The renowned Spanish philosopher George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a sage bit of advice that British civil servants and government departments have decided to ignore in this 21st century.
Just over 150 years ago India had a standing army of 253,000 soldiers made up of Hindu, Sikh and Muslims commanded by a handful of British officers. It was formed to protect the interests of the East India Company, which then ruled India from the City of London via a vast network of civil servants and its own army. At the time this was the largest standing army in the world, and it would, in the two world wars of the 20th century, serve the Empire well, its soldiers displaying remarkable acts of courage and sacrifice.
In 1857 however, in a gross display of disrespect for the men of India who served them, the commanding officers put it about that the cartridges they used were coated with cow or pig fat. To use the cartridge a soldier would have to bite the end off before pouring the gunpowder into the barrel of the rifle, requiring their mouths to come in contact with the pig or cow fat.
For any army to work, trust is required: those giving the orders need to be trusted by those receiving them. It was well-known that for the Hindus to make this kind of contact with a cow was completely unacceptable, and that for Muslims such contact with a pig was equally unacceptable. Therefore, the only rationale for lacing the cartridges with tallow in that way, or spreading the rumour that they were so laced, was to denigrate the sepoys (the term used to describe the local Indian soldiers). This led the devout Brahmin Mangal Pandey to take the first steps of armed resistance to the British Rule which in turn led, in 1857, to the First War of Independence on the Indian sub-continent as the soldiers mutinied. British history books refer to it as ‘the ‘Great Indian Mutiny’. Whichever side of history you stand on, it was not a proud moment in British colonial history, nor in military history, and led ultimately to the Colonialists being ejected from India and the collapse of the British Empire.
In the 150 years since, it is to be hoped that we have learned from these experiences. But it seems not. Last year the new British £5 note was issued in a polymer which was contaminated with beef tallow, once again harming Hindu British subjects who have to handle these notes. Although they are not slaves, the British Hindu community of 2% of the population, contributing 6% GDP are at the very least, reliable "economic sepoys, foot soldiers".
The oldest of the worlds' great religious traditions, Hinduism is the only one that worships the Divine equally in both the masculine and feminine. Our agrarian forefathers offered the bull as a symbol of divine righteousness (the male principle), while the cow is a symbol of divine nurturing (the feminine principle). We now, centuries later, still embrace these symbols and hold them close to our hearts to remind us of the path laid out for us by these complementary forces. To handle something from a slaughtered cow would be to insult the Divine Mother, the principle of nurturing and the loving provision of nature. No aware and mindful Hindu will willingly or voluntarily do it.
Did the departments of the Bank of England and the government that allowed this polymer to be used in the new £5 note simply lack an historical perspective? Quite possibly. But I cannot help but wonder whether the civil servants who decided to go ahead with this project actually knew the history and used the polymer anyway, not in the hope of getting away with it ~ that has become impossible in our networked, information driven world ~ but rather to see how far they could carry the insult this time. Or perhaps, I muse, was it a homage from the Bank of England to that successful British joint-stock company of old, the East India Company, that amassed India’s vast wealth and funnelled it home for the Empire for 200 years?
No war will begin over this £5 note but memories are stirred and old half-forgotten insults again taste bitter in the mouth. The fact is that there are currently approximately 817,000 Hindus in the UK, about 2% of the population, for whom this note is abhorrent; it is similarly so for the 542,000 vegans in the country. Hence an online petition against the new £5 note has rapidly garnered over 130,000 signatures. This was condemned by the polymer’s inventor, Australian Prof. David Solomon, as ‘stupid’. I wonder if the commanding officers of the sepoys were mouthing a similar opinion when that first War of Independence began in Meerut, in Northern India.
Sensitivity, empathy, mutual respect and even courtesy have, in our time, indeed become seen as ‘stupid’. Crass, thoughtless and callous responses now seem to be routine and acceptable. But is that really how we want to live? Is that really going to lead to a better life for all of us? The image of Winston Churchill which first appeared on the £5.00 serves for the British as a nostalgic reminder of a great wartime leader, but for Hindus he carries a different legacy. This same man was directly responsible as recently as 1943 for the deaths of at least 6 million Hindus in the Bengal Famines (which in some quarters earned him the moniker of the Butcher of Bengal - ref Churchills Crimes against Humanity). The same Churchill who remarked in judgement of the civilisation which gave the world, Yoga, Ayurveda, Mathematics and Sanskrit - "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." It is a tribute to Hindu tolerance that no Hindus objected to the face of Churchill gracing the national currency, but to now deliberately add Tallow to the same note seems to be more than just insensitive, suggesting that the Colonialists innate sense of bludgeoning superiority lives on in Threadneedle Street.
According to the speaker of the Sermon on the Mount "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon." We all know Mammon has something to do with money. But the word he uses here is not the common word for money. Mammon means unjust gain, greed, or money made an end in itself, an ultimate value, a controlling force.
"Some people use money to provide for their family. Others sell out their family, their country, their integrity . . . for money. This is where money becomes Mammon, a relentless god that demands that all bow before it and offer sacrifice."
Karin Ridgers of VeggieTV, Doug Maw who initiated the 130,000 signature petition and Satish K Sharma of the NCHT(UK) outside the Bank of England, Threadneedle Street, for their meeting with Victoria Cleland, Chief Cashier.
On 15th February 2017 the Bank of England published a statement announcing that " Weighing the considerations below, the Bank has now concluded that it would be appropriate to keep the £5 polymer note in circulation and to issue the £10 polymer note as planned, in September." (Bank of England Statement).
In a nutshell this means that the Bank has decided that although the £20.00 notes are possibly not "fit for purpose", the existing £5.00 notes can continue in circulation, the existing paper £5.00 notes will be withdrawn in May 2017 and additional polymer £10.00 notes will be introduced in September as planned.
So, having recieved and considered the concerns raised by members of the public with the utmost seriousness the Bank of England has decided upon this course of action. Embarking upon a complete "flight of fancy" for a moment, what course of action could the bank have taken if it had chosen to act with disdain and utter disregard for the opinions of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Hindu Sikh & Jain communities as well as human-rights minded members of the public? Purely hypothetically of course... it may have chosen to completely disregard all concerns and objections and decided to leave the £5.00 notes in circulation, withdraw the existing £5.00 paper supply and to introduce the £10.00 notes as planned. Perhaps Timothy's words provide the most appropriate guidance in seeking to know the heart of a person or institution, "by their works shall ye know them".
In one of the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Katha Upanishad, we are given a teaching which reminds us that at every step we are presented with having to make a choice between two paths "Shreyas and Preyas". In the words of Swami Ambikananda Saraswatiji "Whether you are enlightened or foolish, there is a crossroad in front of you at every moment. You can either choose the Preyas response, the old knee jerk response which is always driven by self protectionism, self gratification, self enjoyment and self promotion or the Shreyas response, which is the contemplation-supported choice which serves the well being of all of creation, even if at cost to ones' own comfort and welfare. The teachings of Dharma unequivocally support the choice which challenges the production of these notes, the choice which challenges the view that a living being has value only in its utility as a "polymer source", which challenges the notion that the cost argument automatically outweighs all other arguments and most importantly, the choice which protects the freedom to determine what our bodies can and cannot come into contact with in our dealings with the providers of public services and their products and services.
Therefore and most unfortunately, the NCHT(UK) has no option but to seek legal protection against this impostion upon the "Shreyas guided" members of the Hindu, Sikh Jain and Dharmic traditions, as well as upon the vegetarian and vegan communities of the UK.
All mindful British Hindus stand at the crossroads of Shreyas and Preyas, and with every donation at a temple, or every aashirwaad (blessing) given to a new married couple, or every blessing conveyed by a gift of money given to a grandchild, the choice will have to be made again and again. The next time that PM Theresa May visits a Hindu temple she too will have to make this choice before contemplating making a symbolic donation, and since great importance is placed upon Indo British Trade in a post Brexit Britain, payments made in a morally, religiously and ethically tainted currency may well acquire a totally different "bhavana" sentiment.
The Bank of England and some Hindu organisations have already made the choice of Preyas, the easy expedient, "lets be nice and garner false appreciation and friendship" at the highest levels, but the NCHT(UK), Doug Maw, Karin Ridgers, and 130,000 signatories feel obliged to make the choice of Shreyas, to serve the global holistic, Dharmic and compassionate "good".
The Bank of England's own website declares that the Bank’s mission is to promote the good of the people of the United Kingdom by maintaining monetary and financial stability.. all of us succumb to confusion from time to time and perhaps a gentle reminder will suffice, before a legal reminder becomes necessary.
Pt Satish K Sharma
(with affectionate gratitude to Swami Ambikananda Saraswatiji for her contribution)