A Tryst With Delusion


The ongoing construction of Rama Temple in the Indian city of Ayodhya is the most ambitious attempt by Hindu nationalists to turn India into a religion-based country. But can ahistorical legends give legitimacy to modern nations?

On January 22, the Hindutva movement, including India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; Indian People’s Party) would deliver on its long-stated political promise of constructing the Rama temple in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. On that day, Hindu hardliner and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi would lead the ceremony to symbolically infuse life into the idol of Rama, a mythical king and a hero of the great Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. In the Hindutva imagination, an awe-inspiring temple dedicated to a singular deity would weave a homogenized national identity, which is otherwise splintered across regions, languages, sects, religions and castes. 


The Hindutva movement had claimed to know the exact spot where Rama was born. It also claimed that an ancient temple built on that spot had been razed by Babur (1483–1530), the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. Babur, they hold, then built a mosque upon the ruins of the temple. Hindutva outfits ran various campaigns to reclaim the alleged birthplace spawning the deadly Babri Mosque–Ram Janmabhoomi controversy of the 1980s that had catastrophic implications for Indian society and politics. The mosque was illegally demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992. The heroic, or ghastly act, was followed by a series of bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims. After Mr Narendra Modi became the prime minister in 2014, following various judicial machinations, the Supreme Court of India in 2019 gave the permission to build the Rama temple. 


The temple is far from complete, but a show of strength and intent is required in the election  year when Mr Modi will seek his consecutive third term in office. The prime minister’s presence, involvement, and blessings will confirm the collapse of the proverbial wall separating the church and the state, and the complete identification of the Indian state with Hindu religion. 


Mr Modi will occupy a special place in the proceedings that many orthodox Hindu leaders believe rightly belongs to the topmost Brahmin seers. In the election year, such niceties obviously do not matter to Mr Modi, the master political tactician. This is the moment his apotheosis will be complete. The prime minister of India would be reborn as the undisputed monarch of the Hindu nation. But it would also be the complete reversal of what Independent India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had stated as India’s national goal in his “A Tryst with Destiny” speech given on the eve of India’s independence from British rule. 


Nehru had signed off that iconic speech with these words: “We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.” 


Nehru gave that speech not just in the emerging daylight of India’s independence but also under the gathering clouds of religious madness that claimed the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who was felled by bullets from the gun of a Hindu fanatic only a few months later. It is no coincidence that a statue of Rama miraculously appeared in the mosque in Ayodhya in 1949, a  year after Gandhi’s assassination. More on that later. The idea of equal rights and dignity for all Indians irrespective of their religious background took a serious hit with Gandhi’s murder in January 1948. However, leaders such as Nehru and Dr Ambedkar with their modern outlook ensured that independent India’s polity reflected the ideals of liberal humanism, which, needless to say, were often at loggerheads with tenets of orthodox Hinduism. Revival of Hindu-ness, or Hindutva, in recent decades puts Indian polity and Indian constitution under immense pressure. Many Indians fear that construction of the temple at the mythical birthplace of Rama might well be the erection of guillotine for the idea of India enshrined in the Indian constitution.


In the West, Hinduism is seen to be a deeply spiritual system that is free from dogma and fanaticism unlike the semitic religions, which are tied to specific historical figures and unique holy books. Hinduism is considered a well-spring of timeless wisdom and self-help spiritual practices independent of personalities and texts. This view fails to see that Hindutva itself is deeply insecure about not having a singular divine figure, a prized scripture and an organized church-like structure. Mr Modi often gifts Bhagvad Gita as a gift to world leaders. Many Hindu organisations have been agitating to declare this sacred text, which contains a sermon of Krishna to warrior Arjuna on a battlefield, as a national book


Curiously, Hindutva has refrained from making Krishna a national god, purportedly due to some licentious stories about him recounted in various other sacred books. Rama, who is not known to have given any sermon of importance, is, however, an ideal and virtuous figure worthy of emulation and worship. As an epic hero, Rama is not completely free from flaws. He killed a Shudra ascetic Shambuka to uphold the caste order of the society. He also abandoned his wife Sita at the time when she needed her husband's support the most. Is he then a defender of human rights? Is he then a model family man?  But all this is not the primary problem with the projection of Rama as a national deity. The bottom line is that his very existence is in doubt. Indian historians often avoid the question as they fear violent backlash by the devout. British historian and the author of The Wonder That Was India (New Delhi: Rupa, 1986) A. L. Basham prided himself in being friendly to Indians and their culture. He did stick his neck out about the legendary nature of Rama’s existence and his exploits: “For all his later fame the literature of the period ignores Rama and his father Dasratha completely, so we must conclude that they were both comparatively insignificant chieftains, whose exploits were by chance remembered, to be elaborated and magnified by later generations of bards until around the beginning of the Christian Era, they received their final form.” One would understand if the Buddha (c. 583 BC – 483 BC) had received the blessings of a political party that wished to build a national identity around a deity. Gautam Buddha was a historical figure. There is plenty of literary and archaeological evidence for him. There is practically none for Rama. Historians have further argued against the claim that Babur built a mosque over a temple sometime in 1528. Sushil Srivastava, historian and professor at the University of Allahabad, stated in his seminal book The Disputed Mosque: A Historical Inquiry (New Delhi: Vistaar, 1991) that “Historical evidence has convinced us that the Babri Masjid was not constructed by Babur or his men. We also have conclusive evidence that no Hindu temple consecrating the birthplace of Rama ever stood on the spot of the disputed mosque in Ayodhya.”


When history doesn’t bear witness to your convictions, deception comes to your rescue. Soon after India’s independence and the murder of Gandhi, arguably the most intriguing scene of the 1940s unfolded in Ayodhya. On the cold winter night of December 22, 1949, the muezzin of the controversial mosque in that city woke up to check what had caused a thud that jolted him out of sleep. As he walked towards the source of the noise, he bumped into a Hindu ascetic carrying an idol of Rama. The accomplices of the ascetic who had come to plant the idol in the mosque swooped down on the muezzin who ran through the darkness to save his life. Next morning he heard the news that Lord Rama had finally manifested himself at his birthplace in the mosque the previous night. The miraculous appearance of the deity brushed aside forever all claims of history and rationality. 


The idea of the birthplace of Rama arose out of local legends, myths, and – one must admit – sheer fraud. The legend was given historical flavour by, as Sushil Srivastava shows in his book, some British Indologists and writers of the nineteenth century, who firmly set the narrative that Hindu temples existed in Ayodhya, subsequently demolished by Muslim conquerors. Hindu supremacist groups clung eagerly to that Orientalist construction, and are now carrying out a decolonial agenda to avenge the alleged historical wrongs. The postmodern mood prevalent in academia, mass media and the entertainment industry has blunted any sensitivity to historical evidence. The “devotional sentiment” of the so-called majority in India is allowed to ride roughshod over truth, facts and objective evidence of history. The building of the Rama temple is yet another reminder that brute majority in a political democracy could be a means to justify monstrous absurdities. The building of the temple is the confirmation that myths and legends backed by brute power can silence historians. Let it not be forgotten that every effort to build a nation on falsity of racial or religious pride is an irretrievable step down the road to indubitable disaster. 


On January 22, Hindutva will lead India by the nose down that very road. 

Subodh S. Lal

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