Towards Dharma-centric Polity: Lokmanya Tilak and the Universalization of Gaṇeśa Utsava
As dharma disappears from daily personal life, and from specific regions, universalized Hindu festivals are capable of bringing dharma back again at the center. As temples become the primary vehicle of Hindu regeneration all over Bhāratavarṣa, festivals can become the Hindu regenerators in the north.

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By Pankaj Saxena

Co-founder and Director at Bṛhat, Pankaj is an author on Hindu temples, arts, literature, history and culture. His writing explains the beauty of Sanātana Dharma through stories about traditions, communities and culture. He has a deep interest in cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology and ecology, and has visited more than 1200 Hindu temples.

Dharma, Religion and State

One of the founding premises of a modern secular State is that religion and politics should not mix. Though India became officially secular much after its independence, due to Nehruvian ideas dominating Indian socio-politics, “secularism” has been the guiding light of the Indian State since independence. And from a leftist, liberal and secular point of view, there really is no dilemma over the question of mixing politics and religion. They should not mix. There is no question about it.

But Indian society is going through a churn. Secularism might still be India’s official policy, but society has started to question it. We are realizing that secularism and other founding principles of the modern Indian state originate from a colonial Christian paradigm. We are attempting to regain hold over our own narrative. The indigenous Hindu is trying to imagine an alternative to a secular state, and what a dhārmika Hindu state would do with politics and dharma.

In a parallel awakening, Hindus are coming to realize that ‘religion’ is not the correct translation of ‘dharma’.

We are realizing that what we know as Hindu dharma or Sanātana dharma is a world apart from Prophetic Monotheism. If this is the case and religion is not dharma, then is it logical to keep dharma and State separate? As far as we know of Indian history, there was always a Brāhmaṇa advising the Kṣatriya on all matters of dharma, right inside the court. He was called as Rājaṛṣi, the saint who resides in court to ensure that the State is always in adherence to dharma.

From a Hindu point of view, thus, dharma and politics should not stay apart. But here is the dilemma. Even those Hindus who think that India should have institutions based on Indic Knowledge Systems and indigenous wisdom are apprehensive about mixing dharma and politics, for the fear of politics overtaking and appropriating dharma for its own purposes.

This is a valid concern, and employing dharma for politics’ sake is not the Indic way. In the Indian scheme of things, it was the saint who informed the king, rather than vice-versa. Knowledge should inform power, and not vice versa. Dharma and politics have a relation but there is a hierarchy in that relation and dharma is supreme; politics come after. Dharma should inform politics and not the other way around. Politics has to be infused by dharma. Dharma cannot and should not be manipulated and politicized.

If a society maintains this balance, then it will stay on the course of dharma. That was the Indic understanding. And for most of its history, until the Islamic invaders arrived, Indian kingdoms were run with this understanding, keeping dharma supreme.

The question is: was there any such attempt to reconcile the two during contemporary times? Turns out, there was one. And it was immensely successful.

Lokmanya Tilak’s Innovation

125 years ago, Lokmanya Tilak had an idea. He created Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis all over Maharashtra and in other states to organize and celebrate Gaṇeśa Utsavas. Gaṇeśa pūjā was not unheard of in regions other than Maharashtra but it was not as prevalent. Tilak’s was the first such organized attempt to scale up the celebration of a Hindu festival in contemporary times.

He took this initiative in 1898 to tackle a specific problem, but with a long term goal in mind. He wanted an occasion when freedom fighters and their supporters could gather to talk, strategize and plan their course of action. Though the immediate goal of this was to gain independence, Tilak had a specific Hindu goal in mind. For gathering of freedom fighters he could have come up with any secular occasion, but he intentionally chose Gaṇapati Utsava for a reason.

He chose it to elevate the Hindu consciousness of the country. He knew that the soul of the nation was Sanātana/ Hindu. India’s rise, as Śri Aurobindo also said, was the rise of Sanātana dharma. India’s fall was the fall of Sanātana dharma. Tilak did not see any dichotomy in his nationalism and his Hinduism. For his nationalism was pegged on the raising of the Hindu consciousness.

Confirming an Old Tradition

Gaṇapati worship had been associated even before 1898 with sthāpana and visarjana, more so than other deities. By doing so, Lokmanya Tilak was not breaking a tradition, or inventing a new one, but tapping into a hoary tradition and confirming its authority. It was a very clever and deliberate move because he was listing his action in the long line of dhārmika scholars and saints who made revolutionary changes and reforms in society by invoking an aspect of the ancient Sanātana tradition.

Making Every Hindu a Stakeholder

Gaṇapati pūjā has many other socio-political benefits. It is a celebration of being Hindu. The procession to bring the Gaṇapatī home; the sthāpana and celebrations in a public place; and visarjana also happening in a public water body, make sure that the common Hindu is involved in it. It is designed to involve the wider society and not be confined to individuals.

Lokmanya Tilak created the institution of Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis for organizing and celebrating the festival throughout the length and breadth of India in order for there to be some organized Hindu activity on ground. It made sure that there would be committees herding Hindus into celebration, even those who are not initially inclined to do so.

The sheer process of gathering charity from each and every Hindu home and then making them participate is similar to what transpired during the run up to collecting charity for the grand Śri Rāma temple at Ayodhya. The organization collecting charity made sure every Hindu home donated, even if it was just ten rupees, so that it would not be the preserve of a select few. The Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis achieved the same. They made every Hindu a stakeholder in a public celebration of Hinduness.

Along with celebrations all kinds of sports and arts competitions are also held, to make sure every aspect of human life is involved, and everyone from the very young to the very elderly of both genders participate. While working adults become stakeholders by charity and by sevā; the aged do so by offering their wisdom, advice and direction; the young get a sense of belonging by taking part in competitive games and by displaying Hindu symbols proudly — and all this is centered around dharma. Is there a better way to create a dharma-centric society?

Taking Gaṇeśa Pūjā to Every Corner of Bhāratavarṣa

Another major achievement of Lokmanya Tilak with Gaṇeśa Utsava was that it resulted in uniting all of India in one cultural festival during those seven days of Gaṇeśa pūjā. Even those places which were not known for celebrating Gaṇeśa Utsava started doing it with fanfare after Lokmanya Tilak instituted it.

He specifically targeted great Hindu cities like Kāśī which were not known particularly for Gaṇeśa Utsava but which had great potential to pick it up and make it a big thing. And that is what happened. Gaṇeśa Utsava is big even in the north now.

The competition between the Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis has made sure that there is a Gaṇapatī vigṛha in every street of many north Indian cities when the festival arrives. This competitive angling for public display of Hinduness has resulted in a Hindu fervor all around. The creative competition benefits Hindu dharma instead of dividing it further. It is an occasion of displaying Hindu symbols, rituals and customs to the wider world.

It creates a sense of belonging within the Hindu community and also demarcates what is Hindu and what is not by showing the others what it means to be a Hindu.

In many parts of north India like western Uttar Pradesh, it is only public Hindu festivals like Gaṇeśa Utsava and Durgā Pūjā which balance the religious equation and let Hindus continue to exist as Hindu in that region. Perhaps even Lokmanya Tilak would be surprised by looking at what Gaṇeśa Utsava has become today.

On the day of Gaṇeśa visarjana, national highways are blocked with procession after procession of Gaṇapati visarjana parties. In Meerut and Muzaffarnagar in UP, and in Patna and many other cities in Bihar the sight is like this: one big vehicle carries the vigṛha of Gaṇapati while thousands of devotees follow on bikes, in cars and even on foot. While in many parts of central India, it is only men who go out in these processions; in UP they are full of girls and women of all ages. Young girls, of all classes and ages, wearing saffron suits, sarees or cholis singing bhajans to Gaṇapati and shouting generic Hindu slogans, passing through overtly Islamic neighborhoods, is a sight to be seen. They say it is the only way to survive as a Hindu in these places.

The Universalization of Hindu Festivals

The Hindu society soon realized the potential of public Hindu celebrations which are observed for a limited period of time and come yearly or periodically throughout the year. They involve everyone but not forever. The time and expenses involved are affordable by everyone. And they make everyone feel that they belong in the dhārmika culture of the country. They create a sense of community in a world which has become too individualistic.

The Gaṇeśa Utsava frenzy was soon emulated by other festivals. Durgā Pūjā was initially very famous in Bengal and some other regions of India but not as big everywhere else. But like Gaṇeśa Utsava, Durgā Pūjā has also become a big, public and open expression of Hinduness. It arrives twice every year so it has an additional benefit. While just about thirty years ago one Durgā Pandal was set up only at certain places in the city, now every street has it.

The domino effect that Lokmanya Tilak started, by competitive festival celebration, doesn’t show any sign of stopping and is increasing year by year.
While Dussehra celebrations of Kullu and Mysore were historically famous due to royal Hindu patronage, more and more Hindu communities now burn Rāvaṇa effigies all over India. Ratha Yātrā of Puri has always been very famous but many other temples all over south India had also been celebrating festivals involving ratha-s. However, in the recent decades most Hindu communities in north India have also started celebrating ratha yātrā by imitating the celebrations at Puri, bringing Jagannātha to every street. The Ratha Yātrā organizers in these communities invite every member of the society to pull the ratha and their beloved Jagannātha. The ratha does a round of the entire community. Those who cannot come down and participate throw flowers from their balconies. Every Hindu is included in celebrating the lord.

Holi, Raksha Bandhan and Karva Chauth meanwhile are becoming more popular in the south. In short, public occasions for Hindus to gather in public celebration of Hindu festivals, gods and śubha nakṣatra-s are increasing every passing year.

Festivals are the last stand of a culture. The secular state seeks to relegate dharma and culture to the private chambers of a home, discouraging all public expressions of it and ultimately seeks a complete abrogation of the public display of all things that are religious or dhārmika. Three generations of secular education has created a generation of deracinated Hindus who are no longer informed of what constitutes being Hindu. It is only during these public festivities that we still feel Hindu and celebrate it. We need to encourage these occasions as much as possible.

Towards a Dharma-centric Polity

It all started in our times with the saṅkalpa of Lokmanya Tilak. But we also need to pay attention of why his saṅkalpa became so supremely successful. He sought to infuse political life with dharma and not the other way around. He did not seek to politicize dharma, but infuse politics with dharma, while not compromising on any dhārmika principle. He used politics (through Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis) to further dharma, and not dharma to further politics like many politicians do. This is why Lokmanya Tilak became so immensely successful and all Hindus should be thankful to him by magnifying this trend manifold and in many ways.

As dharma disappears from daily personal life, and from specific regions, it is these universalized Hindu festivals which are capable of bringing dharma back again at the center. As temples become the primary vehicle of Hindu regeneration all over Bhāratavarṣa, but particularly in the south, these universalized mobile and timely festivals can become the Hindu regenerators in the north.

Though both festivals and temples are important for every region in Bhāratavarṣa, different regions can choose different catalysts for cultural regeneration. These universalized festivals bring the mārgīya and desīya together by pegging the spirit of all these celebrations to the Hindu identity and Sanātana paramparā and yet catering to regional nuances and cultural trends. If this continues, it will move Bhārtavarṣa towards a dharma-centric polity.


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