Hindu deities are back in the news, useful as they are for the purposes of making a political point. Ram Jethmalani, the irrepressible BJP MP, caused some amount of consternation by calling his historical namesake Sri Ram a “bad husband”. The day before that, Sushma Swaraj let loose a wave of righteous indignation at what she considers Bollywood’s “attacks on Hindu beliefs”.
I think though, that Ram or Radha’s presence in modern Indian debates in modern India is not a sign of the fact that they are losing importance. It is quite the opposite. That odd mentions of Ram and Radha can stir passions up thousands of years after their stories were first told only indicates that they remain relevant as ideals even in these times. Whether people believe in what these cultural icons stood for doesn’t matter. Whether people believe these are worthy icons doesn’t matter either. Respect and understanding cannot be forced, they have to be arrived at through personal effort.
Having said that, the use of Ram ka naam to attract attention, make political points, or just to generally be nasty has become something one comes up against quite regularly these days. Jethmalani’s comment is probably one of the tamer things said about the religious icon in recent times. Ever since religious discourse degenerated into Internet-style trolling, mudslinging has become the accepted way of questioning the basis of any religion. This is a relatively easy task to accomplish when the religious tradition is an Abrahamic one. Question Mohammed and Islam is shaken. Bring Jesus Christ’s divinity into question and Christianity itself gets questioned. Hinduism, on the other hand, is not represented by any one such master or deity.
In spite of this, Sri Ram always finds himself in the unenviable position of having to represent this expansive and diverse set of traditions. Anyone with a strong and slightly offensive view about Hindu traditions starts off by making Sri Ram his target and calling him names ranging from ‘misogynist’ to ‘casteist’ to ‘cowardly’ to ‘war-monger’.
As someone who often finds himself in the rather unenviable position of having to defend Ram against these charges (mostly on Twitter, against random trolls), I realise that this is a battle the King of Ayodhya can’t possibly win. The range of accusations against him is so comprehensive that he has to lose no matter what. Heads Ram-haters win, tails Ram loses.
Take for example, the matter of Ram being a bad husband. Never mind his love for Sita that Valmiki wrote entire chapters about. Never mind the very human tears he shed when his wife was taken from him. Never mind the epic war he fought to bring her back. Those intent upon proving he was a bad husband have what they need in Sita’s exile from Ayodhya.
But here’s a funny twist. If Ram had disregarded the washerman’s comment and allowed Sita to remain in Ayodhya, you can be sure that an enthusiastic army of modern Indian ‘scholars’ and ‘historians’ would be labelling him a casteist king right now — one who had no respect for the opinions of a washerman because he belonged to a so-called lower caste. But come to think of it, Ram never gets any credit for being a king who, at the suggestion of even a washerman, decided to exile his beloved queen. We could use leaders like that today — people of power with that much respect for public opinion. But we don’t, and nobody seems to care that there is an example to be followed in Ram’s actions here.
I think it was mythologist Devdutt Patnaik who pointed out some time ago that the entire life of Ram may be seen as a manifestation of the idea of duty. When Ram obeyed his father’s wishes and went into exile, he was doing his duty as a son. When he fought for Sita, he was doing his duty as a husband. And when he exiled his wife from his kingdom, he was doing his duty as a king. At every key point of his life, all Ram was doing was what he ought to have done at that particular point of time in accordance with the highest principles of his dharma.
Ram was an incarnation of Vishnu, and after him, Krishna was the same. But this does not make Ram and Krishna homogenous entities. The reason only Ram and Krishna are considered poorna avatars of Vishnu is that they contained the universe’s many complications within them. Even within his own lifetime, Ram was several personas and performed several different duties. In the middle of 24×7 news debates, our judgemental culture does not allow us this realisation often, but every individual can be seen as several different persons in several different contexts. Being human is complicated business.
One thing I have always liked about the story of Ram (in its original Valmiki version) is that while elaborate tributes are paid to him for being an avatar of Vishnu, his humanity is still emphasised. In all of Hindu itihas (some call it mythology), even the highest of gods do not escape the tests that come with being human. There is something about the all-too-human frailty of Hindu gods that makes them so much more respectable and worthy of emulation.
There are as many ways of looking at Ram as there are people who know his story. And inevitably, Ram always ends up looking like the people who look upon him. The devoted gaze upon him through a devotional lens and see an object of devotion. Feminists find him a male chauvinist, and various other offended parties see their own personal demons in him.
Ram’s trials, it seems, are not over yet, in spite of the millennia that fill the space between him and modern India.