By Roona Uthappa Ballachanda
“I am no longer a Hindu!’ I declared, years ago, while in a rebelliously angry mood, after reading some of the misogynistic laws in the “Manusmrithi”. I was young, a budding feminist intoxicated by a world of ideas open to us as students of English Literature, which also included works from the world over translated into English. Giving up my religion was as easy as declaring myself a non-Hindu or so I thought!
A few hours later… “Aiyo Rama…Shiva….when will I finish reading all these Shakespearean plays with all the old English words to be painstakingly researched, understood and remembered? We have an entire paper on Shakespeare and the exam is mere days away…What was I doing all these days? Dear God, you have to help me!” “Ooops….you are no longer a Hindu remember? Stop invoking Hindu Gods!” I tell myself sternly.
Over the next few days, it came across to me very clearly that even though I wanted to let go of my Hinduism in a fit of anger (Of all things, over one very long time dead man’s interpretation of the female gender!) Hinduism was not about to let go of me. Whew!
I mean the parts of it that influenced my life…like praying to Hindu Gods, enjoying Sanskrit hymns, my then periodic forays into the Bhagavad Gita in search of wisdom or solace…the absolute delight of watching Hindu classical dances…visiting temples, especially ancient ones and thrilling to the sights, sounds and vibrations of the prayer and aarthi rituals…at times even feeling stunned by the utter sense of devotion that pervades the air when a temple is full of devotees.
Anyways, the years flew by and I got too busy trying to make a life to worry about my religion. After all, religion really doesn’t have much of a place in modern, urban lifestyles!
I don’t know if, as a born Kodava, I am supposed to be Hindu or not. But by upbringing, I certainly am one. I grew up in Kodagu and growing up, there was never any doubt about which religion we belonged to. Going to the local Ganapathi temple in Virajpet felt as natural as going to the Balyamane for the Karona.
In my paternal grandparents’ house, along with the thook-bolcha in the nelakki nadubade, there used to be a mini-bedroom sized puja room. An entire wall was covered with pictures of the many Gods of the Hindu pantheon and every morning, one or the other of my late uncles did the puja, complete with ringing the bell, the aarathi and Kaveri Theertha…and this in a purely Kodava household.
Yes, Kodavas are ancestor worshippers but Hinduism is very big on ancestor worship too. Every year, the month of Ashwini which falls around September/October is their time for scheduling a day of ancestor worship and throwing lunches or dinners to a large crowd.
Yes, Kodavas offer meat and alcohol to our Gods. Many Hindu communities have yearly animal sacrifice rituals (my maid keeps inviting me to the annual one in her village but I am yet to make it there, as I cannot stomach it) and offering a fermented spirit ‘soma’ to the Gods during rituals was de rigueur during Vedic times. Some form of this practice has continued even today amongst certain cultures and communities.
Kodavas don’t use fire rituals but lighting a lamp, a quintessential Hindu custom is very much a part of the Kodava way of life. Nature worship again was a very Vedic practice, where each element of nature, like rain, wind, fire etc. was deified and venerated. And, modern Hinduism has clearly evolved from Vedic Hinduism.
Moreover, considering that Hindu festivals even include occasions where cows and snakes are worshipped, it is hard to deny that revering nature is very much a part of Hindu values.
More than anything, the following beautifully worded Sanskrit hymn to be said first thing in the morning after waking up, brings home the point to me;
Padasparsam kshamasva me
Which can be translated as:
“Draped by oceans, O’ Mother Earth
With mountains on your body,
Wife of Lord Vishnu, I bow to you.
Forgive me for touching you with my feet.”
Here, one is actually seeking mother earth’s forgiveness for daring to step on her…if this is not nature worship, what is?! Suffice it to say, if we were truly a nation of conscious Hindus, our environment wouldn’t be getting raped the way it is today; but, I digress.
Sometimes, I wonder if this confusion whether Kodavas are Hindus is because of a mistaken belief that the traditional form of Hinduism with its lengthy rituals and complex philosophies is the whole and soul of the religion. But, that is just one aspect of it. Or is it because of the caste rules and hierarchies that have long been highlighted, which feels so alien to us? But, that seems more a corruption of Hindu values, rather than natural Hinduism.
I came across an interesting piece of information while reading something on the Vedic period. During Rig Vedic times, society was organized based on kin, tribe and lineage, rather than social class or wealth…sounds familiar?
Clearly, Kodava culture and traditions show that we do not belong to the ‘Varna’ and ‘Jati’ system of Hinduism with its rigid social classification and reliance on priests to officiate during cultural ceremonies. Just as clearly, Kodava world views and way of life are very similar to what was and is already prevalent in Hinduism.
Hinduism does not have a known beginning or a known founder. So it is safe to assume as we have already done that it began as a way of life. Worship earth and her many elements as they are important for our survival, cultivate respect for other living creatures, do not forget your debt to your ancestors who came before you and made a place for you in this world…etc.
As it grew through the centuries, it began to acquire layers in the form of distinctive philosophies, mythologies, parallel belief systems, traditions, customs and rituals. And, groups of people put into practice whatever was in spiritual alignment with them. Thus, we as agriculturalists celebrate our harvests and as warriors, worship our firearms, while other communities within the Hindu fold have their own special events to venerate. Examples abound and a detailed description and analyses of this facet of Hinduism is beyond the scope of this article.
If there is one central theme to Hinduism, that is plurality. The belief that there are as many different ways to seek answers to the mysteries of life, as there are people. In the face of such large heartedness, how many people or cultures can be truly said to stand outside of its influence?
On a personal level, it is tough to disown something that has been an intrinsic part of my upbringing. From a political perspective, I question, is it wise? On a philosophical level, I wonder, is it even necessary? What are your thoughts on this?