In the late Eighties, Lal Krishna Advani was successful in introducing two words into the lexicon of Indian politics: minorityism and pseudo-secularism. Their evocative imagery helped change the public discourse and contributed immeasurably towards establishing the Bharatiya Janata Party as a distinctive pole in national politics. Last week, with an affidavit of the Archaeological Survey of India triggering a controversy over the historicity of the Ramayan, Advani conjured a new term, sado-secularism, to describe what he perceived as the perverse secularist pleasure in mocking religious beliefs, particularly of the Hindus.
For reasons that have more to do with the difficulties of translation, it is unlikely that sado-secularism will acquire the same political currency as pseudo-secularism. Yet, the mere fact that a proforma affidavit of a middle-ranking civil servant (not an archaeologist) can have such massive political repercussions suggests that there is life left in the inconclusive debate over national identity and secularism.
The kerfuffle over whether or not Lord Ram existed in the first place is only tangentially a debate over the desirability or otherwise of the Sethusamudram project. In the past year, a small group of individuals with rather extreme notions of what constitutes Hindutva, mounted a spirited email campaign to save the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge from destruction. Their objections were two-fold.
First, they contended that the underwater causeway — identified clearly through satellite imagery —constituted the remains of the bridge that the vanar sena built as part of Lord Ram’s assault on Lanka. They demanded that the Ram Setu be protected by the Ancient Monuments and Protection Act, 1958 and be declared a World Heritage site and Underwater Cultural Heritage by Unesco. For example, a somewhat overstated resolution of a seminar at Puthucode in Kerala on September 16 pronounced that “Ram Setu is to the Hindus as sacred as Mecca to the Muslims, Vatican to the Christians, Wailing Wall to the Jews and Bodh Gaya to the Bauddha”.
Second, there were strong ecological and environmental objections to plans to dredge the shoal causeway. The area is home to some 3,600 different aquatic resources and is a natural protection against tsunami waves. Its conversion into a sea-lane for ocean liners, it was believed, would lead to the disfigurement of the southern coastline and, in turn, affect India’s national security adversely.
Till the controversial ASI affidavit and the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s incendiary remarks about Lord Ram’s credentials as an engineer, the campaign to save the Ram Setu was a fringe preoccupation of some Hindu activists. True, the BJP, at the behest of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, passed a resolution at its national executive session in June and Murli Manohar Joshi spoke passionately about it in the Rajya Sabha. However, few in the party truly believed this was an issue that could grip the public imagination in the same way as the Ram Janmabhoomi issue did.
A problem with the Ram Setu campaign was that its champions flitted between projecting it as a “matter of faith” and raising ecological and environmental objections. A lot of energy was devoted and enormous amounts of cyber-space consumed in arguing that the Ram Setu was not a natural phenomenon but man-made. In other words, the focus was on establishing the literal historicity of the Ramayan, rather than projecting the submerged causeway as a monument associated with its geography. The believers fell into the rationalist trap of both seeking and establishing scientific “proof”.
At the heart of the confusion is the inclination to historicize the set of varied beliefs that cumulatively make up the Hindu faith. As an organic religion, the sanatan dharma evolved over the centuries, incorporating philosophy, codified rituals and localized customs and beliefs —what scholars have divided into the “great” and “little” traditions. The Ramayan and Mahabharat, and to some extent the Puranic tales, incorporate both strands and constitute the central pillars of a popular Hinduism that has been embellished over the centuries.
A striking feature of popular Hinduism is that it is a national faith, rooted in the geography of the Indian subcontinent. The notion of sacred space is dear to all those who regard themselves as Hindus. According to the anthropologist, Martin Gray, who spent 20 years studying popular religion: “In India we find the oldest continually operating pilgrimage tradition in the entire world. The practice of pilgrimage in India is so deeply embedded in the cultural psyche and the number of pilgrimage sites is so large that the entire subcontinent may actually be regarded as one grand and continuous sacred space.” The Mahabharat refers to some 300 shrines and the Kalyana Tirthanka lists 1,820 places worthy of tirtha yatra.
In her celebrated study Banaras: City of Light, Diana Eck, professor of Harvard, described tirthas as “primarily associated with the great acts and appearances of the gods and heroes of Indian myth and legend. As a threshold between heaven and earth, the tirtha is not only a place for the upward crossings of people’s prayers and rites, it is also a place for the downward crossing of the gods.”
To subject Hindu pilgrimage points, like the 51 Shakti peeths which received different parts of Sati’s body during Shiva’s tandava dance, to the “scientific temper” test would be ridiculous. There are for example, various pilgrimage sites in India linked to the Ramayan and Mahabharat, including at least three claimants for the Gandhamadana Hill that Hanuman uprooted to save the wounded Lakshman. A Ram bhakt has argued that an abandoned temple near Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka was the site of the ashok vana where Sita was in captivity. In Ayodhya, a local belief dating back to at least the 10th century held that Lord Ram was born at the site on which the Babri Masjid was built in 1528.
Even the so-called villains of the epic have not been discarded. The origin of the Baidyanath temple in Deogarh is tied to the legend of Ravana who, apart from having a glad eye, was a learned Brahmin and devout Shiv worshipper. The temple town of Kumbakonam is named after Ravana’s indolent but loyal brother Kumbhakarna who is needlessly targeted at every Dussehra celebration.
The authenticity of the Ramayan has not been substantiated by archaeological evidence; it has not even been rigorously and systematically attempted by an over-stretched ASI. It is entirely possible that Lord Ram was actually a minor king in the 7th or 8th century BC whose feats were celebrated and embellished from 400 BC onwards. The fact is that the Ramayan in its various versions is treated as a parable and Lord Ram is viewed as the ideal king by large sections of Hindus cutting across castes and classes. The Ramayan is a defining feature of the cultural personality of India.
The sacred spaces of the Ramayan are not comparable to, say, the Druid artefacts in Stonehenge and the temples of ancient Greece. They are linked to an ongoing Hindu tradition. To subject this faith to either gratuitous scepticism — as the ASI affidavit did — or unwarranted abuse of the kind M. Karunanidhi showered, suggests that secular restraint disappears when it comes to the beliefs of Hindus.
The United Progressive Alliance government’s error was not the result of some legal over-zealousness. It flowed from the mindset of insensitivity that deems Hinduism, and Hinduism alone, an impediment to modernity, development and cosmopolitanism. The present-day Congress cannot disown responsibility for nurturing this sado-secularism. Nor can it feign injured innocence if and when the backlash occurs.