Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Reclaiming the Glory of Sri Ram

I reviewed the book The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya by Meenakshi Jain for OrganiserYou can read a version of the review below:

On September 30, 2010  the Allahabad High Court delivered its verdict on the five suits pending before it. The Court decreed that the area covered by the central dome of the disputed structure “being the deity of Bhagwan Ramjanmasthan and the birthplace of Lord Ram as per faith and belief of the Hindus,” belongs to the plaintiffs (Bhagwan Sri Ram Lalla Virajman and others; Suit 5).” (p. 140)
In an historic judgment, the Allahabad High Court  in 2010  had ruled for a three-way division of the 2.77 acre site. More recently, the Supreme Court, while hearing a plea for day-to-day hearing in the case, observed that the matter should be settled through mediation.  In popular academic circles, the issue of Ramjanmabhoomi is considered as the outcome of 150 years of communalisation; one that culminated in the demolition of the disputed structure in 1992 and turned into a rallying point for secularism. The truth however, is far from this.

In her latest book The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya, Meenakshi Jain puts on table certain facts that have been deliberately obfuscated in the debate. The writer looks at archaeological, literary and sculptural sources to get the facts straight. She also calls out the bluff of historians who are bent upon discrediting everything that strengthens the case for a temple at the site. Their contentions are many, desperate and shocking. To them Sri Ram worship is an eighteenth-nineteenth century phenomenon; Present day Ayodhya is not the Ayodhya of the ancient times, which they have located in Afghanistan, even Egypt. (p.82); Word mandira found on an inscription means dwelling house or palace and not a temple; Tulsidas attached no importance to Ayodhya as the birthplace of Sri Ram and many more. In her book, the writer has exposed the impunity with which these historians get away by committing the biggest academic faux pas of Independent India. The most recent of this came in response to the ASI findings. A planned campaign was carried out to misinform the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that carried out excavations at the site in August 2003 as per the high court order. In its report submitted to the court on September 22, the ASI concluded that there was evidence of “…indicative remains which are distinctive features found associated with temples of north India.” (p.121)  The ASI also took into account carbon dating results and structural remains which suggested that the structure wasn’t built on virgin land and in fact the material from the pre-existing structure was used to build the structure. This set in motion a new batch of claims. Professor Irfan Habib led a group of eight archaeologists who overnight mooted the theory that the pre-existing structure was in fact another mosque or idgah. These academics were presented as experts in the court by Sunni Waqf Board. As this was for the first time that such a claim had been made, the court expressed surprise. On cross examination, one of these archaeologists, Suraj Bhan, admitted that they had given the statement simply to offset the effect of ASI findings and had no other grounds for their claims.
The writer has also exposed the fact that  except Suraj Bhan none of the other archaeologists presented as expert witnesses had done any field work. “RC Thakran professed in court that he was just a table archaeologist… D Mandal admitted that he had acquired knowledge of archaeology and had never obtained any degree or diploma in archaeology.”  Shereen Ratnagar also accepted that he had never done any digging and excavation work.

Case of the temple

The writer has devoted   an entire chapter to examine a crucial inscription which came to light after the demolition of disputed structure in 1992. The stone inscription comprised 20 lines on slab diagonally broken into two. The inscription was in chaste Sanskrit and mentioned the name of King Govinda Chandra of 1114 AD. It also referred to “Saket mandala” and “temple stone for the God Vishnu Hari”. Left historians jumped in to discredit this evidence. Some said that the inscription belonged to later date while others tried to prove that Vishnu Hari referred to an individual and not Lord Vishnu.
Besides debunking such attempts to falsify facts, the book goes a long way to establish the historicity of the temple at Ramjanmabhoomi complex. The writer  looks at evidences ranging from foreign travellers and British administrators to Hindu sources. The book also points to some crucial evidences and aspects that have been conveniently left out of the debate. The writer has discussed Hans Bakker’s critical examination of three main parts of the Ayodhya Mahatmya, the chief work extolling the sacred sites of the city and relating them to the incidents from the life of Sri Ram.

Getting the facts right

In  the later chapter writing about the Left historians joining the debate, the writer points out how these had scholars tried to whitewash the violence by Muslim invaders against Hindu art and religion. Professor Sharma, for example “lamented that a lover of Hindu art and architecture (Babar) should be credited with the destruction of a Ram temple, which in any case, did not exist.” An attempt has been made to put history in right perspective breaking the myths of soft, art-loving invaders who just happened to stumble upon India. Another attempt to obfuscate facts was made by Professor Romila Thapar, who censured the projection of Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas as the sole authentic rendition of  Sri Ram’s story.  The writer’s greatest merit is that she sticks to facts and allows them to tell their own story.   The writer establishes how Valmiki’s work served as the basis for any further retelling. She argues that the future versions were retellings of the Valmiki’s Ramayana that everyone was familiar with. She writes, “It was around the core of Valmiki’s story that subsequently developed the view of Ram as God incarnate… No other version ever matched the repute of Valmiki’s Ramayana.” (p.80) She also puts on record the three early Buddhist and Jain texts that mentioned Ram.

The beginning of conflict

The book also busts the myth that communal flare up over the issue came only in 1991 riding the wave of political communalisation. The book documents the riots in Ayodhya in 1912, 1934. In both the years the riots broke out on the occasion of Bakr-Id over animal sacrifice. In 1913, chief secretary R Burn stated in a letter that the existence of the mosque at the traditional site of  Sri Ram’s birth was “one perpetual cause of friction”. The writer notes that the earlier evidence of conflict dates back to 1822. A note in judicial records submitted to Faizabad Court indicates this. Later, in 1855 British Resident James Outram sent a letter to Awadh Nawab Wajid Ali warning him that a Sunni troublemaker had assembled a force of Muslims near Faizabad and was bent on ruining Hanuman Garhi. A more serious conflict is recorded in 1855 over instance of some Muslims to offer prayers inside Hanuman Garhi.  The writer notes the attempts to reclaim the lost scared spaces as the geo-political realities changed over the years. Such attempts were particularly made under Maratha rulers and Amer ruler Sawai Jai Singh. The writer also documents the resurgence of Ramanadis who organised themselves into akharas and repaired and restored  some of the structures in Ayodhya. This information is critical in understanding the history of the fight for Sri Ram Temple. It also busts the notion that Sri Ram Temple cause is a creation of the nineteenth century.
 It is ironic indeed that the birth place of the most revered God Sri Ram was destroyed, questioned and debated for years. This book provides a strong academic and theoretical foundation to reclaim the glory of Sri Ram.                                      

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