Bhakti and Sufi saints preached pluralism and tolerance in India


The Prime Minister visiting the south of the country to inaugurate a temple dedicated to a twelfth or thirteenth century Bhakti protagonist is of course a good sign. The Bhakti movement played a vital role in wreaking change, in a caste ridden society, and also contributed to enriching modern Indian languages and literature. Almost around the same time, the Sufis too appropriated the oneness of God and veered around to support the poorer sections of the society. Kabir’s incantations addressed to a merciful, humane one God, tried to adjust or readjust any doctrinaire thinking on God and religion. Even towards the turn of the middle ages Indian saints pleaded for a caste free heterodoxy. Orthodoxy was giving way to heterodoxy. Mirabai’s rebellion against the monarchy she was wedded to was also a protest against hierarchy. Tagore in the twentieth contributed to such thoughts, saying that more than ablutions, you will discover God in the tiller of the soil. He might have come from an aristocracy, but ideas of self-righteous religion or for that matter ethnicity were anathema to him. The Indian argument was being handed down in a baton. The question is – are we desisting it now?

The broad face of an argument is to eschew narrow nationalism, and found it on pluralism, when it exists. It also means repudiating hierarchy in any form. Hierarchy can be present in religion and nationalism- my nationalism is better than yours. But nationalism is also founded on, at least in Indian and American contexts, diversity of thought, religion and what is called culture. 

The problem with what I see in India is that politics cannot be disentangled from anything. Whether it is getting employment, contracts or even get an article published. And there are variants of this politics. It is not only the vote bank type. Intellectuals also compromise. to get their agenda attained. 

The culture of politics goes with a trend. The trend now is whipping up passions. Say: that you the majority have been neglected for a long time to pander others. This works, and at the micro level too. We must understand this that from the centre to the bottom there is devolution of whipping up sentiments, causing viciousness and the ‘ philosophy ‘ of hate. If we collectively show interest in each others’ language and society overlooking all barriers that is consciously done then we can side step vitriol and animosity.

In the process the focus is lost: on education, health and those who are poverty stricken. This is what the Bhakti and Sufi saints did. They preached equality, tolerance and education, in the most pragmatic ways ever, by chatting with people, talking to them. Their talking was translated into hymns, which the Bauls carried forward- the Godhead is one, equality is sovereign, not caste or religion based. Adapting to social mores was their thinking, their way of life, their maxim.

 Unfortunately the maxim today is hate. Dissent is suppressed by violence. With violence you have no answer, you cannot talk, you can only be brutally hurt; physically and mentally. In India killings and death have no numbers. We are insensitive to brutality. Dissent when it comes meets with verbal abuse. 

 How are we to combat forces working against an order of unitary spirit and ethos? How can we say we love our neighbours, not only in the pulpit but take it to the street? How can we reinforce that this beautiful country is one in many and many in one? Can we do it in the classrooms, in law courts, or even in conferences? On the one hand we praise volubly the resources of the internet, on the other we abuse, misuse it to hate others. Respect for another point of view was and is certainly not prevalent in our education system. If one just saw Arnab Goswami needling a senior person such as Saeed Mirza, one simply felt nauseated. Do some people think that loving the country is only their prerogative, they do not know how they dismember a country in this manner. This is politics of the worst sort, only to ingratiate others- ” the harm that good men do”( Bertrand Russell).

 We have set the way of pyrotechnics, in the media, in parliament and in the social media. Spreading hate is antithetical to democratic settings. Malfeasance is antithetical to secularism. You may disagree but you maybe  tacit. We want to shout, shout and shout. Violence is the only resort. Shouting back is another. The media juxtaposes this alarmingly. The social media says what  it simply wants to.  We are only begetting anger and fear. If we talk about ancient Indian philosophy, let us read it practice it, not thrust it on others as way of mayhem. The infinite possibilities of hurt are best unseen. But how can we ignore (hurt)? Or why do we do it? 

Ananya S Guha

Ananya S Guha

Ananya S Guha works in the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Shillong (Meghalaya) as an Academic Administrator. He has over 30 years of teaching and administrative experience. He has six collections of poetry and his forms have been published world wide. Some of his poems are due to appear soon in an Anthology of Indian Poetry in English to be published by Harper Collins.