Culture

Shri Ram — The Hero We Need

Priyank Chauhan

Jan 10, 2024, 02:26 PM | Updated Jan 11, 2024, 03:19 PM IST

Children dressed up for Ramlila.
Children dressed up for Ramlila.
  • Behind the obvious political and cultural significance of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement lies a deep civilisational search and yearning for values that converge on the idea of Shri Ram.
  • My earliest memories of the Ramayan are from the Ramcharitmanas recitations which were a staple of the rich ritual life in the village that I grew up in. People hardly ever talked about religion as such, they did not need to.

    We lived it effortlessly, we were soaked in it all the time, and it is only now after reflection that I grasp how this sense of ritual and religion filled our inner lives and structured our common sense understanding of everything around us, from history to cosmology to ethics.

    Shri Ram was at the very centre of this imagination — a solemn divine presence in Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas, the family’s beloved deity in Ramanand Sagar’s TV adaptation, and the glorious epic hero of the animesque, Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama.

    I want to argue in this article that my experience, while local and personal, is a reflection of something larger — the presence of Shri Ram as a monumental spiritual principle in Indian consciousness throughout our history, ancient but never remote, harmoniously complete but also endlessly fresh.

    The epochal event of Ram Mandir consecration cannot be understood merely as the fulfillment of a historical condition, or as the end of a political project. Its currentness must instead be used to meditate on the cultural potency that has led us to this moment now.

    V S Naipaul spoke about 6 December 1992, as a ‘movement from below’ and the need to understand and use it for the intellectual transformation of India. A fundamentally creative act, the birth of the temple is a symbol of our age of transformation. And Shri Ram is the deity we must choose to express the highest aspirations of this age.

    Birth Of A Nation

    One of the foremost grounds on which modern Indian identity is discursively organised and continuously transformed, is the idea of a nation. Nineteen-forty-seven serves as a pivotal moment as it gave Indians our sovereign state and then we fashioned ourselves into a republic in 1950. But it is not a political apparatus or a constitution that truly creates a nation.

    In his famous “Grammar of Anarchy” speech to the Constituent Assembly, Dr B R Ambedkar tersely observed, “the sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us.”

    This note could be jarring to many ears, but if we believe the nation to be the most fundamental principle of identity and aspiration, rather than being reducible to a political arrangement (state), a structure of governance (federal unit), or a source of law (common constitution), it is impossible to escape the conclusion that we are ‘becoming’ a nation.

    In this age of transformation, three different dimensions express nation as a high aspiration of our age —

    Geopolitical: as a common civilisational will to navigate the currents of globalisation and emerge as a great power,

    Economic: as a unified economic entity, a common market where goods, services, capital, and labour flow relatively freely within its borders, and

    Digital: as the larger ground of solidarity, common identity, and shared anxieties unbounded by regional boundaries.

    It is easy but not enough to say that Shri Ram is a symbol of India’s cultural unity. I would argue instead that the idea of Shri Ram is a natural resource for this new aspiration and engineering of nationhood.

    To Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the prophet of an Indian nationalism which is exact in form and uncompromising in attitude, the brave and good Ramachandra is a symbol of that illustrious birth of nationhood in the remote past.

    For him, the mission that Hindus had undertaken for founding a nation and a country “found and reached its geographical limit when the valorous Prince of Ayodhya made a triumphant entry in Ceylon and actually brought the whole land from the Himalayas to the Seas under one sovereign sway”.

    Ramachandra is a unique prince who expanded his kingdom in exile, at no point in the Ramayan does he cease to be a civilisational actor. His relentless journey through the Indian landmass in search of Sita is interrupted only at the narrow strip of sea which divides it from Lanka. Shri Ram’s journey is a straight line in Indian culture, in the density of his deeds lies the volume of a nation.

    His kingly entry to Lanka as the head of an army defines him as an Indian hero, and his victory there makes India concrete, just like how the current geopolitical sense dissolves differences and makes India the ground of a common goal. Weighed down by an obesity of diversity and difference, and intuitively longing for a principle of unity within us, we inevitably give our minds to Ram-consciousness. It brings concentration, clarity, condensation.

    Strength And Virtue

    Ramayan before Shri Ram’s exile is an unfolding of political intrigue, and after his return he is surrounded with a thick social layer, exposing us to the raw emotional fibre of this epic. But it is in the middle Ramayan, when he walks away from society, that we truly witness Ram-energy in his turning from an ascetic to a warrior-hero.

    The Mahabharat is also a Kshatriya epic, filled with raw martial vigour, but is only in the Ramayan that we are free from all ambiguity around war. Shri Ram here marshals strength and purpose on the side of the good and emerges triumphant as a heroic ideal. There is ethical joy and inspiration in this idea. At a national level, it channels the aspiration for military might, and a strong nation which is peace-loving but never pacifist.

    Shri Ram’s civic virtue lies in his fellow-feeling and fraternity with everyone he encounters in his journey — Nishadraj Guha, Shabri, Jatayu, the Vanaras, even the faction of rakshashas led by Vibhishan. He is the only deity who represents the entire range of human relationships — a son, a husband, a brother, a father, and a friend to all.

    Shri Ram is not only himself an ideal but creates a web of ideals in Sita, Lakshman, Bharat, Hanuman, Shabri, and so on. This may be an important reason for the eternal relevance of Ramayan, as all of these are universal relationships that speak to us by transcending Ramayan’s space and time.

    Shri Ram has political significance, he is the only deity imagined and worshipped as part of a royal assembly — the Ram darbar. At a time when all of our deep contestations of identity, society, history, culture, knowledge, law, and even art, now seek ultimate resolution in politics, which grows into an epic proportion of an Aristotelian ‘master science’, it is natural that a potent political symbol like Shri Ram is especially appealing to us.

    Ram Rajya has always stood for a utopian ideal of good governance and today Shri Ram represents the aspiration for a benign order that balances a longing for authority with the fear of autocracy. Order over entropy, stability over chaos, law over anarchy, but always bound by the sovereignty of people’s will, is depicted most dramatically in Shri Ram sending Sita into second exile. Tragic, but full of certainty.

    Shri Ram As Rashtradevata

    Future historians looking back in time will notice the significance of Ram Mandir at Janmabhoomi site coming up at this point in history. They would note that Shri Ram embodied the highest religious feeling of our age. It is this feeling I have tried to demonstrate in this article, which proceeds from the obvious observation that Ramayan has had a profound influence on the life and thought of the Indian people.

    In its endlessly fresh character, it exists not as a text but as a tradition: as Valmiki’s Ramayan, in the plays of great poets like Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, as the eminent poem in all Indian languages, in its folk variations and productions like Ram Leelas, in its public recitations, and in its TV and film adaptations which now do regular rounds on our social media platforms.

    This metaphorical development of Shri Ram is never finished, but is now available to us as a resource for intellectual transformation. Our highest aspirations — nationhood, fraternity, urbanity, new civic imagination, a moral transformation, all of them must be expressed through this principle. It is only then that Shri Ram will truly become our Rashtradevata.

    Priyank Chauhan is a policy consultant and founder of Savarkar Ambedkar Study Circle.


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