Murugan Bhakti Newsletter 17: November 2003
Lord Skanda-Murugan

Whither the Murukan Conference Series?

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 of self-interest.

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:

  1. What is the purpose of holding international conferences on Kaumaram?
  2. What should be the purpose of research into Kaumaram?
  3. 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 Kaumaram."

Any religious 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 rivals.

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 Kaumara studies.

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 were needed.

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 minimum.

Fourth Murukan Conference
The 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.

This was 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 facilities.

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.

To submit your opinion, write to the Editor by replying to this newsletter.

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