Elements of the Cultural Unity of Bharata

In an earlier essay, I had remarked with some alarm about the shocking extent of de-Hinduisation that has occurred in the last seventy years in its only birthplace and home: Bharatavarsha or India. In the ongoing Sabarimala episode unleashed by a frivolous judgment some scenes are truly heart-rending. Check the video below.

However, there’s a silver lining of sorts. Not only have Hindus come out in protest in waves, they are braving the brutalities of the tyrannical Kerala Government which has unleashed the might of its police force. And this protest has resonated across the nation and even abroad like nothing else Hindus have seen in recent times. This spontaneous mass-eruption of Hindus in this fashion was last seen during the Ram Janmabhoomi period.

But let’s examine this from a more fundamental standpoint.

We can begin with any month but I’ll choose August. The month of August every year witnesses the annual celebration of Naga Panchami (or Nagara Panchami) festival across India and the world.  It is also celebrated as Bhratru Panchami, an occasion where brothers are honoured by their sisters. Depending on where one is in India, Bhratru Panchami is more popularly known as Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi.

All Hindu festivals without exception underscore a key aspect of Santana Dharma: celebration. Of life, nature, the living and the non-living in all myriad hues—black, white, and all the shades of grey. The modalities, the manner, the custom, and the tradition of celebrating any Hindu festival widely differ depending on which part of the Indian geography one is located in but the festival is celebrated with the same fervour and devotion.

We can take Makara Sankranti as a representative illustration of this fact.

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Makara Sankranti is celebrated across India to both herald the beginning of longer days, and to reap the harvest of months of backbreaking work in the fields. But the greater significance of Makara Sankranti like most Hindu festivals, is to highlight another living instance of the cultural unity of India.

People in Karnataka exchange a mixture comprising sugarcane blocks (called Kallu Sakkare—literally, “stone made of sugar”)–artistically moulded into various forms and figures and shapes of Gods, Goddesses, flowers, fruits, animals–white sesame seeds, jaggery, and a piece of sugarcane.

In Andhra Pradesh, sugarcane is replaced by the jujube fruit (Regi Pandulu), and sweets and delicacies are prepared and offered to God.

Assamese have on offer at least 10 different varieties of Pitha, a sort of rice cake.

To Gujaratis, Makara Sankrati is the occasion to fly kites, and make Undhiyu and Chikkis.

Maharashtra feasts on Tilgul (sweetmeat made from sesame) and Gulpolis, and wish each other peace and prosperity.

Tamil Nadu offers us varieties of pongal–thai pongal, mattu pongal and kannum pongal—each variety of pongal is a way of offering gratitude to the Sun, cattle, and friends and relatives for giving a good harvest.

Every state, city, and town—from Bundelkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bengal, Goa, Kerala, to Odisha–has its own unique way of celebrating Makara Sankranti.

And all of these are connected by an invisible, ancient, and subterranean thread that binds them with India. The fingers that weave this thread even today are the same fingers that enabled India to withstand the most barbaric and sustained attacks in the history of mankind. These fingers are as gentle as they are incredibly strong.

Among other things, Hindu festivals provide a clue to this strength.

Adaptability and Resurgence

One of the greatest strengths of Sanatana Dharma is its proven power of adaptability, which has weathered centuries’ worth of destructive storms hitting it from all directions. It is only Sanatana Dharma that has proven in myriad ways the truth of the dictum that “change is the only constant.”

Sanatana Dharma responds to change in a manner and with a flexibility that is both unrivalled and unique. This adaptability as history shows us, is multipronged, multifaceted, and dynamic. It took varieties of forms in art, painting, music, epics, literature, religious practices, and social mores. It discarded practices that were no longer suited to the changed times but replaced them with suitable modifications and evolved newer ones. The underlying idea was a resolve that Sanatana Dharma was something worth preserving—and dying for its preservation if necessary.

The earliest, pre-Islamic threat to Sanatana Dharma arrived in an era when Buddhism had degenerated. In fact, the degeneration of Buddhism occurred when it became missionary in nature, received state patronage, and had all but abandoned the original path laid down by Buddha. More importantly, with its extreme stress on non-violence it did not build up that warrior spirit (or Kshaatra) required to sustain, defend kingdoms and culture. Thus, when the armies of Islam began to make serious inroads into India, they found hundreds of thousands of Buddhists as sitting ducks waiting to be massacred. We can glean a small sample of the scale of this destruction of Buddhism from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar[1]:

There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musalmans… To the Muslims, they were one and the same thing. The mission to break the idols thus became the mission to destroy Buddhism. Islam destroyed Buddhism not only in India but wherever it went. Before Islam came into being Buddhism was the religion of Bactria, Parthia, Afghanistan, Gandhar and Chinese Turkestan, as it was of the whole of Asia… The Musalman invaders sacked the Buddhist Universities of Nalanda, Vikramshila, Jagaddala, Odantapuri to name only a few. They raised to the ground Buddhist monasteries with which the country was studded. The monks fled away in thousands to Nepal, Tibet and other places outside India. A very large number were killed outright by the Muslim commanders. How the Buddhist priesthood perished by the sword of the Muslim invaders has been recorded by the Muslim historians themselves….Great quantities of plunder were obtained, and the slaughter of the ‘shaven headed Brahmans’, that is to say the Buddhist monks, was so thoroughly completed, that when the victor sought for someone capable of explaining the contents of the books in the libraries of the monasteries, not a living man could be found who was able to read them. 

Such was the slaughter of the Buddhist priesthood perpetrated by the Islamic invaders. The axe was struck at the very root. For by killing the Buddhist priesthood, Islam killed Buddhism. This was the greatest disaster that befell the religion of the Buddha in India…

Needless, the next big threat to Santana Dharma came in the form invading Arab Muslims motivated by Islam and greed for looting India’s fabled riches. Islam-inspired grievous and protracted assault on Hinduism and the eight-hundred-year long Muslim rule over large parts of India sustained because Hindus failed to realise the true nature of the intolerant and violent belief system that motivated such assaults.

To be continued

[1] Complete works of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: Volume V: Ministry of External Affairs, Govt of India

Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.