Different agitations are on to oppose Sethusamudram project linking Gulf of Mannar with Palk straight. Dharam Sansad (religious Parliament, a VHP initiative) has been mobilized around 'faith', on the ground that this project will destroy Ramar Sethu, the one which was built by Vanar Sena (Army of Monkeys) to help Ram cross over to Lanka to rescue Sita. The project was supported by most of the political parties in the past including NDA alliance Government. When complete, it will cut short the long journey of the ships from east coast to the west coast, and vice versa. Like Panama Canal it has been conceived to promote the transport, employment and to improve trade. Half way now, it has been facing two oppositions. The one is from the environmentalists, who are worried about the destruction of flora and fauna and the dangers of silting in the canal. These are the arguments which need to be taken seriously.
The other ground, the one based on faith need to be dealt with at another ground. RSS and its affiliates are promoting a view that building this Sethusamudram will involve be destruction of Ramar Sethu which will be detrimental to our faith. The story goes that Ravan, the King of Lanka had abducted Sita to avenge the insult meted out to his sister Shurpnakha, whose proposal for marrying her was turned down by the Lord Ram. Assisted by his loyal devotee Hanuman, the Lord mobilized monkeys and built this bridge. It is claimed that this bridge is a marvel of engineering achievements of the Indian engineers of that time. The assertion is that it shows the acme of technological achievements of this land, and that there are other noteworthy achievements like the advances in aeronautical technologies like aero planes, missiles to name the few.
How do we understand these claims, how do we comprehend this peep in to the past? How do we distinguish fact from fiction, history from mythology? To reconcile history, science and mythology are the complex questions in our public life. To begin with history of events has some definitive characteristics, though their interpretations do vary with the political ideologies. But what about mythology? Here these accounts have been put forward as the fictional accounts of the past. Some of these accounts have been associated with faith. Faith to some extent is natural and sometimes it is being manufactured and asserted for political goals.
As far as Lord Ram's story goes there are several versions of Ramayana, (Many Ramayanas, Richman, OUP). Some of these are very popular like Valmiki Ramayana and Tulasidas Ramcharitmanas. Surely the most popular one currently is the one from Maharashi Ramanand Sagar's mega serial which captivated the nation for couple of years. There are other versions, which have been undermined and attacked mostly for political reasons. Sahmat exhibition on different versions of Lord Ram's story was attacked few years ago. Some politically motivated people could not bear one of the versions presented in this exhibition. It showed that according to Jataka version of Ram Katha, in post Brahminical Buddhist Dashrath Jataka Sita is both as sister and wife of Ram. As per this version Dashrath is King not of Ayodhya but of Varanasi. The marriage of sister and brother is part of the tradition of glorious Kshtriya clans who wanted to maintain their caste and clan purity. This Jataka tale shows Ram to be the follower of Buddha. Similarly in Jain versions of Ramayana project Ram as the propagator of anti-Brahminical Jain values, especially as a follower of non-violence. What do both Buddhist and Jain version have in common is that in these Ravana is not shown as a villain but a great soul dedicated to quest of knowledge and is a spiritual soul, with majestic commands over passions, a sage and a responsible ruler. Popular and prevalent 'Women's Ramayan Songs (of Telugu Brahmin Women), put together by Rangnyakmma, keep the women's concern as the central theme and present alternate perspective. These songs present Sita as finally victorious over Ram and in these Surpanakha succeeds in taking revenge over Ram.
Many people dispute that the Lanka mentioned in Ramayana is not the current Sri Lanka. Since mythology does not require any proof it can be modulated and constructed in to a faith for political purposes. Recently in the Shabri Kumbh held in Dangs in Gujarat, the mythology was modulated in to the service of politics. It was said, and that too with great amount of precision, that a particular hillock, which was earlier called Chamak Dongar, which adivasis used to worship as Shivar Deo (protector of crops), was the precise place where Shabri had offered berries to Lord Ram. It was rechristened and a Shabri temple was built on the spot. Nearby, a river six kilometers away, Purna was named as the one where Guru Matang rishi use to take bath. On the mountain on the stone there were three marks which are being presented as the marks where Laxman had sharpened his arrows.
This Ramar Sethu has been shown to be the pre human structure, called tombol, a sand deposition due to natural process. The Geological Survey of India ruled out its being the manmade (or monkey made), construction. Same way the inference from NASA satellite pictures is that it is due to sedimentation of clay and lime stone. It is tombol in NASA language, connecting one land with another, and that it is from times when human habitation is doubtful.
It is easy to construct a fly over to the future but difficult to prevent the formation of mythological bridges of the past. Mythology can easily be constructed and planted in the peoples psyche as it is driven by political goals and rides on horse of emotion. Reason and logic have no place in this scheme of things. One knows that some Mullahs, having faith in the infinite power of djinns advocated their rulers to invest in the research for making more djinns so that power crisis can be solved. Also with the resurgence of fundamentalism one is hearing that Creation science is back in the race to compete with the theories of evolution. The question is, should we misuse faith, faith which can be an assuaging balm, for building political agendas?
By Ram Puniyani
(Author is secretary of All India Secular Forum)