|Undoubtedly the most versatile and accomplished of the literary women of the early period in Orissa, Kuntala Kumari Sabat’s (1901-1938) claim to fame is meteoric as well as tragic. Born to Christian parents, Daniel (a physician) and Monica, Kuntala spent her early years in Burma and later life in Delhi where she practised medicine. Kuntala became a Brahmo especially for her love for a married Hindu. Unsuccessful in her desire, later she married a mentor Krishna Prasad Brahmachari. The marriage brought much misfortune to her. Brahmachari was a constant source of tyranny and exploitation. Despite her brief life span, Kuntala accomplished much. She wrote poetry, letters, articles, and fiction. She strove hard for women’s empowerment and advocated their cause in many forms such as the All India Women’s Conference in the North (she was the President in 1931) and in Orissa. She believed in the notion of the composite culture, accepted her Hindu heritage, and made symbolism, imagery and mythology from her Hindu past an integral part of her literary creativity. A nationalist, she fought for the self-respect of the Oriya people, as her ‘Letters from Delhi’ testify. Kuntala’s works include poetry collections like Anjali (Offspring) (1973), Uchvasa (Surge of Emotions), Sphuling (Spark), Archana (Worship) (1927), Prema Chintamani (Love Song) (1931), Odianka Kandana (a set of sad bridal songs) (1936). The best of Kuntala’s novels are Kalibohu (1925), Na Tundi (The Gossip) (1925), and Parasamani (A very precious gem) (1940). She also wrote in Hindi and contributed to several contemporary journals. Kuntala’s poetry is marked by an intensity of feeling and a powerful lyrical flow. Deeply personal and reflective, some of them, such as ‘Shefali Prati,’ carry mystical undertones. The following is the text of one of Kuntala Kumari Sabat’s speeches entitled ‘Adhunika Dharma Samasya.’
Mr President, Brothers and Sisters,
The subject on which I stand before you to speak today is not an ordinary one. It concerns the problems of religion in modern times. Nowadays there are problems everywhere — problems of food and clothing as well as social and political problems. Life today is problem ridden; and consequently man gets tired and exhausted. His life span is shortened and his intellect gets blunted because of his indulgence in the continuous analysis of these problems. In spite of his efforts, day by day the problems continue to get multiplied.
There are colossal problems in the world of religion today. Opinions among the saints regarding this issue vary widely. There are various interpretations of scriptures just as there are different paths prescribed by different intellects. Man is totally confused today unable to decide about the right course of action. Hinduism proclaims that it is the Sanatana Dharma (‘eternal religion’) and it is very tolerant. It is the most ancient religion, the cradle of all religions. All paths to liberation are clearly indicated in it.
Hence it is the greatest religion.
Similarly, Christianity says that except this faith, no other religion can provide for the deliverance of the sinners. Only the faith in the Christ’s theory of atonement is the proper path for salvation.
According to Islam, it is impossible to attain Allah unless one is initiated into the Islamic religion. Thus, everywhere every religion is busy proclaiming its own greatness.
It can be ascertained that, if one were to soberly reflect, no single doctrine, however special it might be, is Dharma. The essential meaning of Dharma is that which holds or binds together. In other words, that which unites the whole world, that which is the only and ultimate support – based on the human soul. Can that be only an amalgamation of a few doctrines or theories? Can that be under the control of one or two unerring scriptures or prophets (spiritual masters)? No, brothers and sisters! It is not like that! That which holds the cosmic world together, that which destroys all inequalities or separateness, that which builds up brotherhood among people, alone is Dharma. Today, the human soul is thirsty for such a Dharma.
When homo-sapiens came into being on the surface of the earth in their primitive state and lived playfully in the abundance of Nature’s beauty and splendour, the world was a glorious place for them. The vast blue sky, innumerable suns, moons and stars, myriad planets and satellites, above all, the wide, expanding green earth bedecked with rivers, streams and leafy, flowery forests below, presented the cosmic picture of the universe. Then came the six seasons. Thereafter their lives resounded with the music of everlasting, ever enchanting seasons of the world. Man realized that the world is truly beautiful. The sky, the earth, the sun, the planets, the stars and the moons are all beautiful. Man became the votary of cosmic beauty. He imagined a deity in every existing thing. Indra (God of rain), Baruna (God of ocean), and Agni (God of fire).
But what a disaster! Next moment there came a dramatic change. Disease, sorrow, grief, and separation came one by one and disheartened him. He was shaken and devastated by famines, floods, epidemics and earthquakes.
What a juxtaposition! There was massacre and devastation amidst so much of beauty and sweetness. Man was terrified. He could not now rest content with offering only the Puja (worship) and tokens of love or devotion to the deities. Then out of fear he offered sacrifices to the deities. He then started engaging himself in meditation, prayer, and oblation to placate the angry gods. Even then his soul did not rest in peace.
His soul needed something more. He wanted to know who the Gods were that dwelt high above the blue sky, and what forms they assumed. He ceaselessly strove to fathom the secrets of Omnipresent-Primordial-Bliss. At last, Man realized that his heaven lay in his inner self and there was bliss in complete self-surrender. Thereafter he conceived the idea of incarnation-worship (Avatar Puja). Worship of the unknowable and the inconceivable God appeared to be totally beyond them. He was in quest of the supreme God in man himself or in his essence or divinity. But he could not succeed completely in his effort.
Hundreds of frailties, blemishes, innumerable acts of meanness, and defects stood in the way of his realization of Brahma and His magnificence. All the professed doctrines, divine paths, yoga or meditation ended in utter futility.
Then came the all important question: what does Man really need or was in quest of? That is the basic problem with the religions of modern times. What does Man need? What can spirituality do to satisfy him? Is it only a matter of one or two unerring scriptures? Is it only by attributing divinity to a few extraordinary human beings that we can get on in life? No, brothers and sisters! Man is not satisfied with this much. He saw Buddha’s renunciation; he saw love in its purest form in Chaitanya and he also saw the great self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He bowed before them with love and adoration. Yet he could not be satisfied, or contented. He then invented very complicated and difficult theories. He applied thousands of sciences and philosophies to the task of unravelling the mysteries of the universe. He fell at the feet of hundreds of Gods and Goddesses. He went on searching for hundreds of spiritual masters and Gurus (preceptors). He conducted hundreds of Yajnans (oblations) and devoted himself to equal number of yogic practices. He often achieved magical and supernatural powers through meditation and other esoteric practices.
But, still, these brought him no contentment; no fulfilment.
Again the same old question exercised him- what does Man need? What does he want today?
What earnest desire, what hope stirs in the depths of his soul? The contemporary problem with religion is nothing other than this query.
Call it Yajna or fire worship, call it tapasya (penance or self sacrifice) – all are but stepping stones to the practice of Dharma.
Where is the fulfilment if he remained standing on the steps? He earnestly desires to get into the divinely beautiful shrine standing in front of him. That is the supreme goal of his life. he cannot be satisfied with anything less. Contradictions, conflicts between religions, cruel attacks on each other, extolling one’s own magnificence by belittling others, are manifestations of one’s smallness.
And this will not bring peace and contentment to the soul of man.
Religions of modern times should have a single objective, a single ideal and a single thought. The one and the only solution to the problems of contemporary religions is the establishment of oneness (unity) among them. One special doctrine, only one special scripture, only one special incarnation or prophet is not the supreme goal/fulfilment of worship. Only one distinguished icon or image, or one supreme God is not enough.
Man today is not aspiring merely to meditate on external objects and worship them as God. On the other hand, he desires to place his dear God in the shrine of his heart and worship him with the offerings of inner love, inner devotion and inner ecstasy.
What types of penance, what types of yajna (oblation), what types of spiritual practices are needed to worship that God in whose lap he is brought up, of whose being he is a part, in whose vastness his smallness is merged for ages and beyond ages, in worlds and beyond worlds? By what method will Man worship Him? One who is his father, mother, preceptor, guide and friend, one who is the ultimate fulfilment of all his aspirations, one who is the supreme solace to all his sorrows and sufferings, and one who is an embodiment of everlasting love and benediction! Is there such an external object in this world to be material for puja? Can any deity, any image, any incarnation occupy the place of the supreme goal of his life? For how long will he be deceived by such puzzling debates? For how long would he seek shelter under arid theories? Man today cries out in despair and fatigue: ‘Oh God! Your worship is my natural duty, your worship is my ultimate happiness; there is no need for complicated and puzzling theories. There is the need for only one thing and one duty, and that is love in its purest form!’
Let that love inundate your heart and mind! Many centuries back St. John said, “God is Love!” God is worshipped by Love; supreme sacrifice is made by Love and the impossible too is made possible by Love. Love removes contradictions; it establishes brotherhood.
Love ushers in unity and harmony between nations, and it prevents conflicts between religious sects. Love overcomes all depravity and all poverty by its mellifluous richness. Its luminous radiance, banishes darkness from one’s heart! St. Paul had once said, ‘Endurance in Love is long lasting and Love is beneficent!’ There is no place for jealousy, pride, egoism, unruly conduct, selfishness and evil thought in Love. Love enjoys Truth, it does not indulge in sins. Love engulfs all, trusts all, relies on all and preserves all. All predictions, all languages and learning may be buried in oblivion, but Love will never die.
Whatever the Bible says is also said about in the Vedas, the Koran, and the Puranas. The Brahmo Samaj today also says the same thing.
God, of course, is the universal Father. His sun shines in England. His rays provide sunshine to India. He is the Lord of the Universe. Contradictory theories do not constitute the religion of modern times. Universal world religion is the religion that fulfils the spiritual aspirations of mankind. That does not depend on the limitations of place, time and person. The supreme Lord is the foundation stone of such a religion. The ultimate aim of that religion is the attainment of perfect unity in the human world. It owes its existence to the perfect harmony of religions. Its full happiness lies in ungrudging service to mankind.
This is exactly the aim of the Yuga-Dharma of modern times. We are no longer believers in varieties of religions, as at the heart of hearts, we have this aim. We are the children of the father of the universe. In the far-off hermitages of the Rishis of India, echoed this cry: ‘Listen, Oh all the sons of the deathless! We, men and women of the world are the children of the immortal. We are not division-ridden! We are the possessors of nectar, the conqueror of death! Oh, Death, where lies your victory? There should not be any division, multiplicity of views and religious conflict amidst ourselves. We are the children of God and members of a vast world family! The Supreme God is our Father! Truth is our only scripture, our only duty is to love and satisfy our father, to do good to our brothers and sisters and to serve the world.’
Come on! My brothers and sisters, forget all differences, forget all ill feelings and bow down before the Supreme Father again and again! Let us rise above the dust of the earth, rise above mundane humanness and attain divinity. Let us enshrine that Being, the only one, in our inner and outer life, and forgive all weakness, frailties and narrowness by flooding our hearts with love and compassion. Let us accept the idea that we are all brothers and sisters!
May the Lord help us! Om Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi.
Translated from Oriya by R.C. Rout.
The headnote on Kuntala Kumari Sabat is written by Sachidananda Mohanty. The text is forthcoming in Lost Tradition : Early Women’s Writing in Orissa 1898-1950, ed. Sachidananda Mohanty. New Delhi: Sage Publications. The volume is based on original archival research.
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