The Seers fashioned the Word by means of their mind
Sifting it as with sieves the corn is sifted.
Thus, friends may recognize each other’s friendship.
An auspicious seal upon their word is set.
– Rig Veda, X, 71.
Oh! Dear, you have a dilemma, Sir. Nevertheless the customs that were set up long ago continue as they were. Why be uneasy about this matter, Sir? So now take a look at this place thronged with hundreds and thousands of Pancha-ratrikas and other great scholars.
What a big conference of scholars! It fills the quarters with a great hullabaloo of dispute and disagreement spreading with mutual emulation. For in this assembly: There are Mimamsakas who have reflected on the ways of various meanings in sentences; grammarians who have scrutinized the roots of nouns and verbs; logicians whose minds are sharp in ascertaining the concomitance of logical reason; and over here are the senior masters of the Smritis, Polity, Puranas and the like. 4.25
Bhatta Jayanta, Agama/dambara– “Much Ado About Religion.”
Exchange in Act IV: Qualified Tolerance
Words and utterances acquire meaning within specific context, depending on who is speaking and who is being addressed. More importantly, utterances have histories; they are associated with certain traditions or schools of thought, as is evident in the exchange that occurs in the classic Sanskrit play by one of the great thinkers from Kashmir – Bhatta Jayanta. Dictionary meaning can only go so far; they refer to stable meanings, but the life of words is far more fluid and dynamic. Greetings carry a certain goodwill and hence must be deployed in such a manner as is stated in Rig Veda, so that “friends may recognize each other’s friendship.”
It is against the backdrop of such philosophies of language that I have been reflecting on recent debates on FabIndia’s usage of the Urdu phrase Jashn-e-Riwaaz – that literally translates into ‘celebration of tradition’to launch their Diwali collection. As one would expect, objections were raised and many felt that the Urdu phrase takes the Hindu out of one of the most celebrated Hindu festivals, and some even protested on the grounds that this was another clever and insidious move towards the Abrahamisation of Sanatana Dharma.Defenders of the advertising campaign dismissed the objections as silly and idiotic.
Removing religion from religious holidays has been a trend in many parts of the world. In many western countries, Merry Christmas is supplanted with Happy Holidays to supposedly be inclusive to all groups. In my view, this is a misguided trend: first, just by changing the greetings we do not erase the holiday that is being celebrated. All the stores play Christmas carols and songs. Second, by acknowledging the last week of December as the Christmas season, my identity as a Sanatani is not diminished in any way.
Words in any greeting embody a certain spirit that is unique to the occasion and that uniqueness must be honoured and respected, because those words evoke certain imagery that are associated with that festivity. FabIndia’s phrase was not that innocent at all. Imagine if they ran a campaign for Eid with a Sanskrit slogan like Subhamastu! Pratyaksham Chandra Devam to refer to the Eid ka Chand – that would understandably be unsettling. The utterance is so divorced from the event. Similarly, Jashn-e-Riwaaz does not evoke any images or memories of Diwali. I am at a loss to figure out what tradition I am celebrating.
Words are not some empty and neutral signifiers of an event or an experience. In fact, the reality itself is constituted in language. One must be mindful of how the language game is played because the relationship between words and reality is a very complex one. Words can represent reality or suppress or amplify reality and words can hide or even twist reality. The tyrants use words to shut down the thinking machine and revolutionaries use words to awaken and mobilise people into action. FabIndia’s phrase was clearly meant to annoy and irritate some sections of the society. The sinister motive is clear. But what is intriguing is why would they want to annoy large sections of their consumers?
When a non-Indian greets me with a Namaste, the gesture places a seal of sincere friendship on the words. When I greet a Jewish friend with Shabbat Shalom or a Muslim friend with Assalamu Alaikum I am honouring their language, tradition, and customs. These acts are a show of plain decency and civility.
Every government today makes it a point to send Diwali Greetings. Every business, even in America, like Target does an advertising campaign with images of a Hindu family celebrating the festival. Unlike FabIndia’s attempt to impose an unrelatable phrase, Target’s images honour the specificity of the festival, even while trying to spread the Light, so that everyone joins in celebrating the festival. In that spirit, I offer a Universal Prayer for the whole world Asatoma Sadgamaya, Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya (From Ignorance lead me to Truth; From Darkness lead me to Light). That’s what Bhatta Jayanta refers to as qualified tolerance – you respect other traditions without forsaking your own.
(Dr. Lakshmi Bandlamudi is a Professor of Psychology, LaGuardia Community College, City University New York)
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