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Multivalent & Volatile: Can BJP's Plan To Politically Appropriate Lord Shiva Bear The Fruit?

From the most benign to the most destructive, Lord Shiva remains a mystery who defies definition. Attempts to appropriate him may not succeed.

Multivalent & Volatile: Can BJP's Plan To Politically Appropriate Lord Shiva Bear The Fruit?
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Last December, a UP government officer, Murli Dhar Singh termed Prime Minister Narendra Modi the incarnation of Lord Shiva. In March, Rajasthan’s BJP MLA Gyan Chand Parakh repeated the trope and even gave evidence to support the incarnation theory. “When Maha­dev’s third eye opens, there is a catastrophe. When Modi opened his third eye, terrorists were wiped out from Kashmir. There was a surgical strike on Pakistani soil,” he said.

In February 2017, to mark Maha Shivratri, Modi unveiled a 112-foot-tall Shiva statue in Coimbatore, and this month he inaugurated the Mahakal corridor in Ujjain. Several claims have recently gained ground over the sites of Shiva. Besides Ujjain, Kas­hi’s Vishwanath temple is the seat of one of the 12 jyotirlingas. With the purported discovery of a shivalinga in the Gyanvapi premises, the site is on the brink of political volcano. Some Hindu groups have also claimed a Shiva temple at the Taj Mahal. The frenetic claims of the Hindutva brigade over the deity even brought a rap from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. Why do you “look for a shivalinga in every mosque?” he recently said.

Is the BJP now trying to appropriate another God from the Hindu pantheon? With Ram already a political deity for the last four decades, is it now the turn of Shiva?

It was easier to appropriate Ram and incorporate him in a political slogan. The birthplace of Ram, Ayodhya was readily available as the site of a political movement. Ram’s own personality was amenable to the needed interpretation. A duty-bound son, who followed a strict kingly code, destroyed his demon opponents, and even denied the rightful claims of his wife at the altar of maryada, suited a political establishment that sought duties from its subjects and tried to suppress their rights under the pretext of a greater national goal.

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Work in progress Preparation for Mahakal corridor Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Shiva is, however, an iconoclast. He can be stoic, the most difficult to be seduced, a God who will set ablaze Kamadeva (the Love God). But he can also be both a compassionate figure and tender lover. Rich tales of his sensual union with Parvati are scatte­red through Sanskrit texts. Ujjain’s court poet Kalidasa immortalized their ecstatic union in Kumarsambhavam. More recently, Geet­an­jali Shree’s award-winning novel Ret Sam­a­dhi drew a police complaint for what the comp­lainant believed was “extremely obs­c­ene” description of Shiva and Par­vati, which hurt his “religious sentiments”. The description, truth be told, is mild compared to the Sanskrit texts.

Shiva is also a fierce lover. Ram abandoned his wife, but Shiva erupted into a tandava when Parvati faced a public insult. As Mahakal, Shiva is also the presiding deity of time and death. As Bholenath, he can be the most innocent being and the most destructive as Rudra. Shiva mirrors a prime trait of Indian civilization—the assimilation of contradictions—and defies easy generalisations, political or religious.

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South India has been a prominent geography for Shaivism, a territory that continues to eclipse the BJP. Except in Karnataka, the party has been struggling in all the other states. Karnataka is also home to the Lingayats. The most powerful community in the state has given nine of its 20 chief ministers, including the current one, Basavaraj Bommai, and his predecessor, the BJP’s tallest leader, B.S. Yediyurappa. Can Shiva be a rallying point for the BJP’s politics in Karnataka, if not in the whole of south India? Academics disagree.

“It is very difficult for the BJP to appropriate the Shaivaite movement in south India. The religious fabric is complex and layered here. There are many sects around Shiva. All of them have their distinct cultural icons. Several Lingayats believe that they are different from Veershaivaites,” says Vikram Visaji, who teaches Kannada literature at the Central University of Karnataka, Gulbarga.

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Siddaramaiah in his office Photo: Getty Images

In fact, even the trinity of Lingayat saints—Bas­a­vanna, Akka Mahadevi and Allama Prabhu—portray Shiva in different forms. “For Basavanna, Shiva was Kudalasangama or a spiritual solace, whereas for Akka Mahadevi, the lord was a lover in the form of Chenna Mallikarjuna. Allama Prabhu called him Guheshwara, a mystic,” Visaji tells Outlook.

Lingayats worship Shiva but they have transfor­med him into several local forms. “Besides, there are Shiva-follower sects like the Kapalikas and Nagpanthis. Their understandings of Shiva are totally different from those in north India,” he adds.

In Karnataka, incidentally, it is the Congress that has tried to exploit the sentiment. There has been a long demand by the Linga­yats to recognise their beliefs as a separate religion. Such as status has also been demanded for all the sub-sects of the Lingayats, not merely by the Lingayats or the Veershaivaites.

Right before the 2018 Assembly elections, Karnataka’s Congress government jolted the state’s polity by recommending separate religion status for the Lingayats, a move that left the Veershai­vaites out. Former Chief Minister, K. Siddaramaiah, hoped to woo the powerful community, but he saw stiff opposition even within his party. “I was a minister in the then Congress government. I had vehemently opposed it,” Karnataka Congress’s working president,Eshwar Khandre, recalls. “Some people in our government didn’t understand the ground rea­lity and thought that the Lingayats and the Veer­shaivaites are separate (religions). I tried to convince my party leaders that if you do it, you will lose the support of both the Lingayats and the Veershaivaites,” Khandre tells Outlook.

He feared that it would give the BJP a chance to “propagate that the Congress was trying to divide the Hindu community”.

Khandre, however, also underlined the differe­nce between the reception of Shiva in the North and in the South. While admitting that more Shai­vai­tes in Karnataka are “pro-BJP now”, he claimed that they have not shifted to the party because of any religious polarisation. “It was the negligence of the Shaivaites by political parties that led them to go to the BJP,” he says.

Divided into over 70 sub-sects,  Lingayats live in all four southern states. In a single family, one can find followers, even chiefs, of various mutts, belonging to different sects of Lingayatism. A relatively homogeneous face of a deity is required for its political projection and to carry a message to the masses. How does one build a stable political narrative around an multivalent deity?

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There are other traits of Shiva that makes it impossible to appropriate him. He is identified with yogic and tantric procedures, erotic mysticism, even dark tales of crematoria. His followers proudly consume intoxicants, as the deity becomes an icon of hippie culture. He wears deadly snakes and a mighty river in his locks and has a lethal poison permanently situated at his throat.

Can Shiva be a rallying point for the BJP’s politics in Karnataka, if not in the whole of south India? Academics disagree.

His appeal, thus, transcends that of the standard Hindu identity. While scholars have noted his influence on Isla­mic practices, scientists draw parallels of his dance with modern Physics. In his book, In Search of Shiva, Pakistani author ,Haroon Khalid, quo­tes Islamic scholar, Jürgen Wasim Frem­bgen, who compares the “passionate dance” of the Sufis with Shiva’s tandava and traces the influence of the Hindu deity on a major Islamic tradition in the subcontinent. “One need only recall the position of Shiva as nataraja and the numerous interfaces bet­ween Muslim ecstatic and Shaivite ascetics,” Frembgen writes in his book, Journey to God: Sufis and Dervishes in Islam. Sufism was not only a poetic expression; it was a political movement that opened a new avenue in Islam, and now ranks with the great Indian bhakti tradition.

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And who is Nataraja? “The greatest of the names of Shiva is Nataraja,” wrote Ananda Coomara­swamy in his influential essay “The Dance of Shiva,” terming it “the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of”.  Fritjof Capra traced the idea of his seminal work, The Tao of Physics, to “the cosmic dance” of Shiva. “This beautiful picture symbolized for me the parallels between physics and mysticism that I had just begun to discover,” he wrote.

The God of actors that inspired the great ancient text Natya Shastra and dances in the golden hall of the Thillai Temple now stands tall at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. If one wonders about the presence of Nataraja at the largest Particle Physics laboratory in the world, a CERN statement noted that “the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. The two-metre bronze statue, which carries a shloka by Adi Shankara, was presented by the Department of Atomic Energy to the laboratory during the UPA years.

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Let us further complicate the discourse on Shiva with a couplet by Mir, arguably the greatest Urdu poet Indian has seen.

Uske farog-e-Husn se jhamke hai sab men noor
Sham-e-haram ho ya ho diya Somnat ka.

(The splendour of her beauty illumines the entire universe. Be it the light of Kaba or the lamp of Somnath)

One of the jyotirlingas, Somnath was the first religious site to have witnessed a political movement in Independent India. An 18th-century Muslim poet equated its halo with the most sacred site of Islam. Indian politicians do not know that they have bitten off more than they can chew in trying to fix a figure who defies all appropriation.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Multivalent & Volatile")

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