Vipul Rikhi is a writer, translator and singer. His current work is with the Kabir Project, where he’s involved in building a vast archive of mystic poetry in the folk music traditions.
Performing Kabir’s Raam at a Ramayana Festival in Kozhikode organised recently by ‘Alter Text’ led to a spate of reflections. Civic Chandran, one of the activists who organised the festival with the intent of bringing out the many faces of Raam and the many Ramayanas (including a ‘Muslim Ramayana’ and a ‘tribal Ramayana’) that exist in the country and beyond, spoke of how they are criticised by both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ – by the former for being right-wing and by the latter for being left-wing!
It seems like there is no other space in public discourse. The only options available are either to be a ‘pseudo-secularist’ or a ‘Hindutva-type’. Caught between the twin poles of religious ultra-nationalism and liberal secularism, one wonders where the soul of this country disappeared, at least in public discourse – because it belongs neither to the one nor to the other of these ‘camps’. The camp mentality here seems to be: if you’re not one of us, you’re one of them. God help you if you either feel pride in anything relating to the heritage of this land or if you try to uphold any liberal value, or – try to imagine this – both!
Personally, I feel a deep sense of love for this land. I experience a lot of gratitude for all that I have received from it, its music, poetry, arts, crafts, philosophy, sense of warmth and hospitality, and above all its being infused with a sense of the sacred. I am able to experience this deep love and gratitude without needing to claim that everything in the world originated here or that everything is already written in the Vedas. In a sane world I should be able to celebrate all this without being immediately branded as a ‘Hindutva-type’. At the same time, I should be able to criticise all its extreme follies, including its many rites of social discrimination, its manifestations of religious fanaticism and violence, and more topically the current dispensation governing it. Why can’t I stand against attempts to ban books, burn paintings, indulge in moral policing or make a spectacle of state executions, without being branded a ‘pseudo-secularist’? Is it impossible for a person to have both a profound sense of the sacred and a commitment to basic liberal values? Can one both appreciate as well as criticise aspects of our received, so-called ‘modern’ Western heritage?
The pitfalls of religious ultra-nationalism seem only too obvious, at least to me. The attempts at social homogeneity, a predominant mono-narrative, and a culture of machismo spell doom for a way of life such as Hinduism, whose very being is predicated on an essential openness and resistance to a single overarching dogma (such as a single fundamental sacred book or figure). The pitfalls of liberal secularism are more subtle. My problem with liberal secularism is not the values it espouses, but its poverty. It seems to believe that ‘reason’ is all there is (and is quick to ascribe irrationality to anything with a religious connotation). One can fully believe in the virtues of religious tolerance, mobilising for marginalised communities, fair distribution of resources, and freedom of speech, for example. But one can also believe in more.
Rationality stripped of a sense of the sacred is poor and, in my opinion, unviable. There is no rationality in the Enlightenment sense. The irrational devastations of humanity on humanity have only multiplied since the secularisation of the West (think of the horrors of colonialism, the World Wars, the Holocaust and several other genocides of the 20th century). The post-Renaissance ‘Enlightenment’ idea of ‘reason’ is deeply flawed. It takes good-sounding ideas – such as a human being purely governed by reason – for reality. Well-meaning activists, for instance, may subscribe intellectually to very high ideals, but their personal and institutional lives often betray a reproduction in other forms of the very power structures that they claim to fight. Or free markets can be as good an excuse for violence and oppression as religion. Indeed, what else can one expect from a godless world in which overriding self-interest is described as ‘rationality’?
The so-called rationalists seem to carry a patronising and superior attitude towards faith and people of faith, perhaps as a colonial hangover. We conveniently forget, for example, that Gandhi was a man of deep religious feeling, which provided the basic framework for his social and political action. We can find another instance of this middle ground – not either-or, but both – in Kabir (even though social activists and religious heads have both tried to appropriate him). Kabir was a trenchant social and religious critic, but with a firm and unshakable grounding in ‘Raam’.
This invocation of something higher or deeper that Raam stands for – call it the sacred – is the very fabric of a huge part of his poetry. He also calls it Hari, Govind, Rahim, Karim and Allah. The names point to what they are symbols of – a formless, nameless energy which is the current which ultimately animates each one of us. Kabir calls upon us to connect with this current, at the same time as he mocks pundits, mullahs as well as book- or theory-toting intellectuals.
Perhaps it is about time we began critiquing inherited modern/Western mythologies which try to convince us that there is nothing more to the world than meets the eye – that there can be no truth which is not apprehended by the senses, or by the extensions of the senses, our ultra-advanced scientific instruments which measure everything. “That which cannot be measured cannot exist.” This mythology is already beginning to wear thin. It cannot hold. What’s more, it is destructive. It makes us destroy nature and each other at an unbelievable, accelerated rate. And we call this development.
This reminds me of a quote from Dostoevsky that I remember from a long time ago. It says something like: Unfortunate is the man who cannot bow before anything.
We need to go beyond simplistic, dualistic ways of thinking. It is possible to have a religious feeling and yet be rational in the best sense. It is possible to submit to the sacred and yet strive for social justice. It is possible to break into this middle ground between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which is where Kabir invites us to come.
‘Yes’ doesn’t quite catch it
‘No’ is not quite right
Between ‘yes’ and ‘no’
My true guru hides