Irony Found in Jailing of Indian Holy Leader

Issue Date: 12/15/2004, Posted On: 12/15/2004

Dr. Bal Ram Singh

The most encouraging thing in this "tamasha" created by the arrest of the Shankaracharya in Tamil Nadu was the 70-year-old spiritual leader's clear instructions to his followers not to pursue his bail application to the Indian Supreme Court. I wish he had refused to move any bail application, even in the lower courts.

If ancient Indian philosophy as outlined in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita has any validity - and if the Shankaracharya, who heads a monastic order in Kanchipuram, is an acharya in its true sense - then there is nothing to be anxious about with him being in jail. The Shankaracharya must know how to deal with such an injustice that is meted to the general public on a routine basis in a country which got independence from foreign rule with a promise from Mahatma Gandhi to bring "Ram Rajya."

Gandhi, who spent quite a bit of his time in jail, said, "When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it - always." Truth has remained the overriding guiding force throughout humanity, most particularly in India's ancient tradition. "Satyamev Jayate" (truth alone prevails) adorns the modern Indian emblem as a reminder of that heritage, and if Shankaracharya is true to his tradition, he would know the meaning of this phrase more than anyone else.

For the rest of us, this event should only serve as a reminder that the so-called democratic system of governance touted as the panacea to human sufferings and misery is a fate, a front created to confuse people so that they can be manipulated by people like George Bush and Jayalalitha. The treatment of Shankaracharya in a land which has provided dignified shelter to spiritual figures persecuted elsewhere throughout its history (the latest being the Dalai Lama) is a matter of utter shame. It is ominous to Indian nation beyond ordinary imagination. The issue is not the charges labeled against the spiritual leader.

India's traditions have always accepted the sovereignty of the law of the land, and everyone, including spiritual gurus, has always had to abide by them. There is ample evidence of such a tradition in the ancient texts of India. However, India also has a tradition of challenging injustice perpetrated by anyone, including the king.

Parasuram, an ascetic and spiritually enlightened figure thousands of years ago, is a well-known example of someone who fought against atrocities committed by kings and defeated them in battles. If the government has a case against Shankaracharya, it should pursue it to the fullest. But it did not have to humiliate him by orchestrating an arrest on Diwali day, throwing him in a jail cell that does not meet his ritual and dietary obligations, and drum up charges by the day and convenience to deny him bail at any cost.

Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated with more dignity and care than the Shankaracharya of Kanchi in a supposedly democratic India. There is no other country in the whole world that provides more religious rights to its minorities than India. India's hallmark tradition of accepting all based on merits rather than prejudice is there for everyone to see - a Muslim as the president, a Sikh as the prime minister, and a Christian as the leader of the ruling Congress Party. But, look what they have offered in return.

One of the pillars of the majority Hindu faith has been dragged into prison falsely pronounced as a criminal. We have yet to hear from President Abdul Kalaam. It took a full two weeks before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh murmured that he has written to Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who arrested the Shankaracharya, to treat him with care. We have heard nothing from Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling party, even though rumors are rampant about her connection to this case through some deals with Jayalalitha. There is no doubt in my mind that the charges against Shankaracharya, which are related to the murder of a temple official, were fabricated to meet some political and personal ends, as evidence presented so far seems to have no figment of truth. Two of the star police witnesses still under custody have admitted in court to coercion. The state government attorney named as absconding a woman conspirator who turned up the next day with her attorneys to denounce police methods and charges and is actually a cancer patient who got help from the Kanchi mutt.

The meek public response is either the result of public trust and support in government's honesty and sincerity, as many communists and activist groups would like everyone to believe, or a total numbing shock. Knowing public paranoia about police and politicians in India, it is not possible to accept communist interpretation of the public response. I believe the reaction of shock will turn into a deep distrust in the system of governance in India as we know it today. This system has collapsed and needs an alternative. How long will it take to see this reaction? Much earlier than the next election, and as soon as a genuine leader, an acharya - who practices his/her preaching with utmost sincerity - appears on the scene. The Shankaracharya, therefore, must remain in jail to show the practice of his preaching.

Bal Ram Singh, director of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, may be reached at