How did Lord Rama become a Hindu god?

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Epic tales and poems become our culture, they start to govern our politics as well, like Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas.

After the failure of the "development" and "good governance" planks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the emotive plank of Hindutva, especially Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is becoming the major drumbeat before 2019 General Elections.

Rama is the prime deity of the Sangh Parivar, whose aim is to change the Indian Constitution and establish "Hindu Rashtra", or more correctly, Hindutva Rashtra.

(I have explained why Hindutva is not Hinduism in this piece.)

The path of the Sangh Parivar to accomplish their dream of Hindutva Rashtra masquerading as Hindu Rashtra goes via the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and governor Ram Naik with artistes dressed up as Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in Ayodhya. (Credit: Reuters file photo)

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat said recently that if Ram temple is not rebuilt, "root of culture will be cut".

The new chief of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Vishnu Sadashiv Kokje, also said that the organisation’s main goal will be the "re-building of the temple in Ayodhya".

Ever since the BJP government led by Yogi Adityanath has come to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, many BJP leaders - from Uma Bharati to Sambit Patra - have started to talk more about the Ram temple.

Even pop-fiction writer Chetan Bhagat wrote a piece last year to argue in favour of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also made a controversial remark in regard to the pending Supreme Court judgment and warned of violence if the judgment doesn’t favour Hindus.

So the drumbeats for a Ram temple in Ayodhya are being played through multiple voices to manufacture "consent" and create a "plank" before 2019 General Elections.

The aim of this essay is not to delve into the arguments about the Ram temple in Ayodhya, but rather to tell a story.

We know that even gods and goddesses have "careers" - many deities who were widely worshipped in the ancient times have lost their prominent positions in practised religion, such as the Rig Vedic deities Indra and Maruts, while other deities became popular as centuries elapsed and history unfolded.

But no other god of Hindu religion plays such a prominent role in the politics of modern India, than Rama. He has played a major part in determining Indian political history for the last hundred years. Mahant Digvijay Nath of Gorakhnath Mutt initiated the original Rama Janmabhoomi movement and brought Rama into the politics of India, whose story I have told here

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In the world of 21st century, Ramaa is one of the "fateful" factors which is determining the destiny of India.

Mohan Bhagwat associates Ram temple with the "root of culture". I wish to travel to the "root"; unearth perspective, understanding and insight.

In this essay, I will be exploring the most fundamental of all questions: how did Rama – a character of epic literature – become a god of Hindu religion?

This story is surprising, intriguing and fascinating.

Many versions of Ramayana

I look at Valmiki’s Ramayana – like most Bengalis do – as epic literature; not as a religious text. I also know that the earliest version of any text where Rama appears is the Buddhist Jataka (No 461) called the Dasaratha Jataka.

Dasaratha is Rama’s father. But Rama and Sita are siblings. Dasaratha does not banish them but sends them away to protect them from their jealous step-mother; they are exiled to the Himalayas. There is no reference to Lanka or Ravana; Rama and Sita return to Benares not to Ayodhya after their exile.

Dasaratha Jataka is the earliest known version of the tale that later came to be known as the Ramayana.

I have also read Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s Meghnad Badh Kavya – based on an episode of Valmiki’s Ramayana: demise of Meghnad who was the son of Ravana. This classic poem was written in 1861 - the birth year of Rabindranath Tagore, who himself went on to write a review of the poem later.

In Meghnad Badh Kavya – Ravana is portrayed as a responsible king – blessed with many qualities – and Meghnad is portrayed as a tragic hero – a brave individual and a worshipper of Shiva – while Lakshmana is portrayed as deceitful and unfair.

The famous retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Bengali is called Krittivasi Ramayan (Shri Ram Panchali) by Krittibas Ojha (15th century).

A 6th century manuscript of the Ramayana has been found at The Asiatic Society Library in Kolkata.

There are many versions of Ramayana in many Indian languages; Kamba Ramayana (12th century) created a cultural celebration invented by the Tamils. Many Indian religious traditions – Buddhist, Sikh and Jain – have their own adaptations. There are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Thai, Lao, Burmese, Filipino and Malaysian versions of the epic tale.

The Thai Ramayana differs greatly from the Indonesian one; both are different from Valmiki’s Ramayana. In one version Ravana is the hero, not Rama. In some versions, Sita is Rama’s sister, not his wife. The Malay Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Ram, and the Lao version, Phra Lak Phra Lam, make Lakshmana the hero and Rama his close associate.

Valmiki’s Ramayana – located between 5th BCE and 1 BCE by scholars – consisting of 24000 verses, may not be the first text to introduce Rama. But it is considered as the "original" Ramayana – one of two great epics of Indian literature, and also of world literature.

The other great epic – arguably the greatest, is Vyasa’s Mahabharata: longer than Homer’s IIiad, the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid all put together.

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Over the ages, mythological history also took shape. Ramayana and Mahabharata came to be considered as "Itihasa" – narrative of past events which include teachings about philosophy and goals of life.

Ramayana has been located during Treta Yuga - more as an act of faith, than of actual recorded history.

They are many who also believe that the Ramayana actually took place in an ancient age whose records no longer exist in recorded history.

They also imply by that Valmiki wasn’t an epic poet where imagination might have played a role, but a poet historian who was recording history. That is their belief.

But what turned Rama – from a character of epic literature – into a deity or a god and a "real historical figure" in the minds of millions in the Hindi-Hindustani belt is another text: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas.

Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas

Ramcharitmanas (Lake of deeds of Rama) is an epic poem in the soft Awadhi dialect of Hindi, written by the 16th century Indian Bhakti poet Goswami Tulisidas (1532-1623).

Tulsidas was a great scholar of Sanskrit – that was the language of the elite – but he wanted to tell the story of Rama in another language so that it becomes accessible to the general masses.

Tulidas was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Just like Shakespeare wrote in English - the language of the plebeians, not of the elite who spoke Latin - Tulsidas too wanted to reach out to the masses by writing the story of Rama in Awadhi.

Tulsidas had to face a tirade of criticisms from the Sanskrit scholars of Benaras for being a bhasha (vernacular) poet. But Tulsidas remained steadfast in his goal and also wanted to simplify the knowledge contained in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas for the benefit of the common people.

Tulsidas echoed the revolt of Buddha against Brahmanical elitism; he challenged the dominance of high-class Brahmanical Sanskrit by writing Ramacharitmanas in the language of the plebeians.

Tulsidas began writing his poem in Ayodhya in 1574 and also wrote it in Benaras and Chitrakoot.

Ramcharitmanas – the classic devotional poem of the Saguna school of Bhakti movement – was composed during the reign of Mughal Emperor Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammed Akbar.

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Ramcharitmanas became widely popular in north India within the speakers of the Awadhi dialect and heralded many cultural traditions of north India, including Ram Katha and Ram Lila.

This north Indian culture (north, central and western India) - what we call Hindi-Hindustani culture in Bengal - is not pan-India. South India, eastern India and northeastern India have their own cultures and sub-cultures; and Hindi is not the national language of India – it is one of the 24 recognised languages of India which also include English.

(In India only 25 per cent of the people identify Hindi as their first or second language; 45 per cent speak and understand Hindi. 71 per cent of the Indians are non-vegetarian.)

In the belt of Hindi-Hindustani culture, Rama became a divine hero, a Hindu deity and a historical figure in the minds of millions.

All this happened because of the popularity of Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas – a shorter devotional re-telling of Valmiki’s Ramayana.

Valmiki’s Ramayana

Valmiki’s Ramayana is sparked essentially by female characters. Kaikeyi - Rama’s step-mother or "younger mother" - plotted and forced Rama’s exile into the Dandaka forest, because she wanted her own son, Bharata to take over from King Dasharatha.

In Ramayana, Ravana is decribed as a devotee of Shiva, a great scholar, just ruler and a maestro of the veena. His ambition was to defeat the devas and dominate over them.

The ten heads of Ravana - as per Valmiki - signified his profound knowledge of the four Vedas and the six Shastras.

This meaning has been supplanted in the north Indian Hindi-Hindustani culture by bringing Ravana within the Navratri celebration through Ram Lila.

The profound inner meaning of Navratri (nine nights) is the battle of soul to defeat the ego; the triumph of good over evil. The nine forms of the goddess rage a battle through nine nights with the demon, and ultimately triumphs. The goddess signifies human energy and consciousness. The nine evils which need to be eliminated from consciousness are the evils of ego. The list differs in many different sources, but generally, the nine evils are anger, hate, greed, moha (delusory emotional attachment), pride/ arrogance, envy/ jealousy, lust (unfair or immoral sexual acts) etc.

The "I" of ego-sense (lower self) needs to be defeated by the "I" of soul-sense (higher self), so that the higher qualities come to surface within human consciousness: intelligence, intuition, love, wisdom, knowledge, compassion, righteousness, impartiality etc.

Navratri is symbolic of the process of inner transformation from the human to the humane.

This is the actual spiritual and philosophical meaning of Navratri that has been forgotten due to the spirit of festivity and the capitalist commerce that comes with it.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama worshipped Durga before the Battle of Lanka - this is known as "Akal Bodhan". The killing of Ravana by Rama is now known as Dussehra - that happens after the nine nights of Navratri. The ten heads of Ravana has come to mean the ten evils of ego; victory of Rama over Ravana, as the triumph of good over evil.

Dussehra is connected to the north Indian Hindi-Hindustani version of Navratri. In Bengal, we celebrate Navratri through Durga Puja. The demon of ego is represented by Mahishasura, not Ravana.

Ramayana doesn’t feature in the manner Navratri is celebrated in Bengal - a region that has been primarily worshipping Shakti for more than a thousand years. Even Ram Nabomi – a separate festival – is celebrated via Annapurna Puja.

Valmiki’s Ravana wasn’t an all-out demon monster – but more like an anti-hero who had vulnerabilities, which misled him.

Ravana’s sister Shurpanakha enraged him because she married the prince of Kalkeya Danava clan, Vidyutjihva. The danava clan was the traditional enemy of Ravana’s Rakshasa clan. But Ravana decided not to punish Shurpanakha because his wife Mandodari convinced him to respect the wish and will of his sister.

Ravana accepted the marriage and went to visit his newly married sister. The true motive of Vidyutjihva to marry Shurpanakha was to kill Ravana. In Shurpanakha’s absence, Vidyutjihva attacked his guest and brother-in-law Ravana, who was forced to kill his sister’s husband.

Ravana felt great hurt for having to kill Vidyutjihva and make his sister Shurpanakha a widow.

Shurpanakha then split her time between Lanka and the forests of south India. She also conceived a son from Vidyutjihva named Shambhri, who was accidentally killed by Lakshmana.

Shurpanakha met the exiled prince Rama during one of her visits to the forest of Panchavati. She was instantly smitten by Rama, who spurned her advances, and told her that he was faithful to his wife Sita. This prompted the heart-broken Shurpanakha to approach Lakshmana, who wasn’t married.

Lakshmana rejected Shurpanakha by saying she didn’t have the qualities he desires in a wife. Shurpanakha realised that the two brothers were making fun of her; she felt humiliated, angry and envious. This provoked her to attack Sita, but she couldn’t lay a hand on her. Lakshmana came to Sita’s rescue, cut off Shurpanakha’s nose and she was dispatched away from the forest huts where the three - Rama, Sita and Lakshmana lived.

This sparked a series of events. Shurpanakha went back to Lanka and first went to Khara – who was another brother – who sent seven Rakshasa warriors to attack Rama. The warriors were easily defeated by Rama. Then Khara himself attacked with an army of warriors – of which all were killed except one warrior who went back to Lanka.

After this Shurpanakha went to Ravana and enticed him to abduct and marry Sita by tempting Ravana with her virtues and her beauty. Vibhishana – Ravana’s brother – opposed this, but Ravana kidnapped Sita and triggered the battle of Lanka.

So, the three primary female characters – Kaikeyi, Shurpanakha and Sita – virtually triggered all the main episodes. Shurpanakha and Sita suffered the most. While Shurpanakha wasn’t pious in the traditional sense, Sita certainly was the pious sufferer. Sita got abducted by Ravana and had to protect herself from all his advances. Ravana to his credit never tried to force himself on Sita and wanted to win her heart. But Sita’s heart was with Rama.

After Rama rescued Sita –after the battle of Lanka – she had to pass through fire to prove her purity before Rama accepted her. Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya where they are crowned as the King and the Queen.

After few months, Sita became pregnant and this sparked doubts within the kingdom. Sita – while being pregnant – is banished into the forest by Rama due to the persistent rumour-mongering within the subjects of his kingdom. Lakshmana leaves Sita in the forest, near Valmiki’s ashram. She becomes a single mother – with no support from Rama - she has to raise two sons of Rama, Luva and Kusha, all by herself, in a forest.

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In the 16th century, Miguel de Cervantes – who wrote and published Don Quixote in two parts – used his innovative meta-fictional device in the second part to make the characters in the story familiar with the already published popular part one and also framed his novel as a translation from Arabic – the "first author" of the book is the fictional Arab historian Cide Hemete Benengali.

Did Valmiki execute a meta-fictional device – undoubtedly for the first time in poetry and epic literature in all of human history – by becoming a character of his own work? Or was he simply retelling the epic as a poet historian?

Lakshmana leaves pregnant Sita near Valmiki’s ashram near the banks of Tamsa river. The twins of Rama – Luva and Kusha – were born in Valmiki’s ashram. Valmiki educated them and they also learnt the story of Rama.

Then years later, Sita unites Luva and Kusha with their father – Rama. They sang the songs of Rama, who recognised them by hearing his own story and accepted them as his sons. But Sita returns to mother earth, for her final release from a cruel world.

Sita

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, King Janaka finds Sita while ploughing as a part of a yagna and adopted her. The etymology of the word "Sita" is derived from the Sanskrit word for furrow. But Sita in reality goes back a very long way. An ancient Vedic earth goddess - associated with fertility - who is mentioned once in Rig Veda as "auspicious Sita".

There is no mention of Rama in the Vedas. Rama gets introduced in one of the Buddhist Jatakas, as mentioned earlier.

Sita is so flawless – as a character in the Ramayana – that even an Upanishad is named after her.

There are 13 ancient texts which are called the "Principle Upanishads". The core of the spiritual and the philosophical thoughts are contained in them. Through the passage of centuries, another vastly expanded list was compiled. The cannon of 108 Upanishads came to be known as the Muktika or the Liberation.

There are eight texts within this Muktika cannon that is known as the Shakta Upanishads. The Sita Upanishad – with 37 verses – has the Muktika serial number of 45 amongst 108 texts.

Tulsidas’s lord Rama and Valmiki’s Rama

The latter part of Valmiki’s Ramayana is either absent, or not told in any detail by Tulsidas. He wanted to finish Ramcharitmanas in a positive note; and many scholars of the time had criticised Tulsidas for the abrupt ending of his masterful bhakti poem.

The absence of the latter part of Ramayana in Ramcharitmanas also meant that the complete story didn’t seep into the Awadi speaking people. This is reflected by the popular iconography in the Hindi-Hindustani belt that often represents Rama and Sita with Luva and Kusha, to denote the ideal family: a situation that never really occurred in Valmiki’s Ramayana.

But one has to understand the bhakti impulse of Tulsidas – he was writing a devotional poem based upon the Ramayana and never quite wanted to re-tell the epic in full. He was a devotee, writing about lord Rama and mata Sita. And this devotional impulse spread within the Awadhi readers of his poem, and the Hindi speaking belt of India became a devotee of lord Rama.

In eastern and southern India, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas wasn’t read. In Bengal, we read Valmiki’s Ramayana and Krittivasi Ramayan by Krittibas Ojha. So, the religious devotional aspect to Rama never developed in Bengal, like it did in Hindi-Hindustani culture.

One can now understand how the religious temper of the different regions of India about Rama – was shaped by Valmiki and Tulsidas.

The RSS-BJP is traditionally strong in all the states where lord Rama is worshipped, following the bhakti tradition of Tulsidas. While the rest of India – south, east and northeast, where Valmiki’s Ramayana or other regional versions dominated in the cultural consciousness – could never develop the similar deep bhakti impulse for Rama, and nor they could offer the kind of support to the BJP that the right wing party traditionally enjoys in the Hindi-speaking belt of north, central and western India.  

Now the RSS-BJP wants to negate the plurality and the diversity of India. This negation they interpret as a project to "unify all Hindus". They want to make Hindutva pan-India while taking lord Rama of Ramcharitmanas to every corner of our land with the slogan of Jai Shri Ram.

But they are facing resistance from the regions of epic hero Rama of Ramayana.

This attempt to colonise and convert all the Hindus of India into the fold of Hindi-Hindustani culture and worldview is giving rise to regional stresses and conflicts.

The non-Hindi speaking regions of India and non-Hindi speaking Hindus are seeing this attempt of social engineering as a forced imposition. They are resisting the Hindi-Hindustani colonisation project, by emphasising upon regional identity, based upon regional language and regional culture.

So, one can understand that a battle of minds is going on between Valmiki’s Rama and Tulsidas’s lord Rama – the battle between two ideas of Rama.

Ayodhya

The present day Ayodhya – whose alternate name is Saket – in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh was called Saketa during the ancient period. Romila Thapar, disregarding mythological history, said that the first historic mention of the city as Ayodhya dates back to 7th century when Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang described it as a Buddhist site.

During the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE) that is also known as the golden age of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were already canonical texts.

It was one of the latter Gupta kings who renamed Saketa – meaning heaven – to Ayodhya – meaning "a city that cannot be fought and won over in war"; and this happened in the fifth century.

During Buddha’s time, the present day Ayodhya was called Saketa. It was ruled by Pasenadi whose capital was at Sravasti. Saketa was prominent during the Maurya empire but suffered a setback around 190 BCE due to a Bactrian Greek expedition. After the Maurya and the Shunga dynasties, the city was ruled by Deva and Datta kings. It was also conquered later by Kushan emperor Kanishka 127 CE, before the Gupta period began.

It was during the Gupta empire that Saketa reached its political importance. During either Kumaragupta or Skandagupta, the capital of the Gupta empire was removed from Pataliputra (modern day Patna) to Saketa with a new name Ayodhya.

In the 6th century the political centre of north India moved to Kanauj and Ayodhya fell into oblivion. During 11th and 12th century, Gahadavalas came to power in Kanauj and they promoted Vaishnavism. They built several Vishnu temples in Ayodhya, due to which the cult of Rama as an avatar of Vishnu also grew, and Ayodhya slowly started to become a pilgrimage centre.

The mythological stories about Rama began to become popular post-15th century, and Ayodhya as the birthplace of Rama began to be accepted by a wider populace with the passage of time.  

The astonishing truth

Hindi-Hindustani culture knows the divine lord Rama of Tulsidas and knows mythological history. While the rest of India, beyond that sphere, know Rama of Valmiki and know real history. This crucial difference lies at the heart of the culture war that has been sparked by the Hindutva brigade with their social engineering project.

Hindus from the east, northeast and south India don’t feel the same way about a Ram temple in Ayodhya, like the Hindus from the Hindi-Hindustani belt do. And this deep religious sentiment of the Hindi-Hindustani belt – sparked by Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas – is exploited by the Sangh Parivar for the sake of political power.

A lot of chaos – communal, social and political – has happened in the name of Rama in our modern history.

I wonder what Valmiki and Tulsidas would have said, if they witnessed what we are doing to us on the basis of their poems.

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But the astonishing truth is that our modern political history of India in the 21st century is being shaped by two poets – one ancient, other old – Valmiki and Tulsidas.

It is all happening due to how we have read and absorbed two different texts – the ancient epic poem and then a devotional poem based upon the original.

Such a situation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.

Our history and our past don’t fade away; they live within us, and also influence our future.

Epic tales and poems become our culture, they start to govern our politics as well, like Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas.

Also read: In Bihar, how DJs and loudspeakers are playing 'Ram Lalla' songs to fuel hatred