(by Rajaraman Krishnan)
I have been following the recent controversies over some of the Carnatic musicians singing Christian songs. While I have not been reading up on all the flames engulfing the issue, I have been seeing and reading some articles related to that and felt that there were many sides to the issue which are not addressed. Here are some of my thoughts.
Hounding the Artists
First thing all civilised people who desire a tolerant society should agree upon is that hounding the artists in this matter is utterly unjustified. We can debate all we want about whether this act aids the Christian conversion agenda. We can debate all we want whether Carnatic music came from a Hindu religious ethos and belongs only to that ethos or not. But as a tolerant society we should respect the right of others to have their opinions. The Carnatic musicians who sang the Christian songs may have done that just for money or may have done that with the idea that music transcends religion, or … They shouldn’t have to prove their beliefs to us. They shouldn’t be threatened with violence and concert boycotts.
I am reminded of something I believe Thoreau said. “Till my death I will disagree with what you are saying. But with my life I will defend your right to say it”. This is the essence of liberalism, of tolerance. It is very easy to be tolerant of someone we agree with. But tolerance is tested when we disagree with the opinion and in fact when it completely goes against our belief system. We need that tolerance to progress as a society, as a nation, or as a civilisation. Everyone who loves India, our Hindu ethos should argue for that tolerance and speak against the hounding of these artists.
Music and Religion
Several people a lot more knowledgeable than me like T.M. Krishna, V. Sriram etc. have written about the long history of Christian or Islamic religious songs in Carnatic music tradition. We also have a long tradition of aspects of other musical forms from other cultures / religions being integrated into the Carnatic music traditions like Persian/Arabic music, Western/European music and their instruments etc. Several Raagas like Sindhu Bhairavi and Yemen Kalyani, several of our instruments like Violin, Mandolin etc., why even words like Kutcheri, Mirdhangam and Sabaash have come from other cultures.
There is no doubt that a lot of what we see and practice as Carnatic music today comes from a Hindu religious tradition. But to reduce or restrict our Carnatic music to just that tradition is just ridiculous. Carnatic music transcends these traditions. There lies its greatness, its beauty. It can be used to express any Hindu religious, other religious, or secular thoughts that we may possess.
Religious Conversions and Threats to Hinduism
India during Mohammedan, Mughal and British rules has seen waves of religious conversions to Islam and Christianity. It is continuing even now in various ways. Many societies have completely lost their own cultural identify due to these externally originated conversions. This is indeed a tragedy for anyone interested in culture or in the preservation of the great artistic, cultural or even philosophical achievements of various peoples or in a more narrow sense our own people. When you see that most South Koreans are these days Christians, or that in weddings in Japan people more often wear gowns and suits rather than Kimonos, it makes my heart grieve. It is a tragedy we are living with and which we have to resist in whatever way we can.
While saying this we should also not whitewash the fact that Hinduism has also grown to what it is through colonisation of native cultures and traditions. I believe that Hinduism has been better and assimilating and incorporating within our Indian culture many of the native traditions. Civilising and bringing to mainstream any tribal society is always a cruel process. If we today were to mainstream some of the tribes of Andamans and impose our education, our language, our culture on them, it will not be without its cruelties. I once again leave it to historians and sociologists to study our own history in these cruelties and that of Islamic or Christian cultures in their “progress”.
That said, lets us look at the religious conversions that are taking place now. From my limited experience in this (mainly in areas on Thiruvallur district), there is indeed a lot of religious conversions going on. Conversion is mainly targeting the Dalit and tribal communities. People who are converting are mostly doing so for economic reasons. One thing that people seeing this from outside need to recognise is that the biggest damage or violence this does is to these Dalit or tribal communities. There are villages with churches and temples where there are constant tensions. There are families with half the members who are Christian and other half Hindus. There are people who have to change their culture and the way they live because of their marriage, the conversion of the family etc. There are some boycotts in small ways within these villages etc. that is constantly going on. We can idealistically bemoan the damages to the grand Hindu/Indian culture, but the suffering is much more at the local level within these communities.
Note also that the upper castes in the areas are usually not converting. The much better endowed, better funded parts of the village are not converting to Christianity in these villages. People wielding most of the power are still Hindu. So the threat of violence and boycott are typically directed at the weaker communities which are converting. Despite this, why are these communities converting? To a large extent it is because of the faults of Hinduism. Our caste system has been way more cruel than whatever threats they are facing due to these conversions. To be condemned to a perennial status of inferiority is something they are resisting and trying to throw away. Christianity at least in an idealised sense offers them a hope of equality which Hinduism doesn’t.
How many of these people who are fighting against these conversions are arguing for reforming Hinduism? How many of these people argue for aggressive affirmative action, inter-caste marriages, etc.? A person who bemoans the conversion without doing all he can to reform Hinduism is just a hypocrite. Let’s face it. Conversions are happening not just because of Gulf money or church money from US, it is happening because we are not serious about reforming Hinduism. Even today we have not lost our caste identities. Even when we talk of Hinduism, we are not referring to the identities, the cultural markers and the religious traditions of these disadvantaged societies. Without serious reform of Hinduism and a complete negation of caste system, conversions will continue and will eventually destroy all that we love about Hinduism as well.
In this context some singers singing Christian songs in a Carnatic music tradition is certainly not going to sway the balance one way or the other. Let them also sing some songs in praise of Chenchamma the popular Irula goddess. That may help Hinduism.
Motives and Culture of Intolerance
Actions in society do not happen in isolation. The current criticism of these Carnatic musicians needs to be seen in the context of the culture of intolerance that is growing in India. We hound authors like Perumal Murugan for writing about traditions that exist in some Vanniyar communities. We even kill rationalists for speaking about atheism. We kill journalists for attacking RSS and other Parivar organisations. We lynch people on rumours related to transporting cows or eating beef. We create gated communities which keep people from other religions and castes out. So the current criticism of these Carnatic musicians is not happening in isolation or be discussed and understood in isolation. While the debate on singing Christian Carnatic compositions may be a small one, the context makes these criticisms ominous.
One of the greatest aspects of Hinduism has been its tolerance. Five of the 6 vedic schools of philosophy were to varying extent atheistic. We have always believed that we may reach our spiritual destination through many paths. Why we even believe that each one of us is the Bramhan. So the current culture of intolerance in the name of Hinduism is the most un-Hindu act!
This hounding of these musicians is completely unjustified. While there is a great concern about conversion and destruction to our culture, the threats to these are largely our own deficiencies. If the way in which we resist the conversion is by becoming more insular and conservative, that will indeed be a pyrrhic victory. What we have preserved and protected against the external conversion will not be Hinduism but the exact antithesis of Hinduism.
About the author: Rajaraman is a full time social worker. He used to be a software engineer but has been volunteering full time with Asha for Education, Chennai. The organisation works for the education of the underprivileged. Rajaram in particular does most of his work in rural Tamilnadu, esp. Thiruvallur Dist. Rajaraman can be contacted at Rajaraman Krishnan <firstname.lastname@example.org>