In Conversation: On Angry Lions and Nationalism

The team discusses pressing events that say something about our culture and why it matters. Today, we discuss the national emblem redesigned as “angry” lions, and why it evokes emotion and fervor.

On Monday this week, the Prime Minister unveiled part of the newly constructed Parliament building in the nation’s capital. At the top of the building was a cast of the national emblem – where previously it depicted four serene lions based on an Ashokan pillar in Sarnath, now the behavior of the lions looks menacing to some. Historians have noted that the new cast departs stylistically from the original and thus sends a different message. Where the emblem was originally conceptualized as non-violent, the new cast “sends a message of violence”. according to historian Rajat Kanta Ray.

The controversy raises questions about nationalism, iconography, and what the destruction of unshakable symbols does to our history, our culture, and even our political climate.

AS: Anger or calm can also be directly linked to the contexts in which they appeared. The original Sarnath lions were used by Ashoka, who had renounced warfare and converted to Buddhism after causing havoc in Kalinga. The iconography of the lion itself is attached to the Buddha. On the other hand, in recent years there has been a surge in the popularity of militant Hindutva which has also resulted in angrier and meaner versions of Hindu characters like Hanuman, Shiva and Parshuram. Extending this appearance to a traditional Buddhist symbol and then holding a puja for its inauguration is another attempt in Brahmanism’s long history to co-opt symbols and belief system traditions that oppose it. Performing a Puja in an official capacity on top of a secular institution, that too Parliament – the supreme legislative institution – means that it has now truly transformed itself into a temple of democracy which openly places a set of religious beliefs and personal above all others.

DR: The idea behind national symbols and emblems — apart from the official value they have as seals of governments, of course — is unite people through a visual representation either of their shared history or of the goals and values ​​revered by their community. In a way, it’s like the hallmark of a country, but one that instills a sense of belonging in its people – reminding them that, regardless of their socio-cultural differences, they are connected to one another. The controversy with the latest iteration of the national emblem, however, strikes at the very heart of the emotion it is meant to inspire – rather than uniting, it has divided Indians. This begs the question: as grand as the new statue is, is it worth further diluting the country’s fragile unity, especially at a time of political turmoil? Additionally, the lion capital was chosen as the national emblem of India because it represented the “commitment to world peace and goodwill.” I wonder now if the “growling” lions will really be able to reproduce this message?

Regarding the raging debate around whether the emblem has indeed been changed by the government, one can only hope that India national currency – “Satyameva Jayate [Truth alone triumphs]” – prevails.

NR: There is something disturbingly autocratic about taking a symbol of national consciousness and unilaterally changing its meaning. Even if, as an individual, we don’t attach much to symbols, the new look is undeniably aggressive and represents more the ethos of the government in place than our history as a nation. This, to me, clearly represents the difference between a government and a nation – where the former is meant to be temporary, administrative and accountable to the electorate, the latter is of much greater importance in terms of how people form their own identify. But an incident like this, where a key pillar of democracy is crowned by a symbol that is altered by a political party, represents the party’s attempt to blur the lines between itself and the nation. Personally, I don’t like the symbols – but I appreciate their importance. That’s not to say that all symbols and iconography are infallible – most are not, and many even depict a nation with undertones of violence.

So what is it about lions that makes change worth discussing? It has to do with the very idea of ​​Indianness itself being altered – given that the emblem dates back to the very beginning of our Republic. These ideas are not set in stone either: anything to do with nationalism is constantly subject to scrutiny, discussion and dialogue. It must be. But that’s not what happened here, and it explains why so many care about the serenity of what the symbol was and can’t stand the threat that lurks now. Moreover, much of the danger in what the government is doing lies in the subtle symbolic shifts in our ideas about India. We see it in school curricula, in food policies, in science, in place names, in statues, the monumentsand now, emblems signifying who we are.

Charles P. Patton