September 06, 2006

Vande Maataram and the Pledge of Allegiance

A question that has aroused much controversy in the United States in recent years is whether it is constitutional for public schools to require the recitation of the version of the Pledge of Allegiance that contains the words under God. The argument against this practice is that this violates the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. In my view, this is clearly the case. Not only are the words interpreted by nearly everyone as having religious implications, but we know that the reason that these words were inserted into the Pledge was to reinforce religion against "Godless Communism", and it is clear that proponents of the use of this revised version of the Pledge advocate it out of a desire to impose their religious views on school children. A scholarly argument can be made that these words have a different origin, but even if true it is an argument with little relevance to the actual meaning and interpretation of the Pledge.

A nearly identical dispute is now raging in India.

India has both a national anthem, জন গণ মন, a Bengali song composed by Rabindranth Tagore, and a Bengali "national song" known as वन्दे मातरम् "Vande Maataram". The dispute is over whether school children should be required to sing Vande Maataram. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party favors this, and in the states of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which it controls, singing of the song in schools, including Muslim schools, has been made mandatory. There are, however, strong objections, mostly on the part of Muslims, on the grounds that the song is associated with Hindu nationalism and is offensive both to secularists and to non-Hindus, especially Muslims. Here is an op-ed piece from 1999, and here is one from today's The Hindu. Here is a news item from today's DNA India, and here is one from a Bengali newspaper.

Proponents claim that this is just a patriotic song with no religiouos significance, and a few Muslims even back them up. As the article from The Hindu notes, BJP national council member Arif Mohammad Khan has even translated it into Urdu. Nonethless, even before investigating carefully, you can be confident that the politicians are up to no good. After all, has it EVER happened that politicians required the recitation of something uncontroversial and of unquestionable educational value, say the laws of thermodynamics? Of course not.

The most insightful discussion that I have seen is this editorial in the Hindustan Times by Inderjit Hazra. (You've got to admire a writer who begins an essay: "The best way to read Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay is in a Scottish pub.") One of the main points that he makes is that the song has a different history in Bengal and elsewhere in India. To a certain extent, in other parts of India it is associated with the anti-colonial movement and so has a generally patriotic association, but in Bengal it became very clearly associated with Hindu anti-Muslim sentiment. Indeed, the song appeared in 1882 in the violently anti-Muslim novel আনন্দমঠ Anandamatha "Temple of Joy". Here is an Indian Muslim's take on the song.

I've given this in Devanagari script, which is not the usual way of writing Bengali, since this is the form in which the song is known to most Indians. In any case, the song is not in ordinary Bengali but in the now largely disused highly artificial and Sanskritized form of literary Bengali known as সাধুভাষা, which the great Bengali linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee once described as follows:

with its forms belonging to Middle Bengali, and its vocabulary highly Sanskritized, it could only be compared to a 'Modern English' with a Chaucerian grammar and a super-Johnsonian vocabulary, if such a thing could be conceived.

Here is the full text of the song together with Sri Aurobindo's English translation.

वन्दे मातरम्
सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम्

बहुबलधारिणीं नमामि तारिणीम्
रिपुदलवारिणीं मातरम्॥
Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Green fields waving Mother of might,
Mother free.
सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम्
सस्य श्यामलां मातरंम् .
शुभ्र ज्योत्सनाम् पुलकित यामिनीम्

फुल्ल कुसुमित द्रुमदलशोभिनीम्,
सुहासिनीं सुमधुर भाषिणीम् .
सुखदां वरदां मातरम् ॥
Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.
सप्त कोटि कन्ठ कलकल निनाद कराले

द्विसप्त कोटि भुजैर्ध्रत खरकरवाले
के बोले मा तुमी अबले
बहुबल धारिणीम् नमामि तारिणीम्
रिपुदलवारिणीम् मातरम् ॥

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands
When swords flash out in seventy million hands
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and stored,
To thee I call Mother and Lord!
Thou who saves, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foe drove
Back from plain and sea
And shook herself free.
तुमि विद्या तुमि धर्म, तुमि ह्रदि तुमि मर्म
त्वं हि प्राणाः शरीरे
बाहुते तुमि मा शक्ति,

हृदये तुमि मा भक्ति,
तोमारै प्रतिमा गडि मन्दिरे-मन्दिरे ॥
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou art heart, our soul, our breath
Though art love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm,
Thine the beauty, thine the charm.
Every image made divine
In our temples is but thine.
त्वं हि दुर्गा दशप्रहरणधारिणी

कमला कमलदल विहारिणी
वाणी विद्यादायिनी, नमामि त्वाम्
नमामि कमलां अमलां अतुलाम्
सुजलां सुफलां मातरम् ॥
Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,
With her hands that strike and her
swords of sheen,
Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,
And the Muse a hundred-toned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother lend thine ear,
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleems,
Dark of hue O candid-fair

श्यामलां सरलां सुस्मितां भूषिताम्
धरणीं भरणीं मातरम् ॥
In thy soul, with jewelled hair
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hands!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free!

Now, it is plain as day that this is not a secular song. The third stanza is implicitly addressed to the goddess काली Kali. The fifth is explicitly addressed to the goddesses दुर्गा Durga and लक्ष्मी Lakshmi. Overall, the song conceives of India as a female deity. Tagore himself wrote: "The core of 'Vande Mataram' is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it.". The use of just the first two stanzas in the schools is for the purpose of omitting the more explicitly religious material, but everyone still knows what the song is about.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 6, 2006 06:31 PM