IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia

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27 - 28 June 1998
UNESCO, Paris, France

(First) International Conference on Hindu Solidarity

Several Paris-based Hindu organizations got together on the premises of the UNESCO in Paris to show a resurgent face and boost their own flagging and splintered morale - following the success of the Hindu revivalist Bharatha Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Indian polls. For two arduous days, some thirty invited speakers and fifty observers were jolted by a few rousing speakers who harangued them on the need for unity among Hindus, while every twitch and gesture was channelled live to some 5000 subscribers all over Europe by Radio-Television Asia, a Sri Lankan Tamil enterprise based in Paris.

By T. Wignesan


Was this the 'epoch-making' conference or 'earth-moving' event that the organizers had wished for? It was neither, but it gave the participants a chance to come together in a show of solidarity, in congenial surroundings, in an attempt to examine the plight of Hindus in the diaspora. High on the agenda was the tabling of resolutions calling for the preservation of Hindu culture and customs, and the outright condemnation of 'the atrocities perpetrated on Hindus and places of Hindu worship in Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Afghanistan'. Another recurrent bone of contention was the use of Tamil, instead of Sanskrit, in worship and rites both in temples and homes.

The conference themes of the 'State of Hindu Temples Today and Remedial Measures for their Protection', and 'Ethical Dilemma of International Hindu Diaspora and its Future' carried both the days. This was by no means an academic conference: there was neither debate nor discussion; only one-sided tirades or ethereal eternal verities proferred in Tamil and English (the latter language sailing over the heads of the majority Sri Lankan Tamil audience) from the proscenium of speakers, accentuating the gulf between the 'high caste' of invited speakers and the 'lower castes' of unprotesting listeners.
The reason for this is not hard to gauge. Despite the support of six different Hindu associations, the organization of the conference itself fell into two pairs of inexperienced hands: Mr Sivachanemougam, the conference secretary and president of the Ramalinga Mission in Paris, and Mr Pushpalingam, the assistant secretary, from the Muthumariamman Temple in Paris. Most conference expenses were covered by the temple's fund-raising campaign.
Given this situation, it soon became evident why a 'tug-of-war' had ensued between the two 'secretarial' factions. The papers and speeches, on the one hand, promoted the thoughts of Ramalinga Vallalar, a nineteenth century Tamil pakti poet, and on the other, the plight of the persecuted and victimized Sri Lankan Tamils. The chairman's warnings on both days that the conference themes were not being adhered to went unheeded, and it soon became clear that Hindu solidarity was taking another severe beating to its unitary image.

Sanctity and Politics

The key-note address delivered by the philanthropist-industrialist president of the Ramalingar Mission, Dr Mahalingam, was based mainly on the works of three Tamil 'saints': Thirumoolar, Thayumanavar and Ramalinga Vallalar. It was rife with unsubstantiated claims, such as : 'Directly or indirectly, it [Hinduism] has influenced the formative tenets of every religion around the world', but it failed to reveal Hinduism's relevance to the coming age.
In a similarly styled introductory paper by Sivachanemougam, characteristic historical misreadings and religious misconceptions were mixed with the usual platitudinous scriptural formulae for support. Even the always affable conference patron, Dr Avvai Natarajan followed suit. His one-page address claimed: 'The Tamils are widely known as the greatest temple builders renowned for their imposing structure, elegant sculpture, impressive sanctity and inspired divinity'.
The odour and splendour of sanctity was not completely absent from this first-ever solidarity meet in the persons of graceful white-haired swamis, if not in sackcloth, at least in saffron robes and multi-tiered garlands of beads: Santhalinga Ramaswamy Adigalar and Sithantha Sarabam, from Tamil Nadu, Veetamohanada from France, and Pranavananda from Mauritius, making similar calls for peace and prayer and the need to keep the faith burning on other shores through the constant practice of holy ritual and domestic religious observance.
The presence of Mr Chevada, president of 'Overseas Friends of BJP', Mr Upadyay and Mr Hardas, both of the 'Vishwa Hindu Parishad', and Mr Mhasawade of the 'Hindu Swayamesevak Sangh' in Britain, and their repeated affirmations of solidarity with Tamil Hindus only served to accentuate the fact that this was after all a get-together of Tamils.

Discussion

Only three academics participated with papers. Professor R.K. Seth, an aficionado of Tamil culture from J. Nehru University, delivered an airy version of Hinduism while citing Dr Mahalingam's claims that the Saiva faith flourished among the Tamils between 30,000 to 500 B.C.[sic] - due, no doubt, to reliance on astrology rather than carbon-dating - and while maintaining that 'Hinduism approached the subject of means and methods of spiritual realisation in a scientific spirit'. A paper by a Tamil academic in Paris tried to trace and bring together the two opposing forces of Hinduism: the Saiva ascetic and the Brahmanic sacrificial traditions, in order to forestall André Malraux's predictive dilemma that the 21st century would either see a total rejection or a total revival of religious fervour.
When it was all said and done everyone agreed that this was after all a 'beginning' and hoped the next conference to be convened, most probably in South Africa, would set right the shaky start.


Dr T. Wignesan (Wignesh@aol.com) served with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (C.N.R.S.) at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia