Saturday, June 16, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Sangam of religions
Khushwant Singh

WHEN I was a child of about four living in a tiny village with my grandmother, she taught me my first prayer. I was scared of the dark and prone to having nightmares. She told me that whenever I was frightened, I should recite the following lines by Guru Arjun:

Taatee vau na laagaee, Par-Brahma sarnaee

Chowgird hamaarey Raam-kar, dukh lagey na bhaee

(No ill-winds touch you, the great Lord your protector be Around you Lord Rama has drawn a protective line, Brother, no harm will come to thee.)

Being young, innocent and having infinite trust in my granny’s assurances, these lines worked like magic. Later, I discovered that most Sikh children were taught the same lines even before they learnt other prayers. The hymn had four more:

What makes a man great?
June 9, 2001
Malgudi no more
May 26, 2001
Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001
Guru-chela parampara
April 28, 2001
What the world owes to Jainism
April 21, 2001
Exercising the mind with books
April 14, 2001
The great Maharaja of Punjab
April 7, 2001
Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001
Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
March 17, 2001
A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001

Satgur poora bhetiya, jis banat banaaee

Ram naam aukhad deeya, eka liv laayee

Raakh liye tin raakhan har, sabh biaadh mitaayee

Kaho Nanak kirpa bhaee, Prabhu bhaye sahaaee

(The true guru was revealed in his fullness, the one who did all create,

He gave the name of Rama as medicine, in Him alone I repose my faith.

He saved all who deserve to be saved, he removes all worries of the mind.

Sayeth Nanak, God became my helper, He was kind.)

Mark the Hindu terminology in this short prayer: Peer, Brahma, Raam-kaar, Raam-Naam, and Prabhu. As a matter of fact, a painstaking scholar counted the number of times the name of God appears in the Adi-Granth. The total comes to around 16,000. Of these, over 14,000 are of Hindu origin: Hari, Ram, Govind, Narayan, Krishna, Murari, Madhav, Vithal etc. There are also a sizeable number of Islamic origin: Allah, Rehman, Rahim, Kareem, etc. The purely Sikh coinage Wahe Guru appears only 16 times.

The point I am trying to make is all religions take a lot from other religions with which they come into contact: there is not a single religion in the world which has not borrowed some concept or the other from another: some of its vocabulary and even its ritual. In the Judaic family of religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — there is plenty of evidence of wholesale borrowing. A good example is Islam. Its monotheism (belief in one God) exists in Judaism and Christianity.Its five daily prayers have roughly the same names as those of Jews; its greeting salam aalaikum is a variation of the Jewish shalom alekh; turning to Mecca for namaaz is based on the practice of Jews turning to Jerusalem for saying their prayers; their food inhibitions is considered pork; unclean, halaal is the same as Jewish koshir are more or less the same, the custom of circumcising male children (sunnat) is also Jewish.

The intermingling of faiths is much more in evidence in the Hindic family of religions; Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. All share belief in Karma, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, meditation etc. Needless to say, they also share much of their religious terminology. Since Sikhism was the last of these major religions and the only one to come into contact with Islam, it is the only one which took a lot of the terminology of Islam from Sufi saints.

When the thekedars (contractors or purveyers) of religion claim that their faith owes nothing to the others and is, therefore, purest of the pure, it makes me laugh at their ignorance.

Taking a break

Once a while everyone should get away from the drudgery of earning a livelihood and live in solitude doing nothing. Besides needing a break I had other reasons for my wanting to get out of Delhi. The first fortnight of May was full of dust-storms, hot winds and humidity. So I betook myself to Kasauli where I have a small cottage.

I had to rue my impatience. Two days before I was due to leave, it started to rain: fresh, moisture-laden breezes began to blow. There was quite a downpour the night before I left. As I drove to the New Delhi railway station, I passed lines of laburnums (amaltas) in all their golden glory. Windsor Place was a sight for the gods: golden yellow covered the trees, golden yellow carpeted the ground below. It was too late to turn back.

I had booked myself on the Shatabdi. Shatabdis are meant to travel from one major city to their terminals without any stop. The Delhi-Chandigarh-Delhi Shatabdi is more than 95 per cent full at either end when it starts on its three-hour journey. Earlier, it only stopped for two minutes at Ambala where a few passengers got off and some entrained. Since then politicians have meddled with its schedule. Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala persuaded Mamata Banerjee, who was then Railway Minister, to add two more stops, at Panipat and Kurukshetra. I saw no one detrain or entrain at either station, but it added another half an hour to its journey without generating any revenue.

Chandigarh was unpleasantly warm. I was lucky to get an AC taxi. Mercifully, there was not much traffic on the road and we sped past laburnums, gulmohars right to the base of the Shivaliks at Kalka. Thereafter, it was a succession of jacarandas (neelam) in full bloom. I was in my summer villa an hour later than usual.

Kasauli has more to it than being one of the oldest cantonment towns raised by the British in preparation for a war against the Sikhs. Its fresh air was considered the best treatment for tuberculosis and dozens of sanatoria came up in the surrounding pine-forested hills. Then a pasteur institute to produce sera against rabies and snake-bite was built on the crest of a hill and it is now called the Central Research Institute. Being only six-hour drive from Delhi and two hours from Chandigarh, made it much sought after by people wanting to escape from the heat of the plains. It is also rich in the variety of its flora and fauna. My little garden is full of bird song all day long: white-cheeked bulbuls, doves, parakeets, crows, mynahs, whistling thrushes, woodpeckers, fly-catchers and many others. In April and May, I hear the plaintive cuckoo calling as it flies across the valley; koels come up and call to each other from the dense foliage of the toon tree under which I sit. The only other sound is of the wind soughing through the pines. It is sheer bliss.

Kasauli can also stake its claim to be on the map of Indo-Anglican writing. Ruskin Bond was born here. Ruth Prawer Jhabwala used to be a regular visitor and wrote some of her novels here. Anita Desai wrote Fire on the Mountain after experiencing one which almost engulfed the town. Bulbul Sharma, painter-novelist has an orchard-cum-home down the slopes. Vivan Sundaram, painter and biographer of his aunt Amrita Shergill, has his villa above mine. Geetha Hariharan has spent some time here and no doubt worked on her novels. We also have some local aspirants to literary fame. Baljit Virti teaching at Pinegrove School, is polishing up her first novel. Ambika Sharma of The Tribune is working on the history of Kasauli.

Being a mini-celebrity in a mini-sleepy cantonment has some points in its favour. Kasauli has no scenic spots. The only one we can boast of is its highest peak called Monkey Point, without any monkeys. Nevertheless the legend was engendered by the locals that Lord Hanuman on his way back with the life-giving sanjeevini booti put one of his feet on this hill. Now we have a Hanuman mandir on its peak and the panda there makes a good living from the offerings it receives. Monkey Point also gives a spectacular view of the plains below: the Sutlej meandering its way is lit up with gold at sunset time, Kalka at the base of the hill, Surajpur Cement works and beyond it Chandigarh look splendid at night. On the northern side, you can see the lights of Shimla. After having visited Monkey Point, visitors passing by my house drop in uninvited. Most of them have not read anything by me except my joke books. For them I am some writer-shaiter. All they want is a joke-shoke. Besides them, Kingkong, a monster-sized rhesus with a bright red posterior hangs around my front garden and eyes me balefully as an unwelcome trespasser. His beady eyes are always fixed on me and tell me in no uncertain terms "bugger off", this is my home.

Our great Maulana

When Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was Education Minister in Pandit Nehru’s government, several representations were received protesting against a project to build an educational institution because the land allotted to it encroached on an old Muslim graveyard. When the file came up for final decision to the maulana, he wrote the following note in Urdu: "Qabrein hain to kya? Ilm kee raah mein agar Khuda bhee aaiye to usey hataa do" (what if there are graves? Even if God were to come in the way of education, He should be removed.)

(Courtesy: V.K. Kaul, New Delhi)