Syphilis used to be the most frightening disease in the world. The third and final stage ate away the body, destroying bone and tissue. Noses collapsed. The roof of the mouth vanished. The skull bulged with fat tumours. Nerve cells died. The disfigurement of its victims was monstrous.
Corruption is India’s syphilis. As it savages all that is fair and good, it has unleashed waves of condemnation from every quarter of society, save one—the Hindu priestly class and the multitude of swamis, gurus, sadhus and babas who are normally so voluble. If the evil of corruption fails to galvanise priests and the four Shankaracharayas into articulating a stand on corruption, one wonders what role Hinduism plays as a moral force in public life. Has anyone of any religious standing spoken out or said anything at all? Do they have any opinion on corruption? If they do, why do we never hear it? If they don’t, what do they spend all their time doing? Is it possible they feel no pain at what corruption does to the poor? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar made a few remarks recently criticising corruption, but they were too perfunctory and routine—not the cri de coeur that is called for—to be of any consequence. You can find more moral passion in a single Supreme Court ruling on crimes such as dowry deaths than you can in a massed assembly of sundry sadhus.
Of course, Hinduism is not an organised religion. It is non-congregational and has no ecclesiastical hierarchy because individuals do not need a priest as an intermediary in their relationship with God, or in their pursuit of salvation. There are no sermons or fatwas which could provide priests with a chance to expound their stand on issues of the day.
Nevertheless, there are moments when religious leaders, when truly disgusted by something, are capable of acting: as they do in Pushkar when they help devise dress codes for foreigners who offend their sensibilities, as they do in Kanpur when they intimidate Valentine’s Day revellers, as they do in Mangalore when they jostle women in bars, and as they did in Vadodara recently when they protested against a school’s New Year celebration as being ‘against Hindu culture’.
On the real social evils of the ‘Indian syphilis’, female foeticide, dowry, child marriage or child labour, they have no moral engagement whatsoever. Just try to think of the last time you heard any Hindu religious leader unequivocally denounce dowry deaths and threaten gruesome consequences for the perpetrators.
Then compare this bovine torpor with the activism of Catholic priests in Latin America of the 1970s, who were so tormented by the exploitation of the poor that they propounded a new ‘Liberation Theology’. Or with the ardour of the Dalai Lama who can speak with wisdom and insight on virtually any topic.
Some years ago, even the Sikh clergy put their Hindu brethren to shame when they began vilifying female foeticide in gurdwaras, to change people’s attitudes.
Unlike Hindu leaders, Muslim theologians go about micro-managing their followers’ lives with rulings on every bodily function, including: whether women are permitted to remove nose hair and issues as varied as blood donation or whether Muslims can pass through airport body scanners without yielding their modesty.
Some of these rulings may be disagreeable or even preposterous but their redeeming feature is that they demonstrate three reassuring things: mullahs have convictions, are capable of responding to new challenges by promulgating fresh viewpoints, and that they can use their brains.
If Gurcharan Das can mine The Mahabharata to find contemporary relevance in it, surely someone out there in a temple or an ashram has enough brainpower and imagination to say something thoughtful on corruption.
The absence of Hindu moral leadership is troubling. When all that a faith’s leaders do is witter on about asanas, breathing, vegetarianism, the health-giving properties of cow urine and astrological tosh, it suggests a moral vacuum.
Whether priests fail or succeed in their efforts to reduce corruption is immaterial. The point is that the effort must be made if Hinduism is to be a force for good rather than just guilt therapy for the rich and Mogadon [a sedative] for the masses.
Every day, thousands of sadhus meditate. What is the point of this self-absorption if it does not produce a single insight or spark of moral energy? The Shankaracharayas sit in their four muths every day and ponder what, pray tell? If they have no moral or spiritual contribution to make to society, what is the purpose of their existence?
Some NGOs do a wonderful job of acting as society’s conscience. We might as well let them be the torchbearers for the Hindu majority since those whose job it is, appear to be derelicts.