Makeshift temple at Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya
Snapshot
  • Ayodhya is not an issue of political power or history, but of tradition, continuity and belief.

    If there is a realisation that there are no religions in this land, but only a simple way of life, then perhaps, an answer to the Ayodhya issue could be closer at hand than we think.

    And perhaps, just perhaps, we might be able to wipe away Tulsidas’ tears.

As the Ayodhya issue enters a possibly final phase in the Supreme Court of India, it is perhaps important to look at why exactly this issue resonates so greatly, with such an overwhelming majority of Indians. Different people view it differently: some for example, treat it as a simple land dispute. Others seek to paint it in sinister, political hues. Some believe that the Ayodhya issue symbolises a deep, hurt civilisation, and others, as a final, unfinished act of the Partition of 1947. Yet, beyond these perceptions is a simpler truth, which has stood unrepudiated for half a millennium now: that, the story of the destruction of a temple in 1528 CE at the birthplace of Lord Rama in Ayodhya, led to a spectacular churning – a churning which still creates heavy ripples across our society. It spread first, across social, political, commercial and spiritual domains in the Indo-Gangetic plains, following which it expanded to cover the rest of the subcontinent. In the process, this event generated a series of reactions, which we have not fully understood yet. It is also a long story which began over a thousand years ago in Tamil Nadu, well before the Babri Masjid was constructed. From there, it followed a Chola king to Bengal, shrank away from the Ghaznavid invasions, witnessed the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, chased Babur and his descendants, shed a few piteous tears, and even welcomed modernity. It ends in this, our digital age, with the final chapter waiting to be written.

Our story starts though, with the philosopher-saint Ramanuja, who was born in the early 11th century in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. It was the time of Chola ascendancy in the south, with a line of brilliant kings poised to make their mark on history. Note in an aside, that at this time, the Indo-Gangetic plains were seeking to re-establish a new order, following the decline of the older Gurjara-Pratihara, Rashtrakuta and Pala kingdoms, while simultaneously bearing the brunt of furious, periodic looting raids by Mohammed of Ghazni. There was Raja Bhoja of the Malwa plateau, the Hindu Shahi kings of the Peshawar-Attock region – like Jayapala and his son Anandapala, and numerous small crowns. But Tamil Nadu was too far away from these lands to be affected by Ghaznavid fury. Instead, as frequently happens during an era of peace and prosperity, the Coromandel Coast became the crucible of a new thinking. The kernel of that new thought was Ramanuja; a man who successfully merged Vedanta philosophy with Bhakti, or devotionalism into a logical, structured, and applicable framework. Today, we call his school of thought qualified monism, or, more popularly, Sri Vaishnavism. For him, it was a perfect solution to the varied needs of a varied society.

It is thus ironic that as a youngster, this Tamil Brahmin was a student of Advaita Vedanta at a famous university in Kanchi in Tamil Nadu. This school of pure logic had been established by Shankara, an earlier thinker and seeker, who too had sought to mitigate the fissiparous tendencies of this confusing land, by melding the essence of various scriptures into one, rational whole. For Shankara, if all was one, and one was nothing but the truth, then all you needed to improve an individual, and thus improve society, was to demonstrate the logic of such unity. But, a bright, young student named Ramanuja thought differently. For him, salvation had a preeminence which superseded quests for social harmony by the grander, Shankara route. For him, the basic unit of society was the individual – a simple, humble soul, who needed a bit more than soaring metaphysical swirls to get through this troublesome passage called life. This was not so contradictory a thesis as some might think, for while Shankara’s focus had been on those who taught and practised the ancient ways, meaning the priestly classes, Ramanuja took Shankara’s non-duality a step further and applied it to a broader base. Thus, for Ramanuja, there was no ambiguity, influenced as he probably was, by an equally older Tamil tradition of devotional saints. In his view, the concept of unity needed a tangible form for acceptance by the general public.

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Simply put, the young priest demonstrated that if indeed all was one, as Shankara had proved some centuries earlier in a more clinical, abstract sense, then that ‘one’ was Lord Vishnu, and his avatars; and, that the path to salvation lay in unqualified devotion to this deity. Ramanuja was certainly not the first to make this case, but he made it best, and made it stick so effectively, that his theories provided the final basis for irreversibly transforming Rama the ideal man, into Rama the ‘one’ God. Agreed, there had for long existed a Rama cult in the Indo-Gangetic plains, just as another had existed for Krishna, but it required the foundational, philosophical structuring of Ramanuja, to permit the next, logical step of organised, spiritual progression into the core pantheon of Vishnu-based devotionalism.

It is this concept which made its way north from Tamil Nadu into the vast riparian plains, and regulated the establishment of a spiritual order that became the template others in the land have followed since. What is amazing, and rarely written about, is that the way north for this new thinking, was opened by an audacious military campaign. In 1019 CE, King Rajendra Chola, son of the illustrious Raja Raja, led a great Tamil army along the eastern coast, subduing coastal Andhra, Orissa, most of Bengal, and parts of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. There are even epigraphical interpretations which suggest that he made his way as far west into the Gangetic basin as Chitrakoot – a place synonymous with the Rama epic. He was so successful that these lands apparently proceeded to pay tribute to the Chola kingdom for the next two centuries – till the end of the 12th century, during the reign of King Kulottunga III. Unbelievable but true that a king of the Deep South conquered lands up to the Gangetic plains – and a unique feat in our history. But it happened. Admittedly, everything I write here regarding the transmission of Ramanuja’s teachings by this route is pure conjecture, since we have no data to either prove or reject the case. But at the same time, it cannot be denied that if one were to trace the roots of various modes of medieval devotion, most such paths would lead back to Ramanuja. And in any case, if history has taught us anything, it is that where military conquest goes, trade follows; and that where trade goes, evangelism follows close behind. It is the nature of human contact.

This was swiftly followed by another interesting development, when, over the next two to three centuries, the Ramayana evolved in parallel on two fronts: while Valmiki’s poem was translated from Sanskrit into a number of vernaculars, the nature of the Ramayana too underwent a shift – from an epic to a spiritual text. This is not so strange a process as one might imagine, since, if there is a god, then it is only necessary that there be a story, and, a strong metaphysical underpinning, providing clear reason for offering absolute devotion to that deity. And that reasoning was presented in a text called the Brahmanda Purana. Not too many know that this purana is the original source of the Lalita Sahasranama – a poetic adoration of the Mother Goddess, which a majority of children are taught even today. While its core is quite ancient, the final composition as used presently appears to have taken final shape in the 15th century, with authorship being attributed by tradition to Ramananda – a devotional saint of the Punjab. But what is most intriguing is that it is this purana, which also contains the first, and most famous spiritual rendition of Valmiki’s poem, called the Adhyatma Ramayana – a set of verses which inspired a dozen devotional saints across the land to render their own, vernacular versions of Sri Vaishnavism.

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The effect of these combined influences was electric: the old strictures of caste controls having no zealous enforcer in Sultanate realms, and the hands of traditional ruling houses in the Deccan having been weakened, salvation was permitted to move freely to the last man, in various languages of popular choice. Broadly speaking then, between the 12th and 16th centuries, every major regional language was gifted its own version of this epic – of an ideal god-king who fought and triumphed over evil and injustice: In Telugu, Bengali, Odiya, Assamese, Kannada, Malayalam and more, talented poet-saints composed literary marvels extolling both the heroic and spiritual sides of Rama. It was as if a land looking for a saviour and a hero, had finally found one.

Naturally, there was also a practical aspect to this new, immeasurable popularity, which saints and reformers gladly employed in their work: harmony and equality in society. For, we cannot forget that with the Muslim invasions, this land was exposed to organised, coercive conversion for the first time in its long history. With its numerous traditional hierarchies, and practices of exclusion, the subcontinent offered rich pickings for the harvesting of countless souls. Thus, when the old social order crumbled under these invasions, it must have seemed like the end of the world. And, perhaps, it was until Ramanuja’s message spread to the farthest reaches: that all was one. It is from this churning that the Bhakti movement emerged, led by the likes of Ravidas, Kabir, Nanak, Ramananda and many others. We cannot say whether they knew of Ramanuja’s logical proofs or not, but it didn’t matter, for here was at last a simple, usable form of faith, which surprisingly, wasn’t too different from what the Muslims were offering: unity, peace, brotherhood, and an inherent commonness amongst all living beings. Perhaps, they knew in their hearts, that if they couldn’t fight back with swords and spears – and they couldn’t, for the subjugation was fairly thorough over the northern plains – then the next best thing was armour, to defend their way of life. That was provided by Rama, and his phalanx of devotee-saints.

At this point, we may speculate on how the world would have turned out if Babur had not successfully invaded India. But truly, speculation is no alternative to the truth, which is, that an ambitious warrior from Ferghana managed to capture the throne of Delhi in 1526. Now, a conqueror’s first priority upon victory is to ensure control, so that he may fully pluck the fruits he seeks. The best option is to instill fear, and the best way to do that, is by a symbolic act which makes it unambiguously clear to the local populace, that the old order’s writ no longer runs. A case in point is the early visuals from Baghdad when the US Army entered the city in 2003 – of a statue of Saddam Hussein being brought down. Babur was no different, and for that, he chose to make a point filled with potent symbolism. An excruciatingly harsh and painful point, which served its purpose so effectively, that no voice of true revolt was ever heard again in these plains for three centuries. That is how effective the destruction was.

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So imagine Babur in the Gangetic plains of 1528, going about his task of subjugating this dirty, muddy, humid land which he didn’t particularly like, but which was the only empire his dreams were ever going to see: Imagine Mir Baqi clearing the temple and its precincts of priests and trustees. Imagine his men holding back the wailing crowds. And imagine the shriek when the hammers began to fall, and the temple crumbled into dust. Or better still, don’t, because it is an agonising image to conjure; yet, it is into this vortex that Tulsidas was born.

As an historical man, we may assume that the emergence of Tulsidas around the mid-16th century coincides with the passing of an earlier generation of devotional saints, like Nanak and Ravidas, for example. But as a saint he was timeless. Effortlessly combining the soaring Sanskrit of Valmiki, the message of Rama’s tale, and plain devotionalism with his own considerable poetic talents, Tulsidas composed the Ramcharitmanas in Braj, the native tongue of his plains. It swiftly superseded other prevailing texts with such appealing popularity, that plains-folk came to need little more than Tulsidas’ words for their spiritual sustenance. You can see its effect still, in the daily greeting exchanged with folded hands, between commoners there even today: “Ram, Ram”.

It is this enormous impact of one man’s devotion, which makes it unsurprising that the Allahabad High Court verdict of 2010 on the Ayodhya case, quotes freely from one of the compositions attributed to Goswami Tulsidas: the Doka Shatakam, or more correctly the Sri Tulsi Shatakam. In it, the poet-saint cries at the destruction of his beloved Rama’s temple by foreign invaders with such plaintive self-evidence, that further assessments of Rama’s primacy in the hearts of the average person in those parts becomes a redundant effort. Note also, the last stage of a long and evolutionary transformation: from an ideal man, and, in some pockets, a god-king, Rama had been promoted fully and finally, from legend to divinity. The route was convoluted: a sense of unity provided by Shankara sometime in the first millennium after Christ, a modification of this by Ramanuja to incorporate prevalent preferences for the path of devotion, the translation of the Ramayana into multiple vernacular literary marvels, and finally, the transformation of Valmiki’s original epic into a spiritual text - a process spanning many centuries, and many million square miles of an ancient land. So yes, we can only fail in assessing the true extent of its influence, but a clue or two may be gained when Tulsidas’ tears begin to fall.

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Tulsidas cries:

दल्यो मीरबाकी अवध मन्दिर रामसमाज ।

तुलसी रोवत हृदय हति त्राहि त्राहि रघुराज ॥ 90 ॥

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Dalyo Mir Baqi Awadh Mandir Ramsamaj

Tulsi Rowat Hriday Yati Trahi Trahi Raghuraj

Translation: Imagining Mir Baqi destroying the temple at Ayodhya, along with the idols of Rama and his family, Tulsidas beats his chest and cries to Rama: “Protect us! Protect us!” Trahi Trahi Raghuraj.

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There are many more such lines from the Shatakam, each filled with helplessness and sorrow, but this one above, with the plaintive plea begging for protection, is enough to understand everything which has followed since. It is logical then to conclude, that if these please reached the ears of every citizen of the Gangetic plains, then surely they must have reached Babur’s grandson as well. We cannot confirm this, naturally, but how implausible would it be to presume that it was indeed these cries, which nudged Emperor Akbar into essaying an artificial construct of imperial compromise – the Din-i-Llahi? After all, Akbar considered himself a reasonably well-informed man, who kept the pulse of the people at his fingertips. Answer: we don’t know, but it is possible.

Whatever the truth, Akbar’s efforts to create and institute a syncretic religion ended as a monumental failure. Without any structure, any organisation, or scripture, what else could one expect? But germane to our story, he was neither the first nor the last to attempt such an idealistic, immature venture. Emperor Ashoka tried this. So did the Pushyabhuti king Harshavardhana, of Kannauj. In a sense, then, Jawaharlal Nehru was only one in a long line of well-meaning leaders, who believed that social strife and discord could be solved by the paternalistic imposition of anodyne, generic solutions. The problem is that these men viewed religion as a divisive identity instead of as a way of life; an identity, which they believed could be supplanted by a new moral code. But none of them understood that religion, or faith, as it should be rightly called, was less about identity, and more about finding a salve for the crushing rigors of a wretched daily life. In that case, how on earth was a new code supposed to work when it took away a man’s salvation? Did they really think that a few, seemingly-noble moral truths would be an acceptable substitute to the ancient scriptures – Hindu and Muslim? Not unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

Mahatma Gandhi on the other hand, had a much more enlightened understanding of both everyday life and the simple, social man. He recognised the necessity of salvation in the cycle of life, and, like many others of his era, also recognised the need for a political structure in which the moral code existed as a penal code, with salvation and its concomitant rituals left solely as the preserve of the individual. Perhaps, the concept mattered little to an avowed agnostic like Nehru; or perhaps he viewed the issue of social harmony in purely administrative terms, against a horrendous backdrop of the bloody Partition. Either way, Nehru’s decision to seal the Babri Masjid in December 1949, when unknown individuals placed small idols of Rama and Sita inside the mosque, did not take popular sentiment into account. Perhaps, he could not; perhaps he didn’t want to, because he thought he knew better. We’ll never know for sure. All we do know is that yet another act of well-intentioned paternalism supplied everything except a solution. Like Akbar, Nehru too, mistook Tulsidas’ tears for a simpleton peasant’s superstition and calumny; he never understood that Ayodhya was not a question of political power or historical facts, but one of tradition, continuity, and belief. And in that inability to understand such a simple truth, lie the roots of our present social divide.

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So that is our story: of the importance of Rama in public consciousness – as an ideal, as hero, as divine saviour, as god, and most importantly, as a symbol of hope. It contains multiple layers, each reaching back, one over the other, to the very origins of our land, our civilisation, and a way of life – all coupled across time and space, seeking a little peace of mind for the little man, and a little order in society. There is history, there is faith, and there is philosophy too: every chant by every child of every verse written by Tulsidas, indirectly reaffirms the supremacy of three ancient scriptures – the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita. Expression of devotion then, raises a salute to not one, but all routes to salvation. It also reflects the entrenchment of social reform as a key element of our society. Nakak gets invoked; Kabir too; Ramanuja before him; Shankara before that; and others further distant. And every breath taken reconfirms another old truth – that all is one. With that in mind, the destruction by Mir Baqi, of a temple marking Rama’s birth place in Ayodhya, is a relatively recent event. But we cannot afford to ignore numerous subliminal antecedents, if we are to engineer a solution to the present.

Hence the importance of the ongoing court case in the Supreme Court; and hence too, a need to better understand this land, before well-meaning suggestions of compromise are offered – such as, for example, that social harmony would be better served by building a hospital or a school or an orphanage at Ayodhya, instead of a temple. In the end, all that remains to be said is this: if we can realise that there are no religions in this land, and instead, only a simple way of life, then perhaps, just perhaps, we might be able to wipe away Tulsidas’ tears. And if we do that, then equally perhaps, an answer to the Ayodhya issue could be closer at hand than we think. Until then, let us see how matters unfold, as the final chapter of an unfinished story is finally written.

Reference: Allahabad High Court verdict on the Ayodhya case, 2010.

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