‘If you have understanding, then why this hubbub?’

Published: September 9, 2010
Hindu mythology is not alien to Punjab’s culture and has been taught to children for centuries. DESIGN: AMNA IQBAL

Hindu mythology is not alien to Punjab’s culture and has been taught to children for centuries. DESIGN: AMNA IQBAL

Not so long ago, Christian fundamentalist organisations in America began to protest against Spongebob Squarepants – a very popular children’s cartoon on the Nickelodeon cable station. It had a subversive homosexual agenda, they claimed.

A few years before that, similar charges were laid at the feet of beloved Sesame Street, also a case of secret homosexual training. The Republican Right has long fixated on the supposed ‘queer-ing’ of their erstwhile pure society, so such periodic outbursts reflect both a constant need to re-assert their provisional agenda on a national scale, as well as keeping their rhetorical “enemy” in sharp focus. Life is a series of ironic juxtapositions and these very same self-righteous protectors of the family are too often caught with their proverbial pants down.

Such breathless panics (“Obama is indoctrinating our children with socialism”) almost always involve “children” or sometimes “our youth” and “future generations”. They are, hence, almost always a historical argument. They invoke a pristine past that is currently under stress as a result of whatever vice is being peddled by nefarious beings. In this, they are almost always wrong – both about their history and their present.

Punjab’s own concerned politicians have recently decided to begin investigating the pernicious effects of “Hindu cartoons”, claiming that these “cartoons which glorified mythology characters such as Hanuman had a bad impact on the minds of  young children.”

The politicians are afraid, I assume, that watching the Amar Chitra Katha cartoons – which depict stories from the Mahabharata or Ramayana or Jataka or Panchatantra – will turn impressionable Punjabi Muslim children into Hindus. I would reassure the politicians – the Panchatantra tales were translated into Arabic and distributed in the late seventh century as Kalila wa Dimna, for the edification of courtly children, and failed to make the Umayyad or the ‘Abbasid or the Buyid sultans Hindu. Subsequent translations and re-imaginings of Ramayana, of Yogavashistha in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century Mughal courts were also done without the fear that exposing innocent Muslim children to these narratives will make them “Hindu” – leaving aside the glaring logical fallacy that mere knowledge about the stories and rituals associated with a faith makes one a convert. That this statement is being made on Punjabi soil, however, is one of those ironies that make you cry.

Punjab, after all, is the land of Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah – mystics whose poetry, lives, ethos were drenched in divine, both lil-lah and Krishna. Their kafi and their qissa drew equally on Perso-Islamic and Sanskritic mythologies, stories, folk-tales to illuminate daily lives, teach love, moderation and acceptance. The love of Shah Hussain and Madho Lal is itself legend. Their words and verses are, undoubtedly, the very definition of “Punjabi”, and there they stand, historically “tainted” in the views of Punjab politicians with “Hindu” signs, symbols, stories and themes, corrupting Punjabi children for nearly 400 years.

These stories, whether of Krishna or of Ram or of Hanuman, are part of the Punjabi fabric of being for centuries – not simply in an ecumenical way, but in a transcending way: Gal samajh laee te rolah kee?/eyh Ram, Rahim tay Maula kee? (If you have understanding, then why this hubhub?/ About who is this Ram, Rahim or Moula?)

But even more crucial than religious difference, this mystic poetry of Punjab provided ways of being true, of being honest, of falling in love, of friendship, of helping and caring for neighbours. The source of such folk-wisdom, if one is to call it that, came in equal measure from Nizami Ganjavi’s Khamsa as it did from the Ramayana. These stories, these recitations of love, are what constitutes being a Punjabi – or a Sindhi or a Balochi or a Pathan, each of which contain just as rich a literary and cultural tradition of entangled histories for centuries. The point is simply that neither Ram nor Rahim are alien beings to the modern Punjabi, and treating either as such is politically short-sighted and culturally destructive.

But if the historic past seems unwieldy, let’s try the present. Confronting Punjabi politicians is not only the greatest natural disaster of Pakistan’s history but civil violence of unprecedented scale and brutality.

Lahore, the capital of Punjab, saw three bomb blasts in the last week, killing 18 and wounding 100. Almost 200 people have perished in various attacks in Lahore in 2010 alone – including the horrific attacks on Ahmadis. In the meanwhile, apologists for violence and intolerance continue to air their wares on TV. I would urge Senator Pervez Rashid to begin a blue-ribbon Commission to investigate the lack of security afforded to the citizens of Punjab which makes them susceptible to deadly attacks  and the ways and means via which hateful ideologies and organisations peddle their wares in broad day-light and aimed at those who cannot so easily distinguish what is right from what is wrong. Amar Chitra Katha is not a problem facing the Punjabi politician.

Manan Ahmed is a historian of Pakistan who is currently teaching in Berlin. He blogs at Chapati Mystery.

Published in The Express Tribune September 9th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Amira
    Sep 9, 2010 - 8:38AM

    Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Pancatantra and the great “Indian” epics were also the the epics and stories of our ancestors. Our ancestors grew up on them for 5000 years, since long before there was such a thing as Islam. These epics and mythology are not India’s alone. It is ours too. This type of narrow-minded “it is isn’t ours because it is also india’s” is ruining us and making us loose our identity. We really can’t change our history and pretend like we evolved from the deserts of Arabia or the caves of Afghanistan. We are proud people of the subcontinent with a long and distinguished history. These ignorant politicians are trying to ruin that. Be cautioned that if this sort of a thing goes on any longer, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will indeed crawl back into the caves of the 10th century, while India becomes an economic and cultural power, usurping our right place in history.


  • IZ
    Sep 9, 2010 - 10:16AM

    Good article Manan!Recommend

  • Saif
    Sep 9, 2010 - 11:14AM

    This was a nationalist decision in its beginning, which is now politicized by our so called minority right groups, who, without even noticing what the hell are they doing and talking, just ranted the slogan of ‘where is my freedom of speech???’. Cultural differences make us two nations, mythological disagreements make us two cultures…we never use to portray our prophets and their companions as cartoons…we never have painted or animated the scenes of our tragic religious history associated with the family of our own Prophet (PBUH), his companions, and many others..we could have done this long ago..we did not, we do not, and we will not. So, it proves something…we should not let the version of their religion transferred directly to our children, who are not familiar with the codes of life and national ethics, yet. We should carry what we have and do not let neighboring culture transmitted to our young breed. I assume we will not feel happy if one of our child draws a cartoon image of our Holy Prophet (PBUH), out of his emotions and feelings (one day)…so, to avoid such, we should stop this ‘mythological’ cartoon thing.

    Look..this issue could have been normalized if the case was an Indian mythological film (since it targets grown up minds, who are not very easy to be baffled, if educated). But, it is a cartoon, targeting a specific age group of young children, who love to take new things from electronic media these days. Further, it will provoke a thinking in their little minds that why they have never seen their religious figures in the shape of cartoons?? further, a rational one: Why shouldn’t I draw one? Why can’t I?? so the thing is… they could do so with theirs as well.Recommend

  • Saif
    Sep 9, 2010 - 11:15AM

    It is written no where that majority should suffer to protect a minute, little, minority!Recommend

  • jai
    Sep 9, 2010 - 12:23PM

    Indonesians still perform the Ramayana. are they non-muslims.?Recommend

  • Mast Qalandar
    Sep 9, 2010 - 1:17PM

    The article is a timely reminder of the syncretic tradition of Punjab and of the sub continent as a whole. Abandoning this shared history in favour of intolerance borrowed from foreign cultures is a sure recipe for disaster.Recommend

  • maheen usmani
    Sep 9, 2010 - 1:33PM

    Excellent rejoinder to the fanatics in the Punjab government.Recommend

  • Suresh
    Sep 9, 2010 - 1:49PM

    Indonesian currency carries the image of Lord Ganesh ( the elephant head God). Many public places not only display Ganesh image, but carry the idol itself. They are proud of their heritage, Ramayan and Mahabharath. Recommend

  • Manit Parmar
    Sep 9, 2010 - 1:53PM


    I agree with the writer that mere cartoons will not really influence the children to change their religious beliefs. To all those people who are saying that it should be banned are also admitting that their own teachings and values are not strong enough and can be completely overpowered by a 2 hours cartoon film.

    Is their anything wrong being taught in these cartoons? Are they teaching violence to kids? Are they polluting their mind against the society in genral? No…

    Pakistan must understand that if she wants to become a global power some day then they will have to accept cultures, differences and expose their children to global values.

    To the gentleman who wrote why the majority should suffer because of minimal minority- Sir, Muslims are minority in India so are you saying the so called injustice done against them is justified? (I think that in India the injustice is done against poor people and they dont have any religion except for poverty) Recommend

  • Umayr Masud
    Sep 9, 2010 - 2:10PM

    The Article is nice.. the comments disturbing .. specially Mr. Saif’s comments..
    The problem here is ignorance. And the ignorance about Islam itself. We are so afraid of not knowing about Islam that we actually fear that our children will be effected by watching hindu cartoons or television programs. If we ourselves had a grip on what our religion was any propaganda (which i doubt the cartoons are) could be countered with reason. But like all previous ignorant reactions lets just shove our heads in the sand.

    The arguments to ban the cartoons and the TV channels are so absurd that you cant really believe that we have regressed so much. I believe the lack of different religions in this country has become an actual problem in pushing us further into the dark ages.

    Quaid-e-Azam said “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

    The state should stay away form it, let the parents decide if they want to buy these cartoons or not. I would suggest they buy them .. see them .. and then discuss themRecommend

  • Khalid Saeed
    Sep 9, 2010 - 2:48PM

    besides religion, these cartoons sucks. why don’t they show the regular programs? you should ask the kids views about it. and I am sure, most of them (including hindus) won’t agree to watch it. ‘Cause they are boring. Recommend

  • rocket
    Sep 9, 2010 - 2:54PM

    @saif, all your arguments boil down to a threat that children will start thinking rationally,and ask you some questions regarding faith which you doubt ,you would be able to answer.so you instead of satiating their curiosity,want to close your eyes and enjoy the bliss of ignorance.
    and btw animated mythological movies can hardly turn anyone towards a particular religion,though it can make one wiser.Recommend

  • rayed
    Sep 9, 2010 - 3:40PM

    no where and I mean no where in western world do they teach their kids about our great personalities. Forget our great personalities, they dont promote people from our region to power position, and i dont blame them as they want judeo christian foundation for their next generation. U talk about indians, they dont make cartoonsRecommend

  • Sep 9, 2010 - 3:50PM

    Great Piece Manan………………….I guess you r very right……………….Recommend

  • Sep 9, 2010 - 3:53PM

    The question to ask is where do the chlldren in Pak Punjab get the Hindu mythology cartoons from? Is there is a flouring industry of cartoon books smuggled across the border? If this so, the Punjab government should be concentrating attention on the Customs and the Border Police. There is no stand-still agreement between Pakistan and India on exchange of books and newspapers. And, if the cartoons are being sneaked in at Lahore theen who is to blame. Quite likely this is another gimmick to offset votes going to the opposition. Recommend

  • jai
    Sep 9, 2010 - 4:34PM

    who made them a minute minority? Hindus were over 20% in Pakistan after partition. While the muslim population in India has grown the hindus in Pakistan have been reduced to an insignificant minority. If after that also you have grudges against some rights for a people who have been reduced to less than 2% Pakistan has no right to complain about rights for muslims anywhere around the world. You can continue to live with your head in the sand but we are not in 7th century anymore. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Respect is a two way street.Recommend

  • Kamal
    Sep 9, 2010 - 6:56PM

    I half-heartedly support the Punjab government’s half-hearted attemp at setting things right the Deobandi way. Actually, since all the Deobandi ulema, including Mufti Rafi Usmani (dam iqbaluhu), the self-styled Mufti-e Azam Pakistan, and the late lamented (and my favourite) Maulana Yusuf Ludhianvi (R.A.) re categorical in their verdict that TV transmission and viewing is HARAM as according to them Islam does not permit making, showing and viewing pictures (still or moving) of living beings (mythos and others), the Punjab government should go whole hog and ban TV transmission of all kinds, animated or live action. That will solve many problems, including the one at hand. Good luck guys!Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Sep 9, 2010 - 8:02PM

    @Saif and then when the French say: Ban the veil!.. it bites you – and when the American oppose a mosque – you feel its against your rights –

    Hypocrites – all Pakistanis are – and we just try to beat each other on that.Recommend

  • omer
    Sep 10, 2010 - 9:34AM

    @all; france wasnt founded in the name of a religion. its a secular state! same goes for the mighty united states. pakistan, however, was founded on Islam according to the historical sources out there and what i have learned from our elders. if pakistan takes a religious stance, its acceptable, just like saudi arabia taking a religions stance by not allowing non-muslims to enter makkah and madinah.
    Prophet Mohammed SAW destroyed all idols in the kaabah after the victory at makkah. how is it fair that we in pakistan will allow the broadcast of – with all due respect – pagan, polytheistic cartoons?! any culture that conflicts with religion is a misfit and the Prophet SAW of islam and the three righteous generations rejected culture that conflicted with the oneness of God. are we better than them when we do not do the same in the name of culture? who cares what our so called mysitc poets were influenced by! there were mystic poets in arabia who were all rejected when they violated islamic morals and ethics. so kudos to saif and the govt for taking this stance. Recommend

  • Rafay
    Sep 10, 2010 - 10:17AM

    @Saif: Our Constitution provides for Fundamental Rights. Each one of them (life, liberty, movement, assembly, property, religious belief) is meant to protect a minority from the tyranny of the majority. If you were looking for a place where such a thing is written, I refer you to our Constitution.Recommend

  • Kamina
    Sep 10, 2010 - 6:13PM

    Why no one has written against Indian Gujrat government selling cow urine for Rs. 30 to cure all ailments including cancer? India has banned virtually ALL channels of Pakistan and no one is feeling the pain.

    I think if Gujrat government exports that to Pakistan, our intellectuals will say, ‘we have Hindu community’ OR ‘when you know that urine is not good then why this hubbub’?Recommend

  • Qirat
    Sep 10, 2010 - 8:41PM

    Why is Islam so fragile in Pakistan? Its more so in Punjab. Maybe the clerics have run out of steam after their Jihad agenda, hadood laws and Ahmadi bashing.Recommend

  • Zartab Hashim
    Sep 20, 2010 - 2:59PM

    @Khalid Saeed

    If they are so boring that children won’t watch it, then why are the idiots interested in banning it? Recommend

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