in India — by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not just in his personal capacity, but in his capacity as the Prime Minister of 130 crore Indians quite unexpectedly re-defined Rama totally in a different way than how the RSS/BJP have shown him to us for the last thirty years since 1989. He did that at Ayodhya and at the Ramajanma Bhoomi temple Bhoomi poojan on 5 October 2020. Hence it has great historical significance .
I will first reproduce certain parts of his speech as it is very important to fully grasp what he has said in Bhoomi poojan speech.
“just as the dalits, downtrodden, tribals and all walks of society assisted Gandhi ji in the fight for independence, in a similar manner, the pious task of the construction of Ram Temple began today with the support of the people of India.
Rama had equal love for his people but he had a special attention towards the poor and the oppressed.
You will find Rama in different forms, in the different Ramayanas, but Ram is present everywhere, Rama is for all. That is why, Rama is the connecting link in India’s ‘unity in diversity’.
Lord Rama teaches – “no one should be sad, no one should remain poor”.
Lord Rama gives social message that all the people, both men & women should be equally happy. Lord Rama gives message “Farmers, Cowherds should always remain happy”. Lord Rama orders “the old, the children and the doctors should always be protected”
Lord Rama calls for protecting the one who seeks refuge is the responsibility of all.
That is “Rama speaks, thinks and acts according to time, place and circumstances”.
Lord Rama teaches us how to grow and move with time.
Lord Rama is the advocate of change and modernity.
He also taught us how to face challenges and how to seek and attain knowledge.
We need to respect the sentiments of all. We need to be together,progress together & trust one another”.
Rama in the PM’s speech is a modernist. He stands for abolition of poverty and all inequalities– man-woman, caste, poverty that results our human exploitation and stands for diversity. Rama here talks about the safety of the doctor who treats many patients not that he himself cures diseases.
Rama does believe that this nation should be better than heaven. This is a very seriously different interpretation of Rama who came through the RSS/BJP discourse that was let loose on the nation mainly L.K.Advani during the whole of Radhayatra and subsequently till the Bhoomi Poojan by massively displaying an image of Rama with a powerful bow and sharp arrow at the enemy.
Now Rama is for all and every one. The PM says “Lord Rama teaches – no one should be sad, no one should remain poor”.
The old story and understanding of Rama was different. This interpretation of the PM of Rama from Ayodha from the podium after he has done bhoomi poojan, no doubt, after violating the Governmental dictum that Pandit Jwaharlal Nehru laid down, that no Prime Minister can break the constitutional mandate of secularism by involving in such religious functions. However, he tried to portray that Rama himself is secular.
The secular intellectuals in India would have a problem with this kind of examination of Modi’s Rama instead of opposing the Bhoomi Poojan and temple construction in a secular constitutional democracy by the Prime Minister. What they do not understand is that the Shudra/OBC/Dalit understanding of religion and their future. The secular intellectuals, most of them having come from the Dwija (Brahmin, Bania, Ksatriya, Kayastha and Khatri communities) with English medium education and international connections do not bother about the consciousness levels of Shudra/OBC/Dalits Modi’s redefinition of Rama can bring forth another demand from these sections: what will be their status in that Rama temple which will be built by all means. As of now they do not have priesthood right in such temples. Their children do not get admission in Brahmin theological Sanskrit schools. Their labour will be critical to build the temple. Even Jats, Yadavs and Kurmis of UP are Shudra modern slaves around such temples.
The discourse around Rama Mandir is in relation to Muslim minorities and their future in India hereafter. But there is a more fundamental issue than that. That is caste and women’s oppression right from the days of writing of Ramayana by Valmiki. Ramayana was no text that did not subscribe to caste and women’s inequality. Various modes of caste and women’s oppressive process, as part of varnadharma and brahminic patriarchy, are inscribed into the text.
The PM has referred to many versions of Ramayanas of not just within India but in many other countries. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” was forcefully removed from Delhi University syllabus by pro-Hindutva teachers few years back. But the PM’s speech only affirms his thesis.
Since the PM as the head of the Indian Government has defined Rama in modernist way hence this definition cannot be abrogated from anywhere from intellectual discourse. Those who agree with it and disagree with it have to engage with it.
I do not want to reproduce how Advani and many RSS/BJP leaders earlier adopted Rama for their agenda to brow beat the Muslim minority and constructed a Hindu monolith. That is known very well.
I will leave the Rama Vs Muslim question to Muslim scholars to debate whether PM’s speech has postive or negative impact on their lives here after after the grand temple is built.
Further as many RSS/BJP leaders said earlier that this temple is going to be more significant than the Vatican of Rome and the Mecca of Saudi Arabia will have to be taken up by Christian and Muslims scholars who are more well versed on issues of comparative religion.
What I am concerned here is with abolition of caste agenda. The women’s question would have to be taken up by women writers and thinkers from all caste background.
The PM’s speech at Ayodhya provides a strong basis for abolition of caste and untouchability with a proper law by the Indian parliament, notwithstanding the reservation laws. This law has to resolve the conflict between the modern spiritual equality of all those who are said to belong to Hinduism as the RSS/BJP are constructing and spiritually discriminatory laws inscribed into Agamashastras. This is a major issue in order to make the Hinduism to be treated as a religion like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, not just a way of life, by the rest of the world.
The Indian parliament has to firmly resolve to abolish caste in India and it should be taken up by Modi to affirm his understanding of modern Rama. Let us not forget that he has projected himself as an Other Backward Class Prime Minister both in 2014 and 2019 elections. The Shudras and OBCs, leave alone Dalits, as of now have no right to become the priest in this Rama temple, who stands for social justice of all, as Rama is an advocate of change; he himself changes according to times and facilitates modernism, according to the PM in his Bhoomi poojan speech.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is Political Theorist, Social Activist and Author