Passage to Marginality: The Vanishing Hindu Presence in Kerala

Preface: A Certain situation in Kerala as grave as the title clarifies compels me to write about it and which should arouse concern in every Hindu who harbors sentiments about our ancestry and our traditions. I am somewhat relieved that similar concern is being shared by many of our leaders and intellectuals who are making passionate efforts to reverse the trend and re-establish fairness of equality in our state. I fervently hope and pray that their efforts succeed.
     The topic is an issue obvious to anyone who cares to observe. That observation has prompted me to analyze its reasons and possible measures of correction as it is deemed warranted.
     Even though I have been involved with Sri Meenakshi Temple in Houston since its inception, I may still not qualify myself as a devout Hindu, since I am not ritualistic, nor I practice what is traditionally expected of a Hindu if we have a strict code of ethics. Yet, I passionately claim myself to be a Hindu, which I am by birth, by philosophy, by conviction and essentially by my inner filaments of being. And being a Hindu, I respect other faiths and their adherents’ option to approach Divinity in the ways they choose.
     I am an ardent believer in the spark of divinity in every creation; my concept is of equality of all human beings. I respect the right for each to choose their approach to the ultimate reality or their freedom not to have any such belief at all. Many of my best friends and some of the most decent human beings follow a variety of faiths and I do not measure a person based on their religious preference. The notion of anyone claiming a monopoly of divinity or preaching superiority is absurd. Almost always we are destined to follow the faith we are born into, but an intelligent being should have the option to choose a faith that appeals to them through educated understanding. I believe that it is a primitive and despicable ploy to lure someone into conversion through bribery, baiting them with offers and donations. Promoting such methods and practicing propaganda against other faiths should be considered a disgrace to organizations that do it in the name of God. Every crime committed in the name of religion and every atrocity leading from terrorist activities could be avoided if the leaders of faiths make an earnest attempt to influence their followers to practice what is preached by the noble souls who created such religions.

Plight:

I am from a Nair family in Ernakulam, and I have pleasant nostalgic memories of my childhood, of feeling privileged in a certain way of belonging. My childhood was enriched with festivals and festivities of our customs, based on religious observations and cultural celebrations. The events were related to auspicious Hindu occasions as my Christian and Muslim friends were celebrating their similar religious festivals. We enjoyed the collective amity as we cultivated friendship, mutually accepting and appreciating the differences.
     Today, that image of my Kerala has vanished. From the perspective of a Hindu, proud and passionate about the bygone days, I sense an alarm in our declining number of the census and of our proportionate representation in other spheres of society. My apprehension arises from concern of fairness and my objective is to focus on needed corrections.
     My observation is that there is a discernible shift of religious representation in Kerala, the percentage of Hindus receding, gradually and palpably, compared to other religious factions. The reasons for such a shift are obvious. Vigorous family planning propaganda promoted by government is readily accepted and practiced by Hindus, which limit their progeny and consequently the growth of their population. The other factions, by contrast, feel privileged to propagate as dictated by their religious directives and dogmas, which promote a disproportionate increase in their census. Another disturbingly damaging practice is of conversions of Hindus by other faiths through a variety of means and motives, while such practices are alien to Hindu philosophy.
     Alongside, there is a similar, parallel shift in the educational, political, economic and other leading indices, where Hindus of Kerala are losing their fair share of distribution. The trend can be traced to a variety of reasons.

Premise:

As India gained independence from colonial British in 1947, democratization and establishment of republic rule in the country necessitated the reorganization and the end of Hindu kingdoms in many states. When Pakistan felt proud of being established as a Muslim country, India showed generosity of spirit and nobility in choosing the path of Secularism. In the name of fairness, we carelessly created double standards offering enormous privileges to the ‘minorities’ which have been haunting and discriminating Hindus ever since. In the Hindu majority state of Kerala, we have been at the mercy of governmental regulations, indiscriminately choking our basic privileges and presence.

In Kerala, the popularity and influence of communism attracting mostly Hindus, spelled the demise of our traditional values and age-old customs. When the political leaders sold the concept of atheism as a means of liberating the poor, generations of Hindu masses were being deceived into discarding their rich and magnificent heritage for hollow promises and baseless assumptions.

The corrupt and self-serving political leadership created and promoted regulations solely to gain votes and stay in power. The inequality of legality and absurdity of its implementation are so discreetly obvious in the laws governing the temples versus churches and mosques. Such discrimination is blatant in the marriage rules of different religions, the quota systems in selection to admissions, posting and promotions and a variety of ruling measures which hurt the Hindus more than any other factions

As much as we credit the church system in establishing many educational institutions, promoting literacy in the state, we need to realize that such education gradually pulled the minds of traditional Hindu generations towards the westernized thinking approach. Such a gradual transformation of their mentality was at the expense of eroding the time-honored, culturally established Hindu value systems. Convent educated teachers innocently inculcated such westernized values and disseminated them into the following generations, thus altering our basic cultural chemistry. Little did we realize that such change at the root of our educational system was undermining our rich philosophy as well as corroding our cultural codes and habits. Disturbance at the level of thought process distorts the basic assumptions and destroys the fundamental respect of traditions. The contrast of styles between the west and the east, the basic personal freedom to choose as you please, the liberated codes of ethics and habits, the promotion of individual rights against traditional guidelines and the convenient life patterns against our established observations, altogether contributed to the steady dilution and the loss of our precious identity. What we proudly proclaimed as the promotion of intellectual freedom to analyze our faith and arrive at personal understanding and interpretation was misconstrued, misunderstood and misused by many Hindus, perhaps without realizing the damage they caused to their own roots. Rampant abuse of power by the upper class, using profoundly set principles to promote personal agendas, brought in disgrace to our traditions. The original well-meant intent of classification to selectively encourage and perfect different trades was abused to meet and enhance personal benefits and interests. The grave consequences resulting from centuries of such practices have done the worst damage to Hinduism, alienating a substantial percentage of our believers. Religious conversions by opportunistic outsiders, capitalizing on this weakness of ours, have been the major basis of our downfall.

Hinduism never actively promoted the wealth of our information that was passed on to us by our sages and saints. We never had regimented processes of disseminating such treasures which could have enlightened human beings and enhanced the level of their existence. On the contrary, many of the purohits who had control of the leadership kept the wealth of information and stopped them being disseminated to classes of people they disliked. All our Vedas and treatises were written for the intellectuals without any sincere attempt to distribute that information in an understandable form down to the level of the commoner. Unlike some of the later religions created by single individuals and expanded by purposeful propagandas and disciplined enforcement, Hinduism took the higher moral ground assuming that the available information may be absorbed and understood by its followers. We also did not subscribe to the tactics of enforcing such beliefs on anyone in exchange for charity. Neither did we attempt to brainwash ‘non-believers’ and coerce them to join our ranks through intimidating measures of fear of sin or burning in the hell. Our faith has always remained one of love and compassion and our basic tenets are to worship for the welfare of the entire humanity. We believe in the existence of divinity in everything that exists, that is around us, within us and beyond us. A faith with such a profound philosophy as Hinduism, which has no barriers or restrictions, should have attracted any and all who accept principles with common sense. But unfortunately religions are nothing about lofty philosophy or broad ideology; they happen to be the politicization of divinity, capitalizing the glory of its creator, packaged and sold with all the zeal of successful business operation. The ulterior motive is to extend and expand the personal interests of individuals in the name of institutions.

The state of Kerala has undergone tremendous changes in the last fifty years, almost every such change hurting the cause of the Hindus. Where nonHindus are industrious and ambitious in expanding their presence and possession, Hindus have generally remained docile, timid and stagnated, resting on their claim of old laurels and false pretenses. Even among Hindus, the different factions have cultivated animosity rather than mutual unity and have never found any common ground based on their profound religion. Such divisions among us have made us weak and fragmented; distracted us from fighting for our common good, consequently being at the receiving end of gross political and social injustice. We have not identified ourselves as a group or the need to address problems in a unified way. The Hindu classes placed as the underprivileged, scheduled or backward have been subjected to gross humiliation and injustice, taken advantage of by the so-called superior Hindus. We are paying a penalty for such reprehensible actions that the disadvantaged classes have countered with anger and animosity, leading them to conversions or communistic affiliation.

The pride of secularism has been our perpetual curse, the minority religions having bestowed with unfair power and penetration. How do we condone the injustice of all the millions donated by the Hindus to the temples being controlled and squandered by the state, while every penny that goes into the coffers of the churches and mosques remain at their discretion?. Why does the government control the Devaswom boards, when they do not dare to exercise the same power over churches and mosques? Why was the precious land masses owned by the Hindus were snatched away in the name of reform, while no such process found access to properties of Christians and Muslims?

Another major, disappointing trend that is gradually but certainly worsening is the economic aspect of the equation. As in anything else monetary power is the ultimate yardstick and Hindus have lost that edge in a dramatic fashion. The disintegration of possessions of Hindus on the real estate, farming and business fronts is very palpable. The docile attitude on the part of established Hindu families along with a lack of frugality, have irreparably destroyed the old ‘tharavadu’ concept, leading to partitions and fragmentation, moving the economic advantage to industrious, businessoriented non-Hindu factions.

Amazing scientific and technological progress leading to enormous mechanization and sweeping alteration of the lifestyle of humanity has been a global phenomenon of the last few decades. Such industrialization has swept human minds away from the old concepts of celestial controls and godly influences pervading everything that happens around us. Such a change has shifted the focus of life in general from religiosity to human authority. Often there is a certain amount of arrogance and audacity expressed by the scientific clout which is easily accepted by the consumers who are immersed by the technical luxury they are surrounded by. The natural extension of that philosophy is evident in the urban lifestyle based on consumerism, a total deviation from the previous practice of discipline revolving around religious dictations. As generations got more acclimatized with the westernized, pleasure-seeking, sensually slanted, self-centered, individually oriented lifestyle, we got farther away from our centuries-old traditions and value system. Interestingly, while such scientific globalization has been challenging the old concept of heavenly superiority, there is a surprisingly parallel proliferation of evangelical zeal to regain the losing influence. Out of sheer fear that they may lose control of religious advantage to science and modernity and consequently their economic and political dominance, many righteous groups are fighting it out with powers bestowed on them by gods to attack science and discredit their advances. Such groups with sinister intentions use every tactic influencing and intimidating the godfearing followers. The sensible notion that science can be part and parcel of an elaborate divine theme and that knowledge can be understood and absorbed in a broader, tolerant sense, is seldom discussed. It also takes certain humility to accept that scientific thoughts can be realistically contained within an involved intellectual extension of ‘divine’ principles. It is thus conveniently overlooked or intentionally avoided for lack of available objectivity and perhaps ulterior financial reasons.

As much Hindus are damaging our own cherished heritage, many opposing groups are making organized efforts to annihilate our venerated glory. As if declaring a silent war, these groups have methodically mounted measures to discredit our values and time-honored belief system. They are successfully proving that with a disciplined marketing and enormous economic clout, anyone can gain superiority and usurp even the most magnificent adversary. As the damage has been slowly but surely threatening the survival of Hinduism in Kerala we remain complacent and even reacting in bizarre ways. “So what! Does it really matter?”. We Hindus are our biggest nemesis. As billions flow into our sacred country and as the cancer is creeping into the very foundation of our ancient treasures, most of us lay 178 oblivious to the damage while some of our leaders even assist the enemy, using the opportunity for personal gains. The sad reality is that as the savage forces encroach and massacre the sanctity of our heritage, we stand silently and shamelessly insensible, watching the demise.

Should we be concerned? Should we care? Should we even attempt to find out? It is all up to our conscience; it is up to the values of our upbringing; it is up to any remnant of pride left in our moral substrate. If we even remotely care about the threat of our integrity, it is imminently important that we wake up and respond about it; against it. We are certainly capable of standing up to it and meeting the challenge, our venerated responsibility.

Process:

How do we approach such a formidable adversary? It requires an intelligent, organized, purposeful approach, simultaneously on many fronts.

We need leadership. Assemble and organize brainstorming sessions of concerned, capable intellectuals without personal motives but who are passionately committed to the cause

We need to identify and analyze the underlying ‘pathology of the problem’ with the elaborate, multidirectional approach.

Establish an effective force, motivating and mobilizing enthusiastic individuals who are sincere and dedicated to achieving the goal. Educate, motivate and train the volunteers to systematically implement the needed remedies.

Recognize sources and methods to raise the revenue needed to accomplish the desired measures. Reach out to Indian Hindus within the state, within India and abroad, who will be sympathetic and resourceful to subscribe for the cause.

Provide extensive publicity about the situation, about the need for action, requesting involvement and commitment. Adhere to the sublime tenets of Hinduism in respecting and appreciating all the faiths, but making it very clear that the purpose is to re-establish parity and fairness. Use television, radio, and publications to educate our younger generation and stimulate the older ones to revive the Hindu style of living, its basic principles and its liberal outlook about welfare for the entire humanity. Simple, understandable explanations about time-honored values of Hinduism will stimulate and motivate youngsters to feel proud of their traditions. Do it in a subtle, gentle, positive and interesting fashion that the change happens out of 179 realization and not of compulsion. Definitely avoid imposing extreme ritualistic practices and boastful, fanatic dictations.

Re-establish the old, traditional practices which have gradually and sadly disappeared from Hindu homes, explaining their symbolic significance. Examples are many: Lighting the Nilavilakku at dawn and dusk, ‘naamamchollal’ as a daily tradition, applying bhasmam and sandalwood paste after a bath, celebrating the traditional events like Onam, Vishu, Sivarathri, Ashtami Rohini, Poojavaikkal and others, observing Vaavu, Noyambu, Thiruvathira, etc.

Work towards eliminating the disparity between the ‘classes’, so that Hindus work united and not fight fragmented.

As much as we accuse and detest other faiths of all their ‘wrong-doings’, we have a lot to learn from their charitable, helpful, altruistic attitudes which are commendable and worthy of emulation. As compared to Hindus, many of their groups are available and willing to come to the rescue for the needy, the down-trodden and the fallen, without consideration of their religious affiliation. Even if their motive is to attract them to conversion, they are available and accessible when needed; we can hardly ever give credit to Hindus for that kind of humanitarian efforts.

Establish dialog with understanding, intellectual leaders from other faiths to work towards a symbiotic relationship which can mutually enhance respect and enrich socio-cultural harmony and parity among religions.

Work from the political angle to assert the rights of the majority, to regain equality and eliminate the unfair advantage to any single group or faction.

The overall objective should be an approach with a very broad sense of outlook to reinstate the lost grounds of Hinduism, reversing the damaging efforts perpetrated by a variety of formidable forces and faiths with ominous and menacing intentions. It should be accomplished exercising the integrity, dignity, and nobility of Hinduism, but with the perseverance and resolve that we are capable of. Let us grab the situation as a god given opportunity to fulfil our responsibility. It is our sacred call, our destiny. It is our Dharma.

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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