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Ayodhya and after
More than anything else, the Allahabad high court's Ayodhya judgment has accorded myth a concrete site, altering what was once purely legend into apparent actuality. By allowing for a temple to be built on a location believed by Hindu groups to have been the birthplace of Ram, the ruling indicates a new coming of age for the cult of the Hindu god in whose name the legal petition itself was argued. The judgment brings to the fore both the paradoxes and potential embedded in the process of fable becoming 'fact'. It also highlights the incredible changes India itself is undergoing as the dramas of its divinity and democracy unfold.
Writer Ira Pande says, "The faith around Ayodhya having been Lord Ram's birthplace emerged from the Tulsi Ramayana. In India, history and myth are completely intertwined. If you visit Ayodhya, at every third step you will be told this was Sita's rasoi. If you visit Madhya Pradesh, you will be told at every site, the Pandavas hunted here, they cooked there. Previously, these things were simply a part of people belonging to a common cultural stream and sharing an identity based on a certain set of beliefs. " These beliefs were initially broad and expansive, although they did include specific geographical sites and local cultural milieus. They created what historian William Dalrymple, speaking to TOI-Crest, terms 'India's sacred maps', pilgrimage networks connecting 'holy'spots associated with ancient mythological legends and religious beliefs.
"All religions need to locate themselves in solid spaces, " Dalrymple told TOI-Crest. "India's sacred geography made it a coherent unit millennia before its political unity came about. " A specific site-centred 'sacred geography', however, was continuously mixed in Indian cults and legends with deep spiritual seeking, wide ethical dilemmas and good old family dramas, all of which directed the attention of the follower to the bigger picture over the smaller sites. Its widespread qualities, flying over the narrowly specific towards the very horizons of philosophy and questing, in fact made Hinduism a frustratingly slippery force which, despite powerful legends, myths and ancient locations, often could not bring believers together under one centralised fold.
Social commentator Santosh Desai explains: "Hinduism was never the easiest way to politically mobilise people. It has an open narrative and a multiplicity of gods without a central book or text. It also doesn't have one central site of worship, like the Vatican or Mecca. That way, the cult of Ram is more accessible for political means. It is linear, straight-forward and relatively lacking in shades of grey which the Mahabharata and Krishna's character have. The Tulsi Ramayana is easy to read and has clear ethical codes, such as being a Maryada Puroshottam. Therefore, even during the freedom movement, the cult of Ram was used to politically mobilise Hindus, through printed matter like pamphlets and institutions like the Hindu Mahasabha. The seeds of what is happening today were sown long ago. "
There were flashpoints as well when cults of divinity were 'modernised' and used to provoke. Speaking to TOI-Crest, historian Dilip Simeon says, "The capturing of mosques and temples or the placing of idols to prove a point occurred through 1947 in India and Pakistan. In fact, the last fast Gandhiji undertook, between January 13 and 18 in 1948, was to make Hindus in Mehrauli return the Bakhtiyar Chishti dargah to local Muslims. This pulling and tugging over monuments has occurred through history but Ram Janmabhoomi took on a new dimension with its enormous political potential. The BJP saw the gains that could be made. The cult of Ram was therefore magnified accordingly. "
Desai sees a fundamental change occurring in the 1980s, leading up to the militant movement that erupted over the disputed site in the 1990s, the Babri mosque eventually torn down in 1992. "There was a marked shift in religiosity from a spiritual and cerebral matter looking inwards to a major consumer product looking outwards. TV played a huge role in this, beginning with the televised Ramayana. That led directly to all these different channels and babas we see today. Religion suddenly became a transactional relationship where your relationship with god was based on wanting something, even if that was redressal from this imagined sense of victimhood many Hindus had developed. This kind of religiosity was expressed powerfully in a Ram cult partly based on follower-ship, not thought, and partly on aggression. Consumerism fed into this religiosity fabulously. "
The switch in religiosity led to a change in religion itself. Pande recounts, "Earlier, we used to observe religion within our family homes or local temples. Slowly the idea came about that there had to be one central temple, in Ayodhya at that. But Ayodhya, like Vrindavan, was a site of imagination which grew out of the Bhakti Movement. It didn't have to become the centre of all Hinduism. This movement is like Talibanisation where your amorphous imagination must be pinned down to one site, one location, where fluid cultural boundaries must be firmly contained. It's a dangerous trend. "
Of the court's judgment itself which accommodates popular faith around Ayodhya being Ram's brithplace, Dalrymple comments, "This doesn't stand to any historical analyses. There is a range of serious issues with the judgment that deal with the historical validation of a mythological figure, with questions around specific timing, birthplaces and the acceptance given by the court to a pretty dodgy ASI report on the issue. However, the judgment needs to be seen in another light. It appears to have provided a compromise India badly needed. No riots have taken place after it was announced. If communal violence had indeed happened on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, India's image internationally would have receded by 50 years. So, while this may be a bad judgment historically, it's a good move politically. "
The plot now thickens;even as India dealt with history, fact, sentiment and cults getting mixed together, it must now accommodate juridical stands on a mix of faith and fact. Politics is an inextricable part of the dynamic mix. It has created its own visual culture around cult and sites. More than faith, it is the tensions and provocations of politics we see in the muscles rippling on Lord Ram's bow-bearing shoulders, the submissiveness in the posture of his wife Sita, painted onto widely-circulated posters. It is politics that gleamed exultantly from saffron bandannas in the 1990s and 'Jai Shri Ram' flags that fluttered triumphantly on the Marutis of middle-class voters. It is politics which now rejoices at the definitive juridical fixing of Ayodhya as Ram's birthplace, while faith perhaps stands aside and ponders.
Interestingly, the modern political cult of Ram, militant, macho and fixated upon one site, grew alongside political shifts in Muslim groups as well, including radicalization in the 1980s that expressed itself over the Shah Bano case and Salman Rushdie's literary offerings. At this stage in India's unfolding history, we need to ask whether looking quite so far back in time and deep into legend actually takes us forward and whether, as the world grows smaller, spirituality is served well by limiting belief to one cult, one site.
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