Lord Ram and His not very Humble Abode
There is a palpable excitement and buzz about the impending construction of “the” Ram temple in Ayodhya which commences with a bhoomi pujan on 5th August, 2020. There are claims of its grandiose- the proposed temple being twice the size it was originally envisaged. The temple, to be constructed in Nagara style of architecture, will have five domes instead of two as envisaged earlier to accommodate more number of devotees, said Mr. Sompura, the architect of the temple (reference). Interestingly, this bhoomi pujan will be an equally grand affair where no less than the Prime Minister will be in attendance along with other public figures. Ironically, this event comes on the heels of the news that an assistant priest and four policemen posted at the site tested positive for coronavirus. The authorities said the developments would have no effect on the programme, scheduled for August 5, and expected to be attended by around 250 people (Mishra & Tiwary, 2020). With a global pandemic raging on infecting over 18 lakhs Indians and claiming over 38000 lives, the idea of a lavish event on 5th August does sound a bit uncomfortable. The author doesn’t want to dwell into the correctness of the building the temple given the verdict of the Supreme Court deciding to give the disputed site for construction of the Temple and giving an alternative land for the Mosque, the debate is put to rest and all possibilities along with it. But it is worth mulling what does this Ram Mandir stand for? What does it symbolize for different groups?
To begin with, it is a well known fact that there is not one Ramayana where the symbol of Ram is drawn from. There exist different versions of the great epic, not just in India but in other parts of South Asia like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Each version is adapted to suit its socio-cultural context and reflect varied moral goals that different societies uphold for themselves. In his famous essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, A K Ramanujan talks about hundreds of versions of the epic which exist in folk, poetic and dramatic traditions. Interestingly, Ram is depicted differently in these different renditions. Valmiki’s Ramayana is the most well known epic. Valmiki is said to have composed other versions and extensions, such as the Yoga Vashistha and the Adbhut Ramayana. The unique characteristic about Adbhut Ramayana is the portrayal of Sita who is depicted as fierce and a form of Kali. In India, the most popular rendition is that of Tulsidas who authored the Ramcharitramanas. There are differences in both these versions in the depictions of Ram.
In the Jain version of Ramayana, instead of Ram, Lakshman is depicted as the slayer of Ravana while Ram embodied the virtue of non-violence and pacifism. In the Gond Ramayana too, Lakshman is depicted as the hero. However, in the folk version of the Gond tribe, Lakshman had to undergo an agni pareeksha for alleged licentious behavior. In Thai versions of the Ramayana called Ramakirti and Ramakien, Hanuman is not a virtuous celibate sevak, but with amorous overtures, a rather different character than the popularly depicted character. Even Ravana, as in many other versions, is depicted as a learned scholar and his pursuit for Sita was romantic (Chanda-Vaz, 2015). The point of belaboring on the different versions is to establish that the morals, stereotypes and moral philosophy are not constant and same throughout regions. If there is not one Ramayana, then how does this temple symbolize a victory for one Hindu religion and the community on a whole? This diversity in Ramayana and likewise in Hindu religion can’t be ignored.
Symbolism assumes a central role in politics. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement gave a major impetus to the electoral success of the BJP. Ram was positioned as the ideal of the Hindu Society and thus the logic to secure his birthplace that was usurped by the “foreign invaders”. But there are as many Rams as there are Ramayanas. Which Ram do we want to idolize as a society? Like mentioned above, though there are different versions of Ramayana, the common thread or characteristics of Ram are righteousness, integrity, service to the weakest, commitment to justice and equality. Afterall these are the exact goals of Ram Rajya envisaged by Gandhi. Gandhi envisaged Ram Rajya based on his admiration of Ram and his teachings for just society. Mohandas Gandhi used the concept of Ramrajya – the rule of Ram – to describe an ideal state as opposed to India under colonial rule.
So powerful is the symbol of Ram that he was invoked in different movements for social justice. For instance, peasant movement in Awadh in 1920s under the leadership of Baba Ramchandra gained momentum when Ramchandra wandered about reciting Tulsidas and mobilizing the peasants against exploitation and oppression. The slogan widely used was Sita- Ram resonated with the masses (Daniyal, 2019). Following this example, Gandhi took Ram to the masses through the freedom struggle. He was an ideal for Ram Rajya- the source of strengthen and inner moral conviction to fight evil, oppression and discrimination.
As opposed to the Ram of Ram Rajya or Kabir’s Ram, the Ram of Hindutva reflecting in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement is a hyper- masculine and warrior Ram. While in all versions of Ramayana, Sita is accorded the same prominence as Ram- as his companion, for her own strength, dignity and integrity. Thus naturally their names were inseparable. Invocations to Ram were conjoined with his wife Sita. “The slogans raised for recitals of Ram Katha that I grew up hearing, were never about Ram as an individual, let alone a warrior,” said veteran journalist Mrinal Pande. “They were about the duo: “Bol Siyavar or Siyapat Ramchandra ki jai”[victory to Ram, Sita’s husband]. Kindness, grace and inseparability from Sita were qualities publically remembered.” (Daniyal, Scroll.in, 2019).
Another lens to see lord Ram is through the dohas of Kabir. Kabir believed in the omnipresence of Ram. His devotion for Ram didn’t require an idol or a temple-Ram was all pervading. Ram was kind and lived in each human being- not the majestic, distant, glorified Ram we know him to today. Ram reflects in kind conduct of each and every human being. Kabir says, Mome tome sarab me jahn dekhu tahn Ram Ram bina chhin ek hi , sarai na eko kam . (In me you and all, where ever I see there is Ram, Not even a second is without Ram, nothing is successful without Ram.) He goes on to say, Bahir bhitar Ram hai nainan ka abhiram. Jit dekhun tit Ram hai , Ram bina nahi tham. (Ram is outside and inside; Ram is the pleasure of eyes. Where ever I see, I see Ram, no place is without Ram). From Kabir’s perspective, Lord Ram lives in masses- all accessible and simple, not esoteric or grand figure accessible to the elite few. Ram lives on in common Indians especially the marginalized through the understanding and dohas of the Bhakti saints.
There is a stark departure in the public imagination evoked by the Ram as portrayed by Hindutva- a muscled up warrior always in an aggressive belligerent stand, inspiring violence. The contrast in the idea of Ram of Gandhi and Kabir and that of Hindutva is compelling and herein lies the problem with this Ram Mandir. Ram is popular in most areas of South Asia because of the universal nature of the values that Ram stood for- mainly that of humanity and justice. This is also the reason that Ram resonates in the hearts of Indian masses and also the social fabric of India. Ram is not a mythological character but represents faith and values of a civilization.
However, the Ram in Hindutva is a symbol of politics- politics of exclusion and supremacy. Ram in Hindutva is a conqueror, destructor and the demolisher. This imagery does great disservice to Ram by restricting Ram to a community (Ram is not popular equally in all Hindus), to one country and to one ideology. Whereas Kabir’s Ram had no boundaries and thus easier to spiritually follow, Hindutva’s Ram is temporal and symbolizes a warrior needing a definite territory and violence against other communities. This Ram of Hindutva is a distant symbol for the masses after being devoid of the humanistic values Ram embodies for centuries. Ram is instrumentalized by Hindutva politics for a nationalist project to be a symbol for violence and subjugation.
It is little surprise then that, “Jai shri Ram” has turned into a war cry for vigilante groups lynching innocent weak after invoking Ram. Ram is stripped off the spirituality, the massive moral philosophy and universal values attached to Him and reduced to an idol in a temple on a particular territory. Does this departure in imagery of Ram also signify a departure in the moral goalpost of our society? It is a clear attempt to construct a new goal for the society based on hegemony. Which kind of Ram will Ayodhya temple house with great fanfare and which devotees will identify with this Ram? And will the Ram temple stand for equality?
With this different idea of Ram in Hindutva, how will the common people feel about the temple? Will they identify with the Ram of Kabir and Gandhi that lives on even without a temple but in legacy and value system? Or will the temple be a mere symbol of the defeat and violence against the Muslims invoking narrow pride for Hindus? The manner in which the bhoomi pujan is planned with 250 VIPs- mostly from RSS, ministers and temple trusts, the message is implicitly clear. With the aggressive planning of the bhoomi pujan amid a raging pandemic, there is an air of triumphant ideological political and territorial victory. The temple and Ram in this temple will symbolize a relic of a political battle, an article of ideology-ideology of hatred, subjugation and exclusion, instead of faith and a structure which will remind everyone that “might is right”.
The demolition of Babri Masjid and accompanying spite for Muslims can’t be detached from this structure. But of greater concern is whether all the Hindus can identify with it? For instance, there are numerous instances of Dalits still facing violence and social strictures for entering temples. Ironically, President Kovind, a Dalit himself is not going to be present for the Bhoomi Pujan. Will the temple change or challenge deeply entrenched hierarchies based on caste, class and gender? Will scores of Hindus feel spiritually liberated or empowered in that space? Will they find the Ram; they have grown with, in the temple? The overwhelming feeling of the author is that people will see the temple for what it is- a fulfillment of a divisive political agenda but wont find the Ram of Tulsidas or Kabir in this massive structure. There are 14 other temples in Ayodhya claiming to be the Janmasthan of Ram. Do they need another to find Ram? This poses a question whether the quest for Ram Mandir is a movement by the Hindu nationalists or the masses, the real Jana?
The Ram Temple symbolizes a legal victory for an aggressive ideology. The Ayodhya dispute was settled eventually after almost 3 decades of alacrity, bitterness and recurring violence. The Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of giving the whole premises to build the Ram Temple though it did recognize that the demolition of the Babri masjid was illegal. However inspite of this acknowledgement, the verdict in favor of building the Ram temple at least legally validates the politics the Ram Jamnabhoomi represented- exclusivist, narrow and virulent. The verdict and the following plan of the construction of the temple in all its grandiose have gone a great way to strengthen the narrative that majoritarianism is steadily getting entrenched in India.
The grand ceremony symbolizes a watershed moment in the history and future of our country which formalizes and legitimizes the dismantling of democracy and democratic institutions. More importantly it will question the idea of Ram that generations of Indians have venerated and found amongst them- within and outside themselves. Does the grand Ayodhya temple ceremony with the RSS high functionaries, high priests, Prime Minister and all high profile in toe, ensure that the common Indian will find Ram in this temple? Kabir has some wisdom to share with us on this. He says, Ghat bin kahun na dekhiye Ram raha bharpoor Jin jana tin pass hai , door kahan un door. (Do not see any body without God, Ram is present in everybody Who knows it will find him near, who says he is not there will find him far). One can only hope that the spirit of Ram and the ideals he is associated with by Indians for centuries still finds a place in our social consciousness despite this grand temple.
First published in Secular Perspective, August 1-15, by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism