Ravana, Hinduism And The Indian Left

by Swami Venkataraman - Nov 9, 2015 06:24 PM
Ravana, Hinduism And The Indian Left

A point-by-point rebuttal to the controversial claim that ‘Gonds are non-Hindus, and are oppressed by Hinduism’.

In the current political environment, one side of the political spectrum is accusing the media of being biased against Hindus. This debate is centered mainly on the media’s opposition to Narendra Modi, the individual. In my view, an even more important bias is the absence of space for authentic Hindu perspectives in mainstream media. A report in The Hindu on Dassehra day titled “Celebrating Ravan” by Omar Rashid is an excellent illustration of the problem. The report describes the Dassehra celebrations among the Gond tribals in central India, pointing out that they celebrate Ravana ,thereby making the assertion that Gonds are non-Hindus and are oppressed by Hinduism.

One needs to address the specific paragraphs (in bold below) to fully unpack the deceptions in the piece.

1. “According to Hindu beliefs, Ravan is synonymous with evil.”

Firstly, Hinduism has no concept of “evil”, which is not the same as “adharma.” The distinction may be unimportant in day to day language, but is important when discussing religion. “Evil” is an Abrahamic concept and has roots in the “devil”, an entity that does not exist in Hinduism. There is no eternal hell and no eternal damnation either.

Second, even allowing for imprecise use of language, Ravana is anything but the “evil” figure implied in the article. Hinduism holds that Ravana was a great scholar of the Vedas, a tapasvi, a classical musician, powerful warrior and in fact, the great grandson of Lord Brahma. His brother is Kubera, one of the devas. Ravana’s devotion to Shiva is such that his “Shiva Tandava Stotram” is one of the greatest compositions used to praise Lord Shiva by orthodox Hindus even today. And even Sri Rama constructed a temple to Shiva (in Rameshwaram) to atone for having killed a great devotee of Shiva. This is the reason why North Indians love to make a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram.

Ravana’s problem was arrogance and lust. That he deserved to die for his actions and that his death is celebrated as a positive event does not make him “evil.” In fact, as Ravana lies dying on the battlefield, he asks for Rama’s forgiveness and is granted the same, along with entry into Vaikunta. There is also the larger background story of how Ravana and Kumbhakarna are incarnations of Vishnu’s guards Jaya and Vijaya, cursed to be born thrice on earth as brothers who hate Lord Vishnu’s incarnations (the other births being Hiranyaksha-Hiranyakshipu and Shishupala-Dantavakra).

The absence of “evil”, eternal damnation, and the preference for shades of grey over black and white define the very essence of Hinduism which differentiates it from Christianity/Islam. Setting fire to Ravana on Dussehra is symbolic of what uncontrolled arrogance and lust can do to a man and symbolizes the victory of dharma over adharma (which is not the same as “good” over “evil”).

2.   “Our understanding of Dussehra is different. It doesn’t signify the slaying of Ravan but implies ‘Dassar Puja’, or the worship of weapons,” says Vasudevrao Tekam, a descendant of the Gond king of Lanjhigarh in Odisha.

This one practically made me fall off my chair. As I said in my recent piece in Swarajya on Navaratri, worship of weapons is a widely practiced tradition within Hinduism on the ninth day of Navaratri, especially south of the vindhyas. The tradition is variously called “ayudha puja” or “astra puja” literally “puja to weapons”. But “ayudha” is also a generic term that means “instrument.”

So everyone worships the instrument that enables them to make a living, seeing a manifestation of the divine in that. Musicians honour their musical instruments and farmers their plough. Students worship their books along with Saraswati on this day, while many factories declare a holiday and spend the day cleaning and maintaining machinery. I have seen software companies adorning their computers with flowers and tilak. And in line with the literal meaning of “ayudha puja,” this historically includes Kshatriyas cleaning and sharpening their swords and other weapons as well. Today, this would apply to policemen and soldiers. Here is a link to a news item about the royal family of Mysore celebrating Ayudha Puja.

3.Tekam’s disowning of Aryan terminologies is indicative of the Gonds’ counter-narrative. According to their version, Ravan was a Gond king who was slain by Aryan invaders.” And again, “A proto-Dravidian tribe, the second largest in the country, the Gonds feel that they have been victims of a historical injustice, especially after the split of the Gond-dominated areas among six new States in Central India after Independence.”

And here comes perhaps the most invidious result of Colonialist-Marxist scholarship on India, the Aryan invasion theory. As a quick summary, this theory holds that around 1900 BCE a group of fair-skinned “Central Asians” came thundering down the Himalayas, destroyed the Indus Valley civilization, pushed the dark skinned “dravidians” South (and I guess “proto-dravidians” as well), created the caste system and established the “brahminical” Hindu religion.

This theory allowed colonial rulers to divide and rule Indians and also provided justification for colonial rule itself (after all, Aryans are European invaders who came 4000 years ago and so the British are merely the latest iteration of the Aryans). As Drs. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee meticulously detail in their 2014 book “The Nay Science” (a play on “nescience”) the theory was propounded originally by German Indologists who were on a quest to define their own history. Based on little else but linguistic similarities, they advanced the idea of a separate Indo-Germanic martial race of Aryans whose former glory had been corrupted through revision by spiteful Brahmins and racial mixing with ‘indigenous’ Indians.

Whatever the justification, this theory has now been conclusively debunked. Even its ardent supporters in the West no longer talk of an “Aryan invasion,” having moved to a more subtle “Aryan migration” when there emerged no traces of a violent destruction of the Indus Valley civilization and when the river bed of the Saraswati river (which went dry around the 1900 BCE period and which now has more historic sites than the Indus River) was discovered.

Scholars have not yet decoded the Indus script and while all mankind emerged from Africa (and hence ought to have come to India at some point), genetic studies have shown that major migrations into India happened thousands or even tens of thousands of years before the supposed “Aryan Invasion” of around the 1900 BCE.

Here is why all this is important. The “eminent historian” Romila Thapar said in a recent speech-

The issue of Aryan Invasion is very complex but the matter is becoming less and less crucial with time. Does it really matter now if someone was Aryan?

Note the dramatic reduction in confidence about Aryan invasion.

But such “trivial” considerations as historical truth aside, it certainly DOES matter today, Ms. Thapar. And this Hindu article on the Gonds is a great example. Here is a major national newspaper casually reporting about how Gonds are NOT Hindus based on the fact that they have a different interpretation of Ramayana and worship Ravana. Not only that, leftist history has created a mindset that causes Gonds to see themselves as “proto-dravidians” and other Hindus as invaders who are intent upon destroying their culture, rather than as a part of the great diversity of Hindu culture. The same problem exists in Tamil Nadu as well, with “Dravidian” parties trying to claim that Tamilians are NOT Hindus.

4. In fact, Ravan has become a rallying point for the Gonds to counter the onslaught of Hinduism and saffronisation, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has an extended outreach among the tribals. In fact, their narration of Ravan’s story turns upside down the one in the Ramayan. This includes a contention over the geographical location of Lanka, which Gonds believe is Madhya Pradesh’s Amarkantak mountain..

Here, the journalist’s real agenda is unmasked. Note how this whole article is practically an op-ed masquerading as a news item about Gond celebration of Dassehra. The Gond celebration of Ravana now becomes proof of their being non-Hindu. And their celebration an effort to “counter the onslaught of Hinduism”. The report even drops the normal pretense of using Hindutva as a scapegoat and goes right after Hinduism itself.

In comparison, these worthies and their newspapers have not, over the decades, ever used the phrase “onslaught of Christianity”, which is actually a more accurate description of what is happening through the proselytization efforts of aggressive evangelical missionaries funded by the West.

In reality, the Gond tribes (along with the Bhil and Kol tribes) actually find mention in the Ramayana itself, mainly in the Aranya and Kishkinda Kandas. Hanuman and Ganesh are in fact considered to be originally tribal Gods worshipped by Central Indian tribes. Gonds believe that the story of Hanuman, and the enactment of several incidents in the Ramayana, actually took place in Gondwana. Some of the Gonds are also known to worship Shiva (Mahadeo) and Parvati. So much for Gonds NOT being Hindus.

Other deities such as the famous Jagannath of Puri, Murugan of Tamil Nadu, Naga deities are also of tribal origin. Such examples abound all over India. As for the contention over the geography of the Ramayana, Thailand and Indonesia, for example, have Ramayanas are rooted in their own geography and culture. Thailand even has a town called Ayutthaya. If one really wanted to get a sense for the grand diversity of the Ramayana tradition, the essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by AK Ramanujan is a classic.

Ultimately, The Hindu article makes a few valid points about difficulties faced by the Gond tribals in getting good education, jobs, and in the practical difficulty of maintaining tribal cultural continuity in the modern age. But all this is reduced to a side note amidst a series of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the Ramayana tradition.

The mainstream media in India is dominated by such perspectives on all matters of Indian history and contemporary society. Until the arrival of social media and magazines such as Swarajya, Hindus have rarely, if ever, had an opportunity to provide their perspective. This really is why many well-meaning, “non-Hindutva” Hindus distrusted mainstream media in India long before the rise of Narendra Modi. Those complaining about “rising intolerance” in India need to introspect about what it means when an ostensible 80% majority is essentially shut out of the media discourse on substantive matters of culture, history and identity. Hindus have been subject to this “extreme intolerance” for decades now. Since the whole article seems to hinge on a different version of the Ramayana, it is probably fitting for me to conclude this criticism with the following remark by Prof. Ramanujan in his essay:

To some extent all later Rāmāyaṇas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Rāmāyaṇas. I cannot resist repeating my favorite example. In several of the later Rāmāyaṇas (such as the AdhyātmaRāmāyaṇa, sixteenth century), when Rāma is exiled, he does not want Sītā to go with him into the forest. Sītā argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Rāmāyaṇas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sītā doesn’t go with Rāma to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (AdhyātmaRāmāyaṇa 2.4.77-78; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Rāmāyaṇa.

Sources:

  • Tribal Roots of Hinduism, by Dr. Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  • Gonds of the Central Indian Highlands Volume II, by B.H.Mehta
  • The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, by Dr. Edwin Bryant, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • The Nay Science – A History of German Indology, by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, Oxford University Press, 2014
  • “Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A. K. Ramanujan. The standard, authorized text of the essay is published in The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2004).

Swami Venkataraman, an Executive Council member of the Hindu American Foundation, is a financial analyst based in New York. He holds an MBA in Finance from IIM Calcutta and a B.Tech in Electronics Engineering from IIT Madras.

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