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Fascism in the making

Revisiting Ayodhya: A Multi-Religious Historical Site Turned into The Capital of a Majoritarian Hindu Religious Empire

Wednesday 31 March 2021, by Sumanta Banerjee

Now that the foundation stone for the building of the Rama temple has been laid at his birthplace in Ayodhya, it is time to recall the history of Rama’s birth. The present hype over the occasion has blurred the origins of his birth as recounted by Valmiki in his ’Ramayana’ - the scripture which is the source for the Hindu devotees who are celebrating his birth and consecrating his birthplace. It is about time that we have a look at that original text of Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’, (composed and available sometime in fifth century B.C) - instead of a bowdlerized, or censored, version of `Ramayana’ that is being propagated by the Sangh Parivar and its BJP-RSS government in their attempt to invent an image of Rama to identify him with a Hindu-centric Indian nationalism. In this context, the role of the TV serial on ’Ramayana’ in the late 1980s, in re-inventing this image of Rama’s, cannot be ignored.

Along with Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’, we should also examine another parallel ancient text - ’Satapatha Brahmana’ (a part of the ’Yajurveda’), that describes the rituals accompanied by the ’Ashwamedha-yagna’ , which were faithfully followed by Kaushalya in the course of her giving birth to Rama, according to Valmiki’s narrative.

Scriptural sources of Rama’s birth

To start with, unlike the historical records of the birth and death of Jesus Christ and Muhammad - the icons of two other main religious orders - Rama lacks any historical basis. He seems to be a wonderful fictional character, created by a brilliant poet called Valmiki, who perhaps could have derived inspiration from a Buddhist text which introduced Rama - a speculation supported by available contemporary texts.

So, let us now put to test the claims made by the Sangh Parivar about Rama’s birth, by examining the scriptures that describe his origins. Who were Rama’s biological parents? Since there are no historical records of Rama’s birth, we have to rely on the mythical accounts of his birth, as recounted in Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’, (and its Hindi version by Tulsidas, Bengali version by Krittibas, and other vernacular versions in different parts of India that started appearing in the medieval period).

To go back to the mythological accounts, in the ’Balakanda’ of ’Ramayana’, we find the king Dasharatha lamenting: “Mama lalashya manashya sutartham nasti vai sukham/Tadartham hayamedhana yangkhami iti motir mama.” (My mind is tumultuous without happiness for I have no son/For that reason, I wish to perform Ashwamedha - sacrifice of horses. This is my thinking.” (Eighth Sarga, Eighth Sloka). Soon after that we read about the ’Ashwamedha Yagna’ carried out in Ayodhya, where the horses are killed, and Dasharatha’s three wives are ordained to spend the night with them. Here are the verses describing the ritual:

"Kaushalya tang hayang tatra paricharya samantatah….. Susthitena cha chetasa abasad rajanimekang Kaushalya dharmakamaya…." (Kaushalya then spent one night with the said horse…with a perfectly composed mind with the intent to acquire religious merit.) (Re: ’Balakanda’, Fourteenth Sarga, slokas: 33-35, as reproduced in ’Srimad Valmiki Ramayana’. Gita Press, Gorakhpur. 1974).

Apparently, it was this ritual of the ’Ashwamedha Yagna’ that brought to birth Rama and his brothers - if we are to believe the sacred text of Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’. Let us now look back at the ritual of the ’Ashwamedha Yagna’, as vividly described in the ’Satapatha Brahmana’ (a part of the ’Yajurveda’, which is worshipped by Hindus) . It lays down the instructions on how the king’s chief wife (’mahishi’) was to spend the night with the horse. There are two versions of these instructions. The first is available from the book ’The Sacred Books of the East’, a collection of translations of Sanskrit scriptures by various Oriental researchers, which was edited by the famous German scholar F. Max Muller, and published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford in 1900. It contained a translation of the ’Satapatha Brahmana’ made by a European Orientalist scholar, Julius Eggelling in 1882 . According to his translation of its thirteenth ’Kanda’ (chapter), which describes the ’Ashwamedha Yagna’ ritual: “…(the priests) cause the Mahishi to lie down near the horse, and cover her up with the upper cloth with ‘In heaven ye envelop yourselves…for that indeed is heaven where they immolate the victim …’” The Mahishi is then quoted as saying: “..May the vigorous male, the layer of seed lay seed… for the completeness of union.” (p. 386).

A new translation - or complete version perhaps - of this ancient Sanskrit text has now emerged with the publication of a book by a modern European Orientalist scholar, Wendy D. O’Flaherty. In collaboration with Daniel Gold, David Haberman and David Shulman, she brought out the book ’Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism’, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1990. While translating the original Sanskrit text of ’Satapatha Brahmana’, she has retrieved some of the portions relating to the ’Ashwamedha Yagna’, that were left out (or sanitized?) by the translators in the past. For instance, in the original Sanskrit text, the passage describing the covering up of the horse and the Mahishi under one cloth is followed by another sentence, which describes how the priests “draw out the penis of the horse and place it in the vagina of the chief queen, while she says: `May the vigorous virile male, layer of seed, lay the seed…” (Re: `Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism.’ Pp. 16-17).

Let me now quote the original Sanskrit sloka that describes the ritual, from the relevant text of the ’Satapatha Brahmana’: “Nirayatasvasya sisnam mahishy upasthe niddhate `vrsa vaji retho dadhatu’ iti mithunasyaiva sarvatavaya.” (Kanda 13, adhyaya 5, brahmana 2). Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s translation approximates to the original .

According to this scriptural evidence, the modern followers of Rama in the Sangh Parivar will have to accept that Rama’s father was a horse, and not Dasharatha who by his own admission lamented his failure to produce a son ( as quoted in ’Balakanda’ of ’Ramayana’). Yet, they are reluctant to describe and worship Rama as ’Ashwa-putra’ (son of the sacred horse of the Ashwamedha-yagna).

Why are they hesitant in giving this new name to Rama, when their ministers in the BJP government are rationalizing similar animalistic associations in Hindu mythology in terms of modern science. For instance, they explain the elephant’s head of the god Ganesha as an illustration of plastic surgery! So, they can go a step ahead, and explain Rama’s emergence as a birth through the impregnation of a horse’s semen in Kaushalya’s womb! They can proudly claim the case of his birth as a predecessor of the modern system of artificial insemination.

The tradition of ’kshetraja’

In fact, the practice of intrauterine insemination - introduction of sperm (from other than a husband who fails to produce children) into a female cervix or uterine cavity for the purpose of achieving a pregnancy - had existed in some form or other in ancient Indian society - if we are to go by the scriptural texts that are worshipped by the ideologues and historians of the Sangh Parivar. There was a custom called ’kshetraja’, under which if a husband was unable to produce children, some other man could be employed as a ’niyog’ or instrument to impregnate his wife. It was through this method that the ancestors of the Kauravas and Pandavas were born. The ’Adi-kanda’ of ’Mahabharata’ describes the episode. A king called Bichitrabirjya was married to two sisters - Ambika and Ambalika. But he died soon after, without producing any children. His mother Satyavati, summoned her son Krishna-Dawipayan Vyasa (who was born from her pre-marital liaison with a sage called Parasar Muni) to come and impregnate the two young widows. Vyasa readily agreed, and thus through him, Ambika and Ambalika gave birth to the two sons Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Their descendants fought among themselves and ended up in a fratricidal war that destroyed their ancestral family, the ’Yadu-bangsha’, as described at the end of the ’Mahabharata’.

Rama could have also been born out of the custom of ’kshetraja’. We may hazard a guess. According to the scriptures, four priests supervised the Ashvamedha Yogna, under which Kaushalya was required to sleep with a horse. They were (i) adhvaryu (officiant); (ii) brahman (overseer); (iii) udgatri (cantor); and (iv) hotri (invoker). Since the modern pseudo-scientific proponents of Hindutva have not yet come up a theory that claims that the semen from a dead horse can produce a human being in the shape of Rama, may we be pardoned if we presume that one of those four priests, during that night, through the traditional custom of ’kshetraja’, laid the seeds for Rama’s birth? Kaushalya’s invocation of the horse, to request him to ’lay the seed’ in her womb, could have been a metaphor for her need of impregnation, which her husband Dasharatha was incapable of.

Rama before ’Ramayana’?

We find the name of Rama in an ancient scripture, the pages of ’Dasaratha-Jataka’, a Buddhist text composed, either before Valmiki, or around the same time. Valmiki’s Ramayana is dated variously from 5th century B.C. to 1st century BCE . He composed it in Sanskrit, and he is described in Hindu texts as the ’Adi-kavi’ or the first poet. As for the ’Dasaratha –Jataka’, composed in Pali, Buddhist followers attribute it to Buddha’s oral narration to his disciples in 6th century B.C. It says: “Once upon a time, at Benaras, a great king named Dasaratha renounced the ways of evil, and resigned in righteousness. Of his sixteen thousand wives, the eldest and queen-consort bore him two sons and a daughter, the elder son was named Rama-pandita, or Rama the Wise, the second was named Prince Lakkhanna, or Lucky, and the daughter’s name was the Lady Sita…” (Re: The Jataka, Vol. IV. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse . 1901. Also, The Dasaratha Jataka, edited and translated by V. Fausbol, Copenhagen, 1871. Source: According to this ancient version then, Sita was Rama’s sister! How was she converted into his wife in Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’?

Incidentally, we do not find any mention of Rama in the Vedas and the Upanishadas - the sacred texts worshipped by Hindus. So, was Rama a later invention, who was incorporated in the Hindu iconography of deities? Did Valmiki borrow the Buddhist story and reinvent Rama in accordance with the prevailing dominant values and societal norms in the times of 5th century B.C - when he was supposed to have composed the epic? But then again, the Buddhist jatakas were composed much later after Buddha’s death, and the narrators could have incorporated - and re-invented - the story of Dasharatha from Valmiki’s ’Ramayana’. We thus cannot be sure of the original source of the Ramayana story, and need not therefore quibble over the dates of the composition of the two texts, and whether Valmiki borrowed the story from the Buddhist text, or the other way round.

Ayodhya before Rama’s birth

Let us now turn to the history of Ayodhya - as the legendary site of Rama’s birthplace. In fact it was Tulsidas (1532-1623) who popularized Rama while composing his ’Ramcharitmanas’, in Ayodhya in 1574 - a shorter re-telling of Valmiki’s Sanskrit ’Ramayana’, in the local Awadhi dialect. It is this version that still remains popular in the Hindi-Hindu culture of north-central-western India. Ironically however, what is ignored is the historical fact that Tulsidas composed this version of Ramayana in Ayodhya, when it was being ruled by the Moghul emperor Akbar, who encouraged the translation of Sanskrit literature in local dialects.

To go back to the history of Ayodhya - before its association with Rama - we should recall that the site had been the capital of the kingdom of Kosala (6th-5th century B.C.), known as Saket at that time. Buddha was said to have resided there for some time. Its later importance as a Buddhist centre was confirmed by the Chinese pilgrim Faxian (popularly known as Fa Hian), who visited India in 5th century CE , and found one hundred Buddhist monasteries, and a stupa (shrine) reputed to have been founded by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE).

The Sangh Parivar’s appropriation of Ayodhya and imposition of Rama as a god on the Indian populace

This recorded history of Ayodhya had been an uncomfortable burden on the shoulders of the Sangh Parivar for a long time, since it did not suit its narrative and it wanted to erase it from public memory. It therefore strove to re-fashion Ayodhya.

The Parivar’s strenuous plans to appropriate Ayodhya as its choicest site were aimed at homogenizing the diverse Hindu sects . There is a historical background to this. The Sangh Parivar had always faced a challenge to its hegemony by the diverse religious beliefs and practices followed by various Hindu communities in different parts of India. There are temples dispersed in various corners of India which are dedicated to different deities - like Sabarimala in Kerala, Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Kamakshya in Assam among many others. It is difficult to herd their followers - divided by their diverse beliefs and customs, Shakta, Vaishnavite, Tantrik, etc. - under one umbrella of a Hindu religious establishment.

The Sangh Parivar chose the character of Rama as an icon to represent a single unitary religious establishment to homogenize these various regional and sect-based trends among Hindus under that umbrella. But unlike Jesus and Muhammad, whose lives and deaths are historically recorded, Rama is a mythological creation, with no verifiable proofs of his birth and death, or sites of his birth and death. There are even differing views of Rama prevalent in the literature and popular culture in the southern and eastern parts of India - some ridiculing him and praising Ravana instead. (For an exhaustive account of these different versions of Ramayana, the ideologues of the Sangh Parivar may be requested to read the collection of essays entitled: Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. edited by Paula Richman).

In Bengali folk culture for instance, Rama had been a butt of jokes of sorts. A popular proverb ridicules Rama’s victory with the help of his monkey brigade led by Hanuman:

“Kala khelo jato bandor/Rajyo pelo Ram- chandor”
(The monkeys ate the bananas, and Ramchandra in exchange gained the throne)

Note the comic rhyming of ’bandor’ (monkeys) and ’chandor’ (a Bengali variant of the Sanskrit surname ’chandra’). Unlike the Hindi-Hindu heartland, where the monkey-god Hanuman is worshipped as a god, and the monkeys are fed by the devotees, in Bengal the monkeys are treated with contempt. The term ’bandor’ is used for a person to dismiss him as a bumpkin, or a nuisance.

Or, take another old Bengali proverb, directed against hypocrites swearing by the name of Rama: “Ram-nam mukhe/Chhuri rekhey bukey” (Uttering the name of Rama, while poking the dagger at your chest ) - a saying very appropriate to describe the behaviour of today’s Ram-bhakts who force Muslims to shout the slogan ’Jai Shri Ram’! (Both the above quotes are from the Bengali book entitled: Bangla Probad, compiled Sushil Kumar Dey. Calcutta. 1945)

But the most defiant rejection of Rama was voiced by the nineteenth century Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who in a letter to a friend wrote: “I despise Ram and his rabble, but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow.” It was written during the time when Dutt was composing his epic poem ’Meghanadvadya Kavya’ (The slaying of Meghnada), which was published in 1861. (Re: Jogindranath Bosu’s Michael Madhusudan Dutt-er Jeebon Chorit. Calcutta. 1925).

Given this rather ambiguous background of Rama’s birth and his dubious reputation among the populace (in the southern and eastern parts of India), the Sangh Parivar felt it necessary to historicize their fictitious hero - locating him in a particular identifiable spot in the Indian territory. It chose Ayodhya (mentioned in the Hindu religious epic Ramayana as his birthplace) as the ideal spot. From the late 1940s onwards, with this objective, its leaders and followers started a sustained campaign to elevate Ayodhya as their central pilgrimage. They initially smuggled an image of Rama into the precincts of the existing Babri Masjid there, and then pressurized the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to unlock the gates to allow them entry to offer prayers. All these gradual steps - each followed by more aggressive ones - led to the Advani-led ’Ratha Yatra’ that unabashedly announced its violent mission of destroying the Babri Masjid and build a Rama temple on the spot. Its campaign was a crafty combination of one set of tactics to unify Hindus from all regions around the image of Rama (making full use of the ’Ramayana’ television serial that was running then and popular among the public audience) on the one hand, and another set of tactics to rouse Hindu public hatred against Muslims by the propaganda that the Babri Masjid was built on the debris of a Hindu temple that was destroyed by the Muslims (a claim that has not yet been proved by archaeologists and historians), on the other. The Sangh Parivar succeeded in mobilizing its followers, with the then Congress Prime Minister Narsimha Rao either deliberately or unwittingly, turning a blind eye to its violent plans, and they destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992, leading to one of the worst communal holocausts since the 1946-47 days. It is no wonder that the BJP government at the centre is today valorizing Narsimha Rao, and blaming the Congress for ignoring him as an icon. With the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and the foundation stone of the Rama Mandir having been laid on its debris , and the sanctioning of its building by the Indian Supreme Court, one era of Ayodhya is over.