Today is Republic Day in India. Jan. 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution was officially accepted and the national flag unfurled. There is a strong contingent of Gurukula students here who have an RSS background. RSS is the Rashtriya Svayam Sevaka Sangha, sometimes called a paramilitary organization, but really a kind of glorified nationalist boy scouts.
Nilakanth told me that when these students, nearly all (if not all) of whom are from Orissa, first came, they kept up their marching in formation and saluting flags and stuff for a while until it was washed out of them with dhyana and yoga exercises. Today they got a chance to do it all again, and one or two of them showed me how they used to strut. They led the flag unfurling ceremony and a rousing rendition of the national anthem, written by Rabindranath Tagore.
India’s anthem is in Bengali, but only one or two verbs betray the linguistic origins, for one aspect of its genius is that it can be understood by practically any speaker of any Indian language.
Unlike most other national anthems, the Indian is a prayer to God, “the arbiter of India’s fortune,” as if the author recognized the near impossibility of forging so many diverse peoples into a single nation. For the most part it is a listing of names of the land’s principal geographical features (Vindhya, Himachala, Yamuna, Ganga) and member states—and I imagine there is some grousing about who got left out, especially since the still recent division of several of the original states into tribally dominated areas.
“We beg for your blessings of prosperity, and we sing songs of your victory, O bestower of auspiciousness on our people, O arbiter of India’s fortune.” And then followed by a series of jaya heys. No militaristic calls for conquering other nations. It is about recreating that common cultural and geographical identity that had been there for millennia and had been made politically possible by the British, but one that could not be accepted, unfortunately, by Muslims—despite the absence of anything overtly Hindu or even faintly anti-Muslim in the entire text.
Yesterday I was talking about Arjuna’s anti-war arguments in my Gita class (I am still in the first chapter). It has been hard not to talk about Iraq in them, and one person even complained to me afterwards that there was too much. But I had to discuss the idea of just war and all that, and I had to put the Gita in the context the events of the past 20 years, especially the idea of propaganda. Because, for some people, the Gita is nothing but a piece of exemplary propaganda. After all, although the Gita does not devalue life per se, by saying that the soul does not die, does it not reduce the momentousness and absolute finality of the act of killing? Does it not fly in the face of Kant’s statement that every life should be treated as “an end in itself,” one of the cornerstones of modern ethics?
But we who were treated to a masterly piece of deceptive propaganda only a few years ago, to promote a war in Iraq that some incredibly high percentage of Americans subscribed to, need to recognize our susceptibility to calls for revenge and appeals to our desire to “do good for others” by killing selected representatives of Evil.
But I observed, having only observed it recently myself, that although Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight, he never makes it about demonizing the enemy. Duryodhan is never mentioned in Krishna’s hundreds of verses, except in the vishva-rupa darshan. Nowhere is he talking about saving the world or oppressed peoples, though it is assumed that Arjuna is on the side of righteousness. If anyone, Arjuna is more concerned about these things than Krishna. Krishna’s responses belong to an entirely different realm.
Anyway, this morning, I talked to Sudhir Das, one of the former RSS Orissans, with whom I have become rather good friends. We often converse in Sanskrit, at which I am getting rather good. He is tall and thin, with long hair and a beard, darkskinned but effulgent, with bright eyes and a quick and pleasant smile. Altogether quite a charismatic fellow. He has been trying to persuade Swamiji to give him sannyas for the last year, and Swamiji has him doing a purascharan of Gayatri mantra.
Sudhir was telling me about his RSS activities, which he conducted for more than five years in Sambalpur district in northwestern Orissa. They had to be jacks-of-all-trades: they would come into villages, sing nationalistic songs, teach Indian martial arts like stickfighting, teach yoga and Sanskrit. Even now, the “RSS boys” have kirtan on Saturday nights, and several amongst them play harmonium or tabla, including Sudhir. Some of them also specialized in speaking on Hindu texts like Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Their main purpose in all this is to expand the organization and create new branches for their brand of disciplined and selfless Indian nationalism. It is an old model, with a that old Victorian fragrance about it—nowadays, the “way forward” is through hedonistically motivated economic activity.
Sudhir told me that when he got promoted to work in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he decided to change directions and get a deeper knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. Basically, as many young idealists, he was (and still is) disturbed by all the phoneys he sees in the Hindu religious leadership. Now he wants to take sannyas and do some kind of socially involved religious work in his home state. When I asked him whether he intended to work with anyone else or independently, he vehemently responded, “independent!” I would like to press him a little further for details of what exactly he wants to do.
No Gita class today, by the way. A national holiday.