|ISKCON's rath yatra in Moscow|
Why is the Indian community in Russia upset over the proposed ban on the Bhagavad Gita? The ban is on a Russian translation by Swami Prabhupada, the head of a cult that has raised eyebrows due to its own controversial interpretation of the holy text.
We shall come to that later. The moment a Siberian court deemed it “extremist”, Indian politicians of the rabid right began making demands for the Gita to be made the national book. A secular republic now wants a religious text to become a national book only because some court in another country seeks to ban a version translated by someone who has made ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) into a pop spiritual movement.
Most of its members are not Indians and one is not even sure whether they have converted or are temporary operational Krishna bhakts (devotees). They are pretty much like Jehovah’s Witnesses and carry tiny copies of the Gita that they distribute free. Who sponsors them? How have they spread worldwide?
On the issue of extremism, let us understand that all religions are based on some sort of extremist thought, of the superiority of the faith. It may not be upfront, but the subtext is clear: hail the believer of this text, this religion, this god. Everything else is just a roundabout way to reach some imagined heaven.
It confounds me that there is violence in every holy book – whether it was battles fought for land or people or even violence against oneself. It must have been to show that good triumphs over evil, but then why are James Bond and Superman not gods?
Rather interestingly, since Lord Krishna, the ‘hero’ of the Gita, was a Yadav, we have members of this lower caste community – some of who are not even permitted to enter temples to this day – also joining in to oppose the ban in Russia. Therefore, the high caste and the low caste will fight for the same overseas rights, so to speak, but will not come together on home ground.
Not to be left behind, the Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband has also condemned the “Russian dictate against the holy scripture of Hindus” urging Hindus and Muslims to unite to drive home the point.
This is really funny. The seminary issues the most ridiculous fatwas against women, and because fatwas sound so serious everyone believes that they have the authority to issue them, which they do not.
But I can already see the Muslim ‘moderates’ applauding them for respecting “the secular fabric of the nation”. The problem with the secular fabric is that there is just too much cloth and too little thread to sew anything.
Let us not forget that recently Delhi University dropped A.K. Ramanujan's essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation” from the reading list of an undergraduate course in history. In fact, it was reported that Oxford University Press even apologised to a rightwing group for “hurting religious sentiments”. They denied it but did agree that they followed popular sentiment.
Popular sentiment is essentially a matter of numbers. Even a peaceful crowd can be seen as extremist.
Whatever the Russians are thinking, we must ask whether a religious text can be 'banned', in the sense that it is part of people’s beliefs. Do beliefs cease because a country that is not even of the same religion decides to not permit a few copies of the book in their language? Is it not possible that their problem is with ISCKON and not with the Gita?