As a good Hindu Rahul Gandhi should visit the Yellamma temple

Instead of giving out your caste denomination when the BJP accuses you of being an ‘election Hindu,’ the best response would be to seek refuge in the undistinguished, plebian shrines of a million gods

A remark I made on national television, on how the Congress in Karnataka should use two lakh gods to politically counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) most touted two, has generated a degree of curiosity. In the past week, on a number of occasions, I have been asked to elaborate this point by journalist friends and political acquaintances. I replicate here a pithy commentary I’ve been offering. I wouldn’t really mind if one reads this as some kind of ethnographic or sociological quackery.

In the recent past, a well-calibrated campaign by the BJP and its fellow travellers have endeavoured to portray the new Congress president as an ‘election Hindu’. They have created tags after hashtags and, as is their style, have built piles of vitriol and sarcasm. What they wish to communicate is that Rahul’s temple visits have nothing to do with his belief or faith, but is a ‘not so ingenious’ step to earn a spot in the voting Hindu heart. This characterization is in contrast to the earlier one of ‘minority appeasement’, which of course was a larger charge against the Congress party.

A prominent section of the Congress party does believe that this typecasting by the BJP cost them dearly in the Parliamentary polls of 2014. Hence, the temple visits are not seen as a mere reaction, but a prudent strategy to challenge BJP’s shrewd claim as a sole arbiter of Hindu destiny, and consequentially, its vote. But the interesting aspect here is that both the national parties have attempted a narrow, reductionist understanding of being a Hindu. They have simplistically equated it to temples. All the talk is about either building them or visiting them. In the case of the BJP, they have ignored the larger idea of being a cultural Hindu because that wouldn’t help fire their political canons. It is also too complicated to be translated into taut slogans. And in the case of the Congress, they have jettisoned the idea because there is a rather listless application of the mind.

When I said two lakh gods (not to be read literally), I meant that the Congress would immensely benefit by taking up this benign idea of a cultural Hindu. An idea that’s far more inclusive, and if argued, played and displayed well, can counter the exclusive Hindutva idea, which is a well-honed political tool that loves to masquerade as a weighty philosophical doctrine.

Essentially, the Hindu and the Hindutva ideas stand opposite to each other. While one has subterranean temperateness, the other loves to flood and inundate. While one negotiates plurality and cohabits with ease, the other seeks to create a flat, homogenous terrain. This seeking of homogeneity is not just an inter-faith issue, but also an intra-faith concern as well. While there are millions of Hindu gods, not just two lakh as I said, they wish to either propagate only two, or attempt to build hegemony of the two among the rest. The two gods obviously are Rama and Krishna. This is quite understandable because you cannot build a political project by placing millions of gods on the same pedestal. Likewise, with Hindu seminaries. Some are more important and powerful than the rest. The ones that help the political project stay in direct touch with powers that be, and the rest are in distant concentric rings.

Both the national parties have attempted a narrow, reductionist understanding of being a Hindu. They have simplistically equated it to temples. All the talk is about either building them or visiting them. In the case of the BJP, they have ignored the larger idea of being a cultural Hindu because that wouldn’t help fire their political canons. And in the case of the Congress, they have jettisoned the idea because there is a rather listless application of the mind

So, when charged with being an ‘election Hindu,’ the Congress will be falling into a classic trap if they react by saying that Rahul Gandhi is also a Hindu and that he was born to such and such a denomination of the Brahmin caste with this or that gotra. This happened while campaigning in Gujarat recently. Instead, it will serve them better if they honestly say that we seek the blessings of a million politically unaffiliated Hindu gods worshipped by the poor and those occupying the base of the caste pyramid.

Take for instance the case of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who hails from a shudra community. His family god is Siddarama and is not even remotely an avatar of Lord Rama. Although the CM is a proclaimed atheist, he has never missed the annual fair held in the name of his family deity at his birthplace Siddaramana Hundi; he has never missed an opportunity to perform the traditional dance on the occasion; and has proudly flaunted the name he derives from the deity. Whenever he is accused of being a ‘lesser Hindu’ by the BJP, he typically retorts by pointing to the ‘Rama’ in his name, and goes on to communicate in his clipped idiom that he is culturally a Hindu.

Recently, on the floor of the Assembly he held forth for close to 30 minutes speaking about grand linkages between ‘work and worship’ for the socially and economically disadvantaged. This is something that the 12th century mystics have brilliantly versified in Karnataka. He cited lines from a vachana, which reads: “The rich build temples for the lord/What shall I do/ I am a poor man/My legs are pillars/My body the shrine/And head a cupola of gold.”

Siddarama is not a mainstream god like Rama or Krishna. So is the fact with Malaya Mahadeshwara, Manteswamy, Mailaralinga, Maramma, Hatti Lakkamma, Chowdamma, Kholapuradamma, Ganga Malavva, Padiamma, and millions of other gods in Karnataka who are personal deities of the proletariat. Besides, there are hundreds of Bhootha deities in the Mangalore area, usually referred to as a ‘Hindutva laboratory’ in the press. These gods eat and drink like their subaltern followers. What the BJP has done over time is to dissolve the diversity of gods, and has forwarded its Hindutva political project of ‘one god-one nation-one language’. It has created an aspirational class of gods for the poor and engendered a splinter in their worship.

Hindu communalism is nothing but a splintered worship of gods. There is a god to build nationalism and there is a god for personal communion. While the poor also raise slogans to build a Ram temple, they still kneel before their personal deities to seek deliverance. There is a god for your tradition and there is a god for politics. The latter is a sanitized and a sanctified deity for the patriotic marketplace, while the former is to remain at home, or in the quiet corner of a town or village. This play of gods, I am tempted to say, is like the play of smaller languages against dominant tongues: One serves your career and the other plays out in your kitchen.

If the Congress believes in the plural idea of India, then, there is a reclamation project possible here. Therefore, instead of giving out your caste denomination when the BJP accuses you of being ‘a lesser Hindu’ or an ‘election Hindu,’ the best response would be to seek refuge in the undistinguished, plebian shrines of these million gods. Interestingly, many of these gods have their own oral epics and defined cosmologies. They taunt, tease, and tear apart mainstream narratives and epics. To study and allude to them can also be a distinguishing political project.

Enlightenment reason and colonial blinkers have clouded our approach to these millions of deities. But there is great opportunity now to work on a new blend to counter political Hindutva with a cultural Hindu narrative. The Congress shouldn’t be diffident

While Rahul Gandhi was in Karnataka last time, touring the districts of Hyderbad-Karnataka, he visited the shrine of Huligemma, a working class cum backward class god; then he went to Gavisiddeshwara Math; on day three of his visit he was at Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah; and on the final day, he was at Basava Kalyan. Going to a temple, a math, a dargah and a revolutionary ground zero of the Lingayats was not (repeat not) seen by the common man as mediated symbolism of a secular being, but as something ordinary and natural. This is because ordinary people of the region do not discriminate between the shrines, and could visit them at different points of a week or at different intervals in a year. They do not suffer the guilt pangs of having violated their designated faith by stepping into the shrine of another faith. Guilt comes from hard indoctrination.

In fact, Rahul Gandhi’s tour trail earlier this month was reminiscent of the most diverse, plural, syncretic debates in Karnataka for many centuries. Even when a silly tweet by BJP leader B S Yeddyurappa falsely accused Rahul of eating a ‘broiler chicken’ dish before entering the temple, people didn’t really bother, because animal sacrifice is a tradition with Huligemma (although now modern law would not permit them to do so in the vicinity of the temple), like is the case with millions of other personal gods. That is precisely why I said earlier in the piece that these gods eat and drink what their worshipers do.

Enlightenment reason and colonial blinkers have clouded our approach to these millions of deities. There is an attendant lack of self-esteem when we mention them. But there is great opportunity now to work on a new blend to counter political Hindutva with a cultural Hindu narrative. The Congress shouldn’t be diffident.

Rahul Gandhi has arrived in Mumbai Karnataka today. He’ll be in Saundatti town on Monday. He should not miss visiting the Saundatti Yellamma temple. The hash tags will continue and prime time screaming will get shriller, but he should ignore them. Decades ago people worshipped in the nude at the Yellamma temple, and women were ordained the life of Devadasis here. Law does not permit this anymore, but poor millions confide in this god. There is history, culture, tradition to the place, not just worship. There is a brilliant movie made in the early 1980s titled ‘Giddh’, directed by T S Ranga (incidentally son of a former Bangalore South Janata Party MP, T S Shamanna) and has Smita Patil, Om Puri and Nana Patekar in the lead roles. The movie is built around the traditions of this temple. While Prime Minister Modi makes each visit of his to Karnataka very political, Rahul Gandhi shouldn’t give up his cultural edge.

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