It was not for nothing that the archetype of the Dhongi Baba ( fake saint ) was one of the many archetypes we grew up with. It taught us to be aware that as much as saffron can be a symbol of the power of renunciation, it can also equally be a guise for the ‘dhoort’ , the deceivers, the thieves, the hypocrites. And as far as I remember, most around me were quite comfortable with this dual possibility of saffron and all its in between shades. As children, we were enchanted by the possibility that a saffron clad saint could walk up to you, know your name and a piece of your destiny, and give you the name of all names. But we were equally aware that he could also lull you with a drugged sweet, and if you were not careful, hide you under his robe and whisk you away. I found no difficulty in holding this contradiction, and left to my own devices, I still do not find it difficult. I can call a dhongi a dhongi, I can call out abusive and empty practices, authoritarianism disguised as surrender, and corrupt ideology and its politicisation, without the need to reject the entire tradition of the wandering renunciant who dons the saffron robe, an ancient marker of the search for truth beyond social and personal identity.
I can do this with faith in myself because I have studied this tradition in some detail, in the same way that I have studied some of the beautiful ideas that came to us from Western Enlightenment like liberty, fraternity and tolerance.
And because I know what this tradition is, I can also tell what it is definitely not.
It is not posturing, it is not vote bank politics, it is not megalomania, it is not the rhetoric of insecurity, of hatred and of fear.
Those who fall for this, fall for it not because they respect the tradition of the ochre robe, but because they have no real understanding of it. If they did, they would see such antics for what they are, empty symbolism designed for mass media by the same people who have systematically made the masses feel threatened and insecure in the first place, so much so that those who grew up steeped in stories of both dhongi babas and wise fakirs, will now clutch at anything in saffron to feel a sense of self aggrandizement.
Do you know a Dhongi Baba when you see one?
Can you call one out without feeling the need to reject the entire stream of thought and tradition that he represents?
You could do it as a child. Why not now?
One does not disrespect ancient tradition when one calls out its misusers, its screwed up hierarchies of power and its corrupted ideology, while still recognizing the beauty and wisdom of its philosophy, of its tools or practices, and its genuine practitioners. The ability to discern, or ‘viveka’ is key to Hindu thought. One disrespects an ancient tradition when one surrenders one’s viveka to populist thought, and refuses to separate the real from the unreal.It is possible for someone to be both believer and critic, practitioner and reformer.
In this time of polarization however, I find that it is only one end of the spectrum or the other that most discourses cling on to.
Our society internalized a sense of cultural inferiority as a result of our long history of colonisation. This sense of inferiority is still embedded so deep that it is visible everywhere, from the currency of language and our obsession with all things foreign to our preference in skin colour. As a people whose sense of self has been eroded away, we are deeply vulnerable to imposed narratives, especially when they are amplified by popular media.
So one kind of extreme narrative rejects all tradition in favour of an externally imposed version of a homogenous ‘progressive’ identity. This identity will often discard its culture and beliefs as superstitions without giving them much thought, will look to science and technology for most answers, is much more at ease with the English language than with its mother tongue, and will easily fall prey to consumerist behaviour disguised in liberal or cool garb.
The other kind of extreme narrative believes in an idealised version of its past and religious identity, is only satisfied with over the top displays of its cultural grandeur, more appeased by empty symbolism and rhetoric than nuanced reality, easily hoodwinked into feeling threatened and insecure, therefore easily offended, and hence easy to rally, especially around ideas that promote fear and anger against the ‘other’.
People who had access to the former narrative also happened to be the people who were more easily able to take advantage of english based higher educational institutions and the open market, standing on the shoulders of those who might have had some availability of wealth and opportunity in post independence India, thus catapulting themselves into the upwardly mobile. Those left behind keenly felt the disadvantage of not having the same access and benefits that class markers like a good command over English offered.
Until recently, the strong left liberal discourse, with its generalized identification with the elite, its subtle and not so subtle rejection of religion, and at a political level, its vote bank politics under the cover of a secular garb, left a scar on the already damaged psyche of those who felt lesser as a result of it, which was a large majority. “Angrezi jhaad rahi hai” ( showing off her English) was something I often heard as a child, and it contained both a hatred and a hankering after. The grapes were sour, and with time, they started rotting, and turned into putrefactive liqueur, which became the fuel to the fires that the ruling party has so successfully been lighting all over the country. There is a suppressed rage here, that is not found with the same intensity in the privileged followers of the liberal discourse, in whose favour the tide had been turned for a long time. It is this suppressed rage of the masses, this deep powerlessness, combined with an intergenerational insecurity and lack of genuine pride in oneself and one’s culture that is so easily manipulated and taken advantage of. And it is this same powerlessness and sense of having been denied validation for so long, that has turned into a vindictive attack on the leftist discourse and everyone who is seen to identify with it.
Of course, neither of these narratives are watertight, they leak into each other, and every individual holds a different synthesis of it in their psychology. They are helpful only as generalizations, broad strokes of story because they help us understand how so many people become vulnerable to ideologies of hatred and division. When applied to individuals, however, they become labels like ‘bhakt’ and ‘pseudo-sickular’ that do little justice to the multitudes that is each individual.
All polarized narratives alienate not just each other, but also all those who might inhabit the spaces in between, and the spaces that lie outside these. One is made to feel that only two choices are available, you are either this or that. But in reality, one simply does not have to make that choice. One can exist in multiple ways, and each person can choose for themselves what threads they hold and work with at what point of time.
However, in order for that to happen, we all need to heal and learn to have faith in ourselves as living embodiments of culture, of past and present, and as people who have no need to prove themselves to anyone. A certain sense of cultural pride is necessary for that, but real pride does not need an enemy to put down in order to pull oneself up. And culture is not some undiluted and ancient lineage whose purity must be preserved at all cost, culture lives and breathes and evolves. Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb, Kashmiriyat, Sanatana Dharma, hip hop are all expressions of culture, and they keep changing. Also, real cultural pride can only be built on solid foundations of basic material security. In environments where material, emotional and physical security is on shaky ground or absent, pride is never organic, and so it has to be demanded, or enforced.
All threads of thought must be made available to everyone, without bias, so people can choose which one they would like to engage with. There is no need to reject anything, not even the most bigoted belief, because as long as the people engaging with that belief are empowered and self loving individuals, who are valued by their communities, there is little danger of them getting carried away. When we have enough confidence in our own intellect, we don’t need to hold on too rigidly to any one idea, knowing that we can use our discernment to pick and choose. Uniformity of thought is only needed when there is something to be sold on a large scale, like a product, a person or a party. People who learn to respect themselves and become empowered through a safe childhood, access to unbiased holistic education, exposure to multiple cultural strands, loving community support, acceptance, freedom, opportunity, a healthy standard of living, and the belief that they are powerful enough to chart the course of their lives to a realistic extent, irrespective of gender, religion, caste, and socio-economic status, ultimately become people who cannot easily be turned into mindless consumers, whether of ideology or products.
But we seem to be very far from this, and getting further away. That is why things like the reform of government schools in Delhi is a revolutionary act. Having a peaceful conversation with people from opposite sides of the spectrum is a revolutionary act.
Calling out a dhongi is not a revolutionary act, but calling out a dhongi while also claiming to honour the tradition of saffron in spite of what it has come to stand for today, seems almost revolutionary. Which is such a darn pity. I could easily do it as a child.