Sunday, July 03, 2016

What’s Not in a Name?

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah’s insistence on using English surnames must be taken seriously by those who wish to create an egalitarian nation

Noted author and public intellectual, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, formerly professor of political science in Osmania University, Hyderabad, in a recent article on a news portal announced that he has changed his name. He shall now be known as Kancha Ilaiah “Shepherd”, the addition signifying his traditional caste and family occupation.

Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
Some might dismiss it as a gimmick, but Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd sees this as a crucial move in his battle against the behemoth of caste in India. This is not an entirely new strategy. In the 19th century, Savitribai Phule advocated English language for social emancipation of India’s lowered castes. The chorus has only swelled in our 21st century. However, Prof. Shepherd is unique in asking English to be made part of one’s identity and not just an added skill set in “languages known” column of one’s résumé. 

Castes and names in India have been almost synonymous. If someone insists on knowing your full name, be sure he or she wants to know what caste you belong to. It may even determine how we treat our colleagues, neighbours, fellow students, clients, etc., etc. In short, it shapes our attitude towards fellow countrymen.

In a highly graded culture that we have in India, giving a name to a child is meant to fix his position in social hierarchy. I once heard an elderly anti-caste activist from Rajasthan explaining to a group the unwritten rules of the ancient system of Indian christening. His description was more colourful than the turban he was wearing. In his inimitable Rajasthani accent he explained how a Brahmin’s son would be called Vidyapati, Gyanendrapati, Saraswatichandra—names depicting his relation with
A Rajasthani Turban. Image:
knowledge and education. A Kshatriya boy would be called Randhir Singh or Ranvijay or Veer Pratap signifying the qualities of a warrior. A Baniya child would be called Dhanpat, Lakshmichandra, etc.; names that tie him to earning of wealth and riches. When a Shudra father takes his son to the village priest, the latter would ask, “When was this little imp born?” “On Buddhwar, Wednesday, sir,” the father would reply with his hands folded. “Name him buddhu (stupid), what else?” the priest would be grinning. So boys born on Monday would be Somus, those born on Tuesday would be Manglus, and so on.

The direction in which Prof. Shepherd is going seems to suggest that it is not enough for a Shudra or an outcaste father to rename his son Someshwar or Manglesh or Buddhadev and thus move up the ladder in the hierarchical Sanskritic tradition. He is asking such fathers to take pride in their own identities as manual labourers and learn from the Western counterparts where surnames like Smiths and Potters are no longer looked down upon. As a matter of fact, no one notices them or reads anything into them.

Prof. Shepherd opens himself to a lot of criticism from all quarters—even from sympathetic colleagues. Many would say that he is giving undue importance to the power of English language to bring emancipation to India’s lowered castes. They would argue that imposition of English by British colonialists is the root of all social evil we have in today’s India. But no one could deny the power of this pragmatic stance of Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd’s. Any person who could steer away from the identity imposed on him or her by the Sanskritic tradition does become the master of his or her individuality. And, no one can deny that the ability to fluently use English language does give one the social recognition that was denied him or her for generations.

However, Prof. Shepherd’s advocacy of English names and English language is not merely posturing or even some practical strategy. Behind his seemingly quixotic vision is the profound cultural understanding.  Languages in any culture are not merely means of communication, but also repository of cultural capital. They not only help us communicate, but make available to us all the philosophic and spiritual resources contained in that language. Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd wants us to look beyond Sanskritic traditions to forge a national identity.

In calling the lowered castes of India to add new English surnames to their given names, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is changing the terms of discourse. He is introducing the new “language” that we urgently need to discuss our existence and future as a nation. The name calling that we saw in recent times in the name of nationalism can be countered rather effectively, it seems, by a change in name.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Logos at the Heart of the Community

The academic session was already at its fag end when I arrived in Allahabad in the month of May last year. My first few evenings were spent in reading the book The Gospel and the Plow by Dr Sam Higginbottom. I had the book with me for quite some time but it was only when I finally joined the institute founded by the great missionary that I had the opportunity to read the book cover to cover. It turned out to be one of the most important books that I ever read. I was familiar with Dr Higginbottom’s autobiography but this smaller book had a unique power and it made a significant impact on me. It cannot be denied that it is a great book. Its style is simple and its message most profound. The book was published nearly a hundred years ago, but it remains as relevant to the needs of India as it was in 1921. It remains relevant because it presents in a fresh way what God has always desired for His people—comprehensive blessings.

When God led the Hebrews out of their state of slavery in Egypt almost 3,500 years ago, He said that He would lead them to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. God wished to free them from physical as well as mental slavery in Egypt. God also wanted to bless them both spiritually and physically.

Spiritual blessings and material prosperity went hand in hand in God’s plan. Since God cares as much for our physical as for our spiritual hunger, His comprehensive blessings are for our bodies as well as for our souls.

When Sam Higginbottom came to Allahabad, he thought his primary responsibility was the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ but the condition of the poor peasantry and landless labourers made him acutely aware of the comprehensive mission of God. Soon he learnt that his mission must include caring for the hungry and the destitute; soon he learnt that India needed the good news and the good agricultural practices—India needed “the Gospel and the Plow”.

Thus began the huge dream of an agriculture institute that would assist the poor and the meek of India inherit the blessings of the Kingdom. The foundation of the Allahabad Agriculture Institute was laid in 1910. The campus also had a chapel, which, of course, underlines the fact that the gospel must accompany the plough and vice versa.

The institute is now more than hundred years old. It has grown into a degree-granting deemed university. It stands tall like a beacon of light in Allahabad and the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 2010, the management of the university took a most wise decision to rename the university in the honour of its founder. Allahabad Agriculture Institute is now proudly known as Sam Higginbottom Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences. It testifies to the world what the theology of the Gospel and the Plough can accomplish for a society.

The institute keeps the memory of the Dr Sam Higginbottom alive. But more important thing is to keep his vision alive. And thankfully, Dr Sam Higginbottom wrote two books that have helped in that task. The Gospel and the Plow and his autobiography (Sam Higginbottom, Farmer: An Autobiography; 1949) continue to serve as two pillars on which his vision is firmly set.

To some it may seem like an exaggeration but, to my mind, writing of these two books is in no way less than founding the institution. The current head of the university, the Hon’ble VC, has often acknowledged—in private as well as in public—the impact of the written legacy of Dr Higginbottom. It was these books that confirmed the vision that the Most Rev. Prof. R. B. Lal received and strengthened his resolve for the renewal of the institute.

The institute was the hardware and when the right software was used, it flourished.

Word has power. And writing makes that power available to generations to come. As mentioned above, when God led the Hebrews out of slavery, He gave them His Word, His commandments, His laws. And these former slaves were instructed to write them down and pass them on to the next generation. Because to receive it and to continue to enjoy that blessing they must keep His commandments and obey His law. They were asked to organise themselves in a special way. Their personal, family, tribal and national life would have to be built around God’s laws. They must not organise themselves around a man, a king, an ideal or an idol but around the written Word given to Moses. Since in the beginning was the logos (John 1:1), the logos must also be in the centre of the new community. Only this way of organization would ensure that they continue to receive the blessings promised to them.

Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Deuteronomy 6:1–3).
These laws was the software for their new life in the new land. Dr Higginbottom’s books were undoubtedly the software for the renewal of the institute. And, the faithful servants of the institute have through their prayers and close reading of the scripture activated this software. The written word—of scripture and of testimony—has power.

God made us in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27). Jesus taught us to call God our father (Matthew 6:9) and said that a son does what he sees his father doing (John 5:19). God writes. We must read what He has written in His Word. But we must also imitate our Heavenly Father in the act of writing.

The magazine Radiant Life is a symbol of the centrality of the written word in the life of a community. It seeks to keep a record of manifold blessings of God bestowed in the community around Yeshu Darbar—and even beyond. It also aims to provide a platform to writers, poets and chroniclers to record their witness. The magazine will also make an effort to facilitate exchange of ideas that further strengthen the followers of Christ and His body, the church—and hopes to promote and keep a record of all the blessing they receive.

The resumption of the magazine after a gap coincides with a very significant milestone in the life of the founding bishop of Yeshu Darbar the Most Rev. Prof. R. B. Lal, who turns sixty as the magazine goes to press. We wish him a long and healthy life. His message included in this issue testifies to the immense power of prayer and the centrality of the Word of God in the life of this institute. May our readers draw inspiration from the life of the servant of God!

(Editorial, Radiant Life, Vol 9, Issue 1)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Jesus Savarkar Loved

In a few weeks’ time from now, the world will be celebrating Easter. It is the day of Jesus’s resurrection—the day he came back to life. This is also the occasion when a plethora of conspiracy theories start doing the rounds in media. They offer various scenarios as to what happened to Jesus after he was crucified. The most recent and most profitable of all speculations was Dan Brown’s 2003 novel that would have us believe that Jesus went to France. But Ganesh Damodar Savarakar, in 1946, had already claimed that the Tamil Brahmin Jesus actually came back to his homeland in Tamil Nadu—which is obviously some distance away from France—and from there moved to the Himalayas. The English translation of the Marathi book Christ Parichay is being published now, seventy years after the original came out. Its publication a month before Easter may just be an innocent coincidence but given the intellectual landscape of the country, it may not be so. The newspapers have reported some of the highlights from the book, here are a few we could look at.

The first claim is that Jesus travelled to India after his crucifixion. But, this theory only appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries—one version said he came via Afghanistan and went to Kashmir and China, and was buried at the age of 120; the other, Savarkar’s, adds a twist saying that he first came to Tamil Nadu and then went to Kashmir where he took nirvikalpa samadhi at the age of 49. But no Jewish or Roman record supports any such assertion. There is no contemporary report or document that says Jesus was revived by his disciples or that his body was stolen, which, if true, must have been recorded in the official papers of the imperial Roman government.

The second and more interesting claim in Savarkar’s book is that Jesus was a Vishwakarma Brahmin. Now, Vishwakarma in the Hindu pantheon is the god of artisans, the manual labourers, who are considered to be Shudras and not twice-born Brahmins. So while Savarkar does acknowledge that Jesus was a carpenter, one wonders why he didn’t declare him to be a Shudra. Or did he think a Shudra could not be spiritually enlightened?

The third claim is that Jesus was dark complexioned. Well, that makes him more Dravidian than Brahmin. Tamil Brahmins are more likely to light complexioned—one only needs to look at some famous Tamil actors and actresses to confirm that. Jesus is the saviour of all; it doesn’t matter whether he was black or white. One only wonders what point Savarkar wanted to put across.

On a more a serious note, Indians of all castes and religions have been fascinated with Jesus. Ganesh Savarkar must have been an admirer of Jesus but it seems his Brahmin-tinted ultra-nationalist glasses could not accept that the Son of God may have taken birth in an arid middle-eastern country, away from—what his brother Veer Savarkar had said—his pitru-bhumi (fatherland).

He seemed to have loved Jesus enough to claim him as a part of his spiritual landscape, but he was much too constrained by politics to surrender to Jesus on his own terms.