The Quran verses in Hindu temple festival: Meaning and significance

April 17, 2022

Rohit Dhankar

The whole India was happy when the news that Rathotsava of 900 year old Chennakeshava temple in Belur, Karnataka, started with recital of verses from Quran. It is like a breath of fresh air in the current Hindu-Muslim tension too often resulting in violent episodes. All news papers and news outlets published it prominently and praised the decision of the temple. It is read as a symbol of not only peaceful coexistence, but also deeper goodwill between to two communities. Many said this describes the beauty of India.

There is no doubt that syncretic traditions mutually respected and cherished by both the communities, and an all prevailing respect and goodwill towards each other is what the India needs the most at the current juncture. No sane Indian could or should doubt it. However, traditions and rituals which have become tradition are dead mental/physical gymnastics if their origin and true meaning is not known, understood and accepted by those who are involved and those who appreciate that traditional ritual. Such rituals on the surface can neither create nor sustain true and lasting harmony. If they are accepted and cherished on the force of dogma alone, without understanding their meaning, they actually can be turned into flash-points of violent clash any time, by those who capture people’s mind through them. Therefore, to appreciate the benevolent force of this ritual, knowledge of its origin and meaning of the ritual including that of the verses from Quran is a necessity.

But all news items are declaring that the origin and reason why the ritual started is known to no one. A temple manual written in 1932 is said to mention it, but not how and why this ritual was started. No historian has come forward to explain its origin and original meaning. The only explanation comes from the ToI, which claims that “Belur-based writer and researcher Srivatsa S Vati said the chanting practice is said to have been started in the Ramanujacharya period (1017–1137 CE) as part of Sarva Dharma Samanvaya (a concept embodying the equality of the destination of the paths followed by all religions; although the paths themselves may be different).” The temple itself is said to have been built in 1116 CE, which means the ritual started some time between 1116 CE and 1137 CE. Which implies (1) a significant Muslim population in Belur at that time, and (2) goodwill of temple authorities in particular and Hindus is general towards Muslims and doctrines of Islam. One can assume (2), at the least for an argument; but certainly wonder about (1). Be that as it may, overall it looks a socially positive step of the temple authority of that time.

The important point to note about the idea of “Sarva Dharma Samanvaya (a concept embodying the equality of the destination of the paths followed by all religions; although the paths themselves may be different)” is that it is worthy of following and creates good for the society only if it is mutual, understood, believed in and followed by all. Followed by one party among many and not believed in seriously and not followed properly by others creates serious problems. It may solve some short term problem without mutuality, but will create much bigger in the long run.

One indicator of appreciation of the principle of “Sarva Dharma Samanvaya” by ordinary public is its cheering the ritual and appreciative publication of the news in the media. But this would be real only if the public, media and appreciating opinion makers also know and are transparent about the meaning of the verses from the Quran that are recited. But no news story tells you which verses from the Quran are recited. ToI gives English translation without actually giving reference to the original verses. I will examine that meaning in a while, but first let us think why it is important to know the actual meaning of the verses recited.

Suppose, some good souls from the Hindu community (Brahmins, Dalits and all) opening a school for all castes to study together to acquire vidya, and the inauguration is flagged off with the following verses:

नाविस्पष्टमधीयीत न शूद्रजनसन्निधौ । न निशान्ते परिश्रान्तो ब्रह्माधीत्य पुनः स्वपेत् ॥ ९९ ॥ (Manusmriti)

Suppose further, that every one appreciates the school for all, starting with recitals from a Hindu-shastra, considers it an occasion of unity and acceptance of all for the seeking knowledge. But no one quotes, gives reference of tells the meaning of the verse to all who are appreciating it. Would it really be a gesture of unity and earning vidya (knowledge) for all? Would it last? Would it be genuine? Is the ritual in itself (the physical motions of it) enough? The reader should decide for himself/herself. Meaning of the above quoted verse: “Let him not recite (the texts, Vedas) indistinctly, nor in the presence of Sudras; nor let him, if in the latter part of the night he is tired with reciting the Veda, go again to sleep.” It seems to me that without understanding this verse and the meaning of ‘shudra’ in this, celebration of inclusiveness in this imaginary example would be misplaced if not seriously misleading.

The recited verses from the Quran and their meaning

I did not find references to the recited verses, may be some news item did give the references, but I could not get it. A well wisher and friend sent a link to ToI story, which gives the following English translation:

In the name of Allah, the most gracious and merciful, the god is praised as lord of the world. The god is the owner of the judgment day. The god is worshipped to pray for the help and to show us a straight path. Those who go on a straight path, is not the right way to gain anger …” ToI, 15th April 2022 in “How Hindu temple kept Quran reading tradition alive”.

This text breaks off, it seems without completion, at the end. However, any one cursorily familiar with Quran will immediately recognize that it resembles very closely to the meaning of Chapter 1 (Surah 1. Al-Fatihah). This chapter of The Quran is widely used on many occasions, including in namaaz. This is also clear that the meaning given in ToI is wrong, whether that is intentional or because of ignorance is difficult to say.

Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad, perhaps the tallest leader of India from the Muslim community, considered a very accomplished Islamic scholar, has explained Quran in his “The Tarjuman Al-Quran”. Mawlana’s translation for this chapter in the said book is as follows:

“In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful

1. Praise is for Allah only — The Lord of All Being!

2. The Benevolent, the Merciful!

3. Master on the Day of Recompense!

4. Thee only do we serve, and Thee onlydo we ask for help.

5. Direct us to the Straight Path –

6. The path of those to whom Thou has been gracious, –

7. Not of those who have incurred Thy displeasure, nor of those who have gone astray.” (Emphasis added)

The Mawlana writes the whole of first part of his The Tarjuman Al-Quran on this chapter alone. The long winded arguments are very informative and a pleasure to read, whether all convincing or not is a separate matter.

In this article we will pay attention only to the emphasized verses 4 to 7. In explaining verse 4 Mawlana writes: “…, the form of prayer suggested in the Surat is not, ‘We serve Thee’, but is specifically worded, ‘Thee alone do we serve’, and from ‘Thee alone do we ask for help’. This manner of expression fulfills the primary condition of belief in the unity of God, and disallows room for every form of ‘shirk’ or associating with God anything beside Him.” (Emphasis as in the original) The meaning of ‘shirk’ according to Britannica: “shirk, (Arabic: “making a partner [of someone]”), in Islam, idolatry, polytheism, and the association of God with other deities.” The temple in which the verses were recited qualifies as forbidden ‘shirk’ on the count that it is both polytheistic as well as idolatrous.

The ‘straight path’ according to Mawlana is the path prescribed by the revelation, the central piece of which is already there in verse 4 above. “The Noble Quran” translated by M. T. Al-Hilali and M. M. Khan and published by King Fahd Complex for the Printing of Holy Qur’an, Madinah, is more direct and brief. Accordingly it is simply “Islamic monotheism”. And the path of those who have incurred Allah’s anger and/or gone astray are those who worship anything but Allah, particularly mentioned in this translation are Jews and Christians. Hindus were not an issue in the Arabia of Muhammad’s time, so they are not mentioned. But if one looks at the meaning of ‘shirk’, they, including the temple administration, amply qualify to be counted among those who incur Allah’s wrath and who have gone astray. Of course, Quran never tires of telling you that all such people will burn in hell for eternity, though that is not mentioned in this chapter.

We can say for the purposes of this article that perhaps in every religion there are people with three broad attitudes to the faith in: 1. Those who actually believe in the every tenet of their religion, if they happen to know them. 2. Those who selectively believe, accept the good and leave our what they consider bad. And 3. those who are only socially associated with the faith through rituals and social relationship.

All that the people in category 3 would want is this kind of acceptance of each other’s faith and rituals in which both may participate. However, to be true to their position they should wish it to be two-sided. That is an equal give and take from both religions. My question to such people is: would this ritual still be something to rejoice if there is no such both-sided give and take in the matters of faith? And, is there such a give and take between Hindus and Muslims? My question to the people in category 2 would be the same.

My questions for the people in category one—these are the people who actually matter in religious strife—would be separate for Hindus and Muslims. To Hindus: Are they fine with the actual meaning of the verses recited? Or do they believe that the actual meaning is something like given by the ToI? My question for the Muslims would be: do they accord equal respect to Chennakeshava as to Allah? Would they be willing to reinterpret the verses 4 to 7 as simply indicating devotion to the universal God by any name, any attributes and by any ways of worship? Would the Maulanas accept that the priest of the Chennakeshava temple will go to jannat? Or is he likely to incur the Allah’s wrath?

In my view if this openness in interpretation of the meaning of these verses is not there, this ritual does not represent “Sarva Dharma Samanvaya” and either is hypocrisy or worst Islamic supremacism. One also need to remember that Sarva Dharma Samanvaya in this sense would require reinterpretation of Quran. Would Indian public be prepared for that? One ardently wishes that all this becomes possible. But I do not think that can happen by just rejoicing in superfluous rituals and shying away from asking questions like the ones raised here. The questions like these and an open debate on them with mutual respect and goodwill is the only thing that can give a deeper and real meaning and significance to such rituals.