In the Gyanvapi mosque/temple clash, the “Hindu side” seems to be winning the perception battle. Claiming their sovereign religious right to offer daily Shringar Gauri prayers on the mosque premises, the petitioners have also demanded that the domes of the structure as well as a wall be demolished. The latest petition prays that Muslims not be allowed in the mosque since it was constructed after destroying the Gyanvapi temple 350 years ago on the orders of the ruthless Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb.
Knock-off demands for altering centuries-old practices of worship at mosques in Mathura, Pune, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Mehrauli are ringing across the country. The Taj Mahal’s foundations have also felt the first tremors of Hindu victimhood. In Delhi the needle has been pushed back 800 years, with a demand to excavate the truth about the Qutub Minar and the “belief” that its mosque was built after destroying 27 Hindu and Jain temples. For the moment, in an exceptional show of bravery, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has rejected these demands, but some sentiments are waiting to be offended at the ASI’s mulishness.
By comparison, the “Muslim side’s” counter-arguments in the Varanasi courts (and in the Supreme Court), appear subdued and astringent, as if intimidated by the people’s court of the media. In fact the flames of Hindu “hurt and pain” have reached Aurangzeb’s grave in Aurangabad, where the government has ramped up police bandobast.
At Varanasi’s Gyanvapi, the hurricane of Hindu entitlement to the mosque has gathered such heft that it appears likely that long before Varanasi’s district judge forwards his findings regarding the “religious nature” of the mosque/temple to the Supreme Court in July, an unofficial delegation of Hindu devotees will have found a way to worship at the “shivling” which, they claim, has been waiting stoically for over three centuries in the septic pool of the “wuzu khana”.
Best of Express Premium
So, as a Hindu, I ask myself, “What will we make of what we see when we get a darshan of this ‘shivling’?” In the Hindu understanding, since the deity is present in the image or stone idol, the darshan will be charged with religious meaning. The darshan is as much to see as to be seen by the deity. Ideally, the devotees will also touch the “shivling” with their hands (sparsh) and will then touch their own limbs to sanctify the presence of the various deities that Shiva embodies (nyasa).
The Hindus’ “vibrant capacity for image-making” (Diana Eck) will also pivot to the 500-year old grand temple which would have housed this “shivling” and other powerful deities, the remains of which have been purportedly found in the basement of the mosque. On a moonless night centuries ago, a ritually purified priest would have established the “breath of life” in the deities (pran pratishtha), and then in the last ritual, the deity’s eyes would have been opened with a golden needle, for it to mount a perpetual watch over Gyanvapi.
The “Hindu side” asserts that it was this consecrated and revered Gyanvapi temple that the iron-fisted Aurangzeb purportedly jackbooted to build a mosque. But today, 350 years after the temple was laid to waste, at least two niggling questions are simmering in the “vibrant imagination” of devout Hindus. One, while Aurangzeb had the highest number of Hindu mansabdar high officials in his government in key decision-making positions, what caused these notables to stand by and allow this temple (and 3,000 others) to be vandalised and destroyed by his raiders? When a ruler manufactures an air of invincibility accompanied by a weaponised ecosystem, does it immobilise even those at the apex of the food chain?
The second question that must be answered by the “Hindu side” petitioners who are in various courts today is this: Why did Aurangzeb’s Muslim marauder-sycophants not smash and destroy the stone shaft of the “shivling” any time during the last 350 years? Is it because they could not summon the seething rage required to destroy it (a rage which the karsevaks summoned easily when they destroyed the Babri Masjid)? Or for twelve generations have the Muslims considered the “shivling” as more than just stone and slabs and sticks?
The Varanasi lanes leading to the holy Kashi Vishwanath temple and Gyanvapi mosque and the entire sacred geography of the ghats have possibly the highest density of renouncers in the world, the respected perpetual pilgrims who have left home and family for a homeless life. At the same time, the sacred triangle defined by the river Ganga, the ghats encrusted on its banks and the temples that run up the old city like civilisational islands of religiosity, also has the highest density of persons waiting calmly to die here to attain mukti (liberation) from this world.
Karma, tolerance, renunciation and liberation are the leitmotifs of the Varanasi of Hindus. And yet, bafflingly, it is in this other-worldly setting, where the soul drifts into view in the embers of the cremation pyres, that the Gyanvapi real estate fights are being waged.
Varanasi is said to be the permanent earthly home of Shiva, and the city is often called Avimukta, the “Never-Forsaken”. Then and now, Shiva thrives in binaries — carrying a snake as an ornament on his arm and yet with the life-giving Ganga latticed in his hair; a fearful demon pressed under his foot and yet with his hand raised in blessing; dancing in frenzied swirls and yet with a countenance that is absolutely serene. Freighted with these binaries, it is therefore easy to imagine that Shiva himself placed a mosque in a temple, urging us to ooze through the barbed wire of bygone centuries and present-day toxins, and to make new unities of old fractures, not only for the next 500 years, but into perpetuity.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 8, 2022 under the title ‘What Shiva wants’. The writer is a senior journalist