Whither the Murukan
by Patrick Harrigan
Founder and Secretary, Murukan Conference Series
Now that fanfare surrounding the Third
International Murukan Conference has subsided, delegates and observers may
reflect upon what took place in Malaysia. While the press provided an upbeat,
even frivolous, portrayal of the organisers' heroic (and expensive) efforts,
everyone present knew that, behind closed doors, the powers that be were
brokering deals based less upon scholarship or devotion than upon calculations
For many participants, there was a sense of
resignation, of helplessness in the face of the inevitable. For the faithful,
however, there was implicit trust in the maxim "Ellam avar ceyal", that behind
it all, Lord Murukan the Master Puppeteer was taking full advantage of
peoples' individual weaknesses (vanity, pride, ambition, etc.) as part of His
own unfathomable Game plan. For most, if not all participants, however, Lord
Murukan's ‘plan' is a matter of faith rather than speculation, let alone
knowledge (which, after all, is His alone).
More down to earth, at the
ground level where conferences are planned and executed, there are other
questions that present themselves to discerning observers, viz:
- What is the purpose of holding international conferences on Kaumaram?
- What should be the purpose of research into Kaumaram?
- Will Kaumara studies some day fall into the hands of vested interests who will exploit it for their
own political and/or commercial aims?
As an illustration of how
vulnerable Kaumara studies are to distortion and misuse, the Malaysian press
gave prominence to the irresponsible remarks of a few participants who,
for the sake of gaining attention, declared that "no research is necessary for
community that does not know its own history, and has not analysed and
understood its own sacred literature and traditions in terms that command the
respect of other communities, is in danger of falling prey to its own
intellectual weakness that remains hidden under a cloak of smug
self-satisfaction. Today India especially ranks high on the target lists of
missionaries of Semitic religions, who would feel no remorse about breaking
the backbone of a non-Semitic religion like Hinduism. And yet, modern Tamils
around the world, flush with newfound material wealth, build more and more
extravagant temples, while neglecting the cultivation of religious knowledge.
The result may be seen in the children of ex-patriates, and even in
children in India, who have less and less use for Hindu values, and consider
religion as a relic from the past. The message is clear: Hindus (read: Tamils)
must come up to international standards of excellence in theological
scholarship and knowledge, or face extinction at the hands of religious
In the heady days of its founding, the Murukan Conference
Series presented itself as a rallying point around which Kaumara scholars
could meet to exchange research findings and set standards so that, some day,
Kaumara theology would command respect not only in the southernmost state of
India, but across India and around the world. This could only happen by
systematically encouraging higher expectations and higher standards for
Kaumara researchers, educators, and theologians.
‘Reign of Quantity'
What happened? The movement
abruptly lurched in the opposite direction. Instead of promoting higher
standards, it was decided that no standards should be applied at all. Instead
of promoting quality scholarship, it was decided to make a show of quantity,
of presenting more papers, of more words, by more ‘experts' from more nations.
In the total absence of standards, anyone with a little education may pass
himself off as a ‘Kaumara scholar' or theologian. The Malaysian delegates'
observationthat "too many underprepared scholars
spoke" and that much of the work was "propagandist and hagiographic, rather
than carefully researched" only confirms that Kaumara scholarship, rather than
improving, is becoming the playground of dilettantes, amateurs who dabble in
Kaumaram, write a few pieces of bombastic hagiography, and pride themselves on
the ‘contribution' they have made to Hinduism.
A few figures will
illustrate the point. The
First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan in 1998, which was conceived as a closed seminar for at most a
few dozen dedicated professional scholars of Kaumaram. Instead, it was thrown
open to the very people who recently declared in Malaysia that "no research is
necessary for Kaumaram."
The First Conference attracted the
participation of 135 scholars from 23 nations on six continents. Many came in
the sincere belief that Kaumaram was on the verge of becoming a field of
reputable scholars. Hundreds more attended crowded session as observers. The
‘Conference' looked and sounded more like a bazaar or mela than an assembly of
scholars. As mentioned, delegates who had come from distant countries were
shocked when told that they would be given only ten minutes to make their
presentations. At one stroke, the ‘Reign of Quantity' had seized control of
Not surprisingly, the First Murukan Conference was
the biggest Murukan Conference in terms of numbers. It also drove many serious
scholars away from the Series. Despite bigger budgets, long campaigns, and
loud proclamations about the numbers of delegates who will attend, Conferences
have so far failed to attract top-notch scholars, who keep away from melas.
According to the organisers' own
press release of 20.10.03, the Third Murukan Conference "expects to pull a crowd of 10,000
devotes" (sic). Even at that late date they declared, and the press dutifully
reported, that "More than 200 delegates from over 20 countries and about 250
local delegates have registered with us to attend this spiritual and academic
conference. A total of 96 papers will be presented by leading scholars who
have international reputation."
The reality, of course, was quite
different, as anyone who attended can testify. Instead of "over 20 countries",
only eight were represented (Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Singapore,
Australia, South Africa, and Germany in numerical order). Few registered
Malaysian observers even bothered to attend. At the inaugural function for
"10,000 devotes", the organisers put out only around 800 chairs—far more than
Why the inflated attendance figures? Why the need to
quote large figures, at the expense of truth? If only two or three outstanding
scholars or devotees had agreed to attend and address the Conference, that
alone would provide ample justification for such an event. But when a
conference gives the podium to a hundred or more speakers, naturally the
standard drops as informed speakers are crowded out and lost in the din of
bombastic harangues by under-qualified and under-prepared speakers. Even the
vital minutes for questions and answers had to be cut to the barest
Fourth Murukan Conference
proof that the Conference Series is being manipulated by vested interests
emerged from Day One, when the spokesperson for the Sri Lankan delegation,
Mrs. Shanthi Navukarasan (who is also Director of the Department of Hindu
Religious Affairs of Sri Lanka) openly appealed at the
inaugural function for the Conference organisers to honour the first
resolution passed unanimously at the First Murukan Conference in 1998, that the next Conference should be held in Sri Lanka.
Behind the scenes, it transpires, Indian organisers for months had
been desperately searching for a foreign country to host the 4th Murukan
Conference. Any foreign country, that is, except Sri Lanka. First, in April
2003 they announced in Chennai at a fund-raising function that the 4th
Conference would be hosted by South Africa. But the South Africans could not
be easily persuaded, and declined. At the last minute, the tiny island-nation
Seychelles with its small Tamil community was pressed to accept the task.
They, too, declined citing the heavy expenditure required, and endorsed Śrī
Lanka's bid instead.
What did the Indian organisers decide? To relent,
accept the will of the international community, and honor their pledge to let
Sri Lanka host the Conference? Instead, they maintained a wall of stoney
silence, followed by an abrupt announcement that the Fourth Murukan Conference
would be held in Pudukkottai.
Why in Pudukkottai? Is it a renowned
centre for Kaumara scholarship? Or is it an ancient centre of Murukan
devotion? Hardly. Rather, the organisers hope that, by holding the next
conference in a small town away from urban centres like Chennai or Madurai
that are home to large populations of educated Hindus, they can control the
next conference proceedings to their full satisfaction.
despite the fact that the administration of Palani Dandayudhapani Swami Devasthanam had twice extended an
invitation to host the next Murukan Conference that is held in India. Given a
choice between Pudukkottai and Palani, most delegates by far would choose
world-famous Palani Devasthanam with all its temples and conference
Is there is another, brighter, way to understand the course
of events that has put the Murukan Conference Series on a descending path that
is making the conferences more and more parochial and provincial, and less
dedicated to the ideals that served as its original inspiration? If so, the
Editor would like to hear from anyone who can enlighten him.
your opinion, write to the Editor by replying to this newsletter.
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