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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 5 February 3, 2024

A Last Flourish and Foofaraw before the Big Fight? | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 3 February 2024, by Papri Sri Raman


Freud defines the ‘symbol’ as a comparison where the compared term disappears. If we compare, for example, a snake with a staff, when the compared object – the snake – is no longer specified, we only have the staff which could be a symbol for the snake (J Jones in The Meaning of Symbols in Psychoanalysis).

I believe, we were witness to something akin on 22 January 2024, just four months before a nationwide general election that will give us our next government for five years, until 2029, by which time the world will be in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

I AM NOT particularly religious. I live in a locality where the MLA is a Malayali Christian winning this seat for donkey’s years and running his fiefdom with the help of a Hindu Tamil mafia. The communities who live here are mostly Christians and Muslims. As a result, there was not a single rally or slogan-shouting in this area, not a single saffron flag. Walk out of this island of sanity, we had public transport pasted with images of Ram holding a gun.

I worked in a State where I have been kept waiting for hours in the verandah of a senior bureaucrat who had agreed to give me an interview, because he was not sure if I was a Brahmin. In a venerated temple, I have been made to wait an hour for a sip of drinking water, as I could not be given a drink from a tumbler used in the temple; someone had to walk a kilometer to buy a plastic bottle of drinking water to give me to drink from. This was in the first decade of the twenty-first century; in a State immersed in Periyar’s teachings for more than half a century. Here, a few Christian churches have installed dhwajastambhbaro, flag posts similar to Hindu shrines, perhaps just to tell the neighbour, I too am here. Little wonder, I keep a safe distance from religion.

Many of my acquaintances are still debating over whether the setting up of the new Ram temple is a political manoeuvre or is it a religious event. My younger colleagues and relatives are of the opinion that this was the last flourish – the last bugle of the Modi brigade before the general elections.
Telecasting it just exposed how the entire show was a personal aggrandisement agenda, rather than about any god. People fearing a repeat of 1992 (the Babri Masjid Demolition) or 2002 (the Gujarat pogrom) have only this to say: Thank God, it was peaceful.

Sikha Dalmia quoting B R Ambedkar, ‘If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country’ raised a storm of angry protests that Ambedkar ‘is not the founding father of India’. He may not be; this subcontinent is an ancient land and has evolved into a syncretic country despite all odds like invasions, colonisation, partition and mis-governance. It is so ancient that the Supreme Court of India accepted as ‘evidence’ a bit of text from the Skanda Puranam, during the final hearing of the Ram Janmabhoomi case in 2019. This is a text that is dated to have evolved in the 6th to 8th century of the Common Era. It says, ‘to the west of the Sarayu river, there is Vigneshwara. In the north east of this spot is the exact place of birth of Bhagwan Ram – It is located east of the Vigneshwara, north of Vashista and west of Laumasa’.

Theoretically, the earliest Ram story comes from the Jataka Tales (the Buddhist texts) which say Ram was the prince of Benares. There is no mention of Ayodhya here. The early Ramayans, including the several versions of the Valmiki Ramayana (all found as palmleaf texts in southern collections), do not tell us the time and star under whose influence Ram was born. It is southern Ramayanas, the Kamba Ramayana and after, which set up the astronomical-astrological confluence of Rama’s birth (A Comparative Study of Ramkathas: A A Manavalan) stars.

Apparently, a British land surveyor in 1902 had surveyed the pilgrim town of Ayodhya and erected pillars and drawn maps of the then-known holy sites; he had earmarked 148 of them. At pillar 100, there is a well in which lay the idol of a Ganesha, known as Vigneshwara in the south. It is based on this understanding that the lawsuit went in favour of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust and the designated land became Ram’s birthplace. It is no wonder, the PM thanked the apex court, saying: Even in the first page of our Constitution, Lord Ram is enshrined. Despite the existence in the Constitution, there was a legal battle over the existence of Lord Ram for decades. I express my gratitude to the Indian judiciary, which upheld the dignity of justice. The temple of Lord Ram has also been built in a just and lawful manner.

I grew up among grandmothers who were deeply religious. So I had opportunity to learn about specific rituals, the practices and mantras; the achaar-upachaar, traditions, customs and the clothing etc. I was, therefore, curious to see how pranprathishtha is done in a new Hindu temple. Yes, so I watched it on Doordarshan, the national channel, showing off the glitz and glamour for three full hours. Its reach is to the remotest corner of the nation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, in their speeches after the ceremony, pointed out how expansive the DD’s reach was. And they did not forget to mention the capability of social media. That was surely a political observation, not a religious one.

That a pranprathishtha can be telecast was a surprise in itself. Having grown up a Bong, I always assumed, a certain amount of seclusion was essential when the devotee or priest invokes life into an idol, at least that’s what the tradition has been in every durga puja, when the deity is brought under a marquee and imbued life. Durga puja is a public, barowari puja. A peoples’ worship. But even here, a cotton curtain is put before the idol, during the moments of pranprathishta and bhog, or ritual feeding of the goddess.

This twenty-first century innovation that a pran prathishtha can be telecast is novel. Only one wished the commentator voice was more than ordinary, someone with a powerful voice like Birendra Kishore Bhadra, perhaps even Amitabh Bachchan. I wonder if the ritual invocations and feeding of deities in the Jagganath Temple, the Tirupati Temple, the Padmanabhaswami or the Kashi Vishwanath temple will soon be open to telecast? India’s iconic Prime Minister has shown the way. It will surely be a step towards inclusiveness.

With Ramakrishna as the model of a ‘devotee’ before us, and having gone around more than a hundred Tamil temples, I also assumed that one was not supposed to be dressed before a deity. One is supposed to go before the deity humbly, bare-bodied, as the priests in all such temples do; as Ramakrishna was. Only one bespectacled priest standing behind the PM was bare-bodied, with just an angavastram wrapped around him. He was also the only priest who covered his face during a particular bit of the chanting, the exact moment perhaps when the Ram here came alive.

Yes, it was very cold, the height of winter, but that is the test of one’s devotion, we are taught. If one priest could do it, why couldn’t all the other men around the deity? I was struck dumb by the shiny clothing, the jackets and coats the dignitaries in the sanctum sanctorum had on. I could understand the uniformed security personnel; but in a worshipful mode, how could anyone else be so ‘dressed’, cotton clothing would have sufficed, wouldn’t it have? After all, we have been taught, before god, one is naked. Cannot show-off one’s clothing to the deity.

The Western Ghat is dotted with hundreds of tribal temples, and the southern States have many Dalit temples too. Everywhere, devotees go before the deities barefoot. Dalit or tribal or Brahmin. In southern mosques and churches, devotees entre barefooted; that is typically an Indian practice. We had a spectacle of everyone shod in socks, a very foreign custom, not Indian at all. Who would feel cold for the brief twenty minutes, if barefoot before Ramlalla, who roamed the forests barefoot, as the bards tell us?

Significantly, in the sanctum, during the ceremony was played one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite song, ‘Ram Siya Ram…’. I asked myself if this was election-motivated, as lambasting Gandhi has been the pet obsession of the ruling dispensation for the last one decade.

Besides the priests, the four people allowed into the sanctum were Yogi Adityanath, Prime Minister Modi, Mohan Bhagwat and Anandiben Patel, the controversial politician who has been often accused of encouraging the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, who became the chief minister of Gujarat after Modi and is now the Governor of Uttar Pradesh. She represented the women of India in the famous Ram temple inauguration; there wasn’t another female soul in the core group performing the ceremonies. While there is much talk of gender equality, there was no woman priest, and certainly Sitamai was not represented in the temple in any way. The show was an out-and-out exhibition of male power and superiority.

I have no grouse with the golf cart being used to take the Prime Minister to all photo-op spots, before the bird god and the monkey god. But yes, I do take umbrage at the profusion of plastic and paper flowers, decorating the inside and outside of a ‘temple’, the need for artificial hair adorning the deities and a leather bag in the sanctum. There were 10,000 invited guests and 4,000 saints (so says NDTV); yes, so saints are no longer a rare commodity in this ‘Treta Yug’ as the modern cosmic timeframe is being described as. PM Modi was designated a ‘tapasvi’ on the occasion by the RSS chief, yet another ‘saint’; thankfully not another avatar.

There were 10,000 CCTV cameras in place at the premise and more than a 100 flights landed at Ayodhya airport. Many of these cameras were devoted to shots of the Ambanis, Amitabh Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and other celebrities, telling us how devout India’s glamour boys and girls are. In an egalitarian move, yes, L&T, Tata and other engineering firm employees who built the temple were thanked by the Prime Minister on camera, a good publicity move before elections.

It was, however, only Mohan Bhagwat, who spoke any word of inclusion on the occasion. His speech was far-sighted. ‘We have to shun all disputes and stop fighting among ourselves over petty issues. We will have to shun ego and stay united… we should practice penance like Lord Ram as a citizen of Ram Rajya and to make our country Vishwa Guru’, the ideologue said. He defined the country as the ‘guru’ and not the Prime Minister. He was also the one who invoked Mahatma Gandhi in his speech.

The Prime Minister talked of ‘my mother Shabari’ but not as a gender representative or a Dalit or Tribal devotee. He emphasised how she had said, ‘Ram will come’, noting the assertiveness of her statement. Perhaps this woman of the grassroots knew of the Aryan campaign into Deccan India. Ram is supposed to be a white deity, Krishna the dark one, both avatars of Mahavishnu, in an ever co-opting Hinduism. It was, therefore, very interesting to see an idol sculptured in the southern style, decked up fully in the Tirupati Balaji style.

The Prime Ministers speech sounded very political, especially at the end, when from a thank you he changed tone and pace to rhetoric. ‘Ram is an influence. Ram is an idea; Ram is also a policy’, he insisted. He shouted out loud, ‘Ram tent mein nahi rahega’. Ram, a being, the poets said, lived in a ‘parnakutir’.

‘This is the Amrit Kaal of Bharat’s development. Today, Bharat is filled with the reservoir of youth power, brimming with energy. Positive circumstances like these will arise after who knows how long. We must not miss this opportunity; we must not sit idle. I would like to say to the youth of my country – in front of you lies the inspiration of thousands of years of tradition. You represent that generation of Bharat… which is hoisting the Tricolour on the moon, which is making Mission Aditya successful by travelling 15 lakh kilometers, going near the sun, which is waving the flag of Tejas in the sky… and the banner of Vikrant in the ocean. Be proud of your heritage and write about the new dawn of Bharat….’ Thus, Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s poster-boy, flagged off the campaign for the parties 2024 battle. My young colleagues are saying, it is over now. Done with.

Atheist that I am, I am still left wondering, if 22 January was a religious or political heyday?

(Author: Papri Sri Raman is a senior journalist, manuscript editor, and author, also a member of the editorial board of Mainstream Weekly)

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