment that there’s someone who chants the Vedas. You want to know whether this person is chanting in the right way because there is intonation, they you effectively call a host of his peers, and the one who is out of sync with the rest is the wrong person. This is our way of peer-review.
The point I am trying to make is the insistence only on written documents as primary form of evidence that can be trusted, is significantly based on the Biblical notion that only the written word and the importance given to written words int he form of Bible by the Christian is the notion that they have transposed to all other colonized communities where now we are abandoning our oral traditions and focussing heavily on written elements.
Are Temples Just A Place of Worship
The fundamental function is to preserve sanctity. But there are certain incidental functions. For instance in quite a few temples of the Mathas in the South, you still have a practice when few of the temples are shut for the day and the chief priest goes out with a huge bell and lantern in his hand, asking for those who have not had a meal to come and have a meal with him. That practice still exists.
Secondly, there is a significant symbiotic relationship between several coastal Mathas in Karnataka and the tribal populations around. They continue to source it from tribal communities even when they have the resources to invest in modern kitchen and infrastructure etc.
It’s for two reasons: One, they don’t want migration of tribal community from the forest to the city-village so that they are not forced to change their way of life and they continue to retain proximate relation they enjoy with nature. Second, as long as some form of livelihood is kept alive, there is no reason for tribals to convert to Christianity because there is a serious activities of missionaries that goes around these places.
Each time the conversion happens, you lose a species of human knowledge, the conversion to Christianity effectively translates to homogenisation of entire community to reduce the diversity. On one hand the West speaks of diversity and on the other hand it actively pushes missionaries in our country and other places which is anti-diversity.
Another point is some of these temples are given custodian of sanctuaries or water bodies around them and therefore there is a huge culture preserving the water bodies or creating ponds and lakes inside—which are meant to be treated as very sacred spots.
Then having temple elephant is seen as a barbaric practice, a cruelty. They have no idea how these elephant communities are maintained. Who has created this notion that certain pet can be domesticated and certain is not? Yes, elephants are not pet, they aren’t domesticated rather they perform a very specific religious role. In fact, the Pooram festival held in Thrissur for the chief Shiva temple is incomplete and impossible without elephants.
Historian and economist Sanjeev Sanyal makes a wonderful point here that the maritime industry of the south was significantly funded by the temples. So temples have performed a versatile role and therefore they have fulfilled their intended roles as centre of civilisational activities. Religious activities absolutely yes, but also certainly beyond that as well.
Talking about why temple should not be under State control because the state effectively emasculates and degrades the temple ecosystem. The modern state regardless of the country, has turned out to be a fundamentally corrupt entity where its bureaucracy does not seem to have a code of honour. For them it’s more of a profession or a way of earning money. If State takes over the civilizational centres, without being backed by the same code that informs the civilisation and does not see itself as the part of that particular civilisation, it is bound to destroy whatever remains of civilization aspects of those centres. This has happened to quite a few communities temple.
You should also look at the dependence of tribal communities with the temple ecosystem in the lesser known states such as Gujarat. Gujarat is not typically associated with tribal population like Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh or Orissa. It is typically seen as an affluent state but there are some tribal communities which you see enjoy the fantastic equation with the rest of the community. These are the aspects which have been not studied enough or showcased enough. So, I think it is important for us to take a serious relook and unlearn what we think know and try to have actual knowledge before saying stuff about temples.
Because when you talk of temples, I have heard people saying stuff about temples that its priest is corrupt, the temple is dirty but if you go to Gurudwara, they have langars and they also teach people well. I have no problem with visiting Gurudwara. In fact I love to visit Gurudwara. Is it your case that the concept of langar has come out of Gurudwara or you have not heard about the Anna-dana, concept associated to temples even before?
This tendency to claim exclusivist and altruistic attitude and all that, I sometimes laugh at them with pity to say, sorry you don’t know your history well!
The history of this country and the history of feeding people free of cost is something that goes well beyond the Gurudwaras. Our history is 5,000 year old and anna-danna is 2000 year old where as the Gurudwara has history, at best, of last 500 years.