Hinduism, as an institution, offers very little to the poor and underprivileged within its fold. This is one of the prime reasons for voluntary conversion of Hindus from among its members. B.R. Ambedkar and A.R. Rahman provide poignant examples of how lack of education and health facilities for the underprivileged within its fold, respectively, led to their conversion. This can be countered by a movement to provide large-scale quality health [hospitals/PHCs] and educational [schools/colleges] facilities run by Hindu mission organisations spread over the cities and districts of India. A four point-four phase programmme is presented here to outline how this can be achieved. Those who have the genuine interests of Hinduism at heart will have to set such an agenda before them rather than strident and violent affirmations of its glories. One can understand the reasons for such stridency, but it is time it got converted into constructive affirmative action to keep the flock.
I wish to do some straight talk in this communication. No beating about the bush, no offering illusory solace.
I write this on the Oscar win for the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” While it is time for India to bask in the glory of two “Oscars” for A.R. Rahman–the music director–it is also time to raise some points for reflection by the followers of Hinduism in India (and abroad) today, and I count myself in that category.
You might ask what has an “Oscar” got to do with reflection by Hindus? Well, I will come to it presently.
Ambedkar and Rahman
A.R. Rahman was born A.S. Dileep Kumar. At a very young age of 9 he lost his father due to a “mysterious” illness. He was poor, having to run from pillar to post to make both ends meet for his family. Then, when he was 21, his sister fell “mysteriously” ill. He tried every medical means and nothing seemed to work. Ultimately, he came in contact with a Muslim pir, and the sister “miraculously” recovered.
Now, I do not have a record of the medical condition of his sister or father, and discussing it here is beside the point. The important point is that the young Dileep, with his whole family, converted to Islam; further, he is on record saying that earlier he suffered from an inferiority complex, but this conversion has brought about a dramatic change in him. And he has never looked back since.
It is also worth noting that he is extremely religious, and becomes transformed after prayer, and makes most of his musical compositions then.
A close parallel is what happened to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, or Babasaheb, as his followers fondly call him--the architect of the Indian Constitution. Deprived and isolated throughout his student life, and even later, he struggled against many odds, and finally succeeded. At no stage did his religion of birth, or his co-religionists, offer him any succour. He finally found refuge in Buddhism, not only for himself, but also for a large chunk of followers of erstwhile Hinduism. They pose a major question mark to traditional Hinduism even today, and are its greatest critics, besides nursing strong resentment and seething anger against atrocities committed by upper caste Hindus in the past, which continues in certain areas of India even today.
We can conveniently gloss over such realities, taking cover of the great banyan tree concept of Hinduism, which protects all, and gives shade even to those who wield an axe to cut its branches. And feel reassured with the greatness and profundity of its teachings.
While feeling reassured is good, the complacency and lack of soul searching that can follow thereby, is not.
The Important Question
What is common to the Ambedkar and the Rahman conversions? To understand this, we must ask another question:
What does Hinduism have to offer to the poor and the underprivileged from amongst its fold?
The karma theory? That you are in this pitiable condition due to wrong deeds in the past birth, and are undergoing redemption? That you pray at temples, and keep serving the upper castes, and keep getting exploited and seek petty favours at their hands?
Does traditional Hinduism offer anything more than this?
You will be forced to the sad conclusion that nothing more is possible in Hinduism as it is practiced today, and has been down the centuries. That is why hordes of the poor and underprivileged left it earlier, when they did so voluntarily (of course there also was a considerable condemnable forcible conversion, which is not at issue here). And those who realize this fault from among the upper caste and/or the privileged class also leave it, or do not at least practice it beyond following some rituals.
This is not to deride this great religion, whose manifold beliefs and practices offer immense succour to millions, and whose manifold interpretations offer intellectual solace to umpteen others. It is only to expose its soft underbelly so that some concrete steps can be taken to fortify it.
I will pose this question to you once again:
What does Hinduism have to offer to the poor and the underprivileged from among its fold?
Apart from a shocked silence, or some apologetic mumbo-jumbo, as a response, you will realize that it has nothing much to offer.
If you can reach this intellectually honest conclusion, you will be ready for the analysis and action that must follow this realization.
Why Do People Convert?
Why do people convert voluntarily? The common factor is the inability of the earlier religion to offer solace and help when it is most needed, and by the new one to do so when most needed. Had Ambedkar's genius been realized by the upper caste Hindus, and had he been promoted and helped to grow up from his childhood without persecution and discrimination because of his caste, he would hardly have decided to leave his parent religion. If Rahman had similarly found succour with some Hindu sadhu, or Hindu medical mission, he would hardly have left his religion.
What Hinduism seriously lacks is an organized structure to recognize and help its poor and deprived at critical stages in their life.
There are essentially two critical stages. First, when one is sick, and second, when one seeks education to improve one's socioeconomic condition. In other words, health and education. There is no organized movement in Hinduism, nor there ever was, to cater to these fundamental needs of its followers. While we waxed eloquent over its greatness, its deprived followers suffered depravity and penury, and were waiting to fall in the lap of anyone who offered succour.
What in essence did the Christian missions offer the ordinary Hindu convert? They just tapped this basic need of the Hindus from the deprived sections. They offered education through their wide network of Mission schools, and they offered medical help through their equally wide network of Mission hospitals. What was the game plan? Every town to have a hospital and school run by Christian missions. What did this ensure? The formative years of an individual, his childhood, were spent in a convent school. He was exposed at a tender age to the benefits of a quality education. A peculiar mix of discipline and compassion ensured that most alumni remained eternal champions of this form of education, and such institutions, and never could be convinced to support any movement against them, much as the more strident avatars of modern Hinduism, hindutva, may have wanted them to. Moreover, at other critical times in an individual's life, when he fell sick, and had little money to spend, he has a mission hospital to offer help, a haven where he could find solace and comfort.
In place of lack of education and next to nil medical help that the traditional Hindu society offered, here was a religious institution that offered both, and without compromising much on quality, or making the recipients feel like worms of the earth, which is what traditional Hindu society largely offered when it did give help, if at all it ever did. Large-scale conversions were only waiting to happen.
If we are bold enough to accept this analysis, we will be ready for the action plan and affirmative action that follows.
The Action Plan: Four Point-Four Phase Programme
Ambedkar and Rahman are two exemplars before modern Hinduism, if it decides to wake up, and not lose more from its fold. Ambedkar is an example of desertion due to lack of educational facilities for the poor and deprived from among its fold in traditional Hinduism. And Rahman is an example of desertion due to lack of medical facilities for the same group.
It is not that Hinduism does not value education or health. But it has no organized structure to take care of these needs in its followers, especially the poor and deprived. And not just do it out of pity or as doles to the underprivileged, but as quality institutions where the needs of the deprived can be largely fulfilled. And not only for the poor but where quality education and care is also offered to the middle and upper class individuals, so that the poor and deprived get an opportunity to mix, and compete, with the rest, on an equal footing.
Such an egalitarian mission movement in Hinduism is the supreme need of the moment. While we may need our Ramkrishna Missions and our mathas and our Birla temples, and our “vanavasi kalyan kendras,” what we cannot do without are quality schools/colleges and hospitals run by Hindu missions where mainly members of the Hindu society receive help, without of course depriving members from other religions to also seek help/admission when they need it, similar to what it is with Christian mission schools/colleges and hospitals everywhere.
There are enough philanthropists and moneyed followers of Hinduism around, but most of them are satisfied building temples and offering patronage to god men. No need to stop them. But what they need to do, and what the champions of modern day Hinduism need to ensure, is the following four point-four phase programme:
- Set up quality Hindu schools/colleges in every city and district across the length and breadth of this country. Each such institution must have a temple where its Hindu students can pray. (For those who are not aware, chapels are present in educational institutions in Oxford and Cambridge too, and are present in the premises of most convent schools in India). It must celebrate Hindu festivals regularly, and offer religious teaching in the temple on a regular basis. Students of other religions should be welcome to enter the temple, but not forced to pray there.
- Set up quality Hindu hospitals/primary health care centers where the health needs of Hindus are looked after. The others are not to be deprived of care, of course, but these are quality hospitals/primary health centers (PHCs, where hospitals are not possible) meant to look after the medical needs of Hindus. They should know that they have a center where quality medical care has been arranged for by their own co-religionists.
- Set up National Hindu Mission Trust(s), which takes this up as a primary task. One Central Trust is preferable to many, so as to carry out concerted action and express solidarity, as also to avoid duplication and potential strife between Trusts. Hindu philanthropists fund it, Hindu ideologues and religious leaders form its think tank, and Hindu activists form its functioning arm. (It is advisable that the ordinary Hindu also contributes, and I will discuss later how under “affirmative action.” They start with major cities and district places, and spread to every nook and corner to cater to the health and educational needs of their co-religionists. This is to be done as a four-phase programmme outlined below.
- The Four-phase programmme: The goal is to have one school/college/hospital/PHC per 1 lakh population of Hindus, that is, 8000 schools, 8000 colleges and 8000 Hospitals/PHCs built over a period of two decades. The whole programmme set in place in four phases lasting five decades:
- I)First, giving around two years, 2009-2010, to organize and make people aware, set up the Trust, and start collecting the funds.
- II)Second, set up the first 1000 schools, 1000 colleges and 1000 hospitals/PHCs in the first decade, that is, 2010-2020.
- III)Third, set up the remaining 7000 schools, 7000 colleges and 7000 hospitals/PHCs in the next decade, that is, 2020-2030.
- IV)Consolidate these centers and their reach over a period of next three decades, 2030-2060. These centers should establish a mark as quality institutions where the best of education and medical care is available at highly subsidised rates for the ordinary Hindu.
Those from other religions are not deprived of care and study here, for every such entrant carries back memories of efficiency, compassion and care experienced here, which helps cement interfaith goodwill. So essential in a multi-religious society like India.
A good half-century of solid constructive work on this four point-four phase programmme will have to be put in to make a visible impact in the life of the ordinary Hindu, and make them proud to belong where they do.
Institutionalised Compassion: Need of the Hour
Hinduism has a lack of institutionalised compassion. Christianity has it in ample, probably because Christ himself was its greatest propounder and exemplar. It is necessary to institutionalise compassion in Hinduism. This is one thing we can learn from Christianity, and should have no reserve in gratefully acknowledging.
The time to sing glories of the past is gone. The time to fight “westernization” and “decay of values” is, beyond a point, much wasted effort. The time to work to close knit its followers and make them its active proponents because they are its beneficiaries–by looking after their health and educational needs--that is the need of the hour. Such beneficiaries ultimately will become its greatest benefactors.
Shepherd your stock before they wither away
If any lessons are to be learnt from Ambedkar's conversion in the past, and Rahman's in the more recent one, that will be the greatest “Oscar” its followers will present to this great religion, Hinduism. A religion they wish to cherish and revere but do not know how to restructure and resurrect.
Let us stop fighting Christian missionaries, let us stop violent struggles with Muslims. Let us stop singing glories of ancient Hinduism. All these may appear justified means to herd the stock and affirm the faith. But that is a lot of societal energy used in expressing organized anger and/or feeling vindicated, which, beyond a point, is much useful energy going down the drain. Let us, rather, get involved in constructive affirmative action to hold our stock together by catering to their fundamental needs.
Time for Affirmative Action: Let's Start Here
How do we start?
Do you remember how the Vivekananda Rock Memorial was built? I remember going house to house in my childhood, collecting Re. 1 from each house for the cause. And not a single house we approached refused. In fact, they were pleased to donate, be they ever so humble. Each one of them felt involved that they had a role to play in building the memorial. And I myself cherish the experience.
That was more than 40 years ago.
Let each Hindu give Rs. 100 for the cause at hand. If there are 80 crore Hindus, a corpus of Rs. 8000 crore could be set up right away. There are people who would give much more. [Even people from other religion should be welcomed to donate, though not depended on.] Is it not enough to start to set up 1000 schools/colleges and 1000 hospitals/PHCs all over the country for the work of phase II we discussed earlier, for 2010-2020? The rest is bound to follow.
Let some such concrete step be taken for the followers of this great religion by its champions. And start concrete action on the four point-four phase programmme mentioned earlier. We can debate how to do it, and we can debate its nitty-gritty's, but let us not get paralysed into inaction after realising its urgent need.
Then, and then alone, will Hinduism have as bright a present, and as rosy a future, as it had a resplendent past.
Hindutva followers, are you listening?
For those who value Hinduism, it is time to reset the agenda away from militancy/violent stridency to constructive affirmative action. Health and education are two prime areas to target. Setting up quality educational centers [schools and colleges], and health centers [hospitals/PHCs] by Hindu mission organisations is the need of the hour.
A good half-century should be dedicated to the four point-four phase programmme outlined above for this to bear fruit. One generation will have to devote a productive lifetime to achieve success.
Take Home Message
Health and education are the two key areas to target to keep the flock of Hinduism intact. Strident activism must reformulate as constructive action to help the poor and underprivileged from among its followers. A mass movement delineated as a four point-four phase programme to set up schools/colleges and hospitals/PHCs run by one or more National Hindu Mission Trusts is the path to follow.
Conflict of Interest: I am a follower of Hinduism and, as such, interested in preserving and promoting it
CITATION: Singh A. R., (2009), Straight Talk: The Challenge Before Modern Day Hinduism. In: Some Issues in Women's Studies, and Other Essays (A.R. Singh and S.A. Singh eds.), MSM, 7, Jan - Dec 2009, p189-196.
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