Friday, September 08, 2006

Vande Mataram controversy ...

Georgette mentions a controversy over the patriotic Indian song, "Vande Mataram."
Non-Hindus (the Muslims are the most vocal in this case) object to this song because of its phrasing which calls Mother India "our goddess" whom we "worship". Obviously this is a problem for any monotheistic faith, as we do not worship anyone but the Almighty God. And as long as this was just a 'national song', it was optional and not really a huge major problem.
I was a little taken aback ... I'd grown up on Vande Mataram -- it started all AIR (All India Radio) broadcasts in the morning, was all over Doordarshan (the one official TV channel back then), and we sang it in school too. A Jesuit school. I know the words and melody by heart.

The thing is, what is the best translation of "vande"? Is it the same as "worship"? The latria that is due only to the One God? Most translations I've seen say "salute" or "bow." I mean if one can address the Most Blessed Mother in the much more colorful and exalted language of huperdoulia (as is her due!), some poetic excess for one's motherland is surely justifiable.

In the US, we don't quite use such colorful language, but we salute the flag, pledge our allegiance to the republic for which it stands, and ask God to bless our country.

I think a Muslim, with that much stricter Koranic sense of tahwid, the absolute Oneness of God, might have more problems with it. [Though whether it is at all helpful for subcontinental Muslims to start using the language of jihad in their protests against this, is another question.]

Of course, for Hindus, I'd imagine, these distinctions between worship/veneration/lauding/honor might be a little excessive. Hinduism blurs all these ... one venerates and reverences a variety of things: one's parents, one's ancestors, trees, stones, etc. [So, when I go back to India and greet my parents, I touch their feet ... a sign of respect. Not of worship, in the sense of latria.]

So, it seems to me, an Indian Christian should be able to sing this hymn, with the proper qualifiers and some proper catechesis about the language, and a Christian understanding of nationalism, remembering that our citizenship, ultimately, is in heaven.

Such things are, however, rarely abstract or dispassionate in India. They soon acquire political colorings: so the state of Gujarat mandates singing this song in schools, probably designed to intentionally offend Muslims. The anti-Muslim (and anti-minority) sentiment is sadly quite strong in Gujarat. When there is a reqaction from monotheistic Indians, they'll be accused of not being patriotic and so on.

I'm tempted to stop singing Vande Mataram just to be subversive to the saffron brigade that has the chokehold of power in Gandhinagar ... but that's not a very helpful reaction either.

Besides, I don't think I've sung Vande Mataram since school ...

:: sigh :: You just can't win.


Georgette said...


That is an interesting take you have on it. I guess since you were brought as a Hindu when you learned this song maybe it is more solidly grounded in your heart and more palatable?

And yes, protests are a dime a dozen here, it seems. Hopefully it will blow over, but I think it is just one small symptom of a much larger problem, the growing sentiments of the fascist types, I guess you'd call them.

I wish everybody would get along.

assiniboine said...

You know, I can just never work out the Hindu take on these things at all. I begin to suspect that it's not a religion at all, but a thousand religions. A Muslim Gujarati friend of mine and I went to dinner last night for the second time at an Indian restaurant called "Natarajah," and it of course had the Lord of the Dance at the front entrance. The first time around, we had got into a discussion with one of the waiters, a native of Bombay, over the identity of the Dancing Shiva; he had insisted that no, they are clean different guys. We rather assumed that he must, in that case, be a Buddhist or a Baptist or a Jew, as the song goes. This time he came over to the table to say hello, though we were being attended to by a Malayali fellow. And he said, without any preliminaries, and obviously a propos of our previous conversation three months back, "Yes." "You mean you DO now agree that he is the dancing avatar of Shiva?" "Yes he is." "You're not a Hindu?" "Yes, I'm a Hindu but I don't believe in worshipping idols." Hmmm...well, OK.

Gashwin said...

@georgette: yes, it could just be I'm more comfortable with it. However, as I said, it doesn't sound idolatrous once one understands the cultural context. Of course, the government forcing it upon people is a whole separate issue ...

@assiniboine: that's just it, pace, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, there really is no one Hindu perspective on most things. There are legitimately non-vegetarian Hindus. There are atheistic philosophical schools in Hindiusm ... the variety is mind-boggling ... I pretty much tend to view it as: Hinduism is the default label applied to the variety of religious traditions that are found in the subcontinent that are not something else: Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, Muslim or Jewish.

Of course, twenty years of BJP Hindutvaism, the rise of the media, the need for a more defined Hindu identity in the diaspora, and the forces of homogenization are changing that ...