Searching for Roots

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As a grand Ram Temple comes up at Ayodhya, it is a moot question whether a challenge to any religious practice or injunction can or should be judicially adjudicated.

By Justice (retd) Kamaljit Singh Garewal

One may visit a historic shrine as a curious tourist, looking for souvenirs, to be able to tell people back home that you have “been there, done that”. Or one may go as a serious visitor, someone with interest in history and archaeology, to get a real feel of the place. The third category is a devout religious visitor who returns again and again to fulfil some spiritual longing. Is there a fourth category? These are the few people who will visit the shrine and never return home. They become so absorbed by the vibrations there that they feel they have arrived at their final destination and want to spend the rest of their lives in the quest for salvation. These are monks who have taken holy vows and renounced the world.

All holy places, no matter to which religion or denomination they belong, allow visitors, but certain rules must be observed. I attended a Christmas carol service at London’s Westminster Abbey, wearing my turban. At Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, one was permitted to keep the turban on. But at Cathedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo in Spain, I was politely told to take my turban off. So I doffed my turban without fuss or protest. Toledo in Spain is the Jerusalem of the West because Christianity, Judaism and Islam have co-existed there for over 1,000 years.

Chishti Dargah at Ajmer Sharif
Chishti Dargah at Ajmer Sharif

I have also visited Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar and Chishti Dargah at Ajmer Sharif several times. Of the famous Hindu temples, I have been to Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple at Madurai, where I was asked my caste to enable me to have a close darshan of the deity. I mumbled something, was allowed to pass to view the deity without any obstacle. Recently, I visited Shri Jagannath Puri, unhindered, but found it very crowded. I missed the nearby gurdwara, sacred to the memory of Guru Nanak, where the Guru had composed the aarti: “The Sky is my salver, sun and moon are my lamps….” It was considered by Rabindranath Tagore to be the universal anthem.

Nearer home, 50 km from Chandigarh, we have Rauza Sharif. This is the dargah in memory of Shaikh Ahmad al-Faruqi al-Sirhindi Mujadidi, the patron saint of the Afghan royal family. It may be recalled that Shah Shuja was a resident of nearby Ludhiana from 1818 to 1838. Shah Zaman, grandson of Ahmad Shah Abdali, and some Afghan royals are buried at Rauza Sharif. Near this Muslim shrine is Mata Chakreshwari Devi Swetamber Jain Tirath. Just a few kilometres away and between them stands Fatehgarh Sahib, where the two younger sons of the 10th Sikh Guru were bricked alive. A few days before the lockdown, we were at Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan and witnessed the service and langar sewa by Pakistani Sikhs.

The important point is that all these shrines are in the hands of the devout, engaged in religious services according to their faith, belief or religion. No visitor should question why it is being done in a particular way or why prayers are at all being offered to God in these rational, liberal, agnostic or atheist times. Well, actually some religious practices may be questioned. Guru Nanak did precisely that and after his travels in all four directions, he returned to Kartarpur to lead a householder’s life for the last 18 years of his life, tending his land and leaving behind a vast collection of spiritual poetry set in ragas, but did not start a mutt.

It is very doubtful if a challenge to any religious practice or injunction can or should be judicially adjudicated. Frankly, some cases do reach the courts and must be judicially decided. An instance of hearing such cases is the Sikh Gurdwara Tribunal, presided over by a sitting judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court, with jurisdiction to determine if a particular gurdwara is a Sikh one or not.

Lord Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya

Recently, three Hindu shrines have been at the centre of controversies. The first case was over Lord Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya. The dispute over the title of land on which the Babri Masjid once stood was resolved by the Supreme Court in November 2019. It went in favour of the Hindu community as the Court directed a temple be built by a trust on the disputed plot. Now a grand Ram Temple is going to come up at the site.

The second case was whether women are discriminated against when they are prohibited from entering the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. The case was decided (4-1) in favour of women and gave them the right to enter the shrine, but there was strong dissent by one judge. The matter is pending review.

The third matter was decided recently in favour of the Travancore family who had claimed the right to manage the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

Two of the three cases were in the nature of pure civil disputes, while the Sabarimala matter related to denial of constitutional rights to women. The sad fallout of these cases is the media doing a critique of the judgments, relying on its own perception of what is right and wrong in the 21st century, based on contemporary liberal and rational thinking.

Ram Janmabhoomi, the birthplace of Lord Ram, was destroyed in the 16th century by a general of Babur, the Mughal emperor. This forever sealed the building, as a mosque was constructed right on top of it. The legal issues were decided recently in favour of strident Hindu nationalism. What is disconcerting is that stridency is growing. It then becomes an issue outside religious and judicial arenas. And if ordinary people’s religious sentiments are exploited for garnering votes and religion-based violence rises, then it becomes very worrisome for the whole nation.

Similarly, the case of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a purely legal issue, based on the concept of shebaitship of Hindu temples. In the old days when a temple was constructed and a deity installed in it for worship, the person who donated the land, constructed the temple and managed it was called the shebait. The Travancore family had taken care of this ancient Temple site and had the right to manage the Temple.

The myth behind the Temple’s founding is an interesting story. Thiruvananthapuram, the “City of the Holy Serpent Ananta”, is the site of the temple of Padmanabhaswamy, “The Lord from whose Navel the Lotus Rises”. Long time ago, when Divakar muni, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, was in deep meditation, Vishnu appeared in the form of a lively, mischievous two-year-old boy. Divakar muni asked the boy to stay with him and the boy agreed on the condition that he be treated lovingly and never scolded.

One day when the sage was in deep meditation, the child swallowed a saligram, a sacred stone, symbolic of Vishnu. The sage was disturbed by this prank and chastised the boy. The boy disappeared, saying that “if you want to see me, go to sea coast, to the Ananta forest”.

The boy vanished into a tree, which immediately crashed to the ground and took the shape of the immense recumbent Vishnu, lying along the coast for 18 miles. Divakar muni was overwhelmed with devotion and prayed that the Lord condense himself so that he could be seen in his own field of vision. Vishnu complied and shrank to an 18-ft image that remained in the temple’s sanctorum at Thiruvananthapuram.

The Sabarimala story is also about a child, who was found abandoned and adopted by a childless king, to be raised to succeed him. Later, his jealous queen wanted her own son, born later, to become the king. She asked the first boy to fetch her some tigress’ milk to help cure her of an illness. The boy brought home the milk, riding on a tiger.

The king realised he had some special powers, while the boy himself wanted to return to the jungle to meditate. The king shot an arrow which fell many miles away in the jungle and he built a temple there for the boy. That temple is Sabarimala and the boy is worshipped as Lord Ayyappa, mostly shown in posters as seated on a tiger. It is a very touching tale of a king longing for an heir, a jealous stepmother and a boy’s devotion to God. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is undertaken on bare feet by thousands of pilgrims every year.

Very similar to this story is the legend of Puran Bhagat, son of Raja Salivan of Sialkot, immortalised by the poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi in Loona, a play in verse. Visiting historic and religious sites of all religions is great education, a leveller as it helps to remove prejudices picked up at home.

In 18th and 19th century England, young men went on a grand tour of the continent, visiting Rome, Venice and Athens and taking in the best of Greco-Roman civilisation. They would return home as refined, cultured men. English literature abounds with references to Greek myths and legends. Robert Graves, the poet and novelist, apart from writing historical novels around the life of Roman Emperor Claudius, also produced an authoritative and detailed account of Greek myths.

Perhaps a little dose of our myths and legends should be prescribed reading for all young people to arouse their curiosity about their country and help them discover their roots. This is a good learning experience before they tumble into the working world and decide for themselves their real beliefs.

—The writer is former judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York

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