Those using Ram as a political mascot must consider how their actions impact the ideals of an inclusive, democratic and just society India aims to be.
The word “Ram” as an adjective means soothing and pleasing in Sanskrit. For millennia it has been so for millions in India and beyond, not in a frivolous, hedonistic way but in a sublime sense. As a proper noun, as the name of a person, it refers to the king of Ayodhya, who as the crown prince willingly suffered unjust banishment for 14 years as he chose to uphold the sanctity of the “word” given by his father, King Dashrath, in a moment of weakness to his youngest wife, Kaikeyi.
Ram is also the most popular name—courtesy of Bhakti poets such as Kabir—given to formless divinity, the ultimate consciousness permeating the whole of existence. Such poets insist that their Ram is different from Ram the king of Ayodhya but nonetheless continue to use adjectives such as Raghav and Raghunath that are drawn from the narratives of King Ram, the avatar of Vishnu.
Crown prince Ram could have chosen to ignore the manifestly unjust command issued by his father, who was going back on his own previous, publicly expressed wish to see his eldest son crowned but did not have the courage to stand up to his youngest and most beloved wife. Everyone in the palace and in the populace was shocked at the king’s sudden volte-face.
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In Valmiki’s narrative, Ram’s devoted younger brother Lakshman was angry and wanted Ram to ignore the king’s order and insist on his claim to the throne, by force, if need be. This would not have brought any opprobrium, only widespread approval. After all, Ram was a victim of patent injustice, and in such situations, this was the road to the throne that many had taken before him and many would take after him. Or maybe, disenchanted by the palace intrigues, he could have taken the road to the forest to reflect on the philosophical puzzles of existence.
But Ram took “the road less travelled by/And that has made all the difference”.
The difference showed throughout his life. The story of his life is deeply entrenched in the Indian cultural memory and psyche. As is well known, there are many Ramayanas, with numerous variations in the narrative, but in each one of them, Ram is the embodiment of right conduct. Ram is believed to be an avatar of Vishnu, but in Valmiki’s narration, he insists on being human at the most poignant moment. Having defeated Ravana, Ram declares: “I, the man, have overcome the ordeal ordained by fate.”
Fate had ordained for Ram “the man” extremely onerous inner conflicts too. In facing his ordeals and conflicts, the man never twisted and turned the codes and laws opportunistically for selfish reasons, never hankered after power, never put a gloss of dharma, faith, or tradition on baser personal ambitions—political or of other kinds. He came to be seen as a measure of moral conduct to such an extent that in moments of his own wavering he was reminded of his “Ramatva”, his Ram-ness. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, pained at Ram’s harsh words, Sita is astonished. “You are talking like an ordinary man,” she says. The gods assembled in the sky also remind him of his being Ram.
No wonder, such a man is revered as Maryada Purushottam, “the man personifying moral conduct”.
It is probably due to the moral content of the Ram of these narratives that the early modern Bhakti poets like Kabir and others desirous of directing their spiritual pursuit towards the formless, indivisible consciousness of existence chose the name Ram for their idea of the divine. Their idea of Ram did not sanction caste prejudices and ritualistic forms of devotion. But, years later, Tulsidas, through his powerful epic Ramcharitmanas, turned Ram into a metaphor of a utopian revival of a traditional, conservative (even if reformed) social order and mindset.
“There are many Ramayanas, with numerous variations in the narrative, but in each one of them, Ram is the embodiment of right conduct.”
In any case, today we can and, in fact, must categorically reject many aspects of the ethical code that Ram is supposed to have so strictly followed. Even in the traditional canon, there are poetic and popular narratives which disapprove, both implicitly and explicitly, of some of Ram’s acts. The point, however, is that his personal integrity and commitment to maryada (standards of moral conduct) remain beyond the slightest doubt.
It is for those making Ram a mascot for a certain kind of politics to reflect what their acts do to the maryada of an inclusive, democratic republic and a compassionate, just society that India theoretically aspires to be.
Plurality and diversity of Hinduism
In spite of all his unique glory and stature, Ram is one of 10 or 24 avatars of Vishnu, one of the most important, of course, but still not the only one. Vishnu himself is a member of the divine triumvirate, the other two being Siva and Brahma. Herein lies the crux of the uniqueness of Hinduism as a religious tradition.
The inherent plurality and diversity of Hindu tradition literarily speaks in many voices. The Vedas—theoretically, the primary authority—are four and one of them (Atharva) was certainly added on later. Then we have the numerous Dharmashastras, the Puranas, and the epics, all of which can be cited as “authority”, while most of the time it is the customs of a locality or community that are seen as the measure of appropriate conduct.
The Hindu pantheon has innumerable figures from various ages and regions, with every local deity getting a place in the pantheon that goes on evolving by the day in number and variety. Durga or Kali are more popular than Ram in West Bengal; the favourite in Odisha is Jagannath; forms of Krishna and Siva are preferred in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the southern States. Naturally, with such diversity, many conflicts also took place, but today, generally speaking, the devotees of one deity do not cancel out other deities. Unless, of course, some Ram bhakts find it amusing to tease the Chief Minister of West Bengal by using “Jai Shri Ram” as a political war cry or a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) office-bearer deems it fit to implicitly ask the Shankaracharya to mind his own business as the Ram temple belongs to “Ramanandi Vaishnavas and not to Shaivas or Shaktas”.
The question of the timing and procedure of the pran pratishtha (consecration) in the still incomplete temple at Ayodhya has caused some controversy due to the discontent expressed by some of the Shankaracharyas. One of them, Swami Avimukteshwaranand, has been quite vocal and, hence, has been sharply targeted by commentators and trolls sympathetic to the RSS/BJP/VHP family.
The validity or invalidity of the objections raised by the Shankaracharyas is for the experts of rituals to decide, but the debate, along with other such instances, brings out in the open the core of the conflict between Hinduism as a religious tradition and the political ideology of Hindutva.
Incidentally, the scholar who was tasked with determining the muhurt, or auspicious time, has stated that he was “requested” to find a date before February 2024. This was obviously in order to milk religious faith and sentiment in time for the election in 2024.
Is it all right to act with such hurry, motivated by the love of power, in such a sacred matter? This question begs an answer not only from the point of view of an inclusive republic but also from a strictly religious and traditional point. In fact, more than everyday power politics, the very nature of Hindu tradition is at the stake here.
“The RSS insists on being “the sole spokesman” of Hinduism without caring for the fact that such fantasies can be realised only by doing great violence to the core of the Hindu tradition. ”
Plurality—the defining characteristic of the Hindu tradition—is underlined by the institution of the Shankaracharyas too, howsoever conservative their world views (or for that matter, even that of Adi Shankara himself) may be. None of the four seats established by Adi Shankara can claim precedence over the other. Plurality of voices remains the central feature of Hinduism, be it conservative or liberal; whether it is insistent on upholding the traditionalist ways of living or open to changes.
- The “idea of Ram” as the embodiment of right conduct is deeply entrenched in the Indian cultural memory and psyche.
- The appropriation of Ram as a mascot for politics and the rushed consecration of the incomplete Ram mandir at Ayodhya lays bare the conflict between Hinduism and Hindutva.
- The challenge for the opposition is how to counter Hindutva authoritarianism with an inclusive and holistic “idea of India” about which people feel deeply proud and for which they are willing to make sacrifices.
The Fuhrer Principle
Contrast this plurality with the RSS’ principle of organising social and political life—ekchalakanuvatitva, that is, “follow one leader”, which is clearly inspired by Hitler’s Führer Principle, which demanded unquestioning obedience to the leader. The RSS insists on being taken as “the sole spokesman” of Hinduism without caring for the fact that such fantasies can be realised only by doing great violence to the core of the Hindu tradition. This obsession with “one” is expressed in many contexts—from language to taxation. The trolling and other forms of persecution of dissenting voices (even if the voice belongs to a revered, traditional Hindu seer) is a natural expression of the increasing consolidation of the Führer Principle in our national life.
Ironically, it has now reached such heights that even L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi are not exactly welcome at the function culminating the campaign that was launched and led by them. Not only in the history of independent India, it seems that even in the history of the BJP, nothing worthwhile took place before the arrival of the one and only one.
“Some questions are so important that they are never asked” was the opening line of a lecture by Noam Chomsky that I had the opportunity to attend in 2020 at the University of Arizona, Tucson. How real this observation has become in our own society today. How long the list of “important questions not to be asked” is becoming. What is the space given in the media and dominant political discussion to questions like the chaos caused by demonetisation, the insensitive handling of the pandemic, the rising unemployment, the deliberate corrosion of the institutions of the state, the demonisation of intellectuals as a class, the systematic creation of a cacophony of “hurt sentiments” along with a violent, irrational, and, in fact, stupid mindset?
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January 22 has been projected as Victory Day. It is, of course, a victory, not of the vibrant Hindu religious tradition but of a majoritarian, exclusionist project that is dead opposed to an inclusive, modern, and dynamic idea of India. The hurried consecration signifies not any vindication of Hinduism but its appropriation by a politics that thrives on deeply entrenched spiritual emptiness and insecurity.
The Babri Masjid/Ramjanmabhoomi dispute has simmered for quite some time, but the Hindutva campaign gained real momentum in the mid-1980s, when the right environment for it was created by the false belief of the then ruling Congress party that the idea of India born out of the freedom movement could now be taken for granted and that there was hardly any need for a politics of ideas. Hence, “development plus management sans political content” became the mantra of choice. The idea of Sarva Dharma Sambhava, a specifically Indian variant of secularism, was reduced to competitive appeasement of communal forces. Recall the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the intervention in the Shah Bano case on the one hand and the opening of the gates to a disputed structure on the other.
“The hurried consecration signifies not any vindication of Hinduism but its appropriation by a politics that thrives on deeply entrenched spiritual emptiness and insecurity. ”
In the background were the deft strategic moves by the RSS (which, to its credit, has never discarded its idea of a Hindu nation) to win friends and influence influential people. Recall Jayaprakash Narayan issuing the best endorsement the RSS could hope for (“If the RSS is fascist, so am I”). Then, there was the astonishing inability to read and handle with care the rising “Hindu phenomenon” in its many aspects. The Hindu sense of hurt and insecurity (both real and imaginary) leading to a slow, subterranean making of the “angry Hindu” was completely ignored.
It was imagined in the wake of the demolition of the mosque in 1992 that Mandal had the power to take on Kamandal. For some time, it looked like it might, but we then had Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP government with leading lights from OBC politics in ministerial positions, and just after the Gujarat riots of 2002, the iconic Bahujan leader Mayawati had no compunction campaigning for the BJP.
Challenge for democratic forces
There are many factors to the recent phenomenal success of the Hindutva project, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used them deftly, making himself the mascot of not only Hindutva but also of assertive Indian nationalism. With the enviably proactive support of large sections of the media, the BJP has sought to, and achieved, some success in presenting itself as the architect and defendant of the vision of a proud, strong, and assertive India. It has succeeded in projecting some terrible instances of policy failure and misgovernance as necessary sacrifices in the service of a shared national dream.
The challenge for democratic forces and citizens lies here. The march of Hindutva authoritarianism cannot be halted by sentiments (noble in themselves) like “love” and “justice” or by single-point programmes (important in themselves) such as the caste census. These and other ideas have to be put into the framework of a vision of India about which people feel deeply proud and for which they are willing to make sacrifices. Such a vision by definition has to be inclusive, holistic, and articulated in an inspiring idiom.
Will the opposition prove equal to the task? On that answer depends the future of the idea of a self-confident and yet inclusive and compassionate India.
Purushottam Agrawal is a historian of literature who has been engaged with popular religiosity in northern India for over four decades.