Ayodhya: A place that cannot be fought

Political philosopher Jyotirmaya Sharma in Mail Today:

The Ayodhya issue is not a religious issue. It is not a religious issue simply because the understanding of what religion constitutes has radically changed since the nineteenth century. Just as our definitions of religion would be incomprehensible to someone in the time of the Buddha, contemporary understanding of religion also requires a careful delineation. A single glance at definitions of religion offered by a figure like Swami Vivekananda would be enough to illustrate the confusion that has been introduced in the definitions of religion. For him, any entity that bore the name of religion must shun dualism and work towards perfect unity; it must direct its efforts to banish divisions and promote fellow-feeling. It also must shun rituals, eliminate poverty and uplift the masses. Religion ought also to promote, argued the Swami, radical individuality and shun the credo of the mob and the masses. Religion, he argued, must manifest itself in the form of love, empathy and posses a weeping heart for the suffering of others; the idea of God for him is unconditional love. At other moments, he describes religion as action and ceaseless work. The consequence of such a broad definition of religion is not, as apologists of the Swami suggest, to make religion broad and tolerant, but to infuse a sense of religiosity in all walks of life. After all, if one carefully looks at these definitions, they could easily fit the description of a government working towards elimination of poverty, an NGO working towards social uplift and providing emotional and material support to people, or a football club working towards promoting brotherhood and fellow-feeling. In other words, all arenas of public life were covered by religion. Politics as generally understood was enveloped by these definitions of religion and the public and private distinction, so crucial in democracies was sought to be eliminated. It affected a totalization of both politics and of religion: the distinction between them was effectively erased and fatally compromised.

Thinkers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo also were great votaries of science. For Aurobindo, Kali manifests herself in the modern age as the Kali of science, the Kali of war and the Kali of wealth. Vivekananda further compromised the fluid and eclectic character of the composite entity we know as Hinduism by arguing that if Hinduism as religion ought to survive, it must be put to scientific examination, and validate two propositions of science, namely, the principle of generalization and the principle of evolution. Indeed, religion has to be made as scientific as physics and chemistry; religion, indeed, has an internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which science does not have. The latter claim is justified in the name of the modern theory of evolution. For him Vedanta fulfilled all these conditions of being scientific and Hinduism truly understood was the highest form of Vedanta, namely, Advaita Vedanta, which is the essential oneness of all things. But Islam and Christianity do not fulfil, he argued, the principles of highest generalization and the law of evolution. They were mired in dualism and were in an inferior stage of evolution.

The Ayodhya question, then, becomes one where those who want a temple argue that the temple has nothing to do with any inherent insecurity within Hinduism, but one where the sentiments of people are involved. There is little debate about the way these sentiments are formed, crystallized and given a violent turn. To ask the question why these so-called sentiments are more in evidence for issues concerning religion, tradition, identity politics and separatism rather than issues like poverty, corruption and human rights is seen as liberal, communist and pseudo-secular excess that fails to understand these lofty religious sentiments of the majority of Hindus. The parties that claim to represent all Hindus have failed to explain why they effectively manage to speak and represent all Hindus in the name of the Ram Mandir, but fail to convert the same numerical strength in winning democratic elections. This form of neo-Hinduism manages to rubbish the claim that its kernel of faith requires temples, and, at the same time justify the existence of temples. Let us hear in to what Vivekananda has to say on this question: `Temples have no hold on the Hindu religion; if they were all destroyed religion would not be affected a grain’. Now if one were to take this quote at face value, the Ayodhya dispute ought to end today in deference to the Swami’s wise words, especially in a year that is being marked as the 150th year of his birth. But Vivekananda leaves enough room for manipulation in his views on the place of temples in Hinduism. Having said the above, he goes on to say: `A man must only build a house for `God and guests’, to build for himself would be selfish; therefore he erects temples as dwelling places for God’. The Sangh takes refuge in the latter part of the quote in order to keep the controversy alive.

Another dimension of the scientism that crept into definitions of religion was to debunk myths and legends as irrational. Vivekananda relentlessly attacks the puranic tradition in India as the repository of lies and irrationality. It is another matter that he often contradicts himself by claiming that Islam and Christianity are not real religions but puranic sects because they require historical validation of their founding and of their prophets. The Ayodhya dispute is caught between these inherent contradictions that Vivekananda exemplifies. If Lord Rama is a mythical figure, then the question of establishing the historical proof of his place of birth becomes irrelevant. If he is, indeed, to be seen as a historical figure, then, the faith that demands such historical proof is also part of the litany of lies and half-truths that permeated the puranic tradition according to Vivekananda. The Sangh Parivar has sought to argue two different propositions in order to mislead people. The first is one where they have sought to claim the historical validity of Ayodhya as the place of the birth of Lord Rama. But since myths begin where historicization ceases, they have also tagged another argument with this first claim. This is the argument of there having existed a temple on the site where the Babri Masjid stands. The latter argument might be easier to prove. But this argument of the existence of a temple on which the mosque was built is being heralded to prove that Lord Rama was a historical figure. Pseudo scientism, then, is being called upon to align Hinduism in a league that Vivekananda would have found abhorrent.

If the strength of Hinduism is its ahistoricity, the Sangh is the greatest enemy of the faith. It seeks to reduce Lord Rama, who for many represents an ethical and normative framework, into an ordinary historical figure. The real fight is one of settling petty historical scores in the name of religion and Lord Rama. Ayodhya might be a battleground today of politics and communal myopia, but, as the philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi pointed out, its very name signifies an essence that seems to elude the Sangh Parivar: Ayodhya means that which cannot be fought.

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