language divide

As the Modi regime marks philosopher-saint Ramanuja’s birth anniversary, it must heed his teachings

Ramanuja brought religion to the common man by introducing Tamil in temple worship. In contrast, the BJP wants to impose Hindi on all.

This month marks the 1,000th birth anniversary of 12th-century Vaishnavite philosopher Ramanuja. His importance in the propagation of Vedanta, the philosophical ideas of the Upanishads, is well known. In terms of influence on Indian philosophy, Ramanuja is second only to Adi Sankara. He countered Sankara’s doctrine of non-dualism (advaita), which propounded the theory that the world is a mere superimposition of illusion (maya) on the supreme being (brahman) who is devoid of any attributes or form (nirguna, nirrupa), by developing visishtadvaita or qualified non-dualism. Ramanuja argued that the world was real and the supreme being was bestowed with positive attributes like omniscience and omnipresence. The entire universe, with its sentient and non-sentient units, are parts of the supreme being, who has absolute control over them.

Another significant difference between the two schools of Vedanta is their reading of the Gita and the path to realisation. Sankara’s advaita laid emphasis on the path of knowledge, or gnanamarga. Ramanuja, on the other hand, focussed on karma, or the performance of prescribed duties, an aspect of which was total surrender to god (saranagati).

But there is more to Ramanuja than philosophical musings. He is credited with ushering in significant reforms in the way religion was practised. While Sankara used non-dualism as a concept to propagate the equality of all beings at the doctrinal level, Ramanuja chose bhakti as a uniting factor. As Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi, who wrote the script for a television series on Ramanuja in 2015, pointed out, the philosopher-saint wanted religion and temple worship to be thrown open to all people, irrespective of caste, though it is debatable whether he made any significant progress in this since conservatism made a comeback after his death.

The Union government has chosen to honour the memory of Ramanuja on his birth anniversary, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi released commemorative stamps last week to mark the occasion. But in the larger political context of the country, the question arises: Was Modi’s gesture mere symbolism to honour an icon of Hinduism? Or has he internalised Ramanuja’s teachings?

Take, for instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s attempts at imposing Hindi and Sanskrit on all regions of the country. This is in direct confrontation with some of Ramanuja’s fundamental reforms that made his philosophy easier to relate to than advaita.

Tamil in temples

Sankara was a prolific writer. He commented on all three important texts of Vedanta: the Gita, the Brahmasutra and the Upanishads. This gave his philosophy a superstructure that was hard to penetrate. Such was the strength of his writings that they were considered a turning point in Hinduism’s philosophical battle with Buddhism and in the eventual decline of the latter.

Taking on an appealing philosophy like advaita required not just bare logic but some ingenious and practical strategy.

Ramanuja’s interpretation of the Brahmasutra disproved the central place Sankara had given to the illusionary nature of the world. But what tipped the scales in favour of Ramanuja, at least in South India, was his eagerness to embrace the local language – Tamil. In Vaishnavism in the south, Tamil, we can safely assert, occupies a higher position than Sanskrit. The credit for this goes to Ramanuja, who supported important changes to temple worship.

In this part of the country, the appeal of Vaishnavisim is largely fuelled by the poems of the 12 Alwars, or Tamil poet-saints who espoused bhakti and the worship of Vishnu and Krishna. The Nalayira Divyaprabandham, a collection of 4,000 poems of the Alwars that is also known as the Dravida Veda, is one of the pillars of the Bhakti movement that swept the country from the sixth century CE. In the hymns of the Alwars and Nayanmars (Shaivaite bards), Vedanta received a human face. Primarily, they emphasised that the benevolence of god was for all to enjoy and the path to salvation did not require the study of convoluted texts but could be achieved through bhakti. In other words, salvation, the ultimate objective in Hindu doctrines, became accessible to the masses and not just to scholars with the sacred thread across their shoulders.

Taking this revolutionary idea forward was the language that acted as its vehicle. Ramanuja realised that while complex debates in Sanskrit, in the form of commentaries on philosophical texts, were necessary to counter competing philosophies at the intellectual level, the tenets of such ideas could reach the common man and woman only through their mother tongue. Sanskrit, for all its grandeur, was a dead language.

To implement this idea, Ramanuja took Tamil into the greatest symbol of Hinduism – temples.

Singing the divyaprabandham (hymns) was made compulsory in all temples that followed the Vaishnavite faith. In fact, we could say the hymns of the Alwars took precedence over the Vedas in temples in South India. An example of this was the idol processions in Vishnu temples in Tamil Nadu. These would be led by a group, called goshti, singing the Tamil poems, while the group singing the Vedas would come behind the idol and virtually get no attention.

The implication of this was that bhakti as an idea became ingrained in the faithful, and it remains so today. The path of gnana, or knowledge, has for all practical reasons been confined to the precincts of scholars as it lacks the emotional drive of the local language.

BJP’s Hindi push

What lessons do Ramanuja’s teachings hold for our leaders today? The BJP government has embarked on a mission to impose Hindi across the country. In the garb of implementing the recommendations of a parliamentary panel, orders have been issued to widen the use of Hindi in all government communication. Regional languages are being replaced with Hindi in highway milestones in South India, prompting protestors to blacken the Hindi text with tar.

Such imposition will eventually lead to the alienation of a large number of people in the country whose primary identity is based on their language. It is not without reason that the Union government accepted the linguistic reorganisation of states in the 1950s.

For any idea to gain acceptance, it has to be accessible to the masses. If the idea of our rulers is to widen their appeal, it is the path of Ramanuja that they must look at and not the exclusivist ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, which wants to fit the entire country into its narrow frame of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. While the former advocates reconciliation, the latter is all about confrontation.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.