My Shiva does not need me to defend him. He is the cosmos, while I am just a speck within a speck. I repeat. My Shiva does not need me to defend him. I merely defend my right to worship him in the form and manner in which I deem fit, without coercion or disrespect. That is the right which has been defended by the blood and sacrifice of generations of my ancestors. I owe it to them and to all those who will come after me.
To understand the relevance of this assertion, let me bring your attention to the debate that is raging around Gyanvapi - a disputed structure in Kashi (Varanasi). Hindus believe that Kashi is the land of Shiva. It is expected that Shiva’s city will have a grand temple for his worship. That temple was first razed to the ground in 1194 AD by Qutb-ud-din Aibak and his army.
Since then, it has been rebuilt and destroyed many times, with a final assault by Aurangzeb. It is said that Aurangzeb built the Gyanvapi mosque atop the old temple after destroying it. The Maratha queen Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar built the present Kashi Vishwanath temple in1770, right next to the mosque.
In the backdrop of this history, a group of Hindus went to court recently to demand the right to worship the deities that were within the “mosque” premises. The court ordered a video graphics survey to ascertain their claims. Many people tried their best to stall the survey, but the court prevailed.
On the final day, the survey team claimed that they found many Hindu symbols and artefacts, including a Shivalinga - the symbol of Shiva. It was said to have been submerged in the tank where people washed their feet before namaz. The veracity of those claims can only be ascertained by the court. This article is about what ensued afterwards.
As expected, many Hindus were ecstatic with the news of the Shivalinga’s rediscovery. They had grown up seeing an incongruous “mosque” that had a base with Hindu architecture and an Islamic dome on top. They had heard the legend of a temple priest who had jumped in the well with the Shivalinga to protect it from invaders.
They had whispered prayers in the ears of Nandi - Shiva’s faithful bull - who sat with his back to the new temple, steadfastly staring at the “mosque”. Thus the discovery of a Shivalinga surprised no-one.
With the new information from the survey, it was clear that new discussions and debates would need to take place. Truth would have to be followed by process of reconciliation, which is a delicate undertaking. At a time like this, instead of the required introspection and maturity, what we got was ugly politics and mockery.
The first and most transparent group of people claimed that the Shivalinga was actually a fountain. That claim unleashed a flood of memes. “Secular” people mocked Hindus by posting photos of pestles, oval stones, domed roofs etc., and called them “Shivalingas". This was ironic because, in their attempts to denigrate Shiva, they inadvertently began to see him everywhere, just as the practising Hindu does.
The mockery was not a comment on Shiva but on the tolerance, culture and values of those who didn’t even pause before disrespecting the sentiments of others.
The second group used a more cerebral approach. They questioned the very need of a temple by arguing that if Shiva was everywhere, why was a temple required? That’s a legitimate question. One can connect with the source of creation anywhere.
A temple just makes it easier to focus our energies. Most people have trouble envisioning vastness so they need forms and boundaries. That’s why Muslims build mosques to represent their faith and congregate there to pray. Or why do Christians go to Churches and use religious iconography? In fact, the human need for symbols and structures extends beyond religion.
Armies have their insignia and war memorials. Countries have flags that represent the concept of their nationhood. All these symbols help to express the meaning behind an idea: The idea of a creator, the idea of a united fighting force, the idea of a nation and so on. And this temple has been a very important symbol for Hindus for millennia.
The third group asked why Hindus couldn’t move on instead of fixating on the old temple at Kashi. Let me answer that with a few questions. What if Jerusalem or Bethlehem were to be destroyed one day by invaders and a temple built atop? Will the same people defend the invaders or will they support the rights of the faithful to reclaim their sacred space?
What if Kaaba or Karbala were desecrated and a temple built on top? Would they fight for the right of the faithful or support the right of the desecrators to continue their disrespect? Put your hand on your heart as you think about these questions and you will understand why the Gyanvapi structure is such a stab in the heart of millions of Hindus across the world.
The fourth group was the most disturbing. They dug in their heels and said that no mosque could be touched in any way and Gyanvapi was to stay as it was. This implies that if the news is true and a sacred symbol of the Hindus continues to lie in a water tank, they want the right to continue spitting and washing their feet at that tank.
This attitude raises troubling questions. Did they know of the Shivalinga all along? Were they deliberately hiding and desecrating it all these years? What implication does this insensitivity have for coexistence in the long term?
The underlying issue of this debate is actually quite simple. Humans may be separated by nationality, race or religion but human emotion are common to all. Concepts of pain, humiliation, reverence and conviction are universally experienced and understood, across cultures.
Yet the emotions of Hindus are somehow not considered important enough. It seems acceptable to routinely mock, deny and denigrate our culture our our beliefs. In a world where there is so much premium on being “politically correct”, Hindus are left out of the list of things to be mindful of. Is it because the children of Abraham think we are children of lesser gods?
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