Sunday, January 18, 2004

Rebirth of a dead tradition
Suvir Saran

Unesco’s recognition to vedic chanting has come as a boon for scholars
Unesco’s recognition to vedic chanting has come as a boon for scholars

THE long-forgotten tradition of vedic chanting has received a fresh lease of life with the UNESCO recognising it as a ‘masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage’, on a par with China’s Guquin music, the Wayang puppet theatre of Indonesia, Cambodia’s royal ballet, Belgium’s Binche Carnival, Tonga’s Lakalaka dances and the sand drawings of Vanuatu.

Altogether, 28 such intangible masterpieces from around the world have been identified by the Paris-based body for preservation and resurrection, like any other heritage monument or cultural institution. As always, the idea is to revive a dying tradition before it is completely lost to future generations.

In India, the UNESCO-endorsed five-year action plan would ensure setting up 15 Vedic institutions of primary learning at a cost of Rs 53 million where five-year courses would be offered under the traditional gurukul system. Resurrecting near-forgotten modes of chanting, documenting chants, starting refresher courses for existing practitioners and incubating common curricula also form part of the plan.

"This proclamation does not simply recognise the value of some elements of the intangible heritage," UNESCO Director-General, Koichiro Matsura elaborates. "It entails the commitment of the international community to implement plans to promote and safeguard the masterpieces."

As for Vedic chanting, the world body points out that although the scriptures would continue to play an important role in India, the ancient oral tradition now faces problems owing to current economic conditions and modernisation. "Experts claim that four noted schools of Vedic recitation — in Orissa, Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka — may be in danger of closing down."

The ground reality is even more depressing. According to a recent study conducted by the Department of Culture (DoC) in Delhi, only two of the Rig Veda’s 20 branches and 21 sub-branches, six of Yajur Veda’s 101 branches, three of Sama Veda’s nine branches and two of Atharva Veda’s nine branches exist today. Four schools of Vedic chanting — Paippalada, Ranayaniya, Jaiminiya and Maitrayani — are about to vanish.

"While there are nearly 500 traditional Vedic Patshalas (primary schools), there are only 300-odd teachers for fewer than 1,500 students," the study added. "With Vedic traditions losing talent to other professions, the ilk of those deft at accurate chanting has shriveled."

Apart from the flight of talent, it is the relevance of the Vedas that the present generation of Indians is beginning to question. Several left-wing political groups have also debunked the caste system propagated by the Vedas on the basis of vocational calling:Brahmins (the highest class given to performing religious duties), Kshatriyas (the warrior class), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (the lowly untouchables).

"We are living in the 21st century when we should be moving towards a classless society," said Pradip Sarkar, a trade-union leader of Delhi University. "What is the sense of reviving a 4,000-year-old tradition that has caused so much damage to the Indian psyche? The money allotted could be put to better use such as spreading literacy, extending primary health care and generating employment opportunities."

India’s persecuted backward castes, or Dalits, are equally apprehensive that the UNESCO move would only perpetuate the dominance of Brahmins. "This is one more step to prove how the Hindu identity is thrust on the very people victimised by it," says Dr Iniyan Ilango, co-founder of the Dalit Media Network.

The government, for its part has tried to allay these fears by maintaining that non-Brahmins would not be turned away from Vedic schools. "But the thread ceremony is a pre-requisite to qualifying for training," says a DoC official. "Being a Brahmin is about good conduct. That’s how sage Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya by birth, became a Brahmarishi."

Ironically enough, Brahmin priests and scholars are themselves unhappy at the way seminal texts of a world religion have been "clubbed" with the folk arts. "Be it a farmer in Tamil Nadu or a fisherman in Bengal, some part of his worldview has been inspired by the Vedas," says Vikram Mason, one such critic. "By closeting the Vedas with other cultural expressions, UNESCO has marginalised the most important scriptures in the Hindu tradition.

Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan of the National Mission for Manuscripts, who piloted the proposal, dismisses all fears as unfounded: "Our focus is on 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." MF