The site at Ayodhya is doubly important as it signifies the existence of a perfect dharmic state along with the presence of Maryada-Purushottam - Sri Ram.
Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at:
Why rally for a Ram Mandir? What good is a Ram Mandir for us, in today’s time? If such questions have ever crossed your mind, then I urge you, dear reader, please read on. Together we can embark on a quest for meaning: a journey through the incidents that took place in India’s tumultuous recent history, and perhaps even make sense of those incidents. Remember, the journey is all we have: whether it be a physical journey, or a textual one. When we read history, we are supposed to make a mental journey using memory as a compass; but most often we end up using artefacts – be it an inspection of a physical artefact or charting a textual one – and consequently get lost in the labyrinthine tracks of time.
A clarification is due at this point: when I made a mention of ‘textual’ artefacts in the last paragraph, what I really had in mind is the typical history textbook, rather than the Itihasa-s which our Hindu tradition has preserved and carefully handed down through hundreds of generations. The main difference between textbooks of history and our Itihasa grantha-s is this: one is artificial and the other organic; one is a collection of dead ‘historical facts’ and the other a body of stories throbbing with life like a living organism; one is frozen in time and space and the other is ever growing by replicating and reproducing itself in revitalised forms of music, dance and storytelling, with numerous fresh interpretations congenial to the needs of every era and with renewed vigour.
This crucial distinction between the two genres of Remembering have been deliberately and systematically blurred away by the dual onslaught of one, the English education system and two, the Abrahamic religio-political invasions, on the Indian Psyche.
Consider an example: when Hindus chart the territories indicated in the Ramayana of Valmiki, in most cases they do so with the attitude of a pilgrim. These places, named and located with precise geographical identifiers in and around them, get replicated in various other places inside as well as outside mainland India. Thus, one of the hill ranges in the Purulia district of today’s West Bengal acquires the name ‘Ayodhya’ – same as Ram’s birthplace plus the famed ideal kingdom He ruled over – on account of the legend that Sita and Ram had spent a few nights in the forests of that region. Outside the borders of mainland India, one comes across the Ayutthaya region of Ancient Shyamadesha – currently straddling the modern nation-states of Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia. The geographical and cultural maps of our fatherland Bharatavarsha is littered with hundreds of such places, which are replications of places of significance that feature in the Itihasa-Purana literature. Madurai (a virtual Mathura in Tamil Nadu), Mayapur (a virtual Vrindavan in West Bengal), ‘Dakshina Kashi’ Nanjangud (Kashi of the South) – examples abound.
What is the significance of such repetitive nomenclature? What is the meaning of this conspicuous pattern of replication? It is this: the thing that gets replicated is supposed to be an ideal thing. It may be an ideal place for spiritual seeking, it may even be an ideal polity – the act of replication helps in proliferating the values attached to the ideal, the values which had helped the original referent be elevated to an ideal in the first place. By naming other places after the Itihasa-Purana-bound locations, the replication, as well as the referent location each, derive legitimation. The new replication derives legitimacy from the original referent, while the legitimacy of the original referent gets reinforced through the process. This is exactly like using the text of Maharshi Valmiki’s Ramayana as the source text – or as they say in Sanskrit – the Adikavya, to give rise to a number of regional expressions of Ramayana which would ultimately reinforce the canonicity of the Itihasa of Valmiki, the Adi-Kavi.
And yet, in all this, the importance of the referent’s location remains paramount; for without the axis mundi of the referent, the universe which has been built around the ideal associated with the referent simply falls apart. Sure, this process of falling apart takes a long, long time; as the creation of the replicas far and wide ensures several layers of buffer between the moment of bringing down of the original referent and the actual dismantling (and the consequent forgetting) of the ideal.
Let us now see what Ramjanmabhoomi Ayodhya stood for. We may ask the question: what ideal did it embody in its physical presence? And the answer to that question would be - the ideal of a perfect dharma-based (or, dharmic) state, with Sri Ram as its ideal king. That makes it easier to understand what we have expounded in the previous paragraph in purely theoretical terms. If indeed there is such a place on earth where once a ruler had actually established and administered a perfect and just political structure, then that makes the work of building similar structures at other places all the simpler. All they have to do is just copy and paste from that example – in other words – replicate it. And that is precisely what people in other places did with respect to Ayodhya and her replicas; people who idolised the values associated with Ayodhya. They sought to build another Ayodhya – for example in Ancient Thailand.
Now consider for a moment the total absence of Ayodhya – either by not being there in the first place or by being obliterated from people’s memory due to destruction and no subsequent attempts whatsoever to repair and rebuild it. As the capital falls apart, the values it stood for, the values it embodied, all peel away one by one, slowly, until a time comes when nobody remembers those values, nobody can relate to those ideals anymore. That is the kind of dystopia wherein amnesia and apathy reign supreme; and like an epidemic, they diminish a part of the world, they annihilate entire populations with a quick but sure sweep.
Hence the necessity of preserving Ram’s Ayodhya.
But how do we preserve it? Do we go about this preservation business by excavating ossified artefacts, carefully cleaning them up with a little brush and putting them on the pedestal in a nice gallery? Absolutely not. That procedure is followed by the archaeologist and his buddy, the historian. That is not our way. That is not dharma’s way. The dharmic way is to keep it alive: keep its heart palpitating so that blood may flow from and into it towards/from all over the body of Bharatavarsha – the geographical entity which is the seat of the Indic Civilisation. Merely peering at fossilised objects encased in transparent break-proof glass would not provide us life, an expert-guided tour of the museum would not help us establish vivid personal bonding with our ancestors; and that is exactly what we are seeking: life, and its concomitant living human bonding. Itihasa is about lived experience; which is why we celebrate Diwali, which is why we perform Ramlila and Jatra. Celebration and performance go hand in hand, they are the two unmistakable marks of a living community. A community that does not celebrate its stories, a community that does not perform its narratives, is dead and gone. Examples of such civilizational communities are available aplenty: the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse. They are nowhere to be found, except in the museums and between the covers of history textbooks. Likewise, the dwindling population of the Parsis signals an equally ominous future for that community. Itihasa – literally ‘that which happened this way’ – demands to be celebrated and performed simultaneously. However, that is not the case with history. History does not demand to be celebrated, nor performed. The museum and the library are sufficient to take good care of history. Itihasa, on the other hand, needs humans – humans who practise and live that Itihasa in their day to day lives. Celebration through performance, and performance through celebration – each of these separately establishes, explains and preserves Itihasa.
Let us go back to the question with which we had begun this article: what good is yet another Ram temple in our time and age?
One of the ways in which Hindus have always been performing as well as celebrating their Itihasa is through offering puja – an active, intricate and colourful way of worshipping personal deities. The traditional agama literature, that expounds the intricacies of the science of puja, prescribes puja to be offered inside a duly consecrated temple. The temple houses the image of the deity – an object which, again according to the agama literature, absorbs and locks the energies associated and evoked with the divinity. The temple, and especially its sanctum sanctorum, helps keep such immense energy in one place. That function begs the temple structure to be adequately strongly built so as to contain the energy of the divinity, which, if left uncontrolled and unattended, may wreak havoc. This is why the agama literature provides the details of architectural science as well as the engineering technology for the proper construction of temples which would be suitable for safeguarding the deity’s cosmic energy. The temple needs the image of the deity a little more than the latter needs the temple. In normal times one is almost inseparable from the other, except for the occasional ritualistic rides taken by the deity or at such times when desperate situations warrant desperate measures; e.g. during invasions and the iconoclast’s raids and rages (and heaven knows that Hindus have been subjected to this particular affliction for far too many times) may demand a prudent removal of the deity. Once the root cause of that affliction subdues, the deity can be brought back and duly re-consecrated in the reconstructed temple, its original home.
Hence the need for re-building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, which had been desecrated and destroyed by the marauding iconoclasts. The truth of this claim has been well-established by Dr. Meenakshi Jain, whose books present the details of the court case as well as multi-disciplinary evidence in favour of the existence of a Vaishnava temple in the designated area of Ramjanmabhoomi. It is out of scope and redundant for this article to simply reiterate that hard evidence.
We may now go back to the same question and reconsider it from yet another angle for reinforcing our cause: what good is yet another Ram temple in our time and age? To understand this, we need to confront a more basic question: what good is Ram in the first place?
Sri Ram, the most illustrious scion of the Raghus – an ancient clan of Kshatriyas who claimed their descent directly from the Sun-god, has been hailed as “Maryada-Purushottam”. What does that mean? Why is Ram given this epithet?
The literal English translation of the second part of this Sanskrit compound – purushottam – is “the best of men”. Its nearest equivalent in a more literary idiom of the English language would be “the bull among men”; indeed its Sanskrit equivalent “purusharshabha” is mentioned in the “Vishnu Sahasra Nama” (A Thousand Names of Vishnu) stotra of the Mahabharata. Why was he considered to be the best specimen among men? The short answer to this rather important question is: why, because he led an ideal life! Through his life, he set many examples – examples that function as guiding principles for countless Hindus. It is through Ram’s life that Hindus get their most important life-skills: how to speak, how to act, and how to be. One can manage to survive without the knowledge of letters, but one certainly cannot dispense with these basic set of human skills in a world which is, by its very nature, full of miseries and challenges.
Duty-bound, Sri Ram did not hesitate to venture into the darkness and uncertainties of the dangerous forest-habitat of the demoness Tadaka, who had turned the lives of reclusive, forest-dwelling spiritual seekers and rishis into a living hell. Rishi Vishvamitra had called upon Sri Ram and his brother Lakshman to finish off this menace, and Ram readily obliged when he was but a teenager. That is how he honoured his Kshatriya dharma, the duty of the ideal warrior. To keep the sanctity of his father’s promise to his stepmother, again Ram did not waver from going into a fourteen-year long exile, at a moment when he was newly married to a young and most beautiful wife and was about to succeed his father for the throne. That is how he honoured his dharma as an ideal son. While living the difficult life of an exiled forest-dweller, he lost his wife to an abductor who happened to be a most powerful king of his time, Ravana, a being who was empowered by the divine boons of none other than Brahma and Shiva. In response, Sri Ram raised an army from scratch, waged a war across the seas to rescue his wife, vanquished Ravana and returned to his motherland and capital Ayodhya after the completion of the period of exile. That is how he honoured his dharma as an ideal husband, a lover and protector of his wife. Even then, after taking so much of trouble to rescue his beloved wife, he had to banish the same in order to satisfy his subjects. That is how he performed the duty of an ideal king. And all this while, not a single word of protestation, not a single act in frustration. No quitting, no succumbing either. No whining of victimhood. Pure, unadulterated hard work, combined with a superhuman commitment to duty suited to each station of his life: that is Sri Ram in a nutshell.
Being able to find meaning at every single stage of one’s worldly existence in the smooth and detached performance of one’s duty despite mountains of hardships, absolutely bereft of complaints, is the utility of knowing Ram, and the utility of striving to be like Ram. It is one and the same as learning the skills of a dignified survival in an absolutely unjust and difficult world. Read that way, Sri Ram has taught us Karmayoga with his very life.
Thus, through a life of unimaginable hardship and disastrous tragedies, Sri Ram has provided us with multiple ideals of how to be. Despite being born a man, he has been to win over the pitfalls of human follies and frailties. He has triumphed human weakness in the face of every manner of human hardships and challenges thrown at him by Providence. For this reason, alone he has come to be regarded as an avatar of Lord Vishnu, attracting godlike reverence and worship from his devotees. For this reason alone, he has been the ideal for countless generations of our ancestors.
That is Bharatavarsha’s ideal.
If Bharatavarsha does not remember this, if the current inhabitants of the land fail to honour Sri Ram in a manner that is befitting his maryada and proper for his godly station; if we fail in our duty towards a man, who lived and died for duty, when our turn came, what meaning would we have carried to the end of our days?