For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil. The warrior confronted with such a war should be pleased, Arjuna, for it comes as an open gate to heaven. But if you do not participate in this battle against evil, you will incur sin, violating your dharma and your honour – Swami Vivekananda
‘Dharma’, which is at the soul of the Sanatan, is perhaps the most complex and liberating concept of Hinduism. Dharma has no equivalent term in any other language. Religion and Theology, the modern terms used are mostly anglicised, biblical and Abrahamic. It is a fact that ‘Dharma’ has been used in different religious texts of Hinduism in different forms. And it is in this fact, that the BHU controversy is rooted.
The crux of the BHU issue and the basic problem of students with the Muslim professor
BHU students have been protesting against the appointment of a Muslim professor in the Dharma Vigyan department. The students say, that in their course, they study mantra, shloka, yagna, vaidik rituals, Purohit Karm, recitation, Bhagwat recitation, jyotish, karmakand, etc. They are not only involved in studies but it is also the source of their livelihood. most of them spend their lives performing Purohit Karm. Essentially, the Dharma Vigyan department of BHU educates the future gatekeepers of Sanatan. The BHU students have repeatedly said that they are not against Muslims. They are not even against the Muslim professor teaching Sanskrit, however, they don’t want a non-Hindu, teaching them about their religion.
The facts of the case have been twisted beyond measure. One needs to understand at the very onset of this discussion that the students of Dharma Vigyan don’t learn Sanskrit as a linguistic endeavour.
The first fact to understand is that BHU has a separate Arts department that teaches Sanskrit as a linguistic endeavour. Just as one would perhaps learn French or English or even Hindi.
The Sanskrit being taught at the Dharma Vigyan department has deep religious significance. For this, I quote Professor Feroze Khan himself:
He says that in the Sanskrit department of Dharma Vigyan, one has to not only learn the technicalities of Sanskrit as a language but also “famous dramas” like Abhigyan Shakuntalam, Uttar Ramcharitam or Mahakavya like Raghuvansh Mahakavya or Harshcharitam. He further says that these have nothing to do with religion.
With all due respect to Professor Khan, this statement itself shows that Professor Khan is looking at Sanatan with Abrahamic lenses. For Islam or Christianity, their religious text, so to speak, is limited to the Quran or the Bible. That is the final word of God for co-religionists. In Sanatan, however, there is no final word of God and no codified text that defines Hinduism.
Follow is what Professor Khan calls “dramas that have nothing to do with religion”:
Uttar Ramcharitam: The Uttararamacarita is a Sanskrit play in 7 acts in the Nataka style by Bhavabhuti. It covers the events of the Uttara Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana, the final years of Rama on Earth up to his ascension. Abhigyan Shakuntalam: A Sanskrit play by the ancient Indian poet Kālidāsa, dramatizing the story of Shakuntala told in Mahabharata. Or even Raghuvansh Mahakvya which is a Sanskrit Mahakavya by the most celebrated Sanskrit poet Kalidasa from the 5th century CE. It narrates, in 19 Sargas, the stories related to the Raghu dynasty, namely the family of Dilipa and his descendants up to Agnivarna, who include Raghu, Dasharatha and Rama.
Essentially, when one looks at what Professor Khan calls ‘just dramas that have nothing to do with religion’, one sees that the scriptures he talks of are deeply rooted in Sanatan Dharma. They are about our Gods and God-Kings who we, till date, revere. The fact that Professor Khan thinks these epics have ‘nothing to do with religion’, should in itself be a problem with his appointment to the Dharma Vigyan department because the students of the department do not view these epics as “dramas that have nothing to do with religion”.
I personally worship a Sati Goddess. There is a ‘paath’ that details her life that we call ‘Mangal paath’. It is in the form of poetry. Now for someone who doesn’t worship the Sati Goddess, it is just poetry that has ‘nothing to do with religion’. But for me, it is one of the most sacred texts. Similarly, the Bhagawat Gita in its original form is written in Sanskrit. However, there is another form of it called the Hari Gita, which is in Hindi poetic couplets. For a Sanatani, does Hari Gita become a ‘drama that has nothing to do with religion’, or is it as revered?
It must be mentioned here that I don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to question Professor Khan’s scholarship and in no capacity, am I trying to do so. I am simply trying to infer, from his own words, whether his scholarship is in tune with ‘faith’ that is the central focus of the Dharma Vigyan department. And hence, it becomes necessary to clarify that I come from a place of faith, and not scholarship, which is the crux of the BHU controversy, to begin with.
Are BHU students enrolled in the Dharma Vigyan department ‘bigots’?
One has to ask a very important question in this context – why would a student enrol himself in the Dharma Vigyan department of BHU? If a student enrols for an MBA, one can safely assume that he intends to work in the corporate sector in tune with his specialisation, which could be Marketing, Finance, Supply Chain Management, so on and so forth. When a student enrols for Mass Communication, one might safely assume that the student’s interests lie with fields like Journalism, for example. Now, when these students enrol in the Dharma Vigyan department, are they doing so to learn literature, or are they doing so to understand, learn about and pursue religious endeavours. If they had enrolled to merely learn literature, why would they enrol in Dharma Vigyan and not the Arts department?
Extrapolating from the above argument, it is thus safe to assume that the students of Dharma Vigyan enrolled there with the specific purpose of pursuing religious endeavours. While I love my faith and hold it very very dear, would not take it up as an academic exercise because my vocation lies elsewhere. But for these students, their faith is their vocation.
Do these students deserve to be called ‘bigots’ simply because they want the sanctity of their vocation to be preserved? Should they necessarily submit to secular ethos when their vocation itself is rooted is faith? Would we call a student of Physics a ‘bigot’ if he doesn’t want to learn about his subject from a Historian who might not understand the nuances of the subject? On the other side of the debate, is it alright for a man studying his faith as a vocation to be called a bigot if he doesn’t want a man, who calls parts of his faith as ‘dramas that have nothing to do with religion’ teaching him? The manner in which these Dharmics have been vilified is patently grotesque.
The Swarajya article
That brings me to the article published in Swarajya Magazine by Arihant Pawariya. Arihant is a friend whose journalism I deeply respect, however, in this matter, I daresay, he has been grossly off the mark.
The first argument that Arihant makes is that the family of Professor Khan is rooted in Indian culture and hence, protesting against him is counterproductive. My respect for Professor Khan increases manifold when I hear how his family has been rooted in Sanskrit and that his father would sing Bhajans and take care of Gaushalas. However, his family history has nothing do with the fact that he is in fact by all standards, someone who the students of Dharma Vigyan might not want to learn from.
Further, Arihant, in essence, says that a qualified Muslim professor is far better than a Hindu professor who is not as qualified as him. While on the face of it, this argument holds utmost merit, one needs to understand that this course itself is rooted in faith. And hence, his personal faith is as much a part of his ‘qualification’ as his Sanskrit scholarship. That he believes that certain epics are ‘dramas with nothing to do with religion’ vindicates that point further.
Arihant says, “Dr Khan will be joining the most secular of these departments. He will be teaching literature. Of course, it would be Sanskrit literature and many scriptures would be a part of the curriculum but it’s not theology per se”. I find this statement deeply problematic as well. Sanskrit as a language, firstly, cannot be secularised completely. It is a gateway to our Vedic wisdom. Secondly, if ‘many scriptures would be a part of the curriculum’, how can one assume that it is not related to theology since the students themselves are not learning it as a linguistic or literary effort but as a part of their faith, their scriptures?
Next, the article in Swarajya lists people like Dayanand Saraswati who wrote on Islam or Dr Ambedkar who wrote on Islam but was not an Islamic scholar. The central point being missed here is that none of them was employed to teach students of Islam. Professor Khan, just like anyone else is free to write about Sanatan or Sanskrit, the contention here is not whether a Muslim can write about Sanatan but whether a non-Hindu can teach students of Dharma Vigyan who are taking up faith as a vocation. The right question to ask here is that can a Hindu teach a future Maulvi? The Islamic community would resist and rightly so. A person who has no faith in the scripture he teaches has no business to teach the scripture to students of faith.
Further, he says, “Islam has already too many mullahs to issue a fatwa against apostates. Hindu nationalists would do better to side with heretics rather than mullahs. If Muslims, no matter how small a section, want to de-Arabise and Indianise, how can any Hindu nationalist find fault with this? It’s a no brainer”.
Here, I completely agree with him. Any Sanatani would welcome Muslims learning about Hinduism. Just like it was the Hindus who stood up for Triple Talaq petitioner Ishrat who got death threats for participating in Hanuman Chalisa recital. It was Hindus who stood up for Dilsher Khan who was thrashed for reading Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The “liberals” have drawn on this argument and fallaciously turned this into a “Hindu bigots uniting against Muslims” argument. For the sake of argument, even if we do accept this theory, one has to ask why these “liberals” did not stand up for Ishrat or Dilshad? Where was the outrage when Muslims were uniting against these Muslims?
Essentially, in the Swarajya article says that the BHU protestors are ‘entitled juveniles’ and them, including the ones supporting them, are ‘bigots’. A “bigot” essentially is a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions. One has to wonder – who is the real bigot here? The BHU students who want to assert their right of learning Dharma from someone who holds the same faith, unequivocally, or those who are calling them bigots for holding a different opinion and not conforming to the touted ‘secular ethos’?
Tertiary allegations – casteism and ‘inclusivity of Hinduism’
The one argument that I repeatedly came across from various quarters that BHU students not wanting to learn Dharma from a non-Hindu is the same as Brahmins not wanting to the lower-castes to learn the scriptures. Here, I would like the shed the veil of subtlety and be categoric. Firstly, it is patently sinister to bring in the caste argument when the discussion is about Hindus vs non-Hindus. There is something extremely baleful since this argument aims to equate non-Hindus to “lower caste Hindus” and Hindus to Brahmins thereby insinuating that those who are not Brahmins are not Hindus. Nobody can deny that caste discrimination is real and a termite that has only weakened Hinduism. But in the context of BHU and the current controversy, the Hindu students of Dharma don’t wish to learn about their faith from a non-Hindu, there is no assertion that they do not wish to learn from castes other than Brahmins. This argument can only be considered a Leftist-Islamist agenda to drive a wedge in the Hindu community.
The other extremely misplaced, if not sinister argument is that Hinduism is “inclusive” and hence, the focus should not be on the religion of the Guru but his knowledge. As already established, his knowledge of Sanskrit is not a contention, his faith is. Secondly, it becomes important here to draw a comparison between ‘Pluralism’ and ‘Secularism’. Hinduism is Plural. It takes everyone along and even under Hindu supremacy, non-Hindus are not discriminated against, unlike Islamic nations. However, pluralism cannot mean that Hindus need to give up claim on all things Hindus. The problem is that the expectation from the Hindu community is that they should not claim exclusive rights even on faith. When a Ram Mandir is being spoken about, Hindus are ‘bigots’ if they don’t agree to a Masjid being made on Ram Janmabhoomi. When it is about theology, Hindus are ‘bigots’ if they don’t allow a Muslim man to teach them their own faith. The problem is that the starting assumption is that a Hindu is a ‘bigot’ unless he is willing to give up his claim on his own culture and his own religion.
The BHU students are being called ‘bigots’ because they refuse to give their claim on their own faith. The BHU students are being called ‘bigots’ because they are not willing to sacrifice their faith to prove that they are not ‘bigots’.
The BHU students are being called ‘bigots’ because they are Hindus. If the AMU students studying Islamic theology would have said they do not wish to learn about Islam from a Hindu or a Sikh, their demand would have been considered a reasonable demand coming from a place of faith. A reasonable demand of the devout and rightly so. But the BHU students, in the same situation, are bigots. Because a Hindu is always assumed to be one unless he is willing to give up his entire existence to conform to misplaced ideas of secularism.
The Importance of Boundaries
There are some fundamental truths about human society cannot be denied. Boundaries are important, borders are generally good. Society shouldn’t have to abolish boundaries and borders to prove that they are inclusive. Of course, overtime, the boundaries and the borders have to be redefined to include a particular section of society and exclude some others but the abolition of the boundaries themselves must occur after great introspection.
What we are essentially witnessing in BHU is abolition of boundaries not redefining them. The appointment of Dr Firoz Khan in the Dharma Vigyan department of the BHU erases the boundaries between Hindus and Non-Hindus in the teaching of Hindu theology itself. It’s a huge boundary and it’s being abolished without sufficient thought. This could have perilous consequences for the future. Thus, under such circumstances, when we have sufficient reason to believe that the consequences could be grave and not much evidence to suggest for the alternative, preserving the status-quo is the only way forward. The boundaries between Hindus and Non-Hindus ought to be preserved in the current context.
Furthermore, attempts have been made to paint the decision with the brush of caste. Such attempts are worthy of condemnation. Those who wish to bring Jaativad in this argument ought to remember Hindu society has reached a point where it seeks consolidation of Hindus under one banner. Greater unity is sought to be achieved although Jaativad does exist in current society.
However, it is pertinent to mention that Hindu society has redefined certain boundaries over time to open numerous doors to all castes and creed without discrimination but, at the same time, Hindu society does not wish to accord the same privileges to someone who is not a Hindu. Thus, essentially, what has occurred over the years is the redefinition of boundaries, not the abolition of it. Thus, the issue of BHU does not have an ounce of casteism in it.
Inclusiveness without boundaries is one gigantic mess. Not everyone belongs everywhere. All of us know it. We won’t allow everyone into our homes or our country even, that is why we oppose illegal immigration. That is the whole premise for the preservation of the traditions of Sabarimala Temple as well. “Not all exclusion is discrimination,” as J Sai Deepak is fond of saying. And it is the same argument that is being made for the support towards the students of BHU. Dr Firoz Khan may be a scholar of Sanskrit but he is not eligible for teaching Dharma Vigyan to Hindus by virtue of his faith. Only a person who has faith in Hindu theology could ever do justice to that role, and that could only ever be a Hindu.
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017