The kind of intolerance that is prevalent in the society today, makes me wonder the direction that we are heading towards, progressive or regressive? There is a growing intolerance to views which do not confirm with a certain segment of the society. The intolerance takes to violent recourse to ensure that the dissident voice is stifled, at times quite harshly, ensuring that the voice is done for ever and an example is set for a long time to come.
Were we an intolerant society since time immemorial or is this regressive intolerance a recent phenomenon? Are we emulating what we have inherited or are we creating new means to enforce and ensure a particular way of thought? Is anti-religious views anathema to a society which has a long and a diverse religious tradition?
Sometimes it’s worth looking at our past for many of our present day problems. Many might say that atheism and such thoughts are a recent phenomenon, as the ancient man was always god-fearing and had faith in god. There is as much truth in that as there is in the statement that the month of January has 38 days!
History is witness to the philosophies like Charvaka of the Nastikavada, i.e. the philosophy of atheism. Charvaka philosophy believed in the theory of materialism being prime and preached religious indifference. The philosophy challenged the existing notions, “There is no heaven, no ultimate salvation. No soul exists in the next world, nor are the actions of the four varnas fructuous in any way. .......If the animal sacrificed in the jyotishtom yagna goes to the heavens, why does one not sacrifice his own father?...” (as mentioned in Sarva Dharma Sangraha by the 14th century philosopher Madhava Acharya). It denied all the doctrines of the major religions of the day and believed in indulgence of sensory pleasures, as the sole objective of any life.
While the objective here is not to subscribe to the said theory and elevate it to a higher level; this is just to prove, that there were proponents of such theories who believed that the Vedas were tainted with untruth and self-contradictions. However, none stoned the proponents and nor were their works burnt and banned. This brings me to an excellent example of tolerance of divergence or even anti-religious views as seen in the epic Ramayana.
Jabali was a sage in the court of Dasharath, the King of Ayodhya. Jabali was an atheist and did not believe in any of the religious texts or rituals. His anti-religious views often made him ridicule the established rituals prevalent in the society then. On one of the occasions, he was supposed to have made fun of the post-death rituals by saying, that offering food to the dead, during the period of shradha was a sheer waste of food; whoever had heard that dead people could eat! He even went on to say, that the scriptures that contained the rituals for worshipping gods and the yagnas and other such rituals were prescribed by wise men only to keep people subjugated in the name of religion.
It is interesting to note as to what someone with such allegedly ‘devious’ thought process, was doing in the court of the great King Dasharath. Dasharath was of the opinion, that there were all sorts of people in his kingdom and if there was anything to do with such people, then Jabali would be the right person to understand them and help mete out justice to such people, since there was every possibility of the others condemning them even before their trial, due to their initial disposition towards religion. Truly, a broad-minded outlook given the times.
This further gets reinforced, during an episode in the epic Ramayana. When all who had gone with Bharat to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya had failed, Jabali was supposed to have tried to convince Rama in his own inimitable way. He is supposed to have told Rama, that he was taking his father’s wishes a bit too far and as a designated King of Ayodhya he had every right to ascend the throne and enjoy the fruits of royalty. Man was born alone and died alone, and clinging to such parental emotions was man’s undoing. Just to honour some wish of his dying father, his leaving the comforts of a palace for forests, was nothing short of foolishness and it would be sensible to return to Ayodhya. Jabali felt rather strange that a man of Ram’s stature should leave a concrete objective like ruling the kingdom of Ayodhya, for some obscure religious norm that he wanted to honour.
Needless to say, that Ram was angry and wondered how his father had kept such a person as his advisor. What follows is a dialogue where Ram justifies his actions, and during the course of what seems to be a reprimand of sorts, calls him an atheist. Jabali is said to have withdrawn and ended the entreaty to return, with the words that based on the circumstances, he changed his belief system to suit the occasion. When needed he became a believer and when required he became a non-believer. While these words were seen as the words of an opportunist, we will debate this a little later. Having said what he did, Jabali was supposed to have withdrawn and went back to Ayodhya like the others, except that after the death of Dasharath, and during the exile of Rama, he was seen as an outcast, and he was supposed to have left Ayodhya.
Many like Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya have referred to Jabali as a ‘Freethinker par excellence’, while many have seen him as a rank atheist and taken Ram’s reproach and reprimand as the final word against atheism. Many have gone to suggest that Jabali made those radical statements only to coax Ram to return to Ayodhya and he didn’t quite mean the words he used, and the final words were an indication to that. However, the final words that he changed his views based on circumstances, had more to do with the typical dilemma, a lot of us have in mind. Did god really exist? Some aspects denote the presence of a Supreme power, but some incidents make us question the very presence of such power, which seems benign at certain times. The statement was a case of dilemma which is what majority of the people suffer, when they are not so stubborn or dogged in their views about matters of God, and have an iota of grey matter to ask questions and not give in to blind belief system. The statement is apt when a simpleton does not get answers to his questions, and gives in to moments of weakness or frustration.
Jabali went on to write the Jabali Upanishad and the modern city of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, India, is supposed to have been named after him. The origins of Jabali too make interesting reading.
According to Samaveda-Chandogyopanishad, once a sage came across a boy who had an intense desire to learn, but none were willing to accept him as a disciple. The sage asked the boy his name and he said, Satyakama. After this the sage asked the obvious question, about his father, to understand his caste and if he deserved education. To this Satyakama is supposed to have said, that he didn’t know the name of his father, but his mother had asked him to say, if asked, that he was the son of Jabala, which was her name. Not knowing the name of one’s father, meant questionable paternity and also put his mother’s reputation in question. But the sage could not overlook Satyakama’s intense desire to learn, and much to the displeasure of the others, the sage accepted Satyakama as his disciple who was since then also referred to as Jabali, the son of Jabala.
To conclude, I would urge the upholders of religion, that any religion stands by its own strength and does not need pillars to uphold it. Religion should be able to protect its followers and not the other way round. A fragile religion is a sign of weakness and any efforts to ‘save’ it would only prove counter-productive. Divergent views give way to debate and debates are a must for the thoughts to flower and find new meanings. Don’t thwart this growth and when the vision is faint, look back. Even Rama was sympathetic to the likes of Jabali, just who are you guys, if I may ask?