The media is at it once again. Chasing celebrities, or better still, creating them. And all the brouhaha spun up over its current mascot-Shamim Ahmed, professor of Vedanta and allied philosophy at the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandir, Belur-mirrors the tension between what may be perfectly ordinary and natural events and a society that may not be ready to receive the news yet.
Ahmed, an unassuming 26-year-old, waves away all suggestions of his accomplishment being in any way unique. Looking every bit a scholar immersed in the intricacies of Advaita Vedanta, Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga and Nyaya, he calmly says: "Please ask your questions now, class coming up at 12.40". The tone implies hes not exactly keen on a media overdrive that zooms in on the incongruity of it all.
That, of course, is the source of all the interest in him. Ahmed is the first Muslim to be appointed as a teacher of Vedanta in the 59-year-old history of the Ramakrishna Mission college. The man himself sees no reason why this should be considered unusual by anyone. "I chose to study all these strands of Indian thought and philosophy because I was deeply interested."
The fact is, there have been many before him-in Bengal and beyond-who havent let religion be a hindrance in the way of scholarship. Even today, hes no solo figure. Says Swami Atmapriyananda, principal of Vidyamandir, "This is by no means the first such appointment. Only a couple of years ago we appointed Faridur Rahman as a teacher of Indian philosophy." Though Rahman doesnt teach Vedanta, his preoccupation with Sanskritic scholarship puts him in the same league as Ahmed.
Atmapriyananda also endorses Ahmeds stance. "His name was recommended to us by the college service commission. His credentials are impeccable, first-class honours in philosophy from Presidency College, masters from Calcutta University. He was appointed on merit, the question of religion did not arise. There are also other Muslims on our staff. Frankly, this unseemly media interest is surprising."
Some of their desire to stay away from the public gaze is understandable-it stems from an awareness of the fact that such things touch a raw nerve in some quarters. The last thing they want is to stir up a storm in orthodox circles, on both sides. Ahmed, however, says he hasnt "encountered any negative reaction from my native place, Murshidabad. In any case, not many people read English language papers there. Besides, theres no cable TV in the interiors."
He traces his interest in Vedanta to his affinity for the liberal philosophy of Sufism. "I was always attracted to Sufism and when I studied Advaita, I found there was much in common between them." That he could carry such a personal journey to its logical conclusion is an improvement of sorts. For over a century, no Muslim was appointed by the Calcutta University as a Sanskrit teacher, let alone subjects traditionally described as Hindu philosophy. Prominent linguist Sahjidullah, for instance, was denied permission in the 1930s to teach Sanskrit at Calcutta University, forcing him to settle down later in East Pakistan.
That didnt deter Muslims who wanted to pursue Sanskritic learning. Then theres the lesser-mentioned side of history. Writes veteran journalist Amitava Chakravarty: "The first Bengali translation of the Mahabharata was completed under the patronage of the Chittagong rulers Paragal Khan and his son Nasrat and 121 Muslim poets studied the lives of Radha and Krishna and composed some 600 poems which are among the treasures of Vaishnava literature. Poet Daraf Khan composed his ode to river Ganga in Sanskrit, which Hindus still recite."
Rahman, like his peers, too seeks to ward off what he describes as "unwarranted media interest in people like us". He adds, lapsing into cliche out of lack of choice, "there cant be frontiers dividing knowledge." Ahmeds appointment has been widely welcomed among political and academic circles. Says state CPI secretary Manju Majumdar: "Its a step in the right direction."
There remains the apprehension of a backlash. The CPI(m)s stormy petrel Saifuddin Choudhury minces no words: "There are always so-called guardians of religion and values who delight in opposing anything new. I cant rule out a negative reaction to Ahmeds appointment among a section."
In the eye of the storm, Ahmed is only excited about the "books, treatises and commentaries" in his college library. Oblivious to those who clamour at such a figure.