Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Karma Yoga

Yesterday's newspapers carried the news that religious leaders in Ayodhya were planning to felicitate Justice Dharam Veer Sharma, retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, for his "historic verdict in favour of the Ram temple".

This led me to wonder. Hypothetically, if a judge on his last day of office were to deliver a resounding verdict in favour of a large corporation such as Vedanta or Monsanto, and if this corporation were to honour him for his historic verdict in their favour, I don't think it would look very nice. To be fair the corporation could do what it wanted but it would be the judge's responsibility to at least decline the invitation. He may also want to play down the very unpleasant suggestion that the verdict was correlated with pleasing one of the parties.

But of course religion is not business. Well... actually the Vatican has been involved in its share of financial scandals, so I probably meant to say that the Hindu religion is not business. And yet... this too leaves me with nagging doubts. As I write, I'm in the historic temple town of Puri, known for its legendary Jagannath temple. As a good Hindu I visited it some years ago and derived great spiritual joy and inspiration by viewing the idol of Lord Jagannath. But for me to get far enough to see the idol, a friend from this state who was accompanying me had to fight off a bunch of rapacious priests who had their eyes firmly on my money. Their aggression was quite frightening and I had briefly wondered if they would beat me up for making an unpaid visit.

So on this visit to Puri I decided to skip the temple. But wouldn't you know it, it's just landed squarely in the news. Today's newspaper carries the headline: "Priests fight at Jagannath Temple over donations". Apparently they ended up in a scuffle over who had rights to the money contributed by devotees. Thereafter, one of them gave the other one a bloody nose. Of course the spilt blood was promptly washed off and the temple ritually purified thereafter. So all is now well, or shall we say it's "business as usual"?

Friday, October 1, 2010

My father's voice

One dark night in 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency in India, arrested opposition leaders and censored the press. The next morning I awoke to find my father, censored newspaper in hand, telling my mother: "this is a very bad thing to have happened". My father was not given to understatement nor lacking in eloquence, so he must have been very upset at that moment to say so little and in such weak tones.

The events that unfolded, however, soon gave him back his booming voice. He was then a judge of the High Court at Bombay and he began to discover with a sinking feeling that his brother judges were taking rather divergent stances on the Emergency. An entire faction slowly began to describe themselves as "committed judges" -- committed to Mrs Gandhi and willing to adapt their judicial views to her mercurial whims. Another group, not so much a faction as a bunch of stubborn individuals (including my father naturally) dissociated itself from "commitment" and believed it was their duty to uphold the rule of law. A turning point came when one of my father's closest friends in the judiciary told him in sibilant tones "you must learn to bend with the times". My father was the kind who might break but would not bend. In the end he passed away just over a year later from a series of heart attacks. The betrayal of his best friend may have been a critical blow.

While it's a pity that he thereby missed the lifting of the Emergency and the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, he also missed some of our more egregious lurches as a nation later on. I missed his thoughtful and logical presence in 1992 when a huge fraction of "committed" middle-class people flirted with theocracy in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. And today I feel sorry that he isn't sitting here, newspaper in hand, to opine about yesterday's judgement on the civil aspects of the land dispute in this case.

My father believed strictly in the rule of law, but always tried to apply it with a human face. On more than one occasion he strongly defended powerless individuals against mighty faceless giants, notably the government, but would make sure that his judgements were consistent with the letter and spirit of the law. He also detested obscurantism in any form. Yesterday's judgement might therefore have induced his razor-sharp mind to ask the following questions. Should an aggressive action lead to benefit for the aggressor in the form of a compromise? Are religious groupings the appropriate beneficiaries of a title suit when public interest is involved? And can the law opine on the birthplace of a god?

I'm not going to guess his answers on the first two questions, where complex legal issues might be involved (and a criminal case is still pending). But on the last question, I have a hunch about his reaction. The opinion of one of the judges yesterday (his last judicial action before retiring) was stated in these timeless words:

“the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram. Place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity. It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as [the] birthplace of Lord Rama as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for any one to invoke in any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”

Even though poor grammar depressed him terribly, my guess is that my father would not have wept into his morning tea. It was poor logic that invariably infuriated him, so I believe he would have thumped his own head and shouted "Oh my God!".