Speech Melba Society

Beard, bard and bird

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu  

‘Spiritual politics’. For most Indians, the phrase has all the attraction of cheese for mice. But only a supreme guru like Rajinikanth can use such a phrase — as he did in 2018 to announce his entry into politics — and make it sound as probable as one of his wild, whistle-inducing punch dialogues. Nobody understood what he meant but it immediately created a stir.

Today, the ‘S’ word again trembles in the air, as world-class makeover agencies work hard to create a hallowed aura around our political leaders that is meant to place them in a spot beyond reproach.

Remember the Boggarts in Harry Potter books? Those shape-shifters who took on the form of a victim’s worst fears? Well, the word ‘spiritual’ in India is somewhat like a Boggart; only it takes on the shape of whatever the listener wants to hear. So, depending on who you are, ‘spiritual’ can mean ‘honest’ or ‘corruption-free’ or ‘superior’ or ‘beyond all questioning’. Or it could simply mean ‘death to all religions except mine’. More mundanely, it could mean sitting at the feet of body-bending gurus. Or gorging on self-help books. Or adding several ‘As’ or ‘Shris’ to everything.

This marvellous elasticity of the word means it can be put to multiple uses. It’s not for nothing that we were in the thrall of Himalayan caves last year and of peacocks this year. We’ve all been raised on a staple diet of Ravi Varma art and Amar Chitra Katha comics which abound in nubile apsaras traipsing through woods feeding deer and peacocks while bearded men meditate in the background oblivious to all, only opening their eyes now and then to burn some unfortunate who wanders into their field of vision. If today we are completely comfortable with a bearded seer wiping out banknotes overnight or turning us into deaf-mute obelisks, it’s because we’ve been there, done that.

Plus, we’ve been raised to venerate old age. Old people — nay, let me correct myself — old men can never be wrong. And ‘spiritual’ pairs well with grey beards, as well as Pinot Noir with tandoori chicken. So if these days we’re deeply interested in matters of facial hair, you should know that the reasons are, well, spiritual.

Beard, bird, rustic seat, bare feet — if all these don’t signal ‘spirituality’ what does? And if that’s not sugar for the Great Indian Voter Ant, then what is?

And yet, ‘spiritual politics’ need not be an oxymoron. No less a person than Gandhi proved that you could practise it with panache. The problem with borrowing from Gandhi’s playbook though is that it’s easy to get the dress right, but much harder to acquire even a fraction of that blazing self-honesty and courage. A courage that did not get frightened by activism but embraced it. That did not reject intellectualism but encouraged it. That wasn’t suspicious of diversity but lived it.

Chicana writer Cherrie Moraga once said, “Spirituality that inspires activism and politics that moves the spirit give meaning to our lives.” Gandhi embodied this: a handful of salt, a line of song and he could launch a hundred protests against adharma. As deeply godly as he was, he knew that god and religion were two different things. So for Gandhi, spirituality simply meant a “quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth”. Now, this is a hard political path to tread, especially if you run a thriving fake news industry.

The superficial piety of cattle anointing and padmasana posturing will always look beautiful, as beautiful as the calendar art on our walls. They’re also the easiest semaphores to proclaim ‘spirituality’. Far more difficult is to stand up for the truth. Or to “recall the face of the poorest and the weakest” and build policies around them.

When I realised this, I went and bought myself a parakeet. I found that feeding her was far easier than feeding my conscience.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2020 4:30:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/on-spiritual-politics-and-tactics-by-indian-leaders/article32579186.ece

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