Mythology and faith combine to deliver a spectacle in Ayodhya that excludes hundreds of other pressing problems faced by the country.
Today, January 22, 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, acclaimed as “Vishwaguru” by his innumerable acolytes, will preside over the consecration ceremony. He will infuse new life into the idol in a grand Pran Pratishtha Utsav attended by devotees like the RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, and thousands of other complying celebrities.
The “sacred” task of installing the idol of Ram Lalla (five-year-old Lord Ram) in the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the unfinished though resplendent temple in Ayodhya was accomplished on January 18. The four-hour-long ceremony reverberated with chants of “Jai Shri Ram”, reaching a crescendo in the last hour and merging with the utterance of Vedic mantras. Carved from krishnashila (black granite) by Karnataka’s renowned sculptor, Arun Yogiraj, the idol weighs more than 150 kg.
Yet a discordant—protesting or rebellious—note was raised on January 18 itself by a group of women who had come all the way from Birapani village near Kathmandu in Nepal. Sita, as we know, was the daughter of King Janak whose kingdom, Mithila, constitutes a part of present-day Nepal. The woman said, “We have come to pay homage to our persecuted mother, who hails from our land. No other woman in the world has had to suffer such dreadful persecution and deprivation.” They closed their lament by saying, “Persecution is rampant even now, even a hundred Ram temples cannot curb this crime.”
It is unlikely that Modi will think of what the women said he begins his reverential march on January 22, taking 500 measured steps from the temporary temple to the new grandiose structure. Hysterical cries of “Jai Shri Ram” will rent the air, conch shells will be blown, drums will be bashed to orchestrate the consecration. Every note will be wrenched out of this musical outburst to amass the political capital needed for the coming election.
However, it is heartening that some major leaders of the INDIA bloc alliance refused to take part in the show. The reactions of the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, and CPI(M) were succinctly summed up by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who described the razzmattaz as “election gimmick”.
The inauguration will be followed by spectacular celebrations, labelled “Mandolotsava”, for 45 days. I refuse to detail this extravaganza because it is so crushingly oppressive. The opium of the masses will be produced and distributed in abundance to eclipse the death by suicide of debt-damned, desperate farmers in our country (2,366 farmers died by suicide between January and October 2023). The rulers have nothing else to offer but this seductive narcotic.
A staggering sum of Rs.1,800 crore has already been spent to erect this monumental shrine in a poor nation (i) where the number of children suffering from chronic malnutrition is the highest in the world; (ii) where 27 per cent of the population is surviving below the poverty line and another 15 per cent is perched perilously just above the cursed border, that is, close to half of the entire populace is engaged day in day out in the grim business of survival; (iii) where 60 per cent of the country’s total wealth has been cornered by just a handful of industrial houses and corporate families who do not constitute more than 5 per cent of the population; (iv) that ranks 111 out of 125 nations on the World Hunger Index, faring even worse than Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan; and (v) where its rank is a miserable 132 among 191 countries on the Human Development Index.
“The opium of the masses is being produced and distributed in abundance to eclipse the death by suicide of debt-damned, desperate farmers in our country. The rulers have nothing else to offer but this seductive narcotic.”
The claim of emerging as the world’s third largest economy sounds vapid and vacuous when one confronts this devastating socioeconomic reality. Eminent economists from Joseph Stiglitz to Amartya Sen, from Pranab Bardhan to Prabhat Patnaik, have repeatedly underlined the blatant anomaly, but to no effect. The most populous country in the world, by merely aggregating its citizens’ earnings, would be the third or fourth largest economy in the world. Even the much-flaunted increases in per capita income and Gross Domestic Product are treacherously misleading because they merge, unpardonably, the sky-high income of the minuscule rich and the measly earnings of the millions of poor.
In other words, the stark inequality inherent in these mechanical metrics remains craftily concealed. What matters is the precious absence of “real freedoms” emphasised by Amartya Sen in his 1999 book, Development as Freedom, a text that changed development economics. It is the horrendous inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources that hurts.
In this context, I am reminded of a dialogue that took place 40 years ago. In 1985, when I interviewed Günter Grass for the first time, I asked him, “What perturbed you most in my country?” The radical Social Democrat replied, “A sea of raging poverty pockmarked by a few islands of unforgivable, vulgar luxury. Moreover, these islanders were so criminally smug and callous.” Nothing has changed since.
The new mantra
Let us leave the economy aside because a virulent form of religious bigotry is the new mantra. The first question to ask here is how the particular site in Ayodhya was selected for the temple. Of course, the Sangh Parivar had said all along that the mandir would be built on the rubble of the mosque, but that assertion was given the crucial legal sanction by the Supreme Court on November 9, 2019. In a scandalous example of a “doublespeak” judgment, the Supreme Court bench first announced that the demolition of the mosque was an “unlawful” act and then apportioned that very demolished area as the site of the new temple. Those who were overly censorious whispered that the judge had been promised a petty goody after retirement. Lo and behold, it was indeed given at the proper moment. After all, obeisance had been paid to the “Maryada Purushottam”.
The very expression Maryada Purushottam rings a disturbing bell. Apostates ask, is Ram really the supreme human example of godly qualities? I do not want to hurt the sentiments of the acolytes. So, I will not repeat the harsh verdicts of Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya and Professor Sukumari Bhattacharji on Ram. The former, a brilliant exponent of Indian materialist philosophy, authored the classic Lokayata Darshan, and the latter, a formidable authority on Hindu religion (both philosophers were Marxists and Sanskrit scholars), wrote an unsurpassed treatise on the Hindu pantheon.
“The very expression “Maryada Purushottam” rings a disturbing bell. Apostates ask, is Ram really the supreme human example of godly qualities?”
No, with an eye on the fervid adulation of Ram, I shall depend on the mild expression used by the much less abrasive Bimal Krishna Motilal (he was the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at the University of Oxford), who, according to Amartya Sen, was the greatest Indian philosopher after Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. I was fortunate enough to have him as a friend. Motilal scoured the epics more diligently than anyone else and in their original languages. When I requested him to comment on the adulatory expression, Maryada Purushottam, he gave a wry smile and observed deprecatingly, “He [Ram] is a controversial character rooted in legend.” Thereafter, we both attempted to list the failings of this mythic and ahistorical figure. Our revealing list is as follows:
First, Ram summarily beheaded the lower-caste Sambuk because he dared to indulge in tapasya (divine worship) to attain moksha or salvation. Sambuk crossed the preordained caste-directed prescription of karma, so had to be decapitated. Many varying versions of this occur in the many Ramayanas, but the actual act remains unchallenged.
Second, Ram killed Bali, the valiant monarch of the monkeys, by shooting a deadly arrow at him from behind a bush. Bali had done him no harm. When the dying Bali asked Ram why he had committed this act, Ram could offer no cogent answer.
Third, unable to vanquish the valorous Indrajit or Meghnad, Ravan’s son, who had defeated Ram and Lakshman twice in straight and fair battles, Ram sanctioned a crafty and cowardly assassination at the behest of the gods and his friend, Vibhishan, Ravan’s brother. The latter told him that Meghnad became invincible after his worship of Siva (Nikumbhila Yagna) each morning, and hence had to be killed before he could perform the ritual. Accordingly, Vibhishan guided Lakshman secretly to the prayer ground where Indrajit was readying himself for the yagna, and there Lakshman killed his unprepared and defenceless foe. Meghnad’s frantic appeal to be allowed to bring his weapons was brushed away. In despair, Indrajit hurled his implements of worship at Lakshman, the bells and conch shells. One recalls the moving depiction of Meghnad’s helpless valour in his last hours by the Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, in his epic Meghnadbadhkavya.
Fourth, even more questionable than all the acts above, Ram decreed the agnipariksha of Sita, the epitome of conjugal devotion, after his victory in the war. He took this outrageous step to clear any doubts his subjects could raise against Sita because she had spent months as a captive in Ravan’s palace, in Ashokvan, to be specific.
Fifth, even after returning to Ayodhya, Ram’s disquiet concerning Sita persisted. And again, to quash the uncomfortable whisperings of his subjects, he directed Sita, by then pregnant, to leave Ayodhya. Sita’s steadfast devotee, Lakshman, took her to the forest, where she found refuge in Valmiki’s ashram.
Sixth, after the birth of Lava and Kush, Sita returned to Ram’s court in Ayodhya with the twins, who chanted paeans to Ram, but the latter vacillated even then. Unable to tolerate this last insult, Sita invoked Mother Earth to take her back to her breast. The soil cracked and Sita entered her last refuge. As Motilal commented: “Sita’s spirited exit was her last act of defiance.” Motilal’s iconic predecessor, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, ended his masterly literary text, Sitar Banabas (Sita’s Exile), with the following lines: “A repository of all virtues, Sita was an exemplary woman… but no other woman experienced such sorrow, such deprivation.”
Michael Madhusudan Dutt was thoroughly irreligious and Vidyasagar was a confirmed rationalist and agnostic. I fear that if the Sangh Parivar wrests power in West Bengal, it will remove Meghnadbvadkavya from the syllabus. It was selected as one of the three deathless texts of Bengali literature by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and the late poet and scholar Sankha Ghosh. Dutt had no love to lose for, in his words, “Ram and his rabble”.
In a letter to his dear friend, Rajnarayan Basu, Dutt declared, “People grumble and say that the heart of the poet is with Meghnad and the rakshasas. And that is the real truth. I despise Ram and his rabble; but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow.”
- A staggering sum of more than Rs.1,800 crore has been spent to erect the Ram Mandir in a poor nation where poverty is rampant.
- As a virulent form of religious bigotry becomes the rule of the day, it is good to examine whether Ram was really the paragon of virtues that he is made out to be.
- The polarisation began with L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. It unleased violence all over north India.
The controversial hero
Since the 1940s, the Sangh Parivar has devoted its might and resources to sanctify this “controversial” Maryada Purushottam. The icon of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar, for instance, claimed that the real history of India began with Ram’s coronation in Ayodhya. The Parivar converted a mythical figure into a historical figure, picked out the dilapidated Babri Masjid as the birthplace of Ram, and at the dead of night, surreptitiously placed an idol of Ram inside the mosque. Thereafter, they claimed that this human act was an example of divine intervention.
Thousands of pages have already been written on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and I would not like to recall them needlessly. But this I know: When the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, made an impassioned appeal to L.K. Advani to cancel his perilous rath yatra destined for Ayodhya, Advani rejected his proposal and began the march. As he progressed in his luxury-bus-turned-chariot through the States of north India, followed by hundreds of high-strung karsevaks wearing the masks of monkeys, vicious communal riots erupted. Around 2,000 people, mostly members of the minority community, were killed in the course of a few months in 1990.
After the destruction of the mosque that inevitably followed, Advani, replete with remorse, lamented that the day of the demolition was the most tragic in his life. If this is not an example of flagrant doublespeak, I do not know what is. Did he not know from the very first moment that the most cherished programme of the Parivar was to turn the mosque into rubble? Other stalwarts such as Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti rejected such manicured ambivalence. They leapt in ecstasy when the domes collapsed, as photographs testify.
What is noteworthy is that this movement of epic proportions, spread over the decades and ordained to recapture the spirit of “pure and pristine Bharat” from the insidious hands of the “infidels”, has not yet led to a single creative statement worth its salt. Not a single poem, story, novel, or drama that fulfils the preconditions of creativity has been penned on this, the most soul-lifting programme of the Sangh Parivar. One wonders why. The answer is found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay “What is Literature?” where Sartre emphasised that genuine creativity cannot ever flourish on the bedrock of hatred and malevolent violence. No imperishable novel, for example, has been written as yet that extols racism or fascism.
But as Modi consecrates a new chapter in new India on January 22, I have decided to withdraw all of my aspersions listed above. I will smother the critique I have fashioned until now. I have also decided to regard “Jai Shri Ram” as a blessed slogan and not a fascist war cry thundered by fanatics as they vandalise churches and mosques and lynch hapless Muslim cattle traders. I will even discover pervasive affluence, flowing milk, and honey, in my wretchedly poor country by accepting the delirium of Anurag Thakur: “India is as developed as the welfarist countries of advanced West Europe.” More than anything else, I rubbish the censorious list of Bimal Krishna Motilal and revere Ram as Maryada Purushottam, the most resplendent example of divinity in human form, brimming with love and compassion. Rabindranath Tagore used the word karunaghana or “dense with mercy” to describe the Ram of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas—a Ram very different from the militant-vengeful Ram of the Sangh Parivar.
But even after this about-turn, a searing question remains. How did Maryada Purushottam, the receptacle of all human virtues, of love and compassion, react when the mosque was reduced to rubble and at the bloody carnage that preceded it? I found the grief-stricken answer in the first line of a poem by Kaifi Azmi. Torn by anguish, he wrote: “And on that day, Ram left Ayodhya forever.”
So, I ask, “Vishwaguru, when the essence of divinity departed from Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, the day of the Babri Masjid demolition, what and whom are you trying to install today?”
Subhoranjan Dasgupta, former Professor of the Human Sciences, has authored several books in English and Bengali. He is based in Kolkata and contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and academic journals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org