How Dr Hedgewar's Views On Physical Fitness Echoed Those Of A Tamil Muslim Mystic

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Jun 23, 2021 12:36 PM +05:30 IST
How Dr Hedgewar's Views On Physical Fitness Echoed Those Of A Tamil Muslim Mystic(An RSS Shaka - file photo by headlinesthatmatter)
  • The RSS founder made physical exercises the central activity of his shakhas.

    In this, he echoed the views of a lesser known but immensely important Tamil spiritual saint—Guru Sri Karunaiyananda Jnana Bhupathi.

One of the lesser-known facts about the former DMK supremo Karunanidhi was that he was actually named after a Muslim mystic who lived in Thiruvarur. Born Muhammad Ibrahim, he was known by his spiritual name, Guru Sri Karunaiyananda Jnana Bhupathi (1887-1939).

He had written some classic prose texts on Vedanta, emphasizing Advaita. He should have been considered an important milestone in the modern spiritual and cultural history of Tamil Nadu. But despite even DMK being in power for quite a long time, he had been largely ignored. This, despite the fact that the former chief minister had himself acknowledged being named after this Muslim born saint.

Sri Karunaiyananda Bhupathi comes across as not only a spiritual preceptor but also as an advocate of social reforms and a person concerned with swarajya for the nation.

With respect to swarajya, he states that while swarajya is a noble mission, what is more important is removing the fissiparous tendencies among the various sections of Indian people, including those among the Hindus and Muslims; and among the Hindus, between the Brahmins and non-Brahmins etc. His solution was spiritual harmony, not conversion.

He was also critical of Hindus who considered themselves superior to Muslims on account of their vegetarianism. He was convinced that unless the various sectarian conflicts were resolved swarajya for ‘Hindu Desam’ would not be possible. For that one has to realize the oneness of the Self which is called by various names. In other words, he wanted spirituality to be the basis of national unity. So, to him more important than the swarajya of the nation was swarajya for the Self. Naturally, the former based itself on the latter.

He considered music as a sure way to a spiritual growth while lamenting that music was increasingly being used for sensual purposes. What surprises one is the nuanced way in which he condemns the then prevalent decadency in the devadasi institutions. At the same time, he did not fall into the colonial Protestant and the Dravidianist narrative of essentializing the system by its degeneration. Rather, he pointd out that the system was meant for the higher purpose of attaining liberation through contemplation of God through music and dance. At a time when the devadasis were considered as low and mean, Sri Karunaiyananda Jnana Bhupathi put forward the example of devadasis who had great spiritual merits, and who contributed to the growth of Tamil literature.

At the same time, he whole heartedly supported the legal measures taken by the government to stop sex-work being forced on girls born in a particular community in the name of tradition.

Karunaiyananda Bhupathi provides a list of Siddhas and saint poets which start with Subrahmanya and moves onto Agastya and Thirumular and he places important Tamil Muslim mystic seer-poets like Kunangudi Mastan Sahib and Thakalai Peer Muhamad inside this very much a Hindu list.

His in-depth understanding of spiritual traditions can be gauged from his view of mystics renouncing worldly rules, including purity rules. He states that such rules should be followed by those in the worldly affairs. He cites the example of Janaka. Another one of his favourite Vedantic treatise was of the enlightened drummer, who through every phase of night, alerted the people to realize their true Self and not to be robbed of the Truth by enticing Maya.

Sri Karunaiyananda Jnana Bhupathi was not only concerned with spirituality but he was also very particular about creating a strong physical culture in India. It is here where his vision came close to the mission taken up by the RSS founder Dr. Keshav Balram Hedgewar and his colleague Dharmveer Moonje.

Dr. Hedgewar made Indian physical exercises the central activity of the daily shakhas of his organization. The organization since then has created a national network in which millions of its members come together and play outdoor games and practice traditional exercises with all regional variations.

While keeping the heart of the organisation Hindu, Dr. Hedgewar used the Western external form – from donning khaki shorts to playing band music for marching. This helped the Sangh keep away the fissiparous tendencies that have crept into Hindu nation in particular and Indian society in general. It was squarely a Bhagirathic task.

To this day superficial or intentionally prejudiced critics of Sangh accuse it of homogenising the Hindu society. But a look at Ekatmata Stotra shows that Sangh equally venerates all traditions and does not get fixated on any particular Guru. By introducing bhagawat dhwaj or the saffron flag as the Guru, Dr. Hedgewar showed how tradition could be adapted to the present times and future challenges without compromising on the sacredness of the traditional conception of Guru.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Hedgewar were also for the recruitment of all Indians irrespective of any racial conception of ‘martial races’ into military. They considered that this had to be done if India is to be protected in the future.

In these two aspects Karunaiyananda Bhupathi comes surprisingly close to the view of these two Hindu sanghatanists.

On 28 December 1927, Karunaiyananda Bhupathi presided over the All India Physical Fitness-Improvement conference held at Chennai and spoke thus:

Today many of our college educated youths have stopped doing physical work and exercises which in turn is leading to diseases at a very young age. ... Many people hold the wrong opinion that our ancestors knew not the modern forms of physical exercises. In reality the Westerners are only re-introducing our old traditional exercises of our land with some modifications.
Jnana Yoga Rahasyam, 1930,  pp. 27-30
The modern military practices of Europeans are indebted to practices in Mahabharata and are adapted for the convenience of the Europeans. ... Without teaching our children our national traditional physical exercises, the government physical instructors are teaching western physical exercises. These exercises similar to Hanuman Baski could be easily done by our dancing damsels of Thanjavur. They do not give the needed strength for our bodies. They are useless. They do not take into account the climatic condition of our nation and the body types of our youths. Because we follow blindly the Western physical exercises, we also pave the way for the Westerners to talk ill of us. That this land which gave birth to Bhima and Arjuna should learn physical exercises from the West is the most humiliating things that has befallen on us. ...
The present education system is biased toward improving the intellect but does not care about the physical improvement. ... This will lead us to become weaker and weaker. So, I am planning to create am ‘Akhil Bharata Desiya Physical Improvement College’. These college networks created all over India would take traditional exercises of our land which would improve both subtle and physical bodies. Our national methods being taught in educational institutions, will make the students practice complete Brahmacharya and being in control of their senses.
… If we truly desire Swarajya then we should be in a position to protect our nation without the help of outsiders. We should be ready for military training. Among our youths how many would actually qualify for military recruitment? It is very little. Unless we develop a good physical exercise culture, we will not be fit for military recruitment. So, the needed training should be given to our youths by eminent citizens. Let us pray to Bhagwan that the society would come forward and do the needful so that our nation shall regain its old glory of being the nation of Bhimasenas and Arjunas.

Unfortunately, the works of this great Vedantic seer of Tamil Nadu remain mostly unexplored or purposefully neglected by the currently dominant political discourse in the state. While Nehruvian-Dravidianist-Marxist axis naturally tends to support Wahabhi-Salafi Islamists who are bent on destroying this Indic-Islamic heritage, it becomes the duty of the Hindutvaites to make sure these spiritual streams are protected.

His works provide a platform for Hindu-Muslim dialogue at the deepest level of experiential religion. His approach to physical exercises as a prelude to yogic exercises which in turn would facilitate the spiritual quotient of the students should also be studied in depth. His mature and rational approach to reforms without demonizing the Dharmic system stands in stark contrast to the juvenile racial approach taken by EVR and his memetic clones down the line.

One wishes the former Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi had inherited more than just the name from this Muslim-born saint-mystic.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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