[This text is based on the speech delivered by Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary of CPI(M) at the valedictory function of the 83rd Sivagiri Pilgrimage Celebrations on January 1, 2016 at Kerala.]
It is, indeed, an honour to be here at Sivagiri. My heartfelt thanks for being invited to share some thoughts with all of you in the concluding session of the 83rd Sivagiri Pilgrimage celebrations. It is, indeed, a very new and an appropriate way to begin the new year. A Happy New Year to all of you.
I belong to a generation that grew up on the values propagated by Srinarayana Guru – `the oneness of humanity’, with no social barriers on the grounds of caste, religion, region etc. The slogan of `one caste, one religion, one god’ is an elevated expression of humanism which recognizes the value of a human being as being supreme. A value that recognizes all human beings as being equal, irrespective of all social divisions. This universality of oneness of humanity, in a sense, crystallizes the finest elements of rational thought and philosophy that emerged in the course of the advance of human civilization in these lands. As “different rivers flow through different courses to merge in the ocean”, so do different human beings through the practice of individual beliefs and faith eventually merge with humanity as a whole. This is humanism of the highest variety.
Such humanism has a strong resonance with the Communist philosophy and worldview. The overriding concern of Marxism is humanism. In fact, Karl Marx had once said, “Nothing human is alien to me”. It is the pursuit of the simple question of what constitutes the real freedom of a human being and his consequent liberation, Marx proceeded to reject the Hegelian idea of the revolution of the mind as articulated by Feuerbach, during his time, to come to a conclusion of seminal importance. This was: consciousness of a human being is determined by the social conditions and not vice a versa. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness”.
Marxism’s focus on changing the concrete conditions of material existence, as the basic pre-requisite for human liberation, emerges from this understanding and hence Marx’s own scientific study on the real living conditions of the people and his consequent dissection of capitalism.
It, indeed, sounds as a strange paradox that a practitioner of Marxism, a Communist foot soldier, a confirmed atheist has been invited to be here as a part of these pilgrimage celebrations. A great deal of controversy has always existed regarding the Marxist understanding of religion. The popular perception is the normally out of context quotation that “religion is the opium of the people”. In fact, deliberately, the passage in which this statement finds place is never quoted in the full. Marx had stated :”Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people”.
Religion, is the opium in the sense that it is as potent as opium in transporting human beings to an illusory world. For a human being who is oppressed, religion provides the escape for relief, it provides a “heart in a heartless world, a spirit in a spiritless situation.” This is the strength and power of religion. It is like opium that the people are fed, to lull themselves into submission, robbing them of their inherent potential to change the real world, and hence, remain in conditions which appear outside of both their comprehension and control.
Marxism does not attack religion per se. It’s attack is on the conditions that give rise to the conditions that perpetuate the hold of religion on the people. The point is to change the real world; to transform the comforts of an illusory world into concrete reality. Therefore, as a Communist, we can assure you that the CPI(M) will be the foremost upholder of every individual’s right to his/her choice of their faith and their right to maintain their beliefs and propagate them. We will defend, till the last breath, this right of the individual choice and protect the faith of every individual. It, therefore, necessarily follows that we shall also protect everybody against any attempt to interfere into the rights of individual liberty of faith by any body of thought or action. This is precisely what the communal forces attempt to do today. The CPI(M)’s opposition to communalism is, hence, integral to both its philosophy and practice.
This growth of rabid communal polarization that we see around us today runs completely in contradiction with the body of thought and action that the Guru has bequeathed to us. This rich legacy and the philosophical activities that the Guru undertook had heralded a movement for social renaissance in Kerala. Remember, Swami Vivekananda had once described the Kerala society as a `mad house’ of casteism. The Guru, through his philosophy of oneness of humanity, spread the indomitable values of equality and humanism. Kerala was a society where caste prejudices went beyond even the obnoxious practice of untouchability. In Kerala, there was the practice of unseability. Comrade EMS Namboodiripad used to tell us that in his childhood, it was not unusual to see some `unfortunate’ human beings carrying a bell around their neck whose sound would warn the upper castes, to take a different path!
It was the social renaissance heralded by the Guru, amongst others, that has transformed this society into one with the most progressive values in the country today. In the process, Kerala society has achieved such advances in its human development indices that it matches and, in some cases, outstrips the standards existing in the developed capitalist countries today. In the field of literacy, education, gender equality and other social parameters, Kerala proudly stands at the top on the rest of India.
The Guru used spirituality as a propelling force for upward social mobility of the people. In this process, he developed a unique combination of materialism and spiritualism, propagating The Buddha’s preachings of the control over the Body, Word, Mind, Food and Deed. The consecration of the Shiva Lingam in 1888 – the Aruvippuram Prathishta – remains a landmark that has gone way beyond being a symbolic gesture.
Yet another resonance with Marxist philosophy is the Guru’s emphasis on “freedom through education, strength through organisation, economic independence through industry”. In a sense, this brings me to the point of urging all of you to explore further a thought: Spiritualism is not to be confined within the boundaries of religion or religiosity. Of course, there is religious spiritualism which could also be call Theistic spiritualism. On the other hand, there is also an Atheistic spiritualism. Here, spiritualism is understood as the elevation of human consciousness to the levels of refined humanism. Such elevation of human consciousness can be achieved as much by a materialist philosophy as it can be through a Theistic theology. (This is a tautological term, but I am using it only to emphasise the point.)
The Guru’s philosophy spread far and wide beyond the confines of Kerala. I am told that Mahatma Gandhi came here thrice during our freedom movement. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore came to meet the Guru in 1922. This surely was a meeting of minds. Tagore had by then penned the Nobel Prize winning immortal lines to awaken India: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;”.
The Guru’s teachings and personal example appear to be not merely relevant but more necessary to meet the challenges before us today. On the one hand, the material basis of existence for the vast mass of our people and the country, as a consequence of embracing the neo-liberal policy trajectory by the Indian ruling classes, is deteriorating. Unless material needs are satisfied, the growth of spiritualism leading to social renaissance and, therefore, to cultural renaissance would be simply impossible. The economic policies followed by the current government at the Centre and, to a large extent, by the government in Kerala, only buttress such material regression of our people’s lives. These policies need to be resisted and reversed. This is one focus of CPI(M)’s activities today.
On the other hand, the CPI(M)’s other focus is against the growing communal polarization and the vicious pursuit of consolidating the Hindutva communal vote bank politics which is leading to severe ruptures in our society that can well destroy the unity and integrity of India. Under the present Central government, both these aspects of anti-people economic reforms and communal polarization constitute its singular agenda. In the process, the communal forces even make an attempt to forcibly appropriate the Guru’s philosophy and legacy.
This, simply, cannot be allowed. Such efforts, in particular, have to be defeated in order to carry ourselves to higher levels of social and material existence as envisaged and propagated by the Guru. The efforts to replace the rich Indian history with Hindu theology and the evolution of the syncretic Indian philosophy with a monolithic Hindu theology will have to be resisted and defeated.
I wish the Srinarayana Guru Mutt all success in its efforts to relentlessly continue to propagate the Guru’s philosophy and vision of the `oneness of humanity’ and not permit any effort at hijacking this rich legacy to serve the narrow ends of communal forces.
Thank you once again for giving me this honour of sharing some of my thoughts at this sacred Srinarayana Guru Mutt.