Politicians take liberties in explaining the significance of religious events
Stabroek News
April 9, 2002

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Dear Editor,

It is perturbing and often ludicrous to see the liberty that politicians give themselves year after year in "explaining" the significance of Hindu festivals and sacred events. It is clear, in addition to their spiritual and religious meanings that are central to the understanding of these events, that they can also be understood on a social level. Yet it is equally clear that politicians stretch and distort their significance as they engage in a wanton and vulgar reductionism to read in them what is not there.

Let us take for example the Phagwah message given this year by President Bharat Jagdeo who "interprets" the Prahlad story (Guyana Chronicle, 3/29/02) as an inspiration to Guyanese "to pursue a path of development that would be beneficial to all our peoples" and Prince Prahalad's mobilisation of "ordinary people in bringing about social change." All of us want development but what

exactly in the Prahalad story inspires us "to pursue a path of development?" How did Prahalad "mobilise" ordinary people to bring about "social change?"

While the reader does enjoy an ambit of liberty to interpret the Prahalad story, simplistic fabrications violate its fundamental core of the fulfilment of God's promise to rescue and protect the devotee in grave crises. According to the story in the Vishnu Purana, King Hiranyakashipu had become so swollen with pride and arrogance (from the Sanskrit darpita in Vishnu Purana 1,17:6) that he demanded that everyone in the kingdom worship him as God.

While many people submitted to the king's demands his own son, Prahlad, defied him. The king sought to have the boy "taught" by his teachers and when subsequently he wanted a progress report in the "education" of his son, the boy kept saying (Vishnu Purana: 1,17:15) that the most important thing he learnt was to "adore Him who is without beginning, middle, and end, who is without change, the imperishable Lord of the world, the Cause of all causes."

The king was so intoxicated with rage upon hearing this that he eventually sought to have his son killed. Finally, Bhagavan Vishnu incarnated Himself as the Narasimha Avatara, rescued his devotee from the jaws of death, and put an end to the arrogant king. This story therefore demonstrates above everything else the persistence and victory of devotion and faith. It demonstrates the salvific power of God.

But does the Prahalad story have a social dimension, a layer of meaning that is evident without having to torture the text and being disrespectful to the tradition? I think that it does and the most obvious one that jumps out at the reader is the arrogance of king Hiranyakashipu and his megalomaniac obsession with power and all the grand illusions that go with it.

This dimension is so obvious in the story that it requires a great effort not to see it. In terms of its relevance to our situation, the intoxication with political power is a theme that reflects both the historical and contemporary life in our small country and the story presents a warning to all those who wield power to do so with fairness and justice. Power must be exercised only on the basis of Dharma.

Another significant point that comes out in this story is the attitude especially of those in power to those who are perceived as the enemy, the foe, the opposition. What king Hiranyakashipu found intolerable was his son's praise of Bhagavan Vishnu whom the king, hallucinating under the illusions of absolute power, considered his enemy. Twice in this chapter (in verses 17 and 27) the king was livid with anger at his son's praising Bhagavan Vishnu. In both the texts the king chided his son for consorting

with the enemy. The term for the other, the enemy, the foe, is the Sanskrit word vi-paksha.

We know how easily people are demonised when they are seen to be "talking with the enemy." Even more interesting in dealing with the other, the story evokes the concept of "our own," "kith and kin" versus the other. Does it not sound familiar? Don't politicians in Guyana get even more outraged when one of "our own" is seen to be consorting with the enemy? Prahalad is therefore described by his father a traitor to his own (sva-paksha hani kartri) and as a burning brand to his own race (kulaangaaratam).

Finally the Prahalad story deals with the theme of dissent and it shows how consumed rulers can become in the face of such dissent. In spite of what we are told about democracy and the freedom of speech rulers of the land always view the dissident with fear and suspicion, especially when that dissident is "one of our own." By the mere fact of dissent one is placed in the camp of the enemy.

There is more to the social revelance of this story. But let me come back to the principal theme, Prahalad's great devotion, and to say that it is precisely for this reason that the Hindu tradition honours Prahlad as bhakta raja, the King of Devotees. My salutations to Prahalad Maharaj. May your example shine in the hearts of our young people.

Yours faithfully,

Swami Aksharananda