IN THE NAME OF GOD…

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The dust is settling on the hype and hoopla surrounding the ‘pran pratishtha’ or the ritual of breathing life into an idol of Lord Ram in his spanking new residence at Ayodhya. This mega-event evoked strong emotions, opposing views, boycotts, religious fervour, political messaging, division, unity, despondency, victory, Hindu revivalism and a torrent of several diverse thoughts.

Without a doubt, it has been an expression of the existing political and religious sentiments sweeping the country. It was also the first time in my living memory that Hindus have unabashedly and publicly worn religion on their sleeves. Other religions have done so for centuries, when Hindus preferred to remain accepting of all religions while keeping their own religion personal, as opposed to ‘organised,’ in that sense. That, despite focussed and widespread mass conversions among rural and uneducated folk in India with evangelists taking advantage of caste and economic divisions in our society to expand their flock.

The battle for Ayodhya sprang its roots in the mid-sixteenth century, when Mir Baqi, a commander of Babur’s army constructed the Babri Masjid where Hindus believe, was then an existing temple at Lord Ram’s birthplace. The existence of a temple at the same site was subsequently established by a government-mandated survey by the Archaeological Survey of India. A prolonged social, cultural and legal battle was waged for a temple to be rebuilt in its place. The legal battle began in Indian courts in the mid-nineteen eighties. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by volunteers and the Supreme Court judgement of November 9, 2019, in favour of construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple at the disputed site and allocation of alternate land for reconstruction of the Babri Masjid are now things of the past. Both Hindus and Muslims of India have honoured the final decision of the Supreme Court.

Soon after the judgement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in its election manifesto 2019, promised expeditious construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya within the framework of the Constitution. It has delivered on its promise with great fanfare and publicity. The publicity was enhanced by the public boycotts of the ceremony from some quarters who sought to dissociate from the proceedings for their own political posturing. This is where religious and political lines blur. Religion and politics enjoy a symbiotic relationship and closing our eyes to this reality will be utter foolishness. Political rallies are used to attract religious communities into vote banks and religious mega-events are always laced with political underpinnings.

Ayodhya was no exception. The messaging was loud and clear. The BJP government had delivered on its election commitment and fulfilled its promise to the heartland’s Hindu population. It ensured the development of a sleepy town into a bustling religious tourism hub. It created business and employment opportunities to benefit more people. The declaration, ‘Along with Ram’s abode, we have created housing for the poor’ was catchy and attempted to answer the question, ‘What have the poor gained from this mansion of the Gods?’ A half-day off on the day of the consecration for Central Government offices across the country also carried a message if one cared to read it. The prominence accorded to the event sought to allay concerns that the majority community was being taken for granted while minorities were being appeased.

Some observers interpret this as a symbol of Hindu renaissance and a vindication of the two-nation theory. India was geographically divided on a premise that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together peacefully in one country. Hence, Pakistan was carved out of Muslim-dominant regions. However, that assumption was proved erroneous by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Quite to the contrary, all communities lived in greater harmony prior to the partition of India, as recalled by those who migrated cross-border during those tumultuous times. Even Kashmir was labelled a ‘paradise on earth’ where ‘Kashmiriyat’ was more important than being Muslim or Hindu. The downslide started only after the religious divide was cleverly engineered by the British, complemented by pre-independence political arrangements.

The state religion of both Pakistan and Bangladesh is Islam. While there is supposed to be no political discrimination on the basis of religion in these countries, religious majoritarianism does exist. Minority communities are known to live a life of subjugation where overt display of their religious ceremonies and cultural festivities are ‘tolerated’ at best. In stark contrast, minorities in India enjoy unfettered religious freedom. Localised inter-community violence does erupt at times but this is more an exception than the norm.

No religion supports or prescribes violence as a means of resolving disputes but it is also common knowledge that much of the violence in the world is unleashed in the name of religion. While all the right noises were made at the Ayodhya consecration like ‘Lord Ram being for all’ and ‘Ram does not stand for conflict but for resolution’ among others, one hopes that the euphoria amongst devotees of Ram will not fan distrust between religious communities. The political and religious messaging was clear and any discerning citizen of India should be able to read between the lines. It is up to every devotee of every description of God to maintain peace and sanity in these charged times.

Swami Sarvapriyananda, who heads the Vedanta Society of New York, is a prolific speaker and an expert on Hindu philosophy. He has made an insightful observation on how society perceives religious co-existence. The essence of his observation is that there are four ways in which people look at religion. The first is ‘exclusivity,’ that claims that ‘my religion is the best and the rest are non-believers; the only God is ‘my God.’ The second is ‘inclusivity,’ which suggests that ‘my religion is truer than all others and I am willing to include everyone else in it.’ The third is ‘pluralism,’ in which ‘all religions have different Gods and all have different paths to realise their Gods.’ The fourth is ‘cosmopolitanism,’ where ‘each accepts and revels in the other’s religion.’ This ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a great way of achieving religious harmony, provided our beliefs have not become dogmas.

When circumstances have the potential to result in impassioned discussion on religion, which very few comprehend, the Swamiji’s simplification may help in obtaining clarity and restoring sanity.

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