February 21, 1993

A Historical Perspective on the Story of Ram (Romila Thapar)

Volume 20 Issue B
21-27 February 1993)


Romilla Thapar: shedding new light

A seminal essay by Thapar, A Historical Perspective on the Story of Ram, makes, the following points:

The original epic attributed to the sage, Valmiki, was recited by bards as part of the oral tradition. Each generation of bards made their own changes but in all, "Ram is the personification of the ideal Kshatriya. He is referred to as a human hero and in these references there is no question of his being identified with Vishnu", Thapar writes.

The popularity of the oral epic of Valmiki‚s Ramayan was gradually converted to a religious text by Brahmin authors. Slowly the ideal man, Ram, began to be see as an incarnation of Vishnu. Moreover, in this version, Sita's chastity is once again called into question upon her return to Ayodhya and this time she is banished forever to Valmiki's hermitage where she gives birth to twin sons, Lav and Kush.
The multiple versions of Ramayan include a Buddhist version (dating to anywhere between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC) in which Sita is the sister of Ram. When Ram was crowned king on his return to Ayodhya after his exile, Sita was made queen consort and they ruled jointly for 16,000 years, and became the originators of the royal clan. There is also a Jain version (the Paumacharyam) at the end of which the main protagonists become Jain ascetics. According to this version, far from being a villian, Ravan is a devoted Jain.

The story of Ram also finds itself in popular literature: there is Kalidas‚narative poem, the Raghuvamsham, Bhasas's play, Pratimanataka, and Bhavabhuti‚s highly critical Uttararamcharita. It has a place in the literature of regional languages too - in Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. Each of these contain minor variations.

The story of Ram continued to grow in popularity more because it was a tale well told and less because of its merits as a religious text. By the 8th century AD there was a corresponding growth of small kingdoms as waste lands were brought under cultivation and forest tribes (the rakshasas of the Ramayan) were subjugated by the new rulers of these small kingdoms.

The early second millennium AD saw the rise of the Ramanandins, a specific sect focussing on the worship of Ram. For them, Ram bhakti was the most effective form of devotional worship and ensured the salvation of the individual. The focus shifted from Vishnu back to Ram. And for the first time, the city of Ayodhya became the centre of attention.

In the 16th century, Tulsidas, a Ram bhakt, composed the Ramcharitmanas in Hindu, opening up the text to a larger audience. For Tulsidas, Ram was a divine being amongst humans. He believed that the worship of Ram could bring back the Utopian society once ruled over by Ram. RSS historians believe that Tulsidas‚ version was written out of a need to find warrior gods in an age of Mughal rule. But Romila Thapar points out that India under Muslim rule witnessed the vibrancy of a large number of Hindu sects, rather than the decline of Hinduism.

In Uttar Pradesh, Baba Ram Chander used the story to mobilise peasants and selected verses of Tulsidas‚ tale were popularised to depict resistance to colonial rule.(The British were seen as the rakshasas.)

The rise of cinema in this century found mythologicval films being made on the Ramayan. The culmination of this trend was Ramanand Sagar‚s serialised version on television, which sought to project the notion that there is only one version of the Ramayan in the culture of the country. Only the versions, which did not go against the portrayal of Ram as an idealised hero and an incarnation of Vishnu were mentioned. The multiple versions of regional literature, Buddhist and Jain sources, which told a different story, were totally ignored.
"The political exploitation of the worship of Ram has not only been visible but has been forced to the forefront in recent months", writes Thapar. "This has added yet another dimension to the ways in which the Ramkatha has been used", In this context the television serial, Ramayan, has had an important role to play. "Inevitably, " writes Thapar, "this is also part of the attempt to redefine Hinduism as an ideology for modernisation by the middle class".

Unlike the relatively newer religions, Islam and Christianity, Hinduism has often been described as a way of life rather than a formal doctrine. It has no definite Holy book like the Koran and the Bible. It has no single prophet like Mohammed and Jesus. It doesn‚t even have a holy land to which it traces its origins.
Hinduism, as we have known it, is an amorphous religion. The ways to salvation are many. Although the religion identifies various gods and holy centres of pilgrimage there is no obligation on anyone to visit these.

In recent years the emphasis on the worship of Ram has been politically motivated. The VHP and its allies have been working overtime to forge a national and international unity amongst those it defines as Hindus. Without unification there can be no awakening of the public face of the Hindu spirit and, ergo, no political power for the VHP's pals, the BJP.

Now how do you go about uniting the Hindus? In one area of the country there is the worship of Ayyappa, in another the regning deity is Venkateswara and in a third it is Jagannath. All of them are gods and all will help their devotees attain salvation. Enter, the VHP. In recent times we have witnessed two simultaneous developments. To start with, the votaries of Hindutva have set about remoulding and redefining Hinduism.

Since Hinduism has neither a single prophet nor a holy book, the VHP has stumbled upon the need to define all the characteristics of a formal religion. In the new Hinduism (Thapar refers to it as a Syndicated Hinduism) Ram is the Prophet, the Ramayan is the holy book and Ayodhya is the Vatican city of Hindus.
And who are the popes? The ruling elite of the proposed Hindu rashtra - the BJP-VHP-RSS brotherhood, of course.

At the same time, the VHP and its partners have been whipping up a quite unfounded sense of having been wronged by centuries of foreign rule. The Hindus have no land of their own, they shout. The careful cultivation of this sense of injustice is crucial to the VHP's plans because without it there can be no demand for Hindu Rashtra.
For Hindus who have always believed that their religion has a different meaning for different people, this is a hard new reality to be swallowed. And this is perhaps why the Hindutva votaries are not converted to The Cause, they must be won over by the presentation of "facts" and "documentary evidence".

Who can resist the appeal to basic religious sentiments legitimised by the language of history and archaeological evidence. Presented with hard evidence that the mosque in Ayodhya (the Vatican city of the future) was in fact built over the site of a temple, very few Hindus will be able to resist the BJP‚s argument that all it is asking for is a temple to be built to honour the ruling deity of the Hindu people.

And so we find that the VHP's need to pack lies upon lies in their quest for a new religion. Suddenly, Hindus are told their identity and maryada (self respect) rest on the building of a temple to Ram in a dusty town in Uttar Pradesh. In a country where the majority of the people are illiterate, the VHP obviously believes that if you repeat a lie often enough it will become the truth.

And the beauty of the whole plan is that while the ultimate defence is that Ram is a matter of faith, there is ample 'evidence' to justify the temple in his name.

What exactly is the VHP‚s evidence to support the existence of a temple at Ayodhya which was destroyed to build mosque? According to VHP, Babar's officers converted several Hindu temples into mosques. Writing for the organiser's Republic Day edition in 1989, Lal declares that, "Ayodhya was a centre of pilgrimage for the Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Ram. As was customary with Muslim conquerors and rulers, Babar ordered the destruction of the temple of Ram Janmabhoomi and erected a mosque in its stead."

But even Lal has to concede that Babar makes no reference to this in his memoires. So what is the evidence the Lal relies on? He points to two inscriptions in Persian inside and outside the mosque.

But there is more evidence that makes nonsense of the VHP's claims. Tulsidas‚ Ramayan was written in the 1570s and at no point makes a reference to the demolition of a temple in the birthplace of Ram.

If Babar had, in fact, ordered it to be destroyed would't Tulsidas, a great devotee of Ram, who was writing only a few decades later, have mentioned this?

Moreover, in 1695, Sujar Rai Bahadur, author of the Khulast-ul-Tawarikh, gives a longish account of the city of Ayodhya. There is no reference to a demolished temple. The first evidence that the VHP presents dates back to no further than 1748 A.C., 220 years after the mosque was constructed.
And what is this evidence? A book written by one Nasaiah Bhadur Shahi who RSS historians claim, is the granddaughter of Aurangzeb, declares that Muslims should not be allowed to worship at mosques built on the sites of the Rasoi-e-Sita and Qaragah-e-Hanuman. Who exactly was this princess? Her name is not given and she is referred to simply as Bahadur Shah Alamgir ki beti. And who is Bahadur Shah Alamgir? History records a Mohiuddin Aurangzeb, but no one of the title of Bahadur Shah Alamgir. Worse still, points out Professor Irfan Habib, the original source from which the VHP extracts this evidence, has disappeared.

It is only in the 19th century that the demolition of the temple followed by the construction of the mosque actually enters the records. Suddenly there are several references to this theory - P. Carnegy's Historical Sketch of Faizabad (1870), H.R. Nevill's Faizabad District Gazetteer and A.S.Beveridge's English translation of Babar's memoirs(1992).

This brings us to the trump card of the VHP's evidence: an archaeological report prepared by the formed director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, B.B. Lal. Since Valmiki's Ramayan is set in the treta yuga or several thousand years before the onset of the Kalyug, it is believed to have begun in 3102 BC. Lal's excavations, however, establish that there is no evidence of any kind of habitation in Ayodhya before the 8th century BC when the first sign of a primitive settlement appear.

Confronted with evidence of the non-existence of a Ram temple the VHP conveniently shifted its stand. The original temple was not dedicated specifically to Ram, but was a general Vaishnav temple, it argued.

To back its theory, the VHP began harping on the issue of the 14 black pillars of the Babri Masjid. As Irfan Habib points out, it was common practice to use old pillars not just for mosques but also for the construction of temples. The presence of pillars in the former mosques does not suggest that it ha been built on the site of an existing tmeple, let alone a Ram temple.

Based on the archaeological evidence presented before it, a team of historian comprising R.S.Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan reached the following conclusions:

· There is no evidence to suggest that prior to the 16th century was there any veneration attached to Ayodhya as the birthplace of Ram.

· There is no evidence to support the theory that a Ram temple existed at the site where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528-29.

· The legend that the Babri Masjid occupied the site of Ram‚s birthplace did not arise until the late 18th century. The theory that a temple had been demolished to pave way for a mosque was first asserted in the 19th century.

The simple truth is that it is impossible to identify a particular site as the place where Ram was born. As for the question of faith, there is no evidence to suggest that a popular belief of a religious community suggested that Ram was born in Ayodhya. The faith that Ashok Singhal and Co. talk of is a relatively new found one, propped up by the propaganda machinery of the Hindutva brigade. Repetition, believes this gang, will bring veracity in its wake.

What we are witnessing today is a parrot - like recitation of RSS - conjured slogans: "Garva se kaho hum Hindu hain"(Say with pride, we are Hindus) and "Kasam Ram ki khaate hain, mandir wahin banayenge (We swear on Ram that we‚ll build the temple on that site)". The new Hinduism is like Coca-Cola and in their cynical quest for votes and power, Advani and his colleagues are no better than yuppy marketing men.

Far from ushering in a golden mythical age of Ram Rajya, the BJP's policies seek to take us back to the medieval age to the politics of repression (of the minorities), violence and revenge (against the Muslims). Is this the Hindu Rashtra of the future? The Hindu Rashtra, as visualised by the visionaries of the new Hinduism will necessitate not only the rewriting of the Constitution and the renaming of cities but a reworking of the history, myths and cultural fabric of this country. It is Ramanand Sagar‚s pop Ramayan, rather than Valmiki's epic poem, which will be the reigning literature.

Since a mythic hero, a man amongst men rather than a divine being on earth, will be the unifying god the Hindu state will have to invent new religious festivals, (significantly) the two festivals associated with the Ramayan. Dusschra and Diwali, do not propogate the worship of Ram. While the former signifies the victory of good over evil and involves the veneration of the family weapons by Kshatriyas, Diwali is dedicated to the worship of Lakshmi and Ganesh, the gods of prosperity. It is not without design that Ramanaumi, a comparatively minor festival, has been gaining in popularity in recent years.

And, of course, the Hindu Rashtra will have no place for the monorities, or for that matter, the Hindus who do not accept Advani and Co. as their leaders. The Hindu Rashtra will, in fact, have little to do with Hinduism as we have known it. There will be no place for questioning, little patience for tolerance and absulutely no role for moderation.