Angry gods

There is a poem by Rabindranath Tagore called “Debotar Graash” (Devoured by God), which narrates the story of a pilgrimage. The pilgrims, led by a village elder, a Brahmin, are taking a boat to the sacred place where the river meets the sea. On board is a widow whose young boy insists on accompanying her. Exasperated, the mother exclaims, “Let me go and throw you into the sea!” Of course, she regrets her harsh words at once; the boy comes along, and the pilgrims set out on their holy voyage.

On the way back, the boat is caught in a violent storm and the pilgrims fear for their lives. Then an oarsman thunders, “Someone here has promised something to god and not fulfilled it!” Hence the storm, hence the punishment. The people are frantic — they start throwing their belongings into the water to placate the enraged god. Suddenly, the Brahmin, the leader of the expedition, points to the widow and shouts: “She’s the one! She pledged her son to god and is now stealing him away!” The pilgrims roar — god cannot be denied his promised pound of flesh! The boy is torn from his mother and flung into the foaming water. 

“Debotar Graash” was written towards the end of the 19th century. Tagore wrote it — and wrote it in a stunningly descriptive style — to portray the evil of superstition and blind belief. Faced with nature’s wrath, the people on the boat immediately attribute it to the wrath of god. Now this is a belief that animated every primitive society — the belief that god was an angry, vengeful entity who sent death and destruction to humans who transgressed. It was a belief in a ruthless moral order that saw every calamity, every misfortune, as retribution for some lapse on the part of man. In such a scenario, the only way to save yourself was to propitiate the gods and make a sacrifice, often a brutal one. 

One would have thought that this belief system went out the window with the advent of modernity. Yet more than a century after Tagore’s poem was written, it was on flagrant display last week. As Kerala grappled with devastating floods,  

Over 300 people have died in the Kerala floods
S Gurumurthy, an RSS ideologue and part-time director of the Reserve Bank of India, shot off a tweet that said: “Supreme court judges may like to see if there is any connection between the case and what is happening in Sabarimala. Even if there is one in a million chance of a link people would not like the case decided against Ayyappan.”


What Gurumurthy was referring to was the plea in the Supreme Court challenging the ban on the entry of women of menstruating age to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. The apex court has reserved its judgement in the case as of now. However, the arguments against the ban — that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional — are overwhelming. Even the Kerala government, which once supported the hideously misogynistic practice, is now in favour of scrapping it. And then comes Gurumurthy’s tweet, urging the judges to see if there was any connection between the effort to allow women into Sabarimala and the deluge in Kerala — because if it was divine retribution for messing with Lord Ayyappa’s decree (as enunciated by his temple handlers), they might want to rule accordingly.   

You can dismiss the tweet as pure nonsense, of course. There’s no way a judge, or any rational person, can establish a link between the floods and the Sabarimala case. However, Gurumurthy is no ordinary wingnut whose sayings can be brushed aside as so much Twitter froth. He was reportedly the brains behind demonetisation, and his recent elevation as a director of the RBI shows his continued influence in the government. When a person like him stokes superstition and suggests, in effect, that maybe the court should sacrifice the idea of ending a regressive practice lest Lord Ayyappa rains down further destruction, there is cause for alarm.

Is there place for such a notion in 21st century India? Obviously not. Whether you sacrifice a human or your humanity to appease a god (or a group), you become part of the same primitive mindset that is at once cowardly and cruel. It is a pity that a man of Mr Gurumurthy’s remarkable abilities fails to see that.

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