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Monday, October 27, 2008

The call of Kali

Devotees at the Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam templeThe Nut Graph
by Eddin Khoo

"...will you walk through your fears, to dance with me?" – from a hymn of Kali

AS often as the story has been told, it can't be told enough.

The narrative remains an essentially "modern account". It encapsulates the great transformations of the last century affecting human movement and encounter. For all that it tells of developments in communication, history and politics, it remains principally a narrative bound with the expression of individual faith and haunting hope.

In the port of Madras, towards the end of the 1890s, young Tamil men and women awaited to board steamers that would bring them to the Malay peninsula. Here, they would serve as labourers, part of the kangany system in the newly cleared rubber plantations sprouting throughout British Malaya.

This indentured workforce only had the promise of three square meals, a small plot of land at the end of the term's labour, or a pass for the steamer back home. Disembarkation at the ports of Penang and Klang was followed by resettlement throughout the Malay peninsula and the hapless task of clearing the land.

It was the early experience of entering into darkness.

A Tamil proverb cautions: "Settle not on land where there is no temple." The act of creating the estates and commencing cultivation of them was always then accompanied by the more personal effort of constructing a shrine and enacting religious observance.

Whether driven by superstition or plain bhakti (devotion), the shrines served as the centre of activity and communion for these isolated communities. The deities who presided there, it was held, guarded their devotees' plight.

By the early part of the 20th century, Indian immigration intensified in the urban centers of the peninsula where a principally Tamil workforce was assembled to help in railway construction and administration.

Again, a similar process occurred. Urged by a dream or portentous incident, a shrine would be erected, a suitable mythology forged, a congregation gathered.

The practice of faith in these shrines remained diverse, polyglot, demotic; expressed in the forms and rituals of a folk tradition far removed from the puritanical observances of an institutionalised faith.

The choice of presiding deities reflected this. There was Muneeswaran, the cheerot-smoking Tamil folk god, sword in one hand, warding off evil; and Subramaniam, also known as Murugan, the archetype of Tamil consciousness whose trident brought light unto the world. And always Kali, mother goddess, goddess of death and destruction who ruled over this age, the age of Kali (Kali Yuga), characterised by its incessant stress, strife and endless turmoil.

Kali the slayer

The noted historian of Kali, David Kinsley, has written an evocative portrait of the mother goddess:

"The goddess Kali is almost always described as having a terrible, frightening appearance. She is always black or dark, is usually naked, and has long, dishevelled hair. She is adorned with severed arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children's corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets. She has long, sharp fangs, is often depicted as having clawlike hands with long nails, and is often said to have blood smeared on her lips. Her favourite haunts heighten her fearsome nature. She is usually shown on the battlefield, where she is a furious combatant who gets drunk on the hot blood of her victims, or in a cremation ground, where she sits on a corpse surrounded by jackals and goblins."

Among the many myths associated with her is one that locates her in an age where evil forces reigned relentlessly. Responding to supplications from his followers, the god Shiva sent the goddess of war, Durga, to enter the battlefield and slay the demon king Rakavija.

Unknown to the goddess was a boon that had already been bequeathed to the demon king by the god Brahma. Every time a drop of the demon's blood was spilt, he would be reborn a thousand times more powerful.

Unable to quell the multitude and increasingly powerful incarnations of Rakajiva, Durga summoned pure shakti (energy) from her brow — Kali, the incarnation of destruction and eternal justice.

Slaying the demon king with her sword, Kali placed her lips on the wound to drain his body of all blood. But drinking his blood sent her into an uncontrollable rage and she ventured to slaughter all who crossed her path until Shiva himself was forced to place himself at her feet, bringing a temporary calm.

Transcending fear

Philosophically, Kali devotion locates itself at the very centre of the Hindu belief system — the transcendence of spirit over body and matter. Confronting, worshipping and embracing the goddess in her dark Self serves as the act of transcendence over fear and illusion.

Commonly associated with the rise over adversity, Kali worship naturally beckoned an ascendance among the working communities of the Malay peninsula. In estates, in the squatter areas of the menial workforce, where light was scarce and conditions intense, the appeal of the dark goddess was natural.

Apparitions of her were frequent, and shrines, devoted to her presence, immediately constructed. So it was some 80 years ago when a dream inspired a railway worker to plant a trident at his home, break the ground, and invite the goddess Kali to enter.

Bequeathed to his daughter Muniamma Superaian, and now attended to by her daughter Gowri Arumugam, this shrine, the Kuil Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam, located in Brickfields, attests to this lineage of faith.

Home to an ever-growing, multiracial congregation, regular prayers and rituals — all the details of a living faith — are still held at this shrine, culminating each year, at mid-year, when the image of the goddess Kali is "taken for a walk" within the surrounding vicinity.

That month is Amma (mother)'s month. The ritual ablutions and bath that precedes the walk serve as a symbol for the act of renewal and creation through destruction — according to the Kali way — of the individual ego, of self-delusion and the material.

In a climate where the viability of modest, old shrines are being challenged, occasions such as the walk and the daily rituals remain testament to the particular histories of communal practice that have shaped our diversity.

And in this age of formalising and institutionalising almost every aspect of human life, even the expression of faith is contained. Where belief was once expressed in the form of events and vibrant rituals conducted at modest local community shrines, these are now occasioned in grand structures replete with the solemn murmurings of an organised faith.


Eddin Khoo is a poet, writer, translator and journalist. For a decade he has worshipped at the Kuil Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam.

Hindraf and the supremacy of State

NEW DELHI, Oct 27 — Of unusual international importance is the fact that Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has, with a topical political touch, extended Deepavali greetings to the Hindus among the country's ethnic Indian minority.

Unlike in India, where even the greetings of interest to only some sections are extended to all citizens regardless of their sub-national identities, it is customary in Southeast Asia to specify the target group on such occasions. This, of course, is not the real issue at stake now in Muslim-majority and multicultural Malaysia, insofar its two-million-strong ethnic Indians are concerned.

The relevant point is that Najib, who has been designated by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to succeed him next year, linked the mystique of Deepavali to the challenges faced by the Indian-origin citizens today. Noting that the festival marked a traditional celebration of the triumph of good over evil, Najib expressed the hope that Malaysian Hindus would, in that "spirit," seek to "resolve any problem in the best way possible." Why has he chosen to strike this line? The answer is not far to seek.

Malaysian Indians, many of them mobilised by the recently-banned Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) for over a year now, want to keep their grievances in global focus. And, Najib is equally determined to reassert the supremacy of the state. The authorities have recently taken actions that the opposition parties in the country see as a political "offensive" against an outfit with "a core human rights agenda."

An alternative view, favoured by the Malaysian government, is that Hindraf, which began making its presence felt at the time of Deepavali last year, is divisively communalist, as different from being merely ethno-centric. The country's social contract has fostered power-sharing among race-based political parties that are drawn from the ranks of either Malays or ethnic Chinese or, indeed, the people of Indian origin. However, these predominantly ethno-centric parties have, by and large, fought shy of readily accepting religion as the wellspring of a political or social outfit.

A striking example is the general hostility of race-based parties in the ruling coalition towards Pas. Over a noticeably long period, Pas stridently advocated Shariah-based Muslim polity as the best model for the country. In the run-up to the recent snap general election, though, Pas publicly gave up its political patent — the advocacy of an Islamic state. This aspect clearly helped the fast-changing party endear itself to secular voters across the spectrum. And today, Pas is a proactive member of the three-party opposition alliance, the Pakatan Rakyat, at the federal and state levels. Two of the PR's constituents are multiracial in outlook, while Pas fielded an Indian-origin candidate for a state seat in the last poll.

Viewed in this perspective, Hindraf leaders have not tried so far to distance their outfit from its religious mooring. They have instead specialised in using the Hindu temple as "a safe sanctuary" to carry forward their campaign for a "fair deal" for the Indian-origin minority. The temple, they say, is the only platform accessible to them in the face of a "state-sponsored crackdown."

Debatable as this argument might be, especially so in the eyes of the Malaysian government, the fact remains that Hindraf, proscribed with effect from Oct 15, had not adequately disputed its “religious orientation”. On the other hand, Hindraf activists are often accused of having capitalised on the sentiments that gripped the ethnic Indians when an “unauthorised” temple was demolished, for “development” purposes, before Deepavali last year. Soon thereafter, this outfit, led by lawyers and other professionals, began articulating an ethnic Indian political agenda of seeking rights "on par" with those of the other communities.

And, after Hindraf's campaign picked up momentum, evident during a mass protest rally in Kuala Lumpur last November, a senior Malaysian Minister apologised for the temple demolition which had served as a “flash point”.

Five proactive Hindraf leaders — P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganapati Rao (also known as Ganabatirau), M. Manoharn, T. Kengadharan, and T. Vasanthakumar — were served with two-year detention orders last December under the Internal Security Act. The law provides for detention for prolonged periods without any formal charges and judicial trial. Another leader, P. Waytha Moorthy, who was abroad at the time his colleagues were detained, remains in self-imposed exile.

Political speculation is rife that the current ban on Hindraf is an aspect of Malaysia's national security update, with or without reference to the ongoing preparations for a smooth transfer of power to Najib.

On a parallel track, opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has publicised his "plans" to unseat the present Prime Minister and form an alternative administration. Sympathetic to the cause of ethnic Indians, Anwar wants the equality-agenda articulated in a non-polarising fashion in multi-religious Malaysia. In another development in the opposition camp, Pas, shedding its “Islam-exclusive” image, has now offered to mediate between Hindraf and the authorities. — The Hindu

தீபாவளி வாழ்த்துகள்

உங்கள் அனைவருக்கும் இனிய தீபாவளி நாள் வாழ்த்துகள்

Separation of Islam And Justice

NO HOLDS BARRED

Raja Petra Kamarudin

It appears like Yang Berhormat Zulkifli Nordin, a Member of Parliament for Kulim has put his foot in his mouth again. After his very embarrassing performance at the Bar Council recently, one would imagine he would have learnt his lesson by now. Yesterday Zulkifli said he does not care about anyone’s opinion and he only cares about Islam. He gives an impression that he is an Islamic Mujahiddin who fights for Islam and who fights to uphold Islamic principles.

They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat its mistakes and I do not know whether Zulkifli Nordin is a student of history or not, but maybe he should brush up on his history, in particular history concerning Islam before he next opens his mouth and embarrasses the party that he is representing in parliament, which is Party Keadilan Rakyat. Party Keadilan Rakyat, as the name suggests, stands for justice. Islam and justice go hand in glove. You cannot separate Islam from justice or vice versa.

Let us look at just the last 50 or 60 years of Islamic history and try to get a good idea on what happens when Muslim leaders try to separate justice from Islam. Let us look at Algeria in the 1950’s and the 1960’s when they fought against French colonization or French occupation of Algeria. Both sides, the French colonists and the Muslim mujahiddins perpetuated crimes against humanity, to use the current key word that is banded about. Women were murdered. Women were raped. Children were murdered by bashing their heads on the wall. People were shot in cold blood and all sorts of crimes against humanity were perpetuated under the disguise of fighting for justice. What justice can there be when millions of citizens are killed in the struggle to gain a foothold in a territory? The French called it French territory and the Algerians said “This is free Algerian territory” and they wished independence. But in the fight seeking justice many, many people were massacred. It was almost like an ethnic cleansing.

Eventually the French decided to leave. Charles des Gaulle, the French who went on to become the French president made a decision that it was no longer tenable for the French to hold on to Algeria and they decided to give Algeria independence. But did the killings stop? No. A secular government was set up and the Islamists not being happy, decided they wanted an Islamic government. And the killing continued. This time it was no longer between the French and the Algerians but it was between the Algerians and the Algerians. And many Christians and many Jews were killed in the crossfire as well. Recently the FIS which is an Islamic party, won the elections and the military immediately walked in and took over and sacked the government. The killing continues into its 3rd phase since the fifties and sixties.

Look at other countries, for instance in Iraq. When Saddam decided to oppose the Shia Islamic government of Iran, he moved his forces across the border and the 8-year war that ensued resulted in 1 million deaths. 1 million Muslims, Muslims killing Muslims. And today those deaths continue as Iraqis now fight against the American occupation of their country. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed even before the American invasion of Iraq. And these Kurds were massacred, they were gassed. And entire colonies and community of Kurds who are Muslims were killed by their own Muslim government. The list continues. Afghanistan has resulted in 2 millions deaths. At first it was Afghans killing Afghans. Then it was Afghans killing Russians and vice versa. And now it is back to Afghans killing Afghans.

More Muslims have died in the course of struggling for justice. More Muslims have died in Muslim killing Muslim then in all the other Muslim-Christian wars over the last 1000 years.

Zulkifli Nordin is an Islamist. He probably claims he has been detained twice under the infamous ISA. The ISA is a law that stifles freedom of speech and freedom of association and Zulkifli Nordin says he does not care about other people’s opinions. The ISA therefore suits him well because the ISA also does not care about other people’s opinions. Does this mean that Zulkifli Nordin therefore supports the ISA? If so, let him speak now and make his stand clear as to what he thinks about the ISA. It is strange that a person like Zul who raids the bar council and who makes statements that he only cares about Islam and does not care about anything else would have that kind of mentality.

Was it not Abu Bakar, the first caliph of Islam who took out his sword and placed it before him and said, if he deviates from Islam, to take his sword and cut off his own head? Abu Bakar was responding to a question from the floor where one of the followers of Islam asked how can they be sure that Abu Bakar would be a good leader and will rule justly and will not deviate from Islam. And Abu Bakar’s response was, he offered his head to be executed with his own sword! That is a mark of a true Islamic leader, an Islamic leader who cares about other people’s opinion.

Zulkifli Nordin said he does not care about other people’s opinion. He is not a true Muslim and he is certainly not a true leader. He should redeem himself by resigning. Resign from the party and remain an independent candidate just like Ibrahim Ali who said he supports the ISA. Better still, Zulkifli Nordin should resign his seat in Kulim and allow for a by-election so that we can see whether the voters would like to continue to vote for a member of parliament who does not care about other people’s opinions. Zulkifli Nordin is a disgrace not only to Parti Keadilan Rakyat but also to Islam. A member of parliament who does not care about other people’s opinion should no longer remain a member of parliament.