The recent controversy surrounding the group of Carnatic musicians who helped produce a Christian album set to Carnatic melodies, while having generated much outrage, has also spawned a host of interesting arguments coming out in defense of the artists’ actions. One particular article from The Hindu 1 which caught my attention posed an extremely intriguing question – “What is the threat they (the artists in question as well as those who hired them) have posed to Hinduism?” The author followed this with a brief expose on the history of Christian involvement in Carnatic Music, including the stories of Vedanayagam Sastriar, Rao Saheb Abraham Pandithar, A.M. Chinnaswami Mudaliar and others. In essence, he believes that since the paths of Christianity and Carnatic music have crossed before and nothing happened to the art form as a result, the present backlash is unwarranted. But I find this line of argumentation riddled with fallacy as well as simply naive. So I will start first by answering the author’s original question: what is the threat posed to Hinduism, given the history of Christian-Carnatic collaboration?
The fundamental flaw with this article’s reasoning is that it is based on false equivalency and fueled by anecdotal evidence. Giving your readers the example of Rao Saheb Abraham Pandithar convening a music conference or D.K Pattammal and P. Sambamoorthy participating in a Christian school of music a century ago tells them nothing about the present issue. For starters, Christian evangelism, especially in developing nations like India, is an entirely different animal today than it was a hundred years ago, the time period from which the majority of author’s examples are from. That answers his question as to why the reaction today is different. Things just aren’t the same! If you, the reader, needs any proof of this, visit the website of evangelical organizations such as the Joshua Project (https://joshuaproject.net/countries/IN). The systematized and thorough manner in which these evangelical outfits target and profile specific groups of vulnerable people and their religious traditions is astonishing, and to be quite honest, almost admirable – they are certainly a dedicated bunch. Thus, the backlash that the present controversy generated is more than understandable, if not entirely justified. The outraged fear that their culture, in which they take great pride in preserving, is under attack, in the same way that so many other traditions, such as the Navajo or the Maasai, have been the victims of similar cultural vandalism, with devastating results.
In addition to Christianity’s history of cultural vandalism, it also has a colorful history when it comes to cultural appropriation. Take the christmas tree, a symbol which, other than the cross itself, is perhaps most associated with the Christian tradition. It is, however, just as original to Christianity as the “dvajastamba” that adorns the front of the Santhome Church in Chennai – it was adopted, or rather appropriated, from the now forgotten pagan traditions that once dominated much of western Europe but were wiped out with the advent of Christianity. Another such example is of Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, a text which evangelistic elements attempted to claim as their own, writing books with titles such as ‘Thiruvalluvar Christuvara’ (Is Thiruvalluvar a Christian?). This once again illustrates the reason for the outrage – lovers of Carnatic music simply don’t want history to repeat itself.
However, you may ask why I’m so sure that history will indeed repeat itself – I am, after all, no soothsayer. But I am certain of this because of one simple fact – Christianity as a faith makes no room for mutual respect. In other words, while it may at most tolerate another tradition, it can by no means recognize it as legitimate. The following illustrates this very point: during the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit in 2000, Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, who led the Hindu delegation, insisted that in the official draft of the resolution, the consolatory term “tolerance” be replaced with the phrase “mutual respect.” The leader of the Catholic delegation Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, objected greatly to this. Despite this resistance on the part of the Cardinal and his Abrahamic counterparts, the resolution passed with “tolerance” having been replaced by “mutual respect.” However, the Vatican later reverted to its original position stating that while,“followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”2 3
There are also those, such as T.M. Krishna, who have written that accusations of plagiarism and appropriation within the context of the present issue are unfounded because Carnatic Music has its own instances of such sharing. Instances cited include the fact that “Purandara Dasa’s ‘Smarane Onde Salade’ and ‘Hari Katha Shravana Mado’ resonate with Tyagaraja’s ‘Smarane Sukhamu’ and ‘Rama Katha Sudha Rasa’” and that “Muttusvami Dikshitar transformed ‘God save the gracious king/queen’ to ‘santatam pahimam Sangita shyamale’.” 4 In the first case, a false equivalency is being drawn – there is most certainly a huge difference between the exchanging and sharing of ideas within a single tradition and the repurposing of one tradition’s ideas by another, which is what is happening now. In the case of Muttsvami Dikshitar too the context is different. Dikshitar, having perhaps heard “God Save the Gracious Queen/King” played by a marching band in passing, was most probably inspired, perhaps even subconsciously, to incorporate the melodies he had heard into his song ‘santatam pahimam Sangita shyamale’ – it was hardly an agenda-driven effort of any sort. So using such examples to draw parallels with the present matter at hand is illogical.
Now one might argue, and prudently I may add, that the artists in question are entitled to ‘artistic freedom’ – participating in projects such as this is within their right as musicians. Yet this prudent individual is forgetting just one thing: as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “with freedom comes responsibility.” Looking at this issue and claiming artistic freedom is flawed for one very important reason – it is applying a western lens to a situation in which such a lens has no context. There has never been a place in our culture for trademarks, royalties or copyright – traditionally, our gurus pass on their knowledge under one condition – that we, as the next generation, protect and propagate that knowledge in its entirety. I myself am currently living in a gurukulam learning Sanskrit grammar from Dr. Pushpa Dikshit, a renowned scholar of the subject. Now Mataji (as we affectionately call her) teaches, feeds and houses us absolutely free of cost. Yet she does so under one condition – that we continue the lineage and carry forth the tradition without compromise. Any rasika who has attended a morning lecture demonstration at the Music Academy can attest to the number of presentations dedicated to the ‘PaaTanthara’ or tradition of a certain school of music and the importance given to preserving that ‘PaaTanthara.’ In the case of Carnatic Music, each artist is a vital link in a tradition that is not widely practiced. It is thus critical that outside influences, especially those with the track record of Christianity, do not have a chance to repurpose it entirely.
The treatment of this matter as artists simply exchanging ideas and exploring their artistry is naïve. Unfortunately, gone are the days when the sharing of even art was an innocent act, for lessons from recent history tell us otherwise. Given the pace of the onslaught, it may perhaps be too late to take the ‘wait and see’ approach – there is much too much at stake here. So, in conclusion, the threat to Hinduism as a culture is this: given that it is passive and pluralistic at its core while the very backbone, the modus operandi of Christianity is actively displacing diversity with strict cultural homogeneity, any attempts at hybridizing Christianity with traditional elements can only be seen as a threat to the individuality of the tradition. Therefore, this is hardly an issue that can be given a fleeting glance, as The Hindu and others have, for that is just callous disregard.
Siddhartha is a student studying mathematics and Computer Science at Stanford University. A passionate student of Sanskrit poetics, grammar and linguistics, he has chosen to take a gap year to spend time in Chattisgarh, where he is studying Samskrit Vyakaranam in a traditional gurukulam setting. Some of his Sanskrit-related work may be seen on YouTube channel called The Sanskrit Corner, which has popular videos to teach Sanskrit grammar and poetry. Siddhartha is also a serious student of Carnatic music and performs regularly during the December season.
Twitter – @kachapah
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeakgNb9PlRxSJ2oty64wcA
1. A Chronicle of Collaboration – Aug 20, 2018, thehindu.com
2. Tolerance Isn’t Good Enough: The Need For Mutual Respect In Interfaith Relations – Dec 9, 2010, Huffingtonpost.com
3. DECLARATION “DOMINUS IESUS”ON THE UNICITY AND SALVIFIC UNIVERSALITY OF JESUS CHRIST AND THE CHURCH – Aug 6, 2000, vatican.va
4. Those Who Talk of Plagiarism in Carnatic Music Know Not About the Tradition – Aug 23, 2018, thewire.in