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- ‘Holy’ and ‘sacred’ considered apart

‘Holy’ and ‘sacred’ are words that are used widely and interchangeably in Indian discourse.

They are related, those two, but are yet distinct.

Is this a quibble?

Does it matter that they are or are not related, are or are not distinct? Does anyone have the need or the time to go into the relation between those two or any two English words?

The scepticism is valid, the intervention wholly justified, when it comes from men and women in a hurry to read to learn facts rather than to read to muse over ideas.

But human thought does not proceed on the basis of need alone, thought is entirely independent of time and even the most hurried of hurrying minds has a latency, the more real for being recessed, towards ‘pure’ thought.

Matthew Arnold in “The Pagan World”, writes about the “brooding East”: “The East bowed low before the blast/ In patient, deep disdain;/ She let the legions thunder past,/ And plunged in thought again.”

The East, as he puts it, is a natural thinker, and after the “blast” of a passing trauma is past, “she” reverts to thought — “again”.

Let us not yield to the philistinism that suggests thought is a pastime of the idle, words a preoccupation of poetasters. Both — thought and words — and thoughts about words are crucial to our understanding of ourselves.

One may think of a word or a concept in vacuo and not be held an idler or, worse, a stirrer-up of some mischief concealed in the word-play. One may think of words like ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ to see where they define something in and about us as a people, a country and a civilization.

We use, as I said at the start of this essay, ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ regularly and would not be able, ‘at a pinch’ to tell them apart.

But they are and do stand far apart.

So ?

Before I come to the ‘So?’ by which is meant ‘So what is this quibble about?’ let me go into their ‘apartness’ through the route of usage.

To take five familiar uses of each:

‘Holy’ is used routinely as an adjectival prefix to nouns of which the following are about the best known —

Holy Book

Holy River

Holy City

Holy Tree

Holy Cow

‘Sacred’ is used equally reflexively as an adjectival prefix to verbs and nouns of which the following are among the better known —

Sacred Duty

Sacred Calling

Sacred Teaching

Sacred Text

Sacred Thread

I have given examples from Indian uses of the two words, as my intention here is to discuss the use of these words in India. They are used by other ‘Englishes’ equally widely and interchangeably as, for instance, in the world of church beliefs and practices. Their use in that site is very severely sacerdotal. ‘Holy’ and ‘sacred’ would occur with a high frequency in church literature but one step beyond the chapel their use would shrivel. ‘Holy’ and ‘sacred’ in Indian English — in our use of them — is not about precincts. ‘Holy’ and ‘sacred’ occur more regularly in the wider landscape of thought, belief and practices, reflecting in one way or another, the status of our civilizational evolution, especially in its religious aspect.

Two clear tendencies or ‘apartnesses’ in this evolution, more manifest in Hindu India than in non-Hindu India, have come to be described as ‘orthodox/revivalist’ and ‘reformist’. ‘Holy’ has its home in orthodoxy. If a word can have fragrance, ‘holy’ comes with camphor, joss and sandal paste. If a word can raise an image, ‘holy’ visualizes rituals, rites and reliquary. ‘Holy’ is about worship, sanctity and divinity. ‘Holy’ is about ritual purity, sanctity and the general ‘up-there’-ness of that which is regarded as holy. ‘Holy’ also becomes, by extension and inference, a signpost to superiority, a certain loftiness and a system of immunities and privilege. A non-existent but palpable ‘Varanasi Convention’ comparable to the Vienna Convention lays down a protocol of do-s and don’t-s, the ons and offs, the rights and privileges for the holy. Conversely, the un-holy is about pollution, impurity and a general ‘down-there’-ness of that which is not holy.

We have a strong sense of the holy in India because we have a strong sense of do-s and don’t-s as laid down by codes and conventions. We have a strong sense of the holy in India because we have a strong sense of hierarchies in India. The Holy are invariably The Lofty. Their Holinesses outnumber by far Their Excellencies, Their Lordships and the now-extinguished order of Their Majesties and Their Highnesses. Holiness is an order as safe from abolition or nationalization as purity is safe from pollution. Holiness is a condition as safe from change as belief is from investigation, doctrine from free-thinking, sanctimony from humour.

Unlike ‘holy’, its cousin ‘sacred’ is better travelled, better read and therefore better informed. It is also a better discussant, conversationalist. You can be trapped with the sacred in a lift with both emerging from the ordeal with smiles of the same width. Not so with the holy. The sacred has its home not in quarantined purity that encourages rote, but in any terrain that permits thought. ‘Sacred’ is not about worship, but about respect. Two holies can do battle. Not so two somethings or anythings that are sacred. The sacred, whether as a duty, a calling, a condition calls for conviction, not conformity. It calls for a certain courage of that conviction as well. In the five ‘sacred’ examples that I have given, there is one that seems ‘iffy’ in that company — the sacred thread. At first sight the sacred thread, associated in southern India very exclusively with the Brahmin, is about ritual tradition. But on closer examination it can be seen in better light as an outer mark of non-denominational scholarship. The yajnopavita, albeit a ritual, shares something of a convocation ceremony than an orthodox homa. And no one can restrict it to a particular caste.

The holy has rites, the sacred has duties. The holy leads to philanthropy with promises of afterlife merit, the sacred is about duties here and now, with no thought of benefit-accrual. The holy is about places. The sacred can be about places too but is also about moments, moods. Geography hosts the holy and history, the sacred. Having given five examples of ‘sacred’, let me give not five not a ‘one-upman’ six but seven examples of sacred moments from modern Indian history. They are not drawn from the grand tapestry of our nationhood but, quite simply, from the loom that weaves its life in silk, lace and plain cotton — impervious to the yarn .

When, stung by Jallianwala Bagh, Tagore returned his Knighthood —

When, hours before he was hung, Shahid Bhagat Singh, wrote his magical, redemptive letter to India forgetting himself and thinking only of a just, secular India —

When ‘in the larger interest’ Babasaheb Ambedkar gave up his own stated position and signed the historic Poona Pact with Gandhi —

When Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel agreed to make way for the younger Nehru to become Congress president and thereby the future prime minister of India —

When Subhas Bose, overcoming all that his memory held, gave Gandhi the description: “Father of the Indian nation” —

When Gandhi shielded by his own fragile frame H.S. Suhrawardy from a violent mob at Beliaghata, Calcutta —

When Maulana Azad declined the Bharat Ratna saying “givers should not be takers”.

There was the question: So, what is this quibble about?

It is about our sense of the holy in India being strong and not strengthening us as a people. And about our sense of the sacred being weak and that weakness hurting us by making us forget the simple duties, sacred duties, not holy rites, we owe fellow Indians.