As a teen growing up in a relatively orthodox and religious family, my favourite deity was Rama worshipped at a little temple near our apartment in Wadala in Mumbai. The dark vigraham (stone statue) was beautiful; I said many a prayer to that deity, and I loved being in that presence.
Like my mother, I, too, wrote hundreds of “Sriramajayam” in a notebook.
And yet I feel no joy at the Ram temple in Ayodhya. While thousands, millions even, believe that it is the fulfilment of a burning need—whether or not manufactured by forces that have little to do with religion—for me, it is an erosion of all that I hold precious about the Hindu faith.
I was depressed when the mosque was demolished. Yes, it angers me that possibly a temple was destroyed to build the mosque—“barbarians” is what we call those perpetrators. I thought men and women in the 20th century could learn and be better. Men and women who had all been the traveller who saw the colossal ruins of the works of Ozymandias.
The Hindu faith I practice had no room for destroying a mosque to build a temple. I wrote then in December 1992 that, like Lara in Dr. Zhivago, I too had a song, and that song was gone—a song of quest and tolerance. Amidst all the murky chaos of a trackless history with many ugly sides to it, this was the brightest spot in my faith. I was proud to be a Hindu—that song kept me uplifted.
A Naipaul will dismiss that song as a wimpy, world-renouncing one, born of the “Hindu calm”—the Hindu calm that was responsible for India being unable to stand up to her successive invaders. R.K. Narayan’s creation of life in Malgudi, Naipaul argues convincingly, is ultimately a religious work, projecting the Hindu, Advaitic view and attitude. In his novel Mr. Sampath, the protagonist, Srinivas, reluctantly steps out of his world of studying Upanishads to run a weekly newspaper, and “while he thundered against the municipal or social shortcomings a voice went on asking: life and the world and all this is passing—why bother about anything? The perfect and the imperfect are all the same. Why really bother?”
Vedantic metaphysics says the world is a passing show, and it issues no prescriptions on how men and women should engage in social and political action every day. The Christian faith, on the other hand, holds that there is no faith without works. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant says humans are duty-bound to realise their talents. As a student of ethics, I wondered, “Is this a duty?” To my Hindu mind, this seemed strange, but for Christians, work, above all, is the best way to love the Lord.
Krishna, in fact, admonishes the non-doer: “Maa Karmaphalaheturbhurmaa Te Sangostvakarmani” (“Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction”), says the Gita in its most famous “karmanyevaadhikaraste” verse. Your duty is to only act. Just because you have no right to the fruits of your action does not mean you renounce action. Between renunciation and doing, Krishna clearly says doing is better.
Finally, though, it was the appeal of the stoic outlier, one who remains untouched like a lotus petal, that won. The Gita also speaks of the sthithaprajna: “Sukha-duhkhe same kritva labhalabhau jayajayau.” (He who treats alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory, and defeat.”)
Though the “sthithaprajna” represented too lofty an ideal for everyone to achieve, the idea spilled into everyday life, resulting in Naipaul’s “Hindu calm” which sometimes translated into fatalism, and plain lethargy. Hindu revivalism, however, with its energy and non-acceptance of the status quo, brought fresh winds, injecting new blood into quiet veins. If a temple was razed to build a mosque, that mosque shall be razed to build a temple—this became very important for millions.
The fact that there is no grand temple in Rama’s birthplace is not a serious religious problem really—for who says one can only worship Rama at his birthplace in Ayodhya? A faith that needs a temple built after so much conflict is hardly faith. Faith needs nothing outside itself.
The Virasaiva mystic Basavanna sang of the sthaavara and the jangama:
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.
(Translation by A.K. Ramanujan)
Lakshmi Sreeram is a musician and a writer.