It appears that for the PM and the home minister, religion is a battlefield, and worship no different from victory. Credit: IANS Photo

By Jyoti Punwani

What feelings play in the mind of one who visits a temple? Are shame and humiliation topmost among them?

The adventurous devotees who prepare for weeks to visit Kailash Mansarover; the Warkaris who walk 21 days to Pandharpur; those who observe rituals for 41 days for Sabarimala – does shame drive these efforts? What of ordinary Hindus whose day is incomplete without a morning visit to the temple? A small old Hanuman temple in South Mumbai known for the clanging of its bells for the 8 pm aarti invariably sees passers-by stopping outside with hands folded. Do they feel ashamed hearing the bells and seeing the circling flame of the diya? Or do they get a feeling of solace?

As a child, I remember seeing women of my community going barefoot to the temple, all decked up and happy, carrying plates covered with offerings. Shame was the last word you would associate with them.

Last week, a Muslim from Mumbai was arrested at Ujjain’s ancient Mahakal temple. The young man, accompanying his Hindu girlfriend, had presented a Hindu’s Aadhar card so that they could watch the spectacular early morning aarti together. This news brought to mind the joy with which a “Tam-Bram” had told me how, straight after her nikah, she’d taken her Muslim husband to Tirupati to get Lord Venkateshwara’s blessings for the marriage. This was 40 years ago when interfaith couples didn’t have to risk arrest under laws designed to thwart such marriages. But even MP’s stringent “love-jihad” law didn’t deter the Mumbai couple from trying their luck at Ujjain.

What could have driven them except love, faith and the confidence of youth?
So what did Union Home Minister Amit Shah mean when he recently said that before Narendra Modi became PM, “people going to temples felt a sense of shame?” The moment he was appointed PM, said Shah, Modi smeared his forehead with ash and performed a Ganga aarti at Varanasi, thereby “starting a new era”.

He was right.

In the Modi era, the prime minister of a secular country thinks nothing of spending public money performing lavish pujas and Hindu rituals and ensuring they are telecast to every home. Never mind if the puja is to consecrate a temple at the very site that a mosque was demolished by members of his parent organisation, leading to the communal violence that cost thousands of lives. In case the message was lost in the spectacle of last year’s Ayodhya puja, the PM spelt it out last week when he inaugurated the Kashi Vishwanath corridor: “If an Aurangzeb comes, a Shivaji also rises.” Was this assertion necessary at what was supposed to be essentially a religious function?

It appears that for the PM and the home minister, religion is a battlefield, and worship no different from victory.

Amit Shah recalled how the Maa Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, for which Shah had just launched an approach corridor, had to be “hidden inside homes owing to fear of attack from Muslims.” The last time this ancient temple made news was in June, when it re-opened to huge crowds after a long lockdown. Were the devotees, who threw fears of Covid to the winds, driven by “shame and humiliation” over what happened to the temple centuries ago?

One wonders what feelings torment Amit Shah and Narendra Modi when they visit temples. Not piety for sure. For, what they say on these ostensibly religious occasions reveals a deep, bitter resentment at events long buried in history, events that the majority of Hindus don’t even know, let alone recollect. What also comes across from their words is a sense of triumph, the assertion that they have, at long last, enabled their faith to prevail over the enemy’s.

These very emotions drive Hindutvawadis in Gurugram and Belagavi to repeatedly hound and attack Muslims and Christians gathered to pray in desolate parking lots, churches and even homes – a classic case of leaders and followers mirroring each other. But it is the very opposite of these emotions that define Benares, and indeed the Kashi Vishwanath temple, where Modi proudly invoked “virasat” (legacy).

It was in this temple that Ustad Bismillah Khan learnt to play the shehnai; his family members were the temple’s musicians. His daily riaz was in the Balaji temple nearby. In 2006 and 2010, bomb blasts during the evening Ganga aarti in Benares killed 23 persons, mostly Hindus, but no riots broke out.

Now that’s the “virasat” the MP from Varanasi should have recalled. But then he wouldn’t have sent the message he wanted.

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