Are We The Offenders?
by Geetashree Chatterjee
Just outside our block of flats a cemented strip of path connects to a temple – the Jagadish Mandir. Over a period of time, the temple has found many ardent devotees who not only offer regular prayers but also contribute generously to the ever-growing temple coffer. The once-upon-a-time unassuming façade has thus developed into sprawling structure with sanctums for all the deities whom the locals have unshakable faith in. The growth of the temple is also evident from the widening girths of the priests belonging to a certain community.
Generally speaking, beggars are permanent fixtures of any place of worship in India. Temples are no exception. However, Jagadish Mandir, being a part of a residential complex, is well guarded except on Tuesday which is supposed to be the day of Hanumanji. On this day, the North Indians make it a point to get Hanumanji’s darshan and offer prasad which they usually distribute amongst the needy and the poor instead of taking back home. Therefore, on every Tuesday a horde of unruly mob can be seen flocking around the temple premises not only because every one of them invariably houses the mighty Lord Hanuman but also because this day many families bring bucket full of special home-made khana as offering and then for mass distribution. It’s a two-pronged programme – while on one hand the hungry stomachs get filled on the other the devout earn a few mileage (read religious) points through charity. The prasad may consist of either puri-chhole or daal- roti or bread & sweets or kheer.
However, being a regular visitor to the temple myself, I find that the community of beggars nowadays do not necessarily consist of the strata falling below poverty line. Neither are they the workless, the hapless and the homeless. I see house maids, sweepers and other menial workers, having a definite source of work/income, squatting on the temple courtyard along with their families, in the hope of a ready meal.
In no way are these squatters the underdogs in the strict sense of the term. They earn well as labour is expensive in the capital. The breed of working women depends heavily on them. As a result, they are never short of job. They have their own jhuggi settlements, authorized or unauthorized, equipped with all the latest electronic gadgets, like TV, fridge, radio etc. These slums are also the most crime infested, flourishing unhindered on power and many other kinds of thefts. Constituting the vote bank of the nation, in some ways, the slum dwellers are today’s the most privileged class.
In ancient times, it was the bhikshu or the monks who used to take daily rounds of the village to beg for alms. A very pious act it was to feed the Brahmins and sadhus, who renounced worldly pleasures, in pursuit of higher knowledge and enlightenment. The heartfelt blessing of a happily burping Brahmin, after a satisfactory, sumptuous meal, was the ultimate pilgrimage for the grihasth or the householder. Those times were different when society was strictly divided into varnas or guilds with stringent lakshmanrekhas. Members of a particular guild/varna dared not transcend their respective boundaries. Likewise, the knowledge seekers or the wise men spent their lives in learning, teaching and higher contemplations. Dabbling in mercenary activities was unthinkable and below their dignity. Whatever they would earn by performing pujas and other religious rituals, were minimal and in kind, unless they enjoyed royal patronage, which mostly they didn’t.
However, in today’s pluralist society, having blurred guild demarcations, the onus of economic development lies as much on the integrity, sincerity and diligence of the workforce as on the Government mandated to provide the infrastructural pre-conditions to a promising work culture. This all the more holds good for a labour intensive country like India. Given the same, it is really worrisome to detect this cancerous apathy, this lack of self-esteem and respect and regressive tendency to beg, which if allowed to go unchecked, may eat away the zeal, zest and industriousness of the working masses.
Above all, the nagging doubt and guilt which this culture of begging rouses in us – the thinking rung of the social ladder. Are we in any way contributing to this mal practice? Are we encouraging them or making it easy for them, in our religious fervour, to earn a quick something without sweating it out? Are we the actual offenders?