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TRADITION

Solar Flares

Vedic chanting makes it to UNESCO's intangible heritage of humanity list, only to ruffle a few feathers

HARSH KABRA

 

 

On November 7, when Vedic chanting glistened on UNESCO's list of 28 masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage selected from 80 international entries, it also cast a self-adulatory glow on the Indian government, more specifically the Department of Culture (DoC).

But this recognition has also whipped up a controversy.

The facts first. In a bid to revitalise one of

Song And Dance
Some of the 28 masterpieces from UNESCO's list

the world's oldest living oral traditions, faced with apathy, adulteration and outright extinction, the DoC had embarked upon a UNESCO-endorsed five-year action plan to set up 15 Vedic pathshalas at a cost of Rs 5.3 crore to offer five-year courses under the traditional gurukul system of oral teaching. As part of the plan, it proposed to tap au fait gurus, form a phalanx of authoritative pundits, restore the rigour of 'pristine' Vedic articulation, resurrect near-forgotten modes of chanting, document the chants, drive refresher courses for existing practitioners and incubate common curricula.

Subsequently, the DoC approached UNESCO to get Vedic chanting recognised as an 'intangible heritage of humanity' to win foreign financial support for the cause.

 

 

"The Vedas don't need outside honours to confirm their importance."

 

 

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Delhi, was roped in to prepare a presentation showcasing the evanescent tradition. After much dawdling over whether any recognition to the Vedas would amount to patronising a particular religion,

a UNESCO team visited India earlier this year and returned convinced about the sheer cultural wealth of the oral practices linked to the 'scriptures'.

But Navya Shastra (NS), a US-based global organisation of Hindu scholars, activists, priests and lay people, has taken umbrage at the clubbing of the "seminal texts of a world religion" with folk arts (see box). "The Vedas and its chanting tradition form the fountainhead, the very epicentre, of the religious beliefs of over 800 million people," Vikram Masson, co-chairman, NS, told Outlook from New Jersey. "Be it a farmer in Tamil Nadu or a fisherman in Bengal, some part of his spiritual worldview has been inspired by the utterances of the rishis. By closeting the Vedas with other cultural expressions, UNESCO has marginalised and diminished the most important scriptures in the Hindu tradition." Reasons Koichiro Matsuura, DG, UNESCO: "This proclamation doesn't simply recognise the value of some elements of the intangible heritage; it entails the commitment of the state to implement plans to promote and safeguard the masterpiece."



But Masson isn't satisfied: "The government should have taken other measures to safeguard the Vedic tradition. It could have sought the assistance of home-grown philanthropic organisations. The Vedas, central

 

 

Experts say that four noted Vedic schools are in the danger of closing down.

 

 

to Indian culture for over 4,000 years, don't need outside honours to confirm their importance."

Yet, confirming the importance of this tradition may not be as critical as salvaging the tradition itself. Even UNESCO concurs: "Although the Vedas continue to play an important role in India, this ancient oral tradition now faces difficulties owing to current economic conditions and modernisation. Experts claim that four noted schools of Vedic recitation?in Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala?may be in danger of closing down."

The DoC study unravelled depressing statistics to corroborate this. It said that while only two of the Rig Veda's 20 branches and 21 sub-branches, six of the Yajur Veda's 101 branches, three of the Sama Veda's 1,000 branches, and two of Atharva Veda's nine branches existed today, four schools of Vedic chanting?Paippalada, Ranayaniya, Jaiminiya, and Maitrayani?were about to vanish. The study pointed out that while there were nearly 500 traditional Vedic pathshalas, there were only 300-odd teachers drilling fewer than 1,500 students. With Vedic traditions losing talent to other professions, the ilk of those deft at accurate chanting has shrivelled.

 


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Live NewsResourcesInteractiveFeaturesMagazineRegularsTop Menu Bar

 

 

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  Current Stories

 

MANORAMA SAVUR
Buds Of Poison Is A Lie
The author of And the Bamboo Flowers in the Indian Forests joins issue with the Minister for Development and his threat to clearfell the bamboo forests in the Northeast. It would be an ecological disaster, she warns.


ANITA PRATAP
View From The Glasshouse
What use pontificating about feelgood factors? Can we ignore the reality?

Par For The Cause?
Having five women CMs may not automatically mean success for the feminist movement

Give Me Red!
Vintners may hype its health benefits. But when it comes to making a statement, only the red will do.

Barrier-Free
A special games opens many new doors to its multi-skilled contestants

 

   Free Speech

 

Speak up! Express yourself in our free- wheeling discussions or start those of your own.

Death Penality for Rapists? Would that be a deterrence? Or do we just need better sensitisation and implementation of existing laws by police and judiciary?

The Hindu Suicide Squads What do you think of the latest from Bal Thackeray?

Dalit Lynchings Killing men in the name of cow protection.

Is Idealism Dead? Has practicality taken over?

The "Good" Indians Don't we get the government we deserve?

Gandhi: reduced to just 'a dispenser of homilies and nostrums'?

Cloning: Any ideological problems?

Education: Where will the money come from? And don't the 0-6 age group need it?

...and more  


 


Solar Flares

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UNESCO recognition has also ratcheted up the debate on whether Vedic education should be accessible to Brahmins alone, which has drawn the likes of Dr Iniyan Elango, co-founder, Dalit Media Network, into dubbing the denial of admission to Dalits into Vedic schools as a proof of how "the Hindu identity is thrust on the very people victimised by it".

Aeons of popular misinterpretation, ritualism and caste jackets have undermined the Vedic bequest. Says scholar Dr David Frawley: "The yogic teaching was made a secret largely as a defensive measure from repeated foreign invasions. The closed nature the teaching assumed in the Middle Ages is not characteristic of its true nature, which is open to all but does not seek to impose itself on anyone."

But Masson says the DoC's action plan mandates that applicants to pathshalas be Brahmin boys only. "Since the Vedas are the heritage of humanity and the available pool of Brahmins has diminished substantially in the last 50 years, students must be chosen on a caste-blind basis," he argues. "By endorsing the government plan, UNESCO is endorsing the caste system." A senior DoC official refutes this: "UNESCO's declaration is only an acknowledgement of the oral tradition's intrinsic value. There's no proposal whatsoever at the government level to restrict it to a particular caste or community."

Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan, mission director, National Mission for Manuscripts, and the author of the candidature files submitted to UNESCO, dismisses the fears as unfounded: "Our focus is on the Vedic chanters. We aren't even looking at the knowledge aspect of the Vedas, much less their religious connection. We are only seeking to preserve a mnemonically inherited tradition, which has no parallels and is faced with the danger of extinction today. There's no mention of any caste in the files or the action plan."

Although conventionally overlapping with Brahminhood, Vedic schools link it to the caste canon in a looser definition. "We wouldn't turn away a non-Brahmin seeking admission to a course," reveals a senior teacher from a Vedic school in south Maharashtra. "But the thread ceremony is a prerequisite for him to qualify for training. Being a Brahmin is all about good conduct. That's how Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya, became Brahmarshi."

Institutions like his continue to outdare the lack of money, community support and quality learners. "People see Vedic pathshalas as the last resort, where Brahmins who fail to come through academic competition can be accommodated," says S.P. Joshi, secretary of the 125-year-old Pune Veda Pathshala. "Brahmins are increasingly looking at Vedic training as a shortcut to respectable living."

To further muddy the issue, the more cussed of critics see in this a bjp regime furthering a rightist agenda in the garb of culture. Competitive modern ideologies, of all ilks, may yet be the final spoiler in this uneasy cohabitation between the need to preserve heritage and more mundane materialistic worries

 

 

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