Friday, December 24, 2010

Whither non-violence? Or Wither non-violence?

While in Bhubaneshwar, I was curious to go and see the 'Shanti Stupa', a memorial to commemorate Emperor Ashok's 'change of heart' after witnessing the carnage of the Kalinga Battle. The visit was eminently disappointing, to say the least.
The Kalinga battle has been taught to every Indian child in history classes and portrayed as an event that shaped Indian culture and its ethos of non-violence. Ashok himself has been immortalized by his 'Chakra' on our flag and his Lion capital being our national emblem. Given the importance of this event and Ashok's contribution to India, I expected a lot from this monument. The reality turned out to be quite different.

A stark white stupa stands atop a small hillock at Dhauli, about 20 km. from Bhubaneshwar. It has four statues of Buddha, each in a different pose on the sides. Eight lions stand watching outward, towards the vast plains that witnessed 
the grim battle of Kalinga.
That's it. There is not a single plaque, not a word written anywhere in the premises stating the importance of this place. I later found out that the stupa was actually built by the Japanese Kalinga Nipppon Buddha Sangh as recently as 1971.
Steps leading up to the stupa are flanked by the usual shops selling odd assortment of objects, the kind of shops that one sees outside any Indian temple. The place appears to be a popular picnic spot for people. While returning I couldn't hold on to my disappointment and feigning enough ignorance, I asked the taxi driver whether this place had any significance or whether the stupa was built here 'just like that'. He said he didn't know. Then as an afterthought, he said "you know Ashok, the King? It has some connection with him". Some saving grace, at least.
I would like to find out at what stage did Kalinga war gain importance in our history books. Were our grandfathers told about it? I recall what Pavan Verma says about this in 'The Great Indian Middle class'.

Quote -
....contributing to the weave of the middle-class Indian's thinking was a romaticization of India's past. The basis for this was not any serious study or analysis but an emotional pride in a mythical past where India, prior to her humiliating subjugations, was a land of prosperity and plenty, culturally efflorescent, morally awakened, and politically powerful.... Gandhi's invocation of the Ram Rajya undoubtedly contributed to the conjuring up of such a historical vision. But the consciously intellectual Nehru was also not immune to such sentimentalizations.....
The attempt to make ahimsa or non-violence a bequeath of the past was particularly laboured. In the case of Gandhi, faith easily triumphed over historical accuracy. Certain leaders, like Ashoka, were selectively highlighted for his principled pacifism, and others forgotten. The amazing thing is that even Nehru, for all his emphasis on dispassionate analysis of historical forces, concluded: 'Right through history the old Indian ideal did not glorify political and military triumph, and looked down upon money and the professional money-making class'.
Unquote -

If all this was not enough, what followed that evening gave me another insight into how the definition of non-violence is used with convenience by Indians. I also decided to visit Lingaraj temple, and as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, the pandas mobbed me, one and all. "100 rupees, will take you around the whole temple. Darshan also." As I doggedly ignored them and walked towards the temple, some pandas fell away to chase someone more gullible than me while others kept following. By the time I was the temple entrance, the rate was down to 20 rupees, with a promise of telling me all the stories about the temple. I kept looking straight ahead and as soon as I entered, only one resolute panda remained, with the rate down to 5 rupees. Eventually I told him that I would manage on my own and was quite OK without the stories. Surprisingly, he became rather violent and started shouting at me. "What do you mean you have only come to see? This is a temple, this is not a zoo. If you want to just see, go to the zoo."
I had half a mind of giving him one tight slap but there were too many of his kind around. Non-violence is the better part of valour, I thought. And the next morning, I realized that I may have made a rather wise choice. The newspaper told a story of two priests in Jagannath temple attacking another one with an iron rod (over 'territorial' rights of the temple) and causing him grievous head injury. The news item reminded the readers of a bizarre incident six months ago when three priests actually murdered another one very close to the Lingaraj temple premises. The murdered priest's brother had to be temporarily released from jail to perform the last rites. He was in jail for a brawl that had broken out between priests just two days ago...
Ashok may have been right, after all. But the priests don't know about it yet.


Pratz said...

really? this is bizarre!

Pushkaraj said...

What exactly is bizarre according to you? That the driver didn't know about the monument, or the priests on a killing spree?