Sunday 30 September 2007

Myth, History And Politics

Ever since Ayodhya became a disputed territory, Rama has been at the centre stage of the political mobilisation by Hindu communal forces. The incidents associated with the Rama Katha were invoked one after the other to appeal to the religious sentiments of Hindus. It began with a claim to the birthplace of Rama at Ayodhya, around which Hindu religious sentiments were so aroused as to lead to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In the movement culminating in this vandalism, several symbols linked with Rama such as Rama Jyoti, Rama Paduka and Rama Shila were floated.

Yet, over the years, the political appeal of Rama has waned despite his strong presence in the religious life of believers. The temple issue was indeed kept alive through occasional religious assemblies and demonstrations. Nevertheless, Rama ceased to be of much emotional value that would provide political advantage to Hindu communal forces. In the elections of 2004, the Ram temple did not figure as an issue at all. This can be taken as an indication that believers were inclined to abandon the Sangh Parivar’s aggressive Rama and return to worshipping his benign image, looking upon Rama Katha, as they had for centuries, as an “allegory of the life of the spirit as it journeyed through the world”.

Rama was almost lost to the political Hindu and was being resurrected to his rightful place in the religious life of believers. It is in this context that the Ram Sethu project has come in handy for the Sangh Parivar, to revive the appeal of Rama in order to breathe some life into its sagging fortunes. Once again the Parivar is bracing up to claim Rama for the communal cause. In the process it is attempting to turn myth into history, blurring the distinction between the two, in order to gain legitimacy for its political project.

The question of whether the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should have filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court denying the historical existence of Rama has led to differences of opinion. The government has hastened to disclaim the affidavit and withdraw it, obviously fearing a Hindu backlash. Unlike the Ayodhya issue, even the secular voice has been rather muted. However, implicit in the affidavit is an important question regarding our approach to the past: Is there a distinction between myth and history?

Mythic Character

The ASI, it appeared, was conscious of this distinction in projecting the mythological character of Rama. The distinction does not imply a counterposition of myth and history as false and true. Myth is a way in which the human mind comes to grips with reality, and therefore, it can be said that it refers to reality. Yet, myth in itself is not reality. What the ASI has tried to state is that Rama was not a historical figure but a mythic character.

Similarly, the Ramayana being a literary piece, which was not originally a religious text but only sacralised later, contains many events and incidents that are products of imagination. It would therefore be futile to try to correlate them with historical fact and establish their authenticity. Such a view is not in any way a denigration of Rama or a critical reflection on the Ramayana. The Ramayana’s literary quality, whether in the original Sanskrit or in regional languages, is well known. So are the ethical and moral values it foregrounds, which exercise considerable influence over the life of believers.

However, devotion to Rama and the influence of the epic have nothing to do with the historical veracity of Rama Katha. Devotees consider Rama an incarnation and do not test his deeds by the yardstick of historical truth. They are moved by their devotion and hardly approach the epic from a rational viewpoint or try to locate it historically. Whether the Ramayana is historically true or not is not a factor in their devotion. The Sangh Parivar has been trying for long to impute to incidents in the epic a historical quality to legitimise popular belief, under a false notion that belief would be reinforced by historical truth.

The panic reaction of the government in withdrawing the affidavit in effect endorses the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to equate myth with history. Like the Sangh Parivar, the government seems to subscribe to the view that ascribing mythic character to Rama and the Ramayana is to undermine their importance and to injure the sentiments of believers. It overlooks the fact that believers consider Rama an incarnation. Traditional religious sources represent him so. The Matsya Purana, for instance, gives the following account: “There is also the account of the pastimes of Lord Rama, spoken by Valmiki – an account originally related by Brahma in one billion verses. That Ramayana was later summarised by Narada and related by Valmiki, who then presented it to mankind.” What accounts for the devotion to Rama and the veneration of the Ramayana are not their historical veracity but their divinity.

Many Ramayanas

In an attempt to attribute historical authenticity to the epic and its protagonist, the Sangh Parivar has been striving to privilege one single version of the Ramayana. But the Ramayana has several versions. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number as all of them are not written but are orally transmitted, both in India as well as in other Asian countries. A.K. Ramanujan has argued that these different “tellings” – a term he prefers to versions or variants as these imply an invariant or original text – differ from one another. They are not mere divergences from Valmiki’s rendering but entirely different tellings.

Highlighting the multivocal existence of Rama Katha, Paula Richman has drawn attention to the many Ramayanas, of which Valmiki’s composition is one, Tulsi’s another, Kamban’s another, the Buddhist Jataka yet another and the Jaina tradition yet another. Along with them, there are also innumerable folk narratives, extant not only in India but also in almost all the countries of Asia. They were not Valmiki’s Ramayana adapted to local conditions but substantially different from one another, both in form and content. In the Buddhist version, Rama and Sita are originally brother and sister, a fact that once aroused the ire of the Sangh Parivar.

Women’s folksongs from Andhra Pradesh challenge the accepted values of a male-dominated society by questioning the integrity of Rama and foregrounding the theme of the suffering that husbandly neglect causes a wife. Thus, the Rama Katha prevalent in different communities is vastly different and defies any attempt to identify a universally applicable text. All of them draw upon locally specific cultural traits, which impart to them a distinct character. Recent studies on different Rama Katha traditions demonstrate the different tellings of Rama’s story that vary with regional literary tradition, social location, gender, religious affiliation, colonial context, intended audience, and so on.

K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar’s edited work highlights the Asian variations of the Ramayana, and the essays in the volume edited by Avadesh Kumar Singh focus on the way the epic has found expression in regional languages. The many Ramayanas connote that the events and incidents in the different versions of the epic are not historical facts but mythical representations or literary imaginations. The debate on whether the Ramayana is a true story or whether Rama is a historical figure is, therefore, off the mark.

The issue of Ram Sethu requires to be situated in the general context of the mythological character of the Ramayana. The Sethu Bandhan encapsulates within it several qualities of Rama and the character of the epic. Sethu Bandhan was a humanly impossible task that was made possible only by the divine powers of Rama. The description of Sethu Bandhan in one version of the Ramayana is as follows: “During the first day of construction, monkeys laid a hundred and twenty miles of rocks, which floated upon the ocean. They worked very swiftly, and were happy to see the bridge take shape. The second day, they set down a hundred and sixty miles of rocks; the third day, a hundred and sixty-eight miles; and the fourth day, their strength increasing, they completed a hundred and seventy-six miles. On the fifth and final day, the monkeys constructed a hundred and eighty-four miles of bridge, up to Mount Suvala on the northern shore of Lanka. Thus when the bridge was finished, it was eighty miles wide and eight hundred miles long.”

Obviously, a vanar sena would not have achieved this feat. The question, however, is not its possibility or impossibility but how it enriches the mythical and divine quality of Rama. Obviously Sethu Bandhan is a myth.

But then, when myths become part of the belief system, they can be put to use for different purposes. Nobody in India has understood this better than the Sangh Parivar as is evident from the manner in which they have manipulated the myth and history of Ayodhya. Ram Sethu is an opportunity they are unlikely to let go of easily.

The distinction between history and myth is well recognised. Myths are in a way the opposite of historical facts, in the sense that, unlike historical facts, what constitutes a myth is not verifiable. Despite this, myths and history cannot be counterpoised as true and false.

In fact, myths also represent reality but represent it symbolically and metaphorically. Yet, myth masks reality. Therefore, myths are illusory representations of man and his world. Given their illusory nature, myths may not help to unravel the historicity of an event. Most myths are in a way timeless. Nevertheless, myths being a reflection of reality constitute a source of historical reconstruction and a means to understanding reality. Given this overlap, myths are used for a variety of purposes. They often serve as an agency of legitimisation, as in the case of Parasurama reclaiming land from the sea. They may also be employed for explaining a natural phenomenon, as in the case of Helios’ chariot in Greek mythology.

The use of myths has been integral to the politics of the Sangh Parivar. Beginning with the movement for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, the Sangh Parivar has been engaged in providing authenticity to various myths surrounding the life of Rama. The central issue of the Ayodhya movement was the identification of the exact birthplace of Rama, which was difficult to ascertain owing to the lack of evidence. Local tradition identifies Ayodhya through a popular myth, which runs as follows: “After Treta Yuga when Ram was supposed to have been born Ayodhya could not be located. While Vikramaditya was looking for Ayodhya, a saint told him to leave a calf loose and the place at which the calf secreted milk would be the place where Ayodhya was located. Vikramaditya did as he was told, and where the calf secreted milk he located Ayodhya.” This mythical story became the basis for the identification of Ayodhya as well as the birthplace of Rama.

In the accounts given by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the place of birth becomes an indisputable fact of history. Following this identification, the VHP accorded historical status to a series of myths. These include the existence of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid and the attempts by Hindus to reclaim the temple through 77 battles against the Muslims in which 300,000 sacrificed their lives. These myths have now become authentic histories; not only are they paraded as historical facts, they have found place in textbooks as authentic history. Over a period of time, many of these facts could become part of popular history also.

The politics of the Sangh Parivar is essentially irrational. The attempt to turn myth into history and to use it for political advantage is rooted in irrationality. Now that Ayodhya is no more a potent force, Ram Sethu has emerged as a possible alternative. The Sangh Parivar is gearing up to exploit it. Would the ruling establishment take a rational and scientific stand and not succumb to the fear of the irrational?

By K.N.Panikkar
(K.N. Panikkar, a former professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former vice-chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, is currently the chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.)
Copyright © 2007, Frontline

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