Down with Birthdays!

Birthdays may be celebrated but not necessarily at the expense of tradition. Now that the grand Bhumi-pujan at Ayodhya is behind us, perhaps it can be stated without dampening the spirit of celebration that the choice of the date was an avoidable controversy.

Down with Birthdays!

Last year, 2019, in a neighbouring civilization called the Year of the Pig, coincidentally on Autumn Equinox, there was a potentially important conference in Delhi Aerocity. Though tailor-made for welcoming foreigners arriving at the airport, I was the only real foreigner there: both foreign national and foreign resident. Yet, in the introductory proceedings, the organizers highlighted that I had recently turned 60. Since 60 = 5 x 12, a full Chinese 12-year Zodiac had revolved once more since my birth, which means I am a Pig myself. That must explain my fondness for Varaha, Vishnu’s Boar incarnation who saves the Earth goddess from the deep, and who spites pig-haters by showing how even a pig can be God. Pig and proud to be one!

Still, I had mixed feelings about this attention to my birthday. True, I have to plead guilty: they had asked me beforehand, and I had cursorily agreed, knowing Hindus’ penchant for celebrating. Earlier that year, I had attended a conference where invited speakers had been asked to shorten and even further shorten their prepared speeches to make room for more pomp and ceremony – and the audience loved it. That was an astrology conference which I only attended because a Serbo-Belgian friend of mine was being honoured, and for that kind of occasion and audience, all this empty glitter was what you might expect.

But this conference was different. It focused on the legal discriminations against Hinduism, a very grim reality about which six years of Narendra Modi’s rule hasn’t done anything (though indirectly, the purely secular reform of abolishing the special status of Jammu & Kashmir has remedied a de facto source of injustice to the Hindus). This birthday stuff seemed to me, an impatient Westerner, inappropriately frivolous for such a potentially consequential work meeting.

(It was not even the only off-topic venture. The organizers also honoured Alok Kumar, advocate and VHP leader. I was very happy to see him back: in the 1990s I had met him several times when he fought court cases for Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, always victorious. Now this, even more than his side career as a VHP office-bearer, made him truly deserving of being honoured. Only, this was not the right occasion: it gave a handle to the Mendacious Media to misrepresent this independent pan-Hindu initiative as a VHP affair. And yes, the next day the Times of India reported the conference highlighting its VHP dimension but obscuring its theme, as it did not want the fact of anti-Hindu discrimination to enter its readers’ consciousness.)

I have never been into birthday celebrations. In Belgium, my own birthday fell in the summer holidays, so I didn’t have my schoolmates etc. around me to do any celebrating, and I noticed my parents not paying any attention to it either. When I had become a father myself, I noticed my mother, the kids’ grandmother, frowning on all the time and money spent by the new generation on such a silly mundane occasion.

In real Roman Catholic tradition, it was not the birthday that was celebrated, but the “name day”. All Catholic children were named after a saint, and they celebrated the day allotted to that saint in the Saints’ Calendar. Good for me, as there were several saints called Koenraad. To limit myself to an example known in India: all boys named Valentine were expected to celebrate 14-February. The fact that birthdays had entered our consciousness at all was a symptom of the march of secularization. (But this had already been going on for long enough to produce a few good Dutch birthday carols, far better than the American tune everybody knows.)

When I had gotten to know my mentor in Hindu matters, Sita Ram Goel, I noticed that he too frowned on birthdays and shuddered resignedly when he saw his grandchildren partake in the American fad of birthday celebrations. It was not a matter of which religion, but of religiosity as such: people aware of heavenly realities are not that euphoric about a mere birthday, the day an eternal soul takes temporary incarnation. The fact that spiritual level corresponds inversely with the value attached to birthdays is best illustrated by the fact that Hindu renunciates discard from their discourse all their pre-initiation life details, including their physical birthday. In that sense, it was another sign of mindless Americanization when, some years ago, thousands of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s disciples flew in to Bengaluru to celebrate their Guru’s birthday. Gurus are important precisely because they have transcended their personalities: them, you could call apaurusheya.

Then again, the Hindu valuation of astrology upgrades birthdays somewhat. Not that the birth horoscope is intrinsically Hindu: unlike the simple rules an astro-calculation of auspicious times in genuinely Vedic astrology, the individualized astrology of the birth horoscope was imported from Babylon by the Greeks only some two thousands years ago, a trifle when reckoned on a Hindu timescale. But now horoscopy has become a part of most Hindus’ lives, so the stellar configuration at birth is deemed to contain the main features of one’s present incarnation. It’s only an incarnation, a hundred years at most, but alright, it is more than nothing.

Why this contemplation of the birthday principle? This requires a little detour. On the occasion of the Bhumi Pujan in Ayodhya on 5 August 2020, Anjali George, a leader of the pro-tradition agitation last year regarding Sabarimala, sent around the reference to an article in The Hindu (“The conservative challenge to Hindutva”, Aug. 2020). It said that

“Many Hindu Dharmagurus, including a Shankaracharya, believe that August 5 is an inauspicious day for the ceremony. According to them, astrologically, and in consonance with established religious practices, the second day (Dwitiya) of the dark fortnight (Krishnapaksh) of the Indian month of Bhadrapad (July-August) is considered inauspicious. Besides, gods are supposed to be resting during this month and must not be called upon. Despite this, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has decided to go ahead with the ceremony on this date.”

There are far more knowledgeable commenters on Hindu astrology, but even this writer can comprehend the simple principle that an enterprise intended to grow and prosper should be started under a waxing moon. To be sure, I have no idea of the real-life effect of the waxing or waning of the moon at a foundational moment (it should be easy to test: compare the destinies of a hundred waxing-moon initiatives with a hundred waning-moon ones), and Hindus are at liberty to dissent from their own tradition in this regard, but then that should be openly debated in tempore non suspecto.

The Dharmacharyas had a point when they protested that the tradition they represent should not be simply ignored, and certainly not at an important event, religious par excellence, like the Bhumi Pujan. Some astrology enthusiasts even took it a bit far by allegedly “sending death threats to Pandit NR Vijayendra Sharma, who had suggested the Mahurat date- August 5, for the Bhoomi Pujan of Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir”. (OpIndia, 4 Aug. 2020) Reportedly, the Pandit had selected four dates, three of them with the waxing moon, among which Modi had selected 5 August.

Apologists of the Hindutva movement counter that astrology-believing Hindus are “playing spoilsport” by pointing out the less-than-perfect constellation. They relied more on other considerations. As Anjali George comments, what we witness is “the growing process of de-ritualisation of the Hindu religion, primarily by the trustees of Hindutva, thereby pitting Hindutva against a section of religious authorities”. To her, it is obviously a repeat of what had happened in the Sabarimala affair: the Sangh had initially sided with the secularist disrespect for the traditional religious conventions of the temple, and only crossed the floor once popular opinion had asserted itself in favour of the tradition.

What were the “other considerations” that prompted the RSS-BJP to spurn the three alternative dates deemed auspicious and prefer 5-August? Very apparently, the reason is a birthday: it was the first anniversary of the normalization of Kashmir’s situation within India on 5 August 2019. This was a very good and necessary move, by itself already justifying all the votes cast for the BJP that had made this integration of Kashmir possible. But this is a process that has just started: the institutional normalization should be followed by normalization on the ground, including the definitive elimination of the terrorist threat. When all that has been achieved, it may become time for a birthday celebration.

We can compare it to India’s Declaration of Independence on 15 August 1947. According to the Dharmacharyas and every Hindu familiar with the tradition, this was an inauspicious day totally unbecoming of such a solemn occasion. For starters, it had a waning moon. But these objections had been overruled by Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten. On 15 August 1945, he had, together with Douglas McArthur for the US, successfully concluded WW2 in the Asian theatre by receiving the Japanese capitulation; so he wanted to make the transfer of power an occasion for celebrating its second anniversary. No doubt this had been an important moment in his career, but not sufficient to overrule the concerns of a nation that was, of all things, becoming independent.

To sum up: birthdays are only relatively important, and they should not be used to subordinate a new event to an earlier one, much less if it means turning a religious event to a political one. It is the RSS-BJP that has played spoilsport and created avoidable and unnecessary friction within Hindu society over this seeming trifle of the exact date. Perhaps modern knowledge warrants a rethink of the place of astrology with Hinduism, but there have been years and decades when this could have been looked into, and more to come. There are enough shadow moments for such ratiocination, discussion and consensus-building. Let’s reserve sunny moments for celebrating. Jai Siyaram!

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.