In times when Hinduism is being portrayed in a monochromatic light, let’s celebrate the plurality of the faith where there are almost as many gods as devotees

Pluralism is the essence of Hinduism because, in reality, there is no religion called Hinduism. When foreigners called all the people living beyond the Indus as Hindu, they were not referring to a religion but to a group of people whose religious beliefs, philosophical views, day-to-day living, culture, eating habits and attire were different from one another. Yet, they co-existed and interacted with one another, and evolved in the course of this long historical process.
Little wonder that of all the great religions of the world, Hinduism is perhaps the only one that has no structured hierarchical authority, no single revealed Book and no single God. Everybody is free to worship a local deity, or a pan-Indian god like Ram, Krishna or Shiva or a goddess like Durga or Kali, or even a living saint as millions did while Sathya Sai Baba was alive. One can be a puritanical person who does not eat even onion or garlic and completely shuns alcohol, while the other can be a hardcore non-vegetarian who is fond of his drink. In short, there is no single characteristic that defines a Hindu. And if there is one, it is pluralism.
That’s why, all attempts made even with laudable intentions to impose a single identity on the Hindus failed. Swami Dayanand tried to revive the Vedic practices and impose an Aryan identity while erasing the post-Vedic past but could not make much headway and met with only limited success. His Arya Samaj gained popularity and support among the masses in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh primarily because of its social reformist programme that launched an uncompromising campaign against superstition, caste discrimination, illiteracy among women, and many other social ills.
Therefore, it goes against the grain of the Hindu psyche if somebody forces a single version of religion down one’s throat. Such attempts may receive limited and ephemeral success, but are destined to fail. If they are backed by political forces, they may succeed in vitiating the social environment for some time but are bound to be rebuffed by the vast Hindu masses who will never be willing to be regimented.
These thoughts came to my mind when I read a shocking statement of Dinesh Singh, a professor of Mathematics who earned notoriety as the only Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University (now retired) to be issued a show-cause notice by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, about A. K. Ramanujan’s celebrated essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” that was removed from the university’s syllabus under his watch. “It’s an entertaining essay but there isn’t much scholarship in it,” the mathematics professor has reportedly said without caring to point out a single flaw in the essay that essentially celebrates the plurality of the Ramayana traditions that are popular among people in different parts of the country.
Valmiki’s Ramayana ends with the self-chosen death of Ram and the inhabitants of Ayodhya by drowning in the Sarayu river, while Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas ends with the coronation of Ram and excludes the unpleasant episodes such as Sita’s exile and the killing of Shambooka. Ramanujan, whose scholarship did not need an endorsement from a mathematics professor, has presented a masterly analysis of the various “tellings” of the Ramakatha. This obviously militates against the core beliefs of the Hindutva forces that want to impose a single version of everything connected with Hinduism. A myth is being propagated as if Hindus are essentially strict vegetarians and have always been so. Also, a sanitised image of Ram is also being presented that does not have any likeness with the way our Ramayana texts portray him.
Even the Valmiki Ramayana published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur, describes Ram offering madhumaireya to Sita and servants serving them various kinds of non-vegetarian dishes and fruits. (Fifth Edition, page 1566). Shantikumar Nanuram Vyas informs in his book “Ramayankaleen Sanskriti” (Culture in the Age of Ramayana), published by Sasta Sahiya Mandal, that madhumaireya was a honey-based alcoholic drink. When Bharata comes back to Ayodhya, he laments that after Ram’s departure for the forest, even the aroma of Varuni (wine) had left the city. (page 480). There is no dearth of such references in the epic.
Am I quoting them to sully the image of Hindu culture or Ram? No, not at all. My only purpose is to show that there are as many Rams as there are devotees. And, one should not forget that when Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas, he was bitterly attacked by the Brahmins of Banaras as they viewed the new Ram cult with great suspicion. His attempts to stage Ramlila too met with similar opposition. However, now both Ramcharitmanas and Ramlila are part of the North Indian Hindu’s religious universe. Long live pluralism!
(the writer is a senior literary critic)