Why Rama is not everybody’s hero


The immediate provocation for this article is Bibek Debroy’s essay “Being Fair to Rama” that appeared in The New Sunday Express Magazine on November 24, 2019.

Debroy’s central plea – to be fair to Rama, and to read the Ramayana for what it is – is, ironically, situated amid the mounting of a brazen fascist agenda by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-Sangh Parivar brand – from the reading down of Article 370, the clearance for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, the passage of Citizenship Amendment Act, and the state suppression of democratic dissent during the year.

So while he urges us to look away from the turmoil of our times in order to be fair to Rama, it is the turmoil of our times than urges me to respond to his plea and reject it in unequivocal terms.

The Valmiki Ramayana, according to Debroy,  is both ‘itihasa’ and a ‘smriti text.’“The word itihasa means‘it was indeed like that.’Therefore the work is best rendered as legend or history, and not myth,” he states.

And as a smriti text is society and context specific, “we should not try to judge and evaluate individuals and actions on the basis of today’s value judgments,” he adds.

Both assertions are flawed.

Propagating the Ramayana as itihasa creates Goebbelsian illusions of truth. By stating there is no scope to see it as myth or fiction, we are forced to accept it contains what he calls ‘a core element of truth.’

That is then sealed with an aura of eternality by the second assertion, that we cannot apply today’s judgements to someone who existed/is thought to exist in a different yuga. Ergo, we cannot judge him at all.

But isn’t the propagation of such  ‘eternal truths,’ and commands, after all, the very basis of Hinduism  (and Hindutva) which Dr B RAmbedkar calls upon us to question and decide for ourselves?

Rama – of which past?

For one, there is no historical or archaeological evidence as to whether Rama really existed. Worse, even the Ram bhakts are yet to sort out amongst themselves when Rama ‘existed’ – whether 9 lakh years (as perthe Hindu system of time) or a few thousand years ago.

Serious fact: The remains of the oldest modern homo sapiens fossil as of date, found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, is dated to about 3 lakh years ago; the homo erectus is dated approximately 20 lakh years ago.

So what does that make someone born in the latest Treta Yuga,i.e., at least 9 lakh years ago?

Such questions, however, are cast aside as irrelevant to people’s faith, indeed,even by the Supreme Court. But that does not make them go away.  There is, till date, no evidence of the existence of Rama,of a Ram Janmabhoomi, or of a Ram Mandir over which the Babri Masjid was claimed to have been built – and that is the truth, instead of suppressing it under the guise of itihasa.

Presentism and moral relativism

Debroy’s main line of defence is also to caution against the fallacy of ‘presentism,’ that is, of applying today’s value judgments to a character from an antediluvian past.

But the argument against presentism is a slippery slope in Rama’s context, as then, one could also contest that the Babri Masjid would still be standing, and a trail of destruction and divisiveness avoided,had the karsevaks not succumbed to a bout of presentism themselves (for the Mughal king who built it was guided by his dharma and did what all kings do – conquer new lands, and build monuments)?

So anti-presentists need to be consistent in calling out presentists, as also calling out people with strong views (and strong arms), who indeed, are everywhere.

Moreover, to justify what Rama did in the various instances quoted in his article, Debroy resorts to moral relativism.

A simple example of moral relativism would be to say: beating a child was an accepted norm among the generation of our grandparents, so one cannot apply today’s understanding on the subject and condemn all those in that generation as ‘bad’.

Let’s for a moment, accept this. But then, how do we interpret Sita’s actions in the Valmiki Ramayana? Sita, who lived contemporaneously with Rama (and hence, no question of moral relativism), was ready to give up her life – not once, but twice (including in the Uttara Kanda – seen as an add-on to Valmiki’s original), leaving behind her loved ones – clearly unable to suffer the humiliation that Rama subject her to. Does that not speak volumes of her views on Rama’s actions – in their time?  Apparently, “enjoying being humiliated” was not the dharma among women of the Treta Yuga, too.

So why would I, in this day and age,revere such a man?

We also now know better that what is accepted as norm, is also simply what is sanctioned by those who wield power – which may be unacceptable for those against whom the balance of power is tilted, even if unsaid or undocumented in their time. That itself puts moral relativism on shaky ground.

The point is, in the example above, someone decided to speak out against ‘eternal (oppressive) norms’ -and today we have child rights.

So what matters is, how is Rama relevant to us today

Rama is God to many. But he has also been used by many to drive a wedge between us. So what we really need to ask is:

What does this larger-than-life person or character from the distant past mean to us, in our daily lives, as lived today?Should we continue to venerate him, just because he has been in the past, or because he is emulation-worthy in our lives and society today?And finally, should we accept the divisiveness played out in his name?

In order to answer these, we would necessarily have to apply our own moral yardsticks, shaped by the times we live in and our personal influences.

For one, equality might not have been an overarching moral ideal in the Ramayana’s time but it is, now. Extending that to the public sphere, democracy becomes another ideal.

The killing of Vali and Shambukha, any killing for that matter, and the defence of the varna system – are not democracy or equality as we know it. That and the treatment of Sita all go against the grain of what we as a society have agreed to uphold as our moral values, which is written into our Constitution, into our democratic laws.

Can we be comfortable continuing to venerate such a person and striving for the ideals of our time?

Dravidian leaders from Periyar to M Karunanidhi long trashed the Ramayana and the character of Rama as being the very anti-thesis of egalitarian and human values. But the Allahabad High Court banned Periyar’s book ‘The Ramayana: A True Reading’ in Hindi translation ‘Sachchi Ramayan’ and the Uttar Pradesh government ensured it was not in circulation till 1995, despite the Supreme Court overruling the ban in 1976 – the book, it is reported, is yet not to be found in the state.

That goes to show how propagating the ‘eternal idea of Rama’ comes in the way of free thinking and questioning of such heroes cast in iron. In fact, those uncomfortable with such expression are clearly more rigid than those they accuse of being so.

There may be many who see Rama’s dharma as emulation-worthy, and are well within their individual liberties to do so. However, that certainly doesn’t give them the right to attack or disrespect anyone’s  rejection of such reverence, or strike at our collective moral living ideal of democracy.The immunity accorded to Rama by scholarly essays such as Debroy’s lends fuel to the Hindutva hardline in State and society of ‘setting right historical wrongs’at whatever cost– from widespread trolling on social media to cold-blooded murder.

So tell us, who really has taken this game of ‘being unfair’ too far, in the name of Rama?

It is not the Ram Mandir, but democracy that needs to be re-built

But that is not the message ‘Mahatma Propagandhis’ of our times are trying to spread.

Take, for instance, JaggiVasudev, who defends any charge against Rama – whether ata FICCI FLO gathering, or atan IIM talk–portraying him as the ideal, loving husband who “walked all the way to Lanka, fought a battle, burnt down a city, and brought his wife back home (when he had the option of finding ‘a local solution’) – all because he loved his wife so much.”

Debroy’s article/translation, where Rama tells Sita – “Let it be known to you that this exertion in the field of battle, accomplished well because of the valour of my well-wishers, was not undertaken for your sake….I have cleansed the blemish that was associated with my famous lineage (emphasis added)…”- stands at complete odds withVasudev’s portrayal.

Not to be outdone, Vasudev’s rhetoric also is, “but do we not need leaders who put their nation before their families?”

But Rama of the Valmiki Ramayana, as translated by Debroy, was ready to abandon Sita- not to win a war or fight for his nation. He admittedly put himself before his family, so he could remain king.

Indeed, women and youth of this nation are increasingly asking – ‘How can a man who is not true to love, be true to his nation?”

Thus, rejecting Rama as a hero  – after reading the Ramayana – is an act that goes far beyond settling a simple feminist quibble on wife desertion, as many see it.

By not doing that, we would be failing to live by our own ‘dharma’ – to uphold egalitarianism and our Constitutional values.

(Meenakshi is an independent Writer. The writer lives in the Kali Yuga)




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