Why doesn’t my heart exult at the Rama temple?
As a teen growing up in a relatively orthodox and religious family my favourite deity was Rama at the little temple near our apartment in Wadala in Mumbai. The vigraham (stone statue) was beautiful and I said many a prayer to that deity. And I loved being in that presence.
Like my mother, I too wrote hundreds of “Sriramajayam” in a notebook.
And yet I feel no joy at the coming Rama temple in Ayodhya. While thousands, millions even, believe that it is a fulfillment of a burning desire – whether manufactured or not by forces that have little to do with religion – for me it is a steady erosion of all that I hold precious about Hindu faith.
When the mosque was felled I was depressed. Yes, it angers me that possibly a temple was destroyed to build the mosque – barbarians is what we call them. I thought men and women in the 20th century can learn and be better. Men and women who had all been the traveller who saw the colossal ruins of the works of Ozymandias. The Hindu faith I practiced had no room for destroying a mosque to build a temple. I wrote then in December 1992 that like Lara in Dr Zhivago I too need a song and that song is gone. A song of tolerance and wide eyed quest – amidst all the murky chaos of a trackless history with many ugly sides to it, this was the brightest spot in my faith. I was proud to be a Hindu – that song kept me uplifted.
A Naipaul will dismiss that song as a wimpy, world renouncing one. Born of the “Hindu calm”; the Hindu calm that was responsible for India unable to stand up to her successive invaders. R K Narayan’s creation of life in Malgudi, Naipaul argues convincingly, is ultimately a religious work, projecting the Hindu, advaitic view and attitude. In his novel “Mr Sampath”, the protagonist Srinivas reluctantly steps out of his world of studying Upanisads to open up a weekly newspaper and “while he thundered against the municipal or social shortcomings a voice went on asking: Life and the world and all this is passing – why bother about anything? The perfect and the imperfect are all the same. Why really bother?”
Vedantic metaphysics of the passing show of the world did not show how men and women should also engage vigorously in action every day. Like the Christian faith which holds that there is no faith without works. One of the examples that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant offers by way of one’s duties is the duty to realise one’s talents. As a student of ethics I was puzzled by this – is this a duty? To my Hindu mind it seemed strange. But, for the Christian it is not an option. Work, above all, is the way to love the Lord.
In fact, Krishna admonishes the non doer: maa te sango’stvakarmaNi – don’t attach yourself to non-doing, says the Geeta in its most famous verse karmanyevaadhikaaraste. Your duty is only to act and just because you have no right over the fruits of your action, that does not mean you renounce action. Between renunciation and doing, Krishna clearly says that doing is better.
Yet, the appeal of the outlier won – one who remains like a lotus petal, untouched by the surroundings. Non doing, non feeling even: sukhadukha-samekrtva laabhaalaabhau jayaajayau…The sthithaprajna feels no elation or dejection – whether in gain or loss in victory or defeat.
While sthithaprajna was too lofty an ideal to achieve, it spilled into everyday life resulting in the “Hindu calm” that sometimes translated into fatalism, doubt, and sheer lethargy.
But the Hindu revivalism with its energy and non-acceptance of status quo brought fresh winds, injecting new blood into India’s quiet veins. If a temple was razed to build a mosque, that mosque shall be razed to build a temple – this became terribly important for millions.
The fact that there is no grand temple in Rama’s birthplace is not a serious religious problem really – for who says we can only worship Rama at his birthplace in Ayodhya? For most part, it is a political issue.
As our politicians put out sound-bytes about the inauguration, they brazenly speak of the economic development of Ayodhya and the entire region! Is that what all this is about? Or even part of its justification or value? Clearly they are unable to say what exactly its value is beyond appeasement of a certain constituency. What words would pass the bar in a secular polity like ours for an act like this?
Mr. Modi, while inaugurating the temple, said “it is a symbol of modern Indian culture”. I can’t even begin to make sense of that. I can’t discern anything beyond the shallow in his declaration that “This temple will inspire the coming generations about faith, reverence and resolve”
A faith that needs a temples built after so much conflict and anguish is hardly faith. Faith is stronger than this. Faith needs nothing outside it.
The Virasaiva mystic Basavanna sang of sthavara and jangama:
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.
Translation by AK Ramanujan.
Dear Smt. Lakshmi,
We have a fabulous heritage…..The ebullient and radiating Vaishnavite stream….the frugal Shaiva one….the Shakthi cult of sacred feminine……Being a member of matrilineal community…..I was taught by grandmother to daily invoke gratitude, surrender and devotion to ones ancestors…..the snakes, reptiles and birds and trees, our ancestors would have disturbed and uprooted, while setting our habitat and cultivation in the land ….of its original inhabitants….our ancestors includes, the servants who worked in our households…..and even the fruit trees, which sweetened our lives….and the dogs, which guarded us….the cows and goats, which nourished us….At this age…I am 56 years old now….I still recall during my morning and evening showers……the flora and fauna of our ancestral house…..the workers, men and women, who took care of us…..the reptiles and birds of our sarppakkaavu….and the cows and dogs and fruit trees of the habitat…these are my gods….We believed that our Kaavu (sacred place attached to our household) are without roof….and will have only a peetam (elevated table space)…..when the whole habitat is sacred or a temple……yes I fully appreciate, what you felt about temples and place of worship…..the faith and statue shall be apolitical. Thank you, Lakshmi Amma.
Thank you for this! You’ve articulated what many of us feel, but in such a clear, strong, yet balanced and scholarly voice.
Thank you for this piece Ma’am. It spoke to me deeply because it captured the tension I have been feeling personally as a humanities student and as someone who grew up amidst a pervasive Hindu ethos.
Fetishizing a bloodthirsty ideology that hides behind the suave, ‘maryada’ character of Rama is the most despicable ploy. What is Hindu and what is Muslim in our classical compositions, as you said once!
P.S. love the audio-visual theme of the blog
Greetings from Kozhikode, Kerala.
Deeply touched by Dr Lakshmi’s poignant reflections on the contradictions inherent in destroying one place of worship to build another, I recall with great anguish the days spent in UP as a police officer during those turbulent days. Ulysses could say ‘mete and and dole unequal laws to a savage race’ , but here was a civilisation some five thousand years old and a religion which was the most tolerant in human history. My own upbringing was in a peaceful, harmonious Kerala society and in an unusual Christian family with a strong affinity to Carnatic music. I had done college studies at Trichy and had opted to join the Humanities department of IIT Chennai mostly out of my keen desire to attend weekly concerts.
Fate willed otherwise. Tantalising visions of a glorious civil service took me away from the tranquil environs of IIT Madras and the weekly repose that the Sabhas generously offered. Plunged suddenly into the midst of communal passion and endless waves of crime, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of challenges I had never known about and keenly felt the deprivation of the healing touch of Carnatic music as it became totally inaccessible In the rural hinterlands of UP. The sharp communal divide and the shocking bloodshed that followed each riot were therefore even more confounding and traumatising to me. What I found most difficult to be reconciled with was how steadily, albeit gradually, the devout and tolerant mind of the common Hindu was sought to be suborned by building up fears of his religion being swamped by other faiths, totally regardless of the fact every other religion which came in touch with Hinduism got absorbed into it. The distrust with other faiths had been a phenomenon with a much shorter history which paled into insignificance when compared with the millenia of the tolerant Hindu religious tradition.
Dr. Lakshmi’s writing is a powerful reminder of this great truth and her reflections on the relationship of Carnatic music with the Bhakti tradition in one of her lectures delivered to IIT Chennai are a reiteration of her convictions in this regard. As an eminent scholar adept in many subjects and an accomplished and devoted Carnatic musician, she has made a tremendous contribution to religious tolerance and to the traditions of liberal arts. I truly wish and pray that Dr. Lakshmi continues to remain closely associated with IIT Chennai Chennai.
Today is a golden day in the annals of IIT Chennai, as it stands covered in glory as the best institution for higher education in tne country. Dr Lakshmi’s sane views will be heard with great respect and her suave presentation will compel attention, when it emanates from tne portals of this great institution.
Speaking for myself, I bask in reflected glory as I recall with pride and happiness my own association as a faculty member more than five decades ago in the good old days when tne German Professors were busy laying the foundations of a tradition of excellence. My hearty congratulations to Dr Lakshmi and of course the Director, IIT and regular faculty of IIT Chennai for keeping tne flag of IIT Chennai flying..
with warm greetings and hearty congratulations
Abraham Kurien IPS
Kozhikode, 16th July, 2022>