Monday, May 31, 2010

Ancient beliefs, link to modernity

Sulabh Jain makes an interesting attempt to deal with the religions of Ancient India and Egypt and point to similarities between the two, writes RAJESH SINGH

(Published in The Pioneer dated May 30, 2010)

The Evolution of Religion:The History and Religions of Egypt and Harappan India
Author:Sulabh Jain
Publisher: Leadstart Publishing
Price: Rs 495

There has been of late a surge in the number of “non-specialist” authors tackling specialised subjects and exposing themselves to criticism, if not derision, by established experts. While there may be some merit in the criticism, the bright side is that such writings emerge as fresh and free from ideological baggage. The approach is novel and the writer willing to handle the material in a creative and imaginative, though not reckless, manner. The reader is the beneficiary in the process since he gets a new perspective with the broadened canvas.

Sulabh Jain, a computer professional with a passion for ancient history and mythology, must thus be congratulated for his brave attempt. He ventures into a territory that is not just specialised but super-specialised: He deals not only with religions of ancient India and Egypt but also seeks to establish a link between the two. Academics will no doubt dismiss the mere idea as preposterous; to be fair to the author, he too does not seek to place a seal of authority on his supposition. Yet, the material that he presents is tantalising enough for us to at least consider his theory that the religious beliefs and practices of the two ancient worlds had much in common and that there may have been some sort of religio-cultural “sharing” between their two peoples.

There are two other more internalised strands of thought that run through the book: The dating of the Rig Veda and the so-called Aryan invasion theory. One would have thought that, considering the fresh research, at least the latter should have become a dead subject. But there are still dominant voices that continue to endorse the invasion story, and they are influential enough to find their way in the world of academics — right from school textbooks to international seminars and research papers published worldwide.

While for Jain the two issues are apparently coincidental to the central theme of the book, they are of enormous interest to the expert and the lay reader alike, since they continue to be hotly debated with no settlement in sight. We shall concentrate on that for the moment here. Early in the book Jain tackles the contentious issue of dating the Vedas. Referring to the “traditional date” of 1500 BC, he says that “modern research has changed the widely held dates for the composition of the Veda’s (sic)...many scholars today believe that they have (sic) of a far more ancient origin.” The author goes on to use the river Saraswati example — incidentally the dating of the river’s drying up is turning out to be an important landmark in unravelling the mystery of not just the Vedic composition but also in revisiting long-held notions of the Harappan culture — to logically revise the first of the Veda, the Rig Veda composition. He says, apparently of the Rig Veda, “The river Saraswati is referred to (in the Rig Veda) as being the most powerful river in the region, but recent study shows that this river had dried out by approximately 1900 BC, before the end of the Harappan age. The Vedas could not possibly bear historical witness to a river that had dried out several centuries before the suggested date of their composition.”

The author cannot be faulted for concluding, “This and other evidence has pushed the date of the Vedas to a conservative 2000 BC, while some academics are brave enough to propose a far more ancient date in the range of 3000 BC-4000 BC. In either case early Hinduism must have had a considerable Harappan influence.” Jain is dismissive of the Aryan invasion theory even though he admits that the disappearance of the Harappan civilisation remains a “mystery.” He notes that the “growing consensus amongst historians today is that the Indo-Europeans of the Veda did not destroy the Harappan civilisation.”

He further observes, “There is almost nothing in the Vedas that supports the claim that the Aryans were foreign invaders of north India.” This is a valid point considering that the Rig Veda at least was a contemporary of the Harappan age. The ancient text, which is otherwise extremely detailed in its notings of virtually all (then) contemporary matters, does not talk of subjugating people, invasion or coercion.

Jain has his own theory for the “disappearance” of nearly “five million people” though by no means is it a novel one; quite a few historians have considered it. It is believed that they could have dispersed in various directions in the country in search of more hospitable conditions. However, as he further explores in the book, although the Harappan people may have disappeared from their original abode, their religious beliefs that were left behind in the ruins of what we should rightfully refer to as the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation, spread across the rest of the country with them.

For instance, he mentions, based on excavated material, “ seems clear that the Harappan people worshipped Shiva in a form that is very similar to today.” He is obviously referring to the “proto Shiva” figures discovered in the ruins. The proto Shiva has a yogic sitting posture with the phallus exposed. Also, there are two “drum like objects” supporting his seat. Today’s Shiva too has a similar posture, with the drum now in his hand. The phallus remains, like then, a symbol of energy and creation.

Jain makes an interesting observation about cow worship. He remarks, “The obsession with cow worship which is such a fundamental feature of modern Hinduism is not obvious in Harappan also seems to be absent in the Veda themselves.” The writer is obviously referring to the Rig Veda, since cow slaughter gets officially banned in another later Veda, the Atharva Veda. Anyway, Jain through this instance provides another proof that the Harappan people and the Vedic people co-existed, if they were not one and the same.

Of course, the principal aim of the book is to demonstrate a similarity between Harappan and ancient Egypt’s religious cultures. In Part Two of the book, Jain deals with what he considers “religious similarities”. Here, for a moment, we need to consider that for a large part Harappan and Hindu religions are synonymous. Both being polytheistic in nature, they have a pantheon of deities, male and female. If the Egyptians have Atum — the ultimate power of the universe — the Hindus consider Brahma as the creator. “The creator gods Brahma and Atum were both created by a combination of flowers, birds and eggs as symbols of their adaptability towards the universal elements,” notes the author.

He then talks of the phonetic similarity between the Indian Surya and the Egyptian Ra and the fact that both engaged in an epic battle with serpent agitators. “The battles of Ra with Apophis, and Surya with Rahu/Ketu are so similar that it could only result from a common source,” he contends. Jain goes on to observe, “There are many details from Hindu and Egyptian sources that suggest that Ra and Surya are one and the same god.” Of course, Apophis too compares with Rahu and Ketu.

Jain then zeroes in on the two foremost goddesses: Durga for the Hindus and Sekhmet for Egyptians. If the latter is lion-headed, Durga sits atop a lion. Both are symbols of power and authority, and they are called upon to deliver justice with a heavy hand when milder forms have failed. The author says, “…it appears that Sekhmet is a descendent of the Harappan Durga as there is a space of a few centuries between the first recordings of a Harappan Durga and the first mention of the Egyptian Sekhmet. There can be little doubt that these two goddesses…are actually the same deity represented by two different cultures.”

Interesting as these and other similarities are, from the lay Indian reader’s point of view, perhaps the author’s take on the Harappan civilisation vis-a-vis the Vedas and the river Saraswati is more engaging.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The tireless crusader: Jagmohan's religious reforms

Reforming Vaishno Devi: A case for Reformed,
Reawakened and Enlightened Hinduism
By Jagmohan
Published by Rupa

Price: Rs 395

(Appeared in The Pioneer on May 16, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

It is difficult for Jagmohan to forget his Jammu & Kashmir stint. The author has visited the subject earlier in his hard-hitting My Frozen Turbulence, and he returns to it with this book. It cannot be just the majestic mountains and the magical chinars that repeatedly draw him to what is such a contentious issue for Indians and those across the border. If it was politics earlier, this time it is an inner call to address religious reforms and understand Hinduism. He uses the Vaishno Devi experiment as the fulcrum to build a case for reforms that would make the people proud of their religion and heritage.

This is Jagmohan at his philosophical best. If you are looking for dramatic accounts of his success in revamping the Vaishno Devi administration and creating an infrastructure that seemed chimerical until he arrived, be prepared to be disappointed. While the normally combative author does show traces of anger, frustration and impatience when he is faced with stupid, and at times diabolical, elements, the very gravity of the subject that he addresses ensures that he is lost in the spiritual world, emerging time and again to offer an insight tempered with experience and a sense of strong conviction.

The Vaishno Devi reforms are of course well-known throughout India, and Jagmohan has been lauded for it even by those who have politically opposed him. As he says in the book, once the people at large endorsed his bold moves and benefited from them, it became difficult for his opponents to sustain any serious opposition on that score.

While providence may have been at work in making Jagmohan Governor of Jammu & Kashmir, it surely gave him an opportunity to reform the shrine when the State came under Governor’s Rule. Now he was king, with no prevaricating State Government to deal with. Besides doing the usual things like cracking down on subversive elements in the Valley and toning up the administration, he seized upon the occasion to put in motion the temple reforms.

What he wanted to do was already in his mind; the idea was in germination for some time and was waiting for the right occasion to bloom. Even then, aware of the need to strengthen his credentials in the eyes of the people, he decided to tread cautiously first. “When Governor’s Rule came, I did not act straightaway,” he remarks. The politician in him surfaces when he says, “After covering my flanks and formulating a comprehensive strategy, I decided to act swiftly and effectively.”

He kept his promise. From drafting a law that permitted the Government to take over the shrine without interfering with its religious statutes to implementing the various reforms ranging from administrative to infrastructural, Jagmohan ensured his vision became a reality. There was opposition on the way. One of the loudest voices of dissent was that of Dr Karan Singh, who headed the Dharm Arth Trust that looked after the shrine’s affairs. The trust was disbanded by the Governor and replaced by a new Shrine Board of which he was ex-officio chairman. But even Dr Singh, the Governor recalls, later congratulated him for the reforms.

Emboldened by the success, Jagmohan tried to similarly experiment with the Amarnath Caves. He had noticed the enormous difficulties that thousands of pilgrims visiting the shrine faced during their journey. He wanted to create infrastructure like temporary shelters, medical facilities and the like, along the route from Pahalgam to Amarnath, that would ease the pain of the devotees. But time had run out for him. He explains his efforts in the suitably titled chapter, ‘Amarnath Shrine: A Case of Aborted Reforms’. Loaded with ideas, Jagmohan prepared a comprehensive blueprint “for improving the area, making the vulnerable points safe for the pilgrims…providing special equipment for sanitation, water and power.” He also, quite naturally, proposed a shrine board similar to that of the Vaishno Devi one. There is no reason to believe that his plan would have failed, had he remained at the helm of affairs in the State. But Governor’s Rule ended, and with it collapsed his grand plans for Amaranth. The problems and the dangers faced by pilgrims on this route continue to exist, often manifested in tragedies like in 1996, when tens of thousands of devotees were stranded on the way due to torrential rains and snow storms. No help could reach them on time and there was no shelter or medical facility available. More than 200 pilgrims died.

If one leaves aside the sections on Vaishno Devi and Amarnath shrines, the book reads like an ex-tempore meandering of a soul in distress. Jagmohan takes enormous pains to understand and explain the true meaning of Hinduism, how Hindus were themselves “damaging the basic structure and lacerating the soul of Hinduism” and what should be done to preserve the dignity of this great and enlightened religion. The author plunges into the Aryan invasion controversy, the Harappan civilisation, the genuineness of River Saraswati and beyond to trace the roots of Hinduism. That he should be so conversant with the subject should not surprise anyone; as Union Culture Minister in the NDA regime, Jagmohan had given a huge boost to research on the Vedic River Saraswati, with a view to revive the existing ancient water channels for meeting the needs of crores of people in western India. Besides, the river is considered sacred to Hindus and its revival, even in a truncated form, would be admission of one of the country’s ancient and rich cultural symbols.

His quest to understand Hinduism leads him all the way back to the Vedas, Upanishads, the Trinity, the Puranas, the epics, Manu’s Code, the Tantric world, Yoga, Vedanta, the Bhakti movement and teachings of spiritual sages like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. After an exhilarating if exhausting trip to all of these, one would expect a distilled conclusion of the effort. But Jagmohan provides none, perhaps because none exists. Perhaps, then, we should reflect on what Sri Aurobindo said: “The Sanatan Dharma is universal. It is one religion which impresses on mankind the closeness of God to us and embraces in its compass all possible means by which man can reach God.”

Jagmohan has mellowed down, and it is reflected in this book. Age and experience, after all, tell.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Straight from the tiger’s mouth: a review of the short film, Truth About Tigers

Rajesh Singh

Most of you by now will be aware of my plight. The government has told you that only 1411 of us exist in the country, and even these numbers are endangered. The authorities have engaged the corporate sector and the media to spread the message of our conservation, with the hope to involve each one of you in the exercise. I cannot tell you how glad I am at all the publicity. Without your participation, I have no future. Let me also add, if you do not mind the language, that you too have no future without me.

You want to save me, but what can you do? Truth About Tigers – a 40 minute compact film by wildlife activist Shekar Dattatri, shows the way. It’s for people who love me, care for me, but do not know how to contribute to my well-being, because they do not know enough about the situation. The film empowers you with the information that will help you ask the right questions and demand the right answers. But, more than the academic part, I think it is invaluable because it stirs your conscience – makes you ‘feel’ for us.

When you see us in the film with our cubs playfully scampering about, you will be reminded of the little children around you and the happiness they spread around you. And then, a poacher gets to one of the mother tigers, spears her in the throat repeatedly or knocks her brutally on the head till she dies … for her skin and bones. Can you imagine the grief that visits our young ones who have lost their mother? Let alone hunt for food, they are too small to even defend themselves. So, they either die of starvation or fall prey to the hounds and jackals and hyenas in the forest.

You are a human being, so I ask you: Is it humanity to kill one of us that have done no harm to you, orphan our cubs and push them to an untimely and brutal end? Are you doing enough to punish those who are responsible for the slaughter? Why am I being exterminated when I am such a key part of your eco-system – without me there would be no forest; without forest there would be no rain, without water you would not be there.

Like the film says, my plight might not have been so pathetic had the authorities taken affirmative action when the crisis first became known. While the political will in the 80’s provided good news for us with the arrival of wildlife and forest protection legislations, the 90’s and later proved disastrous for us. Can you imagine, just when we were being killed left and right by poachers, a Project Tiger official said in 1993 that he saw no threat to our race! It is such complacency that did us in.

As we were getting eliminated in alarming numbers, the government launched upon a census to track our strength by employing the dubious ‘pugmark technique’. This method, as the film points out, is entirely unreliable, as the same pugmarks got counted over and over again, inflating our numbers in official records. If only the authorities had heeded the words of committed experts, we would not been on the verge of extinction in a country that has been our home for millennia. As long as two decades ago, the film informs us, an expert had devised the camera trapping method to count our numbers. It was by comparing the stripes in the photographs that the actual figure could be arrived at, since no two of our stripes are exactly the same. His advice was ignored, and the pugmark system continued to provide heartening figures even as we kept getting killed and our numbers dwindled. In another instance, a scientist was hounded out of the Panna reserve in Madhya Pradesh because he ‘dared’ to tell the authorities that we had disappeared from the sanctuary.

It was only five years ago that a Task Force recommended scrapping the pugmark methodology. By then, your poachers had already wiped us out from reserves like Sariska.

But, it is not just poaching that is a threat; even supposedly well-intentioned moves can harm us. If you want us to survive, please understand the basics: avoid unnecessary ‘development’ activities in and around our jungles. Shekar’s film shows how check dams are being built in my reserves where there is no water source, watch towers erected from where no watching is done, plants that provide food for our prey and cover for larger animals like us being cut down in the name of afforestation, and rainwater harvesting pits are being dug in regions where there is no rain water. All these activities affect us severely as they mutilate the natural habitat that we need to flourish.

My immediate protectors in the forest are the foot soldiers of the government – the forest guards. But, as Shekar’s film points out, equipped with just lathis and at times outdated guns, they are no match for the poachers who are armed with sophisticated weapons and fast-moving vehicles. Also, they are poorly paid and not incentivised enough to protect us.

So, is this the end of the road for us, despite all the high-pitched publicity? I accept that it’s not easy being a tiger in India today, but I have not given up. You can still turn the tide in our favour. You have the Kaziranga and the Nagarhole examples, as the film narrates. Both turned from near-disasters to wildlife paradise, thanks to committed forest officials.

Learn as much as you can about us and promote the concept of ‘live and let live’. The film will help you in that endeavour.

By the way, Truth About Tigers is narrated by Roshan Seth. He has a nice voice, but it’s not better than my growl!

For more on me, log on to:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Abode of Star Goddess

Rajesh Singh

Tara Devi temple is located on, well, the Tara Parvat. Situated a little over 1800 metres above sea level, it is around 10 Km from Shimla and five from Sunrise Villa at Shoghi. The road to the temple is uphill… and further uphill through various bends. As I travel I wonder if I shall arrive there at all. Alongside the pinewoods and the valley from which the sun so tantalizing rose, accompanied by soft winds, I am finally there.

The history of this temple dates back to 250 years. There is a belief that Goddess Tara was brought to Himachal Pradesh all the way from Bengal. A temple trustee told me this story: Several hundred years ago a king from the Sen Dynasty visited the place. He had with him the family deity in the form of a gold idol within a locket tied to his arm.

For years the idol remained encased, until Raja Bhupendra Sen had an unusual vision. While on a hunt in the forests of Juggar near the temple, he `saw’ the deity – Goddess Ma Tara – who asked that she be unveiled before the people. Without any delay, the king donated a huge tract of land in her name and got a temple built there. A wooden idol of the Goddess was installed in accordance with Vaishnavite traditions.

Years later, the trustee continues, Raja Balbir Sen of the same dynasty too had a vision. The Goddess this time expressed a desire to be installed on the hill top. The king got an idol made out of ‘ashtadhatu’ – eight precious metals - and carried it over an elephant named ‘Shankar’ to the hill top, where it still stands. But, before it reached the hill, several goats were sacrificed to appease the Goddess, who for some reason, would suddenly put on weight, rendering the process of her transportation difficult.

The temple itself is understated but its simplicity gives a sublime feel to the visitor. There is another temple – that of Lord Shiva, a stone’s distance away on the top. While I stand atop, I look at the deep plunge from where our vehicle had only some time ago emerged. On the other side is a pedestrian path that leads through a forest to the Tara Devi town. Years ago, when the road had not been built, visitors and devotees used this tortuous route to reach the temple.

Glorious sunrise, riot of rhododendron colours

Rajesh Singh

Determined to keep an arm’s length from crowded Shimla on a recent Himachal Pradesh trip and yet stay close to the queen of hills, I settled for Shoghi, some 15 kilometres before the state capital on Chandigarh-Shimla highway. The Internet had helped me locate hotel Sunrise Villa, and the Villa’s website through various descriptions and picturesque images persuaded me to book a room for three nights and as many days. I fell for the temptation, not least also because the tariff was an enticing Rs 900 per day. Until now, my acquaintance with Shoghi was minimal, having passed through the non-descript town on earlier occasions without a second glance out of the car window.

It is natural to be dismayed on first seeing the ‘hotel’, because it is no hotel at all. Sunrise Villa is a house with a few rooms on the ground and upper floors. There is no reception, butler or room service. Located on a steep little hill some two hundred metres from Shoghi town, the Villa is an example of the entrepreneurship of a middle aged resident who decided to make a few extra bucks out of the tourist inflow. He seems to be doing well, for, when I arrive, work on the upper floors is in full swing. Before this summer end, Aggarwal, the proud owner, says he would have as many as ten fully functional rooms.

A help soon appears as I dislodge from the taxi with belongings. He is butler, cook, gardener, sweeper and man Friday for the Aggarwal family, and shares his duties with another cheerful employee. The owner and his wife are at the doorstep. After the customary greetings, tea arrives. It is four in the evening and the weather is pleasant. In three hours time, a chill will begin to set in. I take in the surroundings before me.

The initial disappointment over the `hotel’ is quickly dispersed as I am face to face with a breathtaking, unhindered view of a valley dotted with small villages and terraced fields and surrounded by pine trees. Far beyond is a range of hills, and they appear far enough to seem like a different world. The following day I will travel to two of them – Chail and Kufri. Birds glide across, piercing the silence with their calls. To my left, on top of a hill is the Tara Devi temple. From this distance, the temple appears to be precariously poised and in danger of toppling over with a strong gust of wind. Do not leave the place without a visit there, my hosts tell me. I promise not to do so.

Meanwhile, I soak in the wonder of Nature. A short seven-hour drive away, while Delhi sizzles with temperatures hovering around 42 degrees, here I am in the lap of heaven, reaching out to a shawl to keep me warm! As the trees get enveloped in darkness and the birds settle on the thick foliages around, the stillness creeps into your bones. Deep down, the houses are lit, and look like tiny stars scattered in the valley. It’s only 8 pm and the world I am in is preparing to retire for the day. After a piping hot dinner that includes vegetables grown in the Villa backyard – with every serving supervised by the lady of the house who insists on enhancing the quantity every time I protest at being over-fed – I wonder why the place should be called Sunrise. Be up and out of the room by 6.30 in the morning, she responds.

After a fitful sleep, with the ceiling fan switched off, I am up at 6 am. I eagerly await the arrival of the morning tea – which thankfully Mr Aggarwal had informed would be served in the room. But before that was the 6.30 am appointment. As I gaze at the far away hills and take in the chirping of various birds – one had a cry that rent the air for a full five minutes before the exhausted avian took a break – the sun slowly emerges from behind the hills. Like a child up to some mischief, it first peeps out tentatively, and seeing the coast clear emerges fully, rising as if from somewhere beneath. Streaks of orange light spread on the sky as I watch enthralled. The sun is now rapidly coming up, and will rule the sky until it retires for the day somewhere behind me. Time to move on – for tea, then stuffed parathas for breakfast, and a trip to the hills yonder.

One of the problems of describing breathtakingly beautiful places like Kufri or Chail is that words fail you. Although I am told the two hill resorts are absolutely splendid in the winter, they are still wonderful in summer. A short horse-ride later at an altitude of more than 8000 feet in Kufri, I am transported to a large plateau that houses the Temple of Four Great Snakes including the Shesh Naag and a medley of open air restaurants. Glum-looking yaks are lined up to entice visitors to be photographed atop the animals. A few yards away, tourists have a merry time getting ready for a photo-op, dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes provided then and there. All around us are mountain ranges that will be enveloped by snow in the winter, as the ground beneath our feet also would be. The horses are superbly trained; I am certain they can lead the tourist to the destination without any human supervision.

Chail does not any more find mention in the record books as having the highest located cricket ground on earth. The ground is still there but competitive cricket in no longer played. The expansive space is now home to students from the nearby Rashtriya Military School, who practice drills and sundry sports.

Also close by is the famous Palace Hotel, once home to the Maharaja of Patiala. It is said that, after being expelled by the British from Shimla, Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala decided to create his own capital for the summer. The picturesque Chail was (and is) perfect. Amid deodar forests, it had (still has) a great view of Shimla and that is where the palace came up. Today it is a hotel attracting entry fee from non-resident visitors.

Mesmerizing that the two hills are, the journey itself to reach them is no less ecstatic. The roads are lined by the stiff pine (Chir and Indian Cedar) trees. Considered as most sacred by Lord Shiva, the Cedar is also appropriately called Deodar – from ‘Dev’ (God) and Daru (tree). Botanists refer to it as Cedrus deodar, thus retaining the divine in the species. The tree is the source for a variety of applications, from perfume to medicinal. Its wood once upon a time served to make sleeper berths in Indian trains.

The stern-looking Chir too belongs to the Pinaceae family. An evergreen fixture in the Himalayan region, its leaves are like sharp needles that are used in cattle sheds and for packing fruits. Pinus Roxburghii, for that is what botanists call it, also provides timber for construction of houses and furniture.

And then there are the ubiquitous rhododendron trees in full bloom all along the way. Loaded with red flowers, they dazzle the voyager with their bright contrast to the green pine trees alongside. Locals call the flower baras, which is used to make squash, jam and jellies. You can even chew the petals, for they have a nice flavour.

Discoveries never end in such places – at least for an ‘urbanite’ like me. My taxi-driver and self-appointed guide, B D Gaarg suddenly stops on the way, skips out of the vehicle and plucks a bunch of flowers. Only a while ago, he had made a similar halt to reach out to a rhododendron branch and bring in a fistful of the red beauties. The new acquisition, he tells me as I take the bunch, is called kachnaar. Hold on, I interrupt excitedly, there is an old Hindi song: kachchi kali kachnaar ki…Gaarg smiles and adds that the flower buds have many culinary uses; they are for instance used in raithas.

As I wind up for the day, I wonder why people should live anywhere else in the world, away from the Himalayan region and the tree of Gods. Maybe because so many of us do not deserve that honour, because we are bent upon destroying what nature has given us to appreciate and enjoy. One need not look beyond Shimla to understand that.