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Sectarian agenda? Challenge to Saraswatic tradition comes from modern 'asuras'

MF Husain's controversial painting 'Saraswari'
By Bhaskar Sur*
Saraswati is commonly known as the Goddess of speech, learning, the arts and grace. She has other names -- Sarada, Shatarupapa and even Ila. Like other Vedic deities, Saraswati has gone through curious transformations. It seems originally she was a fertility Goddess, and her origin is associated with a rather a scandalously incestuous creation myth.
The story goes, Brahma, after creating the wonderful universe and star studded sky, felt exhausted and utterly lonely. He now created Shatarupa or Saraswati who was so beautiful that he fell for her.
When Shararupa fled to escape from his incestuous gaze, Brahma grew three more extra heads. She now hid herself in the shy and Brahma, not to be deterred, grew yet another, turned upwards. That will explain why Brahma is called Panchanan or the Five Headed God.
He madly pursued her until she yielded and he had his will. She became his wife but cursed him that he would never hope to be worshipped. There is indeed no temple dedicated to Brahma in the subcontinent though he was worshipped in the South-East Asia till the coming of Islam, and still worshipped in the distant Pacific island of Bali.
Nowhere is the mythical ambiguity more evident than in Bengal where the Goddess retains her dual role -- as a Goddess of learning and that of Eros or Love. No wonder Saraswati is more popular than any other Hindu deity, and thousands of beautiful Saraswati idols are worshipped not only within the precincts of educational institutions but almost everywhere.
Sri Panchami, the day when she is worshipped, is also the Bengali equivalent of St Valentine's Day. The idol, which is presently worshipped, shows strong Western influence and, according to the great Sanskritist and linguist Sukumar Sen, dates back from mid19th century.
The Goddess, immaculately white with a graceful swan by her side, reminds one not only of Venus but Leda as well. But such an iconic transformation would have been impossible had it not been supported by the tradition.
In the invocation of the Goddess her full breasts are celebrated along with her other divine attributes. Her grace can miraculously transform a moron into a poet. We are all familiar with the story of Kalidasa, the greatest poet of the late antiquity, and how from a proverbial fool, he became a combination of Virgil, Ovid and Plautus!
However, this mythical world of the fecund Hindu imagination conflicts with domains of a secular state. The Puja enjoys the official approval and has been institutionalized in schools,colleges and universities. For a full week classes remain suspended.
Very few have ever dared to question the practice which goes against the explicit instruction that no religious activities will be permitted within state run institutions. What is more objectionable is the practice of collecting subscriptions from minority students whose religion forbids it.
In other words, they are coerced to pay and take part in the celebration and the feast that is arranged on this occasion. It is how Brahmanism encroaches upon the secular and ensures its hegemony. This started during the 19th century when there were very few Muslim and Christian students.
A cultural or literary festival named after the Goddess could have been a good secular substitute without breaking the tradition. But none attempted it
The British authorities were uncomfortable with it but took the policy of non-interference until Muslim and Christian guardians complained about it. But in those days it was strictly a one day affair kept within proper bounds. Minority institutions run by Muslims, Christians or the monotheistic Brahmos were altogether outside this Hindu festival.
However, even under the Raj, they increasingly came under majoritarian pressure. There is one incident involving Subhas Bose, which is full sinister portents. Bose was groomed by CR Das, a very conservative Hindu leader having an animus against the reformist Brahmos.
The young Bose had made a name for himself as a troublemaker. This time he led an agitation against the Brahmo authorities of the Herambachandra College demanding that the students be allowed to hold Saraswati Puja within the college compound.
This annoyed Rabindranath Tagore, who strongly condemned it. This unthinking excitability characterized Bose's entire political career which ended in a disaster. After Independence, it could have been secularized without altogether breaking with the tradition.
A cultural or literary festival named after the Goddess could have been a good substitute. But none attempted it, not even the Left. Under their uninterrupted long rule in Bengal, the Puja became became a norm in the educational institutions and a menace outside.
The Puja organizers blocked roads to raise subscriptions from passing vehicles and extortions became a way of life. Yet it did not prevent them from raising objection to the introduction of Saraswati prayers in Uttar Pradesh schools by the BJP government.
If the Left attitude has been hypocritical, the Hindutva proponents have used it as a weapon to further its sectarian agenda. One of the unfortunate victims of their religious politics was MF Husain, arguably the greatest painter of Independent India. In Husain's secular imagination, the past and the present freely mingled, as did different cultural traditions.
Husain's Saraswati paintings are characterised by refined sensibility, bold experimentation and artistic virtuosity. The Saraswati images are subdued and never explicitly sensual as most sculptural representations are. RSS and the Hindutva brigade under it viciously attacked Hussain for hurting Hindu sensibility and vandalized his exhibition.
The trauma was so great that Husain had to leave the country and spend his last days in painful self exile. It was persecution of one of Saraswati's gifted children by those who cared little for learning or painting.
The greatest challenge to the Saraswatic tradition of this land comes from the Hindutva asuras whom the bewitching Goddess once deprived of the nectar to ensure their mortality.
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*Source: Author's Facebook timeline 

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