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Modi has carried forward Indira’s torch. Ujjain puja shows India connecting with past

Modi has, in some sense, taken forward Indira Gandhi’s torch. His proud unapologetic actions are very much in the spirit of the intrepid Indira.

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I watched Narendra Modi’s Varanasi speech in February 2022. Despite the limitations of my Hindi, I was impressed (why don’t they have subtitles in other Indian languages and in English?). This time, I decided to skip Modi’s speech and watch the puja at Ujjain’s Mahakaleshwar temple during the inauguration of the Mahakal Lok Corridor last week. One of course knows the expression “Ujjayinyaam Mahakalam” from the Jyotirlinga Stotram. And one knows of the associations that Vikramaditya, Bhatrihari and even possibly Shalivahana have had with Ujjain. Years ago, I read a gripping account by author Pupul Jayakar of her visit to Mahakaleshwar and the puja that she witnessed. Jayakar was mesmerised and transported to a state of altered consciousness. I have never forgotten that account. And of course, all educated Indians know (or should know) of the Yaksha’s description of Avantika/Ujjain in Kalidasa’s Meghadootam, even if they don’t know that Avantika is one of the seven cities where promises of enlightenment and salvation are made and kept.

What struck me as significant is that while Ujjain and Mahakal are embedded parts of our spiritual traditions, the Madhya Pradesh city should not be viewed only as a mystic metaphor. Ujjain is closely associated with traditional Indian mathematics, astronomy, and, of course, Indian clouds! Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Lilavati are names that flash past our minds. As such, a well-publicised visit to Ujjain conveys the subliminal message of simultaneously maintaining contact with our heritage and with our contemporary tryst with science, technology, and the interstices of the world of metadata. To use a linguistic expression from another tradition and a distant text, “Verily, verily”, the Lord of Time is invoked to bless us in our Times.

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Children of the Lord

It was nice to see the Prime Minister adopting the South Indian dress code. The panche/veshti in Mysore style was certainly a hit with me. And now for the puja itself. Let us start with the Sankalpa or the great resolution. The opening lines suggest that all human activity, even the present one, is done as a follow-up to “vishnor aagya” or the commands of Vishnu. That in one of Shiva’s holiest shrines we commence the ritual as obedient followers of Vishnu should once and forever, puncture the calumnies emanating from Columbia, Harvard, and their Indian counterparts that Sanatani Hindus are a constructed myth and that they were and are only warring Shaiva and Vaishnava tribes. As in today’s most popular shrine, Tirupati, the visitors are invariably worshippers of Venkat-Eshwara, Hari-Hara, the One who transcends binaries. It is important for our adversaries and critics to keep making the point that we are primitive warring sectarians. The sage of Ujjain, Bhartrihari, would have urged us to ignore these “moorkhas”.

I was even more intrigued and touched when the Prime Minister was called upon to apply sandal paste on the icon. Suddenly I heard the enchanting words from the Sri Suktam: “Gandhadwaaraam Duraadarshaam….” The Great Goddess, especially in her form as the bestower of prosperity, is never far from our thoughts. And of course, She is the guardian of sandalwood. The Prime Minister was directed to the presence of Ganesha, Subrahmanya and Parvati all around Shiva. We were reminded that we too are members of the Lord’s family. The centrality of the family in the best traditions across the world gets emphasised rather unobtrusively. A chilling thought passed through my mind. It is the traditional family that the woke Marxists and post-modernists wish to destroy. Among the Soviets in 1917, there was a proposal that all children be handed over to State orphanages. The State, after all, owned them. We, of course, must continue to strongly reject these ideas. We are children of the Lord, not of the State.

As the puja came to an end, Bilva leaves were offered to the Lord. The inclusion of Shami, Tulsi, Rudraksha, Parijata, Mallige flowers and leaves, even ordinary grass, the Durva, Ganesha’s favourite, and so many other items from the natural world in our rituals can easily be highlighted in our school textbooks dedicated to the pompously designated subject of Environmental Studies. But do not hold your breath expecting such imaginative moves by the august NCERT. Since the schools cannot or will not do this, I urge readers of this column to take their children and grandchildren to puja celebrations and point out these intricacies. Our OTT and TV channels could and should be encouraged to run the beautiful videos of the Tamil superstar K.B. Sundarambal singing “Namah-Shivaya”.

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The politics of spirituality

And now for the political message. If Indira Gandhi had not demonstrated an aberrant strain with her Emergency and her handling of the Punjab she could have gone down as a great leader. One can even make the case she would have abandoned socialism when she saw that it did not work. Some would argue that she was a great leader despite her faults. Indira was unafraid to publicly acknowledge her deep connect with our sacred traditions. Her visits to Tirupati and so many other temples demonstrated an unabashed nonchalance. Perhaps the influence of her traditional Pandit mother successfully countered those of her agnostic, socialist father who seemed constantly embarrassed by much in the country that he loved. Indira’s 1972 Stockholm speech with its extensive quotations from the Atharva Veda comes to mind. It is not entirely an accident that Indira’s memorial is known as Shakti Sthal. While clearly avoiding her undesirable and even unforgivable excesses, her strengths need not be ignored. Modi has in some sense, taken forward Indira’s torch in its better avatar. Many of his speeches are reminiscent of Indira’s, and his proud unapologetic actions are very much in the spirit of the intrepid Indira.

From a contemporary perspective, the puja’s political message was clear. We as individuals and as a country gain strength from re-connecting with our “mystic chords of memory” (again from a distant context, but entirely appropriate). Even as we worship the Great Lord of Time, we also establish our link with the mathematicians, stargazers, and poets of antiquity. Our journey is worthwhile because preserving the strands of our tradition is something we should do, and pledge to do.

Who would be the objectors? I do not believe that people of faith who are not Hindus will have a problem. After all, they were not being arm-twisted into participation. And they will acknowledge the tremendous improvement to civic hygiene and visitor facilities as an appropriate task for the State to undertake in the interests of tourism if nothing else. The only likely objectors are the woke atheist chatterati who have appointed themselves as guardians of religious minorities, even if these minorities feel no need for such guardians. The problem with woke atheists is that they hate our culture because it is so intertwined with spirituality. As Ananda Coomaraswamy said, in India, there is no music, dance, drama, storytelling, sculpture, painting or architecture that is not inexorably tied up with spirituality. Too bad for the woke folks. They will just have to lump it. We are committed to our spiritual traditions and our faith in the Lord of Time. And our leader of the day has no hesitation in articulating and emphasising our message.

Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.

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