A query was raised by an Independent member of the Upper House of the Parliament on the Rama Setu, recently. This query was regarding the status of the scientific study of the structure. The Union Minister for Earth Sciences, Dr Jitendra Singh, replied in the House.
Soon, a needless controversy followed.
Congress leaders at once claimed that the minister's reply was similar to the affidavit filed by the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA government in 2007, that denied the historicity of the Ramayana. They implied that the BJP misled the nation in the name of Rama all these years and the Modi government itself said the same thing about the Rama Setu as the UPA.
Then there was a sanctimonious editorial from The Telegraph:
The project to change mythology into history by employing scientific organisations such as the Archaeological Survey of India is not just a misapplication of scientific techniques — it distorts the ends of science — but also a waste of resources badly needed by science students. The Ram Setu affair is not alone; there are, among others, the search for the Saraswati river, research into the underwater city of Dwarka, investigations into mythological sites along the coasts of Maharashtra and Odisha, tricks to get the sun to shine directly on the image of Rama in Ayodhya.
So what is the truth?
Did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister deny the existence of Rama Setu and Sri Rama, as the UPA affidavit did in 2007? And is the BJP government making the nodal science agencies work to prove Hindu 'mythologies' as history?
Let us first take the Rama Setu issue.
Rama Setu: UPA Versus The BJP
This is what the UPA government said in its affidavit before the Supreme Court in 2007:
Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and other mythological texts, which admittedly form an important part of ancient Indian literature, but which cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events therein.
Here is now the statement of Dr Jitendra Singh in the Rajya Sabha:
I am happy that our MP raised a question regarding Ram Setu. We have some limitations regarding this. Because this is the history of about 18,000 years ago. The bridge we are talking about was about 56 km long. Through space technology, we found out that some pieces of stones have been found in the sea. There are some such shapes which show continuity. Things like some islands and limestone have been seen in the sea. If it is said in simple words, it is difficult to say that the real form of Ram Setu is present there. However, there are some indications which suggest that the structure may be present there.
That is not all. With respect to a question on both Rama Setu and Dwaraka, the minister answered:
Indian satellites have acquired high resolution images of Ram Setu region connecting India and Sri Lanka. However, satellite images cannot provide direct information about the origin and age of this structure. Submerged city of Dwarka cannot be seen by remote sensing satellites, as it cannot acquire images below the surface.
The difference between the statement in the affidavit of the UPA government and the statement by Dr Jitendra Singh is as clear as the difference between milk and charcoal.
Unscientific And Ideological Nature of the UPA Statement:
The UPA denied the historicity of the Ramayana. One should note: in its carefully worded statement, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Ramacharitmanas of Tulsidas get bundled with ‘other mythological texts’. Also note that they are called ‘important part of ancient Indian literature’, not sacred literature.
One does not have to take a ‘believer’s’ stand here. In fact, a Government or an agency like Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should not take a believer's stand.
At the same time, the government shouldn't also make the scientific establishment of the country a handmaiden of its political ideology, and claim something that is not testified by the science.
Such a misuse becomes more conspicuous in case like that of the Rama Setu, where a proper scientific approach does in fact confirm the historic core of a national Itihasa.
That does not necessarily mean accepting Rama as an Avatar. It does not mean one believes in Pushpak Vimana. It means acknowledging the historical core of Ramayana, that is attested to in a strong Itihasa tradition across geographical space and historical time in India.
When the UPA, through the ASI, denied that historical core of Ramayana with a broad brush, an establishment of science was made the handmaiden of a political ideology — something very Stalinist.
The late B B Lal, one of the finest archaeologists of independent India, strongly criticised the stand of the UPA and ASI:
If we insist on accepting only contemporary documents, whether these be in the form of an inscription or a written historical record, we must give up altogether the historicity of Buddha or Mahavira.
A Civilisational As Well As A Scientific Answer
Dr Jitendra Singh's statement in the Rajya Sabha was measured, cautious and conforming to the spirit of science.
The Rama Setu is an ancient structure. It is not present in a fully intact form, though we have been able to find indications of a full structure. The Minister rightly emphasized the fact that satellite images cannot allow us to calculate the age of a structure. They only confirm that a structure exists.
At the same time, the Minister also emphasized the need for further study. He has not brushed aside Ramayana as 'cannot be proved.'
What Should Be Studied At, And About, the Sri Rama Setu?
The Ram Setu may be natural formation that was modified to become a bridge-like structure. Even if it was a natural formation, it is part of the sacred geography of India.
That Valmiki, who lived in northern India, was aware of such a structure in the south, and its association with Ramayana events, points out not just its sacred nature but also the geo-cultural evolution of sacred geography.
That evolution is a subject worthy of interdisciplinary scientific studies.
The Rama Setu has also been a great nourisher of biodiversity in the Gulf of Mannar region. It has protected human lives from huge natural disasters. Here is an excerpt from a peer-reviewed Elsevier Marine Pollution Bulletin:
During the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami the Adam’s Bridge (Ram Setu) acted as a natural breakwater and considerably diminished the impact while Nagapattinam and Kanniakumari were severely damaged. Removal of this natural breakwater by execution of the SSC would cause a tunneling effect and provide an easy passage leading to a greater devastation in the event of a natural disaster such as a tsunami.Rao et al, Possible ecological consequences from the Sethu Samudram Canal Project, India
The faith in the construction of Sri Ram Setu by Bhagwan Ram has provided a sanctity to the bridge. People venerated it. The bridge in turn nourished biodiversity, and supported coastal communities in a sustainable way.
During a natural disaster like the 2004 tsunami, the bridge saved human lives. Few years down the line, a threat comes to the bridge and the Ramayana association arouses the entire nation to save it. The BJP becomes a tool for that.
This phenomenon is worth studying in detail beyond religious beliefs and ideological blinkers: the bridge saving the people and the people saving the bridge.
What was unscientific, was to shift the goalpost from these central issues to the binary of whether Rama built the bridge or not.
The bridge symbolizes Rama and his dedication to the protection of Sita. Hence, the bridge is the symbol of feminine dignity and divinity. It is a structure where Dharma, ecology and divine feminine converge. Sri Rama Setu is a civilisational symbol of India.
Now to the allegation made by The Telegraph editorial:
Is the BJP government using nodal agencies of science — from ISRO to ASI — to convert mythology into history?
Let us look into the two examples given by 'The Telegraph'.
When was the project on Saraswati started and under whose prime ministership?
A note was submitted by KM Panikkar to India's second prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru — a request to sanction an archaeological study:
Preliminary examination has shown that the centre of the early civilisation was not Sind or the Indus Valley but the desert area in Bikaner and Jaisalmer through which the ancient Saraswati flowed into the Gulf of Kutch at one time.Cited by Michael Danino in his 'Lost River'
Way back in the 1950s, Nehru endorsed Panikkar’s note and got a special grant of 10,000 rupees released to the Archaeological Survey of India. Since then many studies have been conducted.
It was a scientist of the impeccable quality of Dr. Yashpal who first came up with a satellite study of the paleo-channels associated with Saraswati. Since then there have been many studies with advancement of technologies.
Right before me is a report on Dwaraka, published by the Archaeological Survey of India. Here I quote from its preface:
Every Indian, whether he be Hindu or non-Hindu, educated or illiterate, rich or poor, wants to know when the epic heroes Rama and Krishna lived. ... Frankly, to such queries no answer can be given, unless we have proved the antiquity of these places and found some objects or writings of the times of Rama and Krishna. The antiquity of a place can only be proved archaeologically.... In pursuance of these aims, the Department has so far carried out studies in the Cultural History of the Vayu Purana, analysed the iconographic elements from the Mahahharata and traced the development of Jaina Monachism with the help of epigraphical material. ... The present work on Dwaraka, ... helps, I think, in demonstrating that the present Dwaraka on the western coast of Saurashtra is at least 2000 years old. From this step we have to go further backwards in time in search of still earlier Dwarkas which may lie hidden, in the vicinity of the present Dwarka or elsewhere.
Then inside the report one finds this:
From our observation of the various places in and around Dwaraka as also from the evidence of excavation, one can definitely say that this is the Dvaraka mentioned in the Musala Parva of the Mahabharata, the Dvarakamahatmya of the Skanda Purana, other Puranas and the Ghata Jataka. In particular, one can say that the Dwaraka described in such a great detail as a sacred tirth by the Harivamsa probably came into existence after the second submergence in the sea of two earlier Dwarakas, because it gives such minute descriptions of many temples and this could have been possible only by a writer who had probably visited Dwaraka and seen the temples.
Surely this report should have been made under the Modi or Vajpayee government, either post 2014 or between 1998-2004. Surely the person who wrote the report was a half-baked Sanghi knowing no history. Surely the person who wrote the preface was an even greater Sanghi — a Bhagwa fundamentalist.
This report was published in 1966. The preface was written by one of the doyens of Indian archaeology — a venerable genius who, on the basis of research, did not hesitate to question many cherished beliefs — Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia (1908-1989).
And the report was written by archaeologists Zainuddin Dawood Ansari, PhD, and Madhukar Shripath Mate, PhD.
So much for archaeological projects based on Puranic and Ithihasic sources being Sanghi work!
The report pointed out that to discover the Dwaraka associated with Krishna, further excavations were needed. That too would happen in the 1980s, with the father of India's marine archaeology, Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao.
There have been many findings since then — some reinforcing the views of Rao and some falsifying some of his stands, like in the case of stone anchors found.
But what is interesting is that the marine archaeology of Dwaraka has even entered a textbook on ancient India!
The textbook I have before me, on ancient Indian history, has this passage on page number 408:
The flourishing long-distance trade of the period c. 200 BCE–300 CE comes alive in many texts and is also documented in archaeology. Marine archaeology has brought to light important evidence of ancient coastal cities that have been swallowed up by the sea. Excavations at Dwarka and Bet Dwarka off the Gujarat coast (these sites have yielded much earlier remains as well) have revealed remains of structures, stone images, objects made of copper, bronze and brass, iron anchors, and a wrecked boat belonging to the period c. 200 BCE–200 CE. These sites were clearly oriented towards maritime trade.
Whoever wrote that editorial in The Telegraph may now scream 'saffronisation of textbooks by Sanghis'.
But wait. That book is A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India written by Dr Upinder Singh — a fine historian, who also happens to be the daughter of Dr Manmohan Singh.
So in the final analysis, it is not the Modi government nor the Sanghis who are politicising and distorting history. To call all these studies and archaeological projects as political attempts to convert mythology into history, is nothing more than flaunting one's ignorance as wisdom.
Scientific study of ancient history is much needed for a nation like India which has a continuity of civilisation that stretches to at least five thousand years in the past. It will be unscientific then not to use the ancient Puranas and Ithihasas and cultural memories. Some of the greatest achievements of Indian archeology have come from such studies.
To forego all of that just because 'establishment' leaders and intellectuals have a visceral aversion for anything Hindu, is imposing ideological fatwas on the institutions of science.
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