Last three decades have seen a drastic shift in the global political scenario. Earlier decades were marked by national liberation struggles; focus on the issues related to ‘this World’. Many a countries who came out from the grip of colonialism, under different banners gave primacy to industrialisation, education and agricultural growth. India, Vietnam, Cuba being some of those, which despite the remnants of fundamentalists, marched towards the states upholding the concerns of the struggling and deprived people of the countries, away from the stifling grip of politics in the name of religion. Of course there were some of the countries where the rulers allied with the clergy to keep alive the feudal norms, perpetuating the grip of backwardness. These had sectarian approach to their policies. Our two neighbours Pakistan and Myanmar do fall in this category.

From the decade of 1980s many factors contributed to the retreat of secular democratic forces and politics wearing the clothes of religion marched trampling the inclusive ethos, marginalising the welfare policies and giving a go by to development and progress as far as industrialisation and education is concerned. Last three decades in particular has seen the increasing hegemony of politics in the name of religion. Terminologies like Islamism, Hindutva, Christian fundamentalism, Buddhist fundamentalism have come to the fore, becoming more assertive and taking these countries down from the path development and worsening the lot of large sections of society.

Currently in US, Donald Trump is making subtle and overt appeal in the name of Christianity and Ashin Wirathu in Myanmar has been promoting violence in the name of Buddhism. Similar is the phenomena in Sri Lanka, where Wirathu’s clones are on the ascendance. In India the Hindutva has made massive strides. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda Taliban has tormented West and Central Asia apart from Afghanistan itself. The most blatant expressions of these have been the mutilation of the idols of Lord Gautama Buddha in Afghanistan.  Similarly demolition of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya is a painful chapter which was used as springboard by Hindu nationalists.

These are just visible symbols, while the socio economic impact has been dangerously retrograde, the status of rights as citizens, rights of minorities have suffered a severe setback at the same time. This does reflect the direction of global trend. Many slogans have been dominating the scene. Earlier the major propaganda from imperialist forces was ‘Free World versus authoritarian system (socialism)’, later in the aftermath of 9/11 the ruling phrase has been ‘Islamic terrorism’. Currently different fundamentalisms are ruling the roost, stifling the democratic ethos and undermining human rights in general.

It is in this background that conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to Mosque can be understood. Turkey was one of the major countries which under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk had embraced the path of secularism, overthrowing the Caliphate; the carryover of Ottoman Empire. This Caliphate even had some approval from section of global Muslim community. Ataturk had unshakable commitment to secularism and Hagia Sophia, which initially was a Church and changed to a mosque in 15th Century was converted to a Museum, a space for all with equal and due respect. Erdogan, who has been at the forefront of power from last many years; has been gradually shifting to Islamism. Islamism is to Islam what Hindutva is to Hinduism or Christian fundamentalism is to Christianity. Erdogan rose in the power hierarchy from the competent mayor of Istanbul to later become Prime Minister of Turkey. After the initial years where he could deliver on economic front, he slipped into self adulation and power hunger kept him shifting the fulcrum of politics towards Islamic identity. The downslide in the condition of the citizens was pathetic and it also got reflected in Erdogan loosing the local body elections.

This is when his turn to Islamism has become more overt and this grand structure of Istambul, more or less the most important architectural symbol of Turkey, was converted in to a mosque. Sections of Muslims are celebrating this as ‘victory of Islam’. Other Muslims more committed to values and humanism of Islam; are severely critical of this move of Erdogan. They point out that there is no compulsion in Islam in matters of religion. (To you your religion, to me mines). This is in contrast to the popular belief that in India Islam spread on the point of sword.

These serious scholars of Islam also remind us that, at one point of time Prophet Mohammad even invited non Muslims to the mosque to offer their prayers. Of course each religion has multiple sub sects and multiple philosophies associated with each. Islam has the range of Shia, Sunni, Khoja, Bohra and Sufi with various legal streams like Hanafi, Hannabali etc. Christians, do have Catholics with few sub streams and Protestants again with many streams. Each claims to be the ‘real’ one. While perhaps what is real in the religions is the love and compassion for fellow human beings. Some aspects of religions are just a cover for lust of power. So we also see that some will approve Jihad, others will defend Crusades and yet another will uphold Dharm Yudh.

The turning of Hagia Sophia to a mosque has two dimensions, one of the losing popularity of Erdogan so resorting to populism of religion as a crutch to hold to power, and other is the impact of global rise of fundamentalism in many a countries. In 1920s Kemal Ataturk could take on the mighty institutions of ‘religion’ to introduce the secular policies on solid secular foundations. In turn of events during last many decades the fundamentalism has hit back. The main reasons have been the role of America in propping up Al Qaeda to counter the Russian army in Afghanistan and later decline of Soviet Union leading to emergence of America as sole super power for some time. America did proactively promote fundamentalism at multiple places. That set the ball rolling and gradual occupation of secular space by the language of religion. What we are witnessing in Turkey is yet another example of this retrograde phenomenon.  


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED

Lord Ram: Where was he born?

Ram Puniyani

As the foundation stone of temple in the name of Lord Ram is being planned at the site where Babri Masjid once stood (August 5, 2020), two new controversies have surfaced. One was that some Buddhist groups claimed that the remnants of Buddha Vihar have been found at the site as the ground was being levelled for the temple. One does recall that Supreme Court has rejected the Public Interest Litigations to excavate and preserve the artefacts at Ayodhya in the light of some these being of Buddhist origin. Another one in the series comes from the Prime Minster of Nepal K.P. Sharma Oli, who claimed that the Ayodya where the Lord was born is in Nepal in Birgunj District. One does not know why he had to come out with this statement at this point of time. He was criticised for this in Nepal itself and his office clarified that his intention was not to hurt anybody’s sentiments.

This is not the first time that such controversies have been surfacing around the narratives related to Lord Ram. One recalls that when the Government of Mhaharashtra started publishing the collected works of B R Ambedkar in 1980s, there were protests against his book ‘Riddles of Rama and Krishna’. Ambedkar in this book critiques the Lord for killing Bali a popular king from behind his back, for killing of Shambuk as Shudra who was doing penance (Tapasya) and for abandoning his pregnant wife Sita. The treatment meted out to Sita also comes under criticism; for conducting Agni Pariksha (trial by fire) and her banishment.

Incidentally before Ambedkar, Jotirao Phule also had underlined the killing of Bali from behind. Bali was a folk king whose subjects were supposed to be pleased with his rule. Similarly later Ramasami Periyar Naicker wrote ‘True Ramayana’ highlighting these aspects of the Lord. Periyar opposed the caste and gender discrimination inherent in the prevalent narrative of Lord Ram. Periyar also upheld Tamil identity. According to him the Ramayana story was a thinly disguised historical account of how caste ridden, Sanskritic, Upper caste North Indians led by Ram subjugated South Indians. He identifies Ravan as the monarch of ancient Dravidians. Ravan abducted Sita, primarily to take revenge against the mutilation and insult of his sister Surpanakha. In his interpretation Ravana is practitioner of Bhakti, and is a virtuous man.

After the demolition of Babri Mosque an exhibition prepared by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) was vandalised Pune in 1993. This was a reaction to a panel in the exhibition which, showed the Buddhist Jataka version of the mythology where Ram and Sita are brother and sister.  As per this version they belonged to high caste clan in which to maintain caste purity they did not marry outside their clan. Just a few years ago, ABVP, the student wing of RSS had campaigned for withdrawal of one of A. K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three hyndred Ramayans and Five examples’, he argues that there are many versions of Ramayana and most of them differ as far as geographical and other details are concerned.

H.D. Sankalia, the Sanskrit scholar and pioneer of excavation archaeology points out even the places like Ayodhya and Lanka may be different than what is understood today. He argues that Lanka may be somewhere in M.P as sage Valmiki might not have been aware of the places south of Vindhyas. Tamraparni was the name of what is known as Sri Lanka today. The diverse narratives of Ramayana are prevalent not just in India but whole of South East Asia and are very fascinating. Paula Richman’s book ‘Many Ramayans’ (OUP) gives a glimpse of some of these versions of Lord Ram story.

Ramayana story exists not just in the form which is dominant narrative today here in India. This version, takes off from Valmiki through Goswami Tulsidas and its Tele adoption by Ramanand Sagar, which has been telecast yet again during Corona epidemic.  Ram story has been translated in Balinese, Bengali, Kashmiri, Thai, Sinhala, Santhali Tamil, Tibetan and Pali amongst others. There are innumerable versions in Western languages also. The narrative in these is not matching. The one prevalent in Thailand is Ramkirti or Ramkin. In this Lord Hanuman, contrary to the version prevalent here, is a not a celibate. In Jain and Buddhist version of Rmayana Ram is follower respectively of Mahavir and Gautam Buddha. In both these versions Ravana is presented as a great sage with vast knowledge. Some of the versions which are popular abroad show Sita as daughter of Ravan. Even in India Malayalam poet Vayalar Ramavarma’s poem, Ravanaputri (Ravan’s daughter) is famous. Many versions show that Dashrath was king of Varanasi, not Ayodhya.

Then there is the version of Ramayana story popular and prevalent among women, "Women's Ramayana Songs" of Telugu Brahmin Women, put together by Rangnayakamma. This version keeps the women's concern as the central theme. These songs present Sita as finally victorious over Ram and in these, Surpanakha succeeds in taking revenge over Ram.

The rich diversity of these narrations shows the prevalence of Lord Ram’s story in South and South East Asia. The whole Ram temple movement was constructed around a single narration which has lineage of Valmiki, Tulsidas and Ramanand Sagar. Even these three have subtle differences and fine nuances which reflect the caste and gender equations, presented strongly. The present dominant narrative upholds the caste and gender hierarchy, which is the core agenda of communal politics. The emotions have been generated around this and we see repeated attacks on those whose versions and interpretation of the mythology is different from the one suited to communalists.

The scholarly works on Ramayana do reflect the diverse prevalent values at that time. Every nationalism constructs its own narrative of the past. Eric Hobswam points out that ‘history is to nationalism what poppy is to opium addict’. Going further it seems that version of nationalism also selects the mythology from the past which suits its agenda.


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED