Cultural Illiteracy Is A Raging Epidemic: Time To Act Is Now

by Aravindan Neelakandan - May 3, 2022 06:11 PM +05:30 IST
Cultural Illiteracy Is A Raging Epidemic: Time To Act Is Now The Nataraja (Balu Velachery/Flickr)
  • What is needed is for the Hindu seers and thinkers, educationists and culture-spirituality experts to come together and create a credible, authentic, basic narrative of Dharma.

    It is easier said than done.

On April 26 2022, a YouTuber from Tamil Nadu released a video ‘explaining’ why the Chidambaram Nataraja has a risen leg.

In an obscene way, he brought in the myth of the competition between Kali and Shiva in dance and used it to project Nataraja as an icon of obscenity and misogyny. His YouTube channel has 329k subscribers.

Meanwhile, on that very same date, Nitin Meshram, an activist-lawyer landed at Chennai airport and tweeted, with an image of the Nataraja installation attached, that ‘the goddess signifies that she has conquered and willing to kill a man who appears to be indigenous Nagvanshi.’ His twitter handle has 45k followers.

In both, the YouTube video and the tweet, there is a pattern.

The first one uses a genuine legend that has been in place and projects it to make Nataraja look like a symbol of misogyny. The next one is clearly a display of ignorance that nevertheless focusses on Apsmara, who becomes the representation of the suppressed indigenous people and the dancing deity becomes the symbol of murderous Aryans/Brahmins/upper castes.

Both the narratives transform Nataraja into a symbol of oppression.

There are two major reasons for the spread of this disease of the mind one sees here.

The Premise of Hinduism as Oppressive Religion

Both the denigrating views of Nataraja are corollaries of the basic premise that Hindu Dharma is a casteist, Brahminical religion of oppression. Unfortunately, this is a premise accepted as axiomatic in the official historiography of the Indian State, at least until recently. While we demand change in the history curriculum, to remove the Aryan Invasion Theory and include the sufferings Hindus faced during the Islamist and European onslaughts, we have not given serious thought to change this basic narrative.

So, this narrative, imbibed through school curriculum, does not openly denigrate Hindu Gods and Goddesses. But it puts the seeds inside the impressionable minds. A dichotomy is created.

You venerate the Gods and Goddesses and you go to temples with your family. But you learn that these Gods and Goddesses are the results of Aryan invasion and interaction over the indigenous communities. You learn that the temples were the products of kings-priest power alliances – Brahmin-Kshatriya power sharing, and have not much to do with spirituality.

The students become large scale (Richard Condon novel fame) ‘Manchurian Candidates’.

Inability to Understand the Puranic Language

The second reason is the inability to read and understand the language of the Puranas.

Hindu Puranas are a unique body of sacred literature. They present a language that deals with a reality that does not belong to the plain of universal objectivity (or in Mandukya Upanishad framework – knowledge obtained through the universal Vaisvanara aspect of consciousness) but to the deeper realms of reality which also include the symbolic, from the personal and collective unconscious and beyond.

To begin with, Kali's dance does not figure out in the main sthala-purana of Chidambaram which is the Chidambara Mahatmiya. It is also not found in its Tamil version - Koyil Puranam. It is in a very minor Sanskrit sthalapurana, called Vyaghrapura Mahatmya, that this dance competition is mentioned.

But the dance between Shiva and Kali is also sung about by some of the great seers of Bhakti.

The Thillai Kali temple at Chidambaram was built by Koperunchingan (13th century). In its origins it is most probably unrelated to the above mythology, though later narratives related them.

Thirunavukarasar (Appar, 6th century CE) states that Kali was dancing ferociously after she had devoured the asura, Taraka. Then Shiva danced and made Kali relinquish her dance of destructive fury. He also sings of Shiva in His blissful union with Uma, his matted locks containing the tremendous flow of Ganga and his dance witnessed by Kali. In both, one can see that the Dance of Shiva was to contain the destructive fury of the dance of Kali.

Manichavachaga Swami (10th century CE) in his Thiruvachagam has Thiruchaazhal. Chaazhal is a game played by girls wherein one team asks questions and the other has to answer. Manichavachagar uses this girls’ game to impart wisdom. One girl asks the Puranic paradoxes and the other girl explains it through Puranic, symbolic and spiritual answers.

Thiruchaazhal gives a framework to understand the Puranic imagery.

For example, a girl asks: Sivan covers Himself with the ashes (of cremation ground), adorns Himself with snakes, and sings the Vedas. This implies Him to be a weird personality. The other girl answers – what if He covers Himself with whatever, what if He adorns Himself with whatever and what if He utters whatever – He is the very essence of all beings.

This is a clear answer that all Puranic imageries emanate from the true essence of Shiva and hence one has to look deep, rather than just on the surface. In that very series a girl asks about Him dancing as a response to Kali’s Dance.

Why is it that Sivan Himself volunteered and danced (at Thillai – another name for Chidambaram) before Kali? Had He not danced (and subdued) Kali then the whole existence would have become the food of Kali.

The mystic symbolism is very clear. Kali, a divine emanation Herself, after devouring the Asuras, becomes unstoppable. Shiva could have extinguished this destructive dance of Kali. But He performed the higher dance, which is what Urthva Tandava literally means. Saivite tradition calls this the Dance of Wisdom.

Even a force meant for the destruction of negativity can itself become unstoppable – as the old Nietzschean cliché would speak of the dragon-fighter becoming the dragon. Then that good-turned-arrogant force should be won by the Higher dance of wisdom.

That a youth of the very society of Appar and Manichavachagar could make a YouTube video obscenely denigrating the above cherished story, is an indication of a fall and a disease.

Now to the tweet.

The Apsmara on whom Shiva dances is a dwarf and he is always shown looking outside. He symbolises the ego-self – the ever outward-looking ego self. This ego is dwarfed by the Cosmic Dance of Shiva.

It is the dance of bliss for the one who chooses to witness it. But to the ego, that ever seeks satisfaction in the external world, existence becomes unbearable. It is a burden.

The same dance that is a bliss for those who witness the inside becomes the burden of existence for the dwarf-ego-self.

When such a spiritual symbolism is given a racist interpretation in terms of of a concocted 'indigenous vs. invader' binary, that shows the abyss into which we have fallen.

What then must we do?

First, we have to understand the danger of such ignorance.

So thorough has been the propaganda that a significant number of Hindus have started believing in it. While for a white Protestant, woke-criticism may have at least some kernel of truth, for the Hindus it is actually a throw-back into a negative, stereotyping essentialism.

All these nano-provocations and micro-narrative settings feed into the larger project of the vilification of Hindu Dharma and dehumanisation of Hindus.

Second, we have to combat it with the cultural and spiritual literacy

For this we cannot be dependent on the State. If we do then we will be susceptible to any power change that happens.

For example, a former top bureaucrat in the Ministry of Culture, is staunch advocate of the ‘Brahminical vs. subaltern deities’ false binary. Imagine cultural education under such a person.

What is needed is for the Hindu seers and thinkers, educationists and culture-spirituality experts to come together and create a credible, authentic, basic narrative of Dharma. It is easier said than done. And we have to overcome sectarian and other vested interests which are natural in such a diverse setting.

We need to teach our children how to understand Dharma in all its splendour, infinite dimensions, unreachable depth and dazzling magnificence and through Dharma understand the Puranas and vice versa.

Then a person who puts out a video denigrating the Cosmic Dance of Shiva or a person who parades his ignorance of Dharma as woke-thinking will be shown their place, like the flat-earth advocating, evolution-denying and vaccine-opposing fringe. Then we will be in a position of strength to sympathetically laugh at their ignorance and not get furious at their unadulterated and perverse stupidity.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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