Aravindan Neelakandan
Rama Patriarchy, Feminist criticisms and the Politics of Freedom of Expression
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

On how the Congress becomes Ram Bhaktha.

Indian politics is full of paradoxes of the absurd kind. We witnessed one such recently when Indian National Congress (INC) criticized Modi for not attacking Ram Jethmalani for his remark in which he termed Ram as a “bad husband”.

Some days earlier Karan Thapar, in a popular TV programme, tried to grill the lawyer for his statement. Thapar repeatedly asked if his remark against Ram does not go against the spirit of Hindutva. In Indian polity INC is secular and BJP is ‘communal’ or even worse, ‘fundamentalist’. Yet it seems BJP did not officially react to Jethmalani’s remarks against Sri Rama – who is for Hindu nationalists, a national hero.

Though it may look paradoxical, deeply the reactions of both INC and BJP are in confirmation with their traditional positions. The INC despite its verbal and oft-repeated commitment to secularism has always been ready to serve the fundamentalist curbs on freedom of expression.

On the other hand BJP and the main stream Sangh Parivar as well have always been tolerant to severe criticism of Hindu religion. In fact if BJP and Sangh Parivar pay allegiance to Hindu culture then it cannot be otherwise.

Of course this leaves out the fringe elements like Bajrang Dal and other emerging groups like Ram Sena, which are given media limelight though they are insignificant to the mainstream and historical Hindutva discourse.

After all Hindu cultural tradition has always woven elements of criticism of the very focal points of Hinduism in its own literary and scriptural traditions. Leave alone the modern deconstructions indulged in by our western educated elite, even in the children’s literature rendering of the epic itself the attitude of Sri Rama towards Sita after the Lankan battle has not been accepted uncritically.

If one looks at the Tamil edition of Chandamama (Ambulimama, August 1978,’Veer Hanuman’), Hanuman was shown confronting Sri Rama, threatening him violently over the way he treated Sita. The children’s magazine stated that Sri Rama did not offer any explanation rather Rama accepted meekly that the desire of Hanuman to have a physical combat with Rama would be granted in his next incarnation as Sri Krishna.

Hanuman confronts Sri Rama

In other words, Sri Rama faced a violent criticism from Hanuman himself– the very personification of devotion to Rama. Hence when Sri. Jethmalani quips that Sri Rama was not an ideal husband he need not be attacked or even criticized for his supposedly irreverent remark. Accepting this is very much part of Hindu tradition. In fact, accepting such criticisms is what makes Hindu tradition unique and worth protecting.

Embedded Feminism of Ramayana: Rama at the feet of Ahalya

Some months back fringe Hindu groups rose in anger against the 2008-animation ‘Sita sings the blues’ by Nina Paley. It could be said that she was actually seeking a release for her own personal relation problems through what she considered as a feminist rendering of Ramayana, which she saw as the father-narrative of Indian patriarchy. However what she or her opponents missed was the fact that the epic itself contained a much stronger feminist reading embedded in it than the worst that Nina Paley could attempt to do.

A case in point is the way salvation of Ahalya – the wife of seer Gautama who committed adultery- is rendered originally in the epic and subsequently in the popular psyche. Countless calendar art depictions throughout India show Sri Rama’s foot touching a stone and the stone transforming into a woman – Ahalya. The curse of Ahalya was removed by the dust in the foot of Rama. In gratitude she touches his foot. It is this moment that is frozen in the calendar art. In addition, in the popular version, Ahalya was deceived by Indra into adultery. Though the ‘sin’ she committed was done unknowingly, yet she was cursed by her seer-husband to become a stone. The bottom-line is of course if a chaste woman committing a ‘sin’ unknowingly is punished so much, how much more would a woman who knowingly commits ‘sin’ would be punished?

However the actual rendering of the same incident by sage Valmiki is completely and strikingly different.

Here Ahalya commits the adultery by choice. She was overjoyed that the king of celestials himself desired her and lost her good sense, That is how Valmiki puts it (1.48.19). The punishment that her seer-husband gives for adultery, is atoning through penance without being seen by any being and her being covered with dust. Interestingly it is not stoning to death as in many Abrahamic religions.

When Sri Rama arrives she becomes liberated from her ‘sin’. Was it Rama who liberated her from her sins? Definitely his arrival marked the end of her ordeal. But Rama’s feet did not touch Ahalya. Rather Sri Rama along with Lakshmana touched her feet in reverence (1.49.17). Valmiki states very clearly that she became purified of the sin of betrayal ‘by the asset of her ascesis’ (1.49.20).

In post-Ramayana Sanskrit literature one of the earliest references to Ahalya being cursed into a stone and Rama’s feet liberating her can be seen in Padma Purana. A few centuries even before Padma Purana, in Cankam Tamil literature, we find reference to this curse in Pari Padal (19:51). All said the symmetric asymmetries which add to the poetic beauty of the epic can be discerned in the narrative of the epic.

Sri Rama venerates Ahalya who had knowingly allowed her to be seduced by a celestial king impersonating her seer-husband and who had repented for her sin through her penance. Later the same Rama would banish Sita who unknowingly allowed her to be abducted by a Brahmin-demon king impersonating as a seer-mendicant. In addition Sita would in harsher circumstances, never yield to temptations and threats that the demon king unleashes on her. Further Sita throughout Ramayana of Valmiki is no ‘meek obedient wife’ as she has been made out by popular narratives. She takes decisions on her own. She does not hesitate to criticize her husband. And when she is in charge forgives her tormentors with motherly love.

The verses of Sita would later attain special spiritual significance in Sri Vaishnava tradition. Sita advises Hanuman to forgive her tormentors stating, “Kindness is to be shown by a noble person either towards a sinner or to a virtuous person or even to a person who deserves death, for there is none who never commits a wrong.” (8.113.46).

Sita emphasizes a strong feminine compassionate approach to the concept of justice, much different from the one she herself would receive from the male-dominated society of Ayodhya. Thus one can say Ramayana does not glorify patriarchal values as it is often stated. On the other hand Valmiki makes a deep criticism of patriarchy and associated values. Perhaps they were necessary but they have to be constantly tempered by compassion of Sita. Today we know some of Rama’s actions were bound by the social compulsions of his time but the compassion of Sita proves to transcend time. Perhaps that is the reason why the poet called Ramayana, as the ‘magnificent history of Sita’ – ‘Sitayah charitam Mahat’ (1.4.7).

Rama Janma Bhumi: Historicity or protecting a pluralist tradition?

Further from time immemorial many alternative Ramayanas have flourished in this land. Each of these Ramayanas has evolved in a specific geo-socio-cultural condition, presenting its own perspective and emphasizing their spiritual traditions.

Even in North East which many modern Indian intellectuals of the leftist kind, place outside the pale of mainstream Indian culture (which they love to label as an artificial construct), the variety in the Ramayana story line is astounding.

Eminent anthropologist K.P.Singh in his introduction to the excellent anthology, ‘Rama-Katha in Tribal and Folk Traditions of India’ (published by Anthropological Society of India, 1993) explains, pointing to ‘the impact of Rama-katha on the tribes of North-East India’:

The Mizo version of the Ramayana has evidently been influenced by the South Asian versions which again are influenced by the versions carried by the immigrants from various parts of India. This was evidently an eastern and southern version. Ravana had seven or twelve heads. Laskhmana is the hero in such versions.

The Mizo version gives prominence to Lakshmana and Hanumana. The Rama Katha is embedded in the tribal and folk traditions of Tripura…. Finally there is the Buddhist version of Rama-katha in the Taipake cultural tradition in which Rama is described as a Bodhisattva. He seeks pardon from Sita who returns to live happily with Rama and their children till the end of their life. This version is unique in that this has a happy ending unlike all other versions.

Imagine the harshest criticism of Rama. Conceptualize it in the most intelligent and penetrating language possible and then comb through the versions of different Ramayana traditions that have evolved across this land of Hindustan and you will find your statement already made in a language much better, in some ‘traditional’ version of Rama-katha already popular and venerated in some part of India.

So when Hindu nationalists took up the cause of Sri Rama Janma Bhumi, the deeper impact of the movement was not historicizing Rama in an Abrahamic sense but preserving this tradition of pluralism and diversity from the onslaught of Abrahamic religions like Christianity, Islam, Marxism and of course Nehruvian pseudo-secularism.

A reader may very well think that this may be a pious liberal after-thought and that the Rama Janma Bhumi movement was actually based on a fundamentalist belief that Sri Rama was born millions or tens of thousands of years before in Treta Yuga at Ayodhya. If one is to go through the Hindu nationalist literature of that period, (not just a few Hindi pamphlets as pseudo-secularist establishment loves to do), the person may be surprised to find Hindu nationalists being liberal and non-fundamentalist on the historicity question to a fault. ‘Manthan‘ was the official magazine of Deendayal Research Institute (DRI), one of the highest intellectual bodies of the Sangh family.

On October 1990, even as the Ram Janma Bhumi movement was rapidly gaining momentum as a national movement, Manthan published the famous archeologist Dr.B.B.Lal’s paper ‘Archeology of the Ramayana Sites Project: Its Genesis and a Summary of the Results’. Among other things the paper irreverently punctured many of the cherished myths of the believers. Dr.B.B.Lal stated:

The foregoing evidence from the various sites associated with the Ramayana story suggests that the story may not have been a mere fragment of the imagination but may have had a kernel of truth as its base, magnified of course through the centuries that followed. The date of the episode according to the archeological evidence is unlikely to have been earlier than circa 700 BC.

Such a dating has shocked many, for though favoring a historical basis for the epic; these people are unable to reconcile to the idea that the Ramayana episode may be as late as that. In fact, some of the Pandas of Ayodhya came heavily upon the present writer when he was excavating the site. They threatened him with violence if he did not toe their line of thinking. … Thus, the description of the weapons, town planning, houses etc. would correspond more to the period of the transcription of the text from second century BC to second century AD – than to the actual period of the episode itself, which appears to have been around 700 BC.

As one can see, the findings of the archeologist which Manthan highlighted was not a literalist, fundamentalist take of the epic, but it was rather a historically toned down view. The very fact that DRI published this paper as its cover story points to the fact that Ram Janma Bhumi movement of Hindu nationalism was not a fundamentalist movement but something else. Hence the pseudo-secular media and polity asking BJP, RSS or Narendra Modi to chastise or attack Ram Jethmalani for his comment on Sri Rama is utter display of the pseudo-secular ignorance of what constitutes Hindutva. But such intolerance is the hall-mark of Indian pseudo-secularism.

Intolerance as Pseudo-secular Power Politics

In India the politics of banning books has been nurtured by pseudo-secularist polity to appease each of these expansionist forces. Bans induced by pan-Islamic aggression in post-independence India are well known to go through here. But what is not much known are the way Christian forces of proselytization have been working behind the screens to secure control over what an Indian reads and sees.

Even as Muslims were violently protesting the Christian propaganda movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’, Christian lobby groups were working overtime on a similar project – silently and behind the scenes. The union minister for information and broadcasting, Ms. Ambika Soni was meeting a delegation of the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), Catholic Residents Organization for Social Services (CROSS), Association of Concerned Catholics (AOCC) and Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum (MCYF) that called on her.

The minister took strong exception to the release of the movie ‘Kya Super Kool Hai Hum’ (KSKHH) to the group and assured the delegates of departmental action. The minister also passed several strictures against those in the Censor Board, who were responsible for issuing the film a certificate, without deleting the offensive scenes and promised an internal inquiry would be conducted. (CSF email communication dated Aug-14-2012).

This was not a mere exchange of pious pleasantries to a meeting delegation. Earlier CSF and other Christian groups have embarked on a massive, low profile but high intensity campaign. Though initially Christian lobby groups working with Indian politicians have asked for censoring certain scenes soon they changed their stand following its ban in some gulf countries. CSF explained:

The CSF calls you to once again send emails calling for a BAN on Kya Super Kool Hai Hum and NOT FOR CENSORING SCENES as we had asked you earlier. THIS NEEDS TO BE DONE ASAP…The movie has reportedly been banned by Kuwait and Muscat already. What is preventing the Censor Board or the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in doing so in India? Please forward this email to them, asking them to act. (Email communication dated 10th August 2012: upper-case letters in the original.)

On 10th August 2012 ‘Herald Goa’ published an appeal from Christian fundamentalists in which they recorded their earlier triumphs over the freedom of expression:

Some years ago the picture Da Vinci Code came to Goa. The Catholic community demanded that it should be banned as it grievously hurt the religious sentiments of the minority community. I still remember the anger of the people at a special meeting in the hall of the Panjim church. They screamed for justice. The Government acted speedily and banned the film after two days.

Pseudo-secular polity of India has a long history of catering to Christian fundamentalism. It was one of the earliest states to ban the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Marxists too have had their silent triumphs at implementing bans. Taurus, a film by Russian director Alexander Sukorov on the last few years of Lenin’s life, was to be screened in 2001 Calcutta film festival in 2001. For anyone who thinks Stalinism is a thing of past, BBC report dated 16-Nov-2001 says the rest:

A Communist cultural front started demonstrations in some film festival venues, demanding that the film not be screened. On Friday the audience went in to see Taurus, only to be shown another film, Mother and Son, by the same director….Festival director Angshu Sur said that the only print of Taurus they had received had to be sent off to London for screening in a festival this week. But sources in the festival committee said the film had been withdrawn at the behest of the Chief Minister who was keen to avoid a controversy within the party.

Starting with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, book banning or film censoring has acquired a status of power symbol in Indian polity. Hindu groups too have started their own clamor for the book banning, canvas shredding, film censoring power without realizing that they are falling into the trap of pseudo-secular polity which aims to reduce Hindu nationalists into a group of religious fanatics similar to any other Abrahamic religious group.

Sane Hindutva: ‘Riddles’ Episode

If one looks back at the history of Hindu nationalist movement one finds a specific example where the forces of pseudo-secularism trying to trigger religious intolerance from Hindus. Sangh ideologue Ramesh Patange has provided an elaborate analysis of this pseudo-secular charade in his book ‘Manu Sangh and I’, (1999).

The fourth volume of Dr. Ambedkar’s writing appeared in 1987. This volume contained a chapter entitled ‘Riddles of Rama and Krishna.’ In this article, Dr. Ambedkar has severely criticized Rama, Krishna and even Sita. After the volume was published, the then editor of Loksatta, a person close to Sharad Pawar, wrote about it in his column that the Government had hurt the sentiments of the Hindus. The real aim was to create a problem for the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra with whom Sharad Pawar was having a cold war.

Now Shiv Sena, which had just then embraced Hindutva, took this as an opportunity to project itself as the champion of Hindu cause and add to that a staunch anti-Ambedkarite stand. This provided the pseudo-secular forces to position themselves as the custodians of progressive voices against the Hindutva fundamentalists. It was at this juncture that the official magazine of the Sangh in Maharashtra, ‘Vivek’ came with an article titled ‘Ram versus Ambedkar a controversy gnawing at the vitals of social unity’ written by senior Sangh ideologue Ramesh Patange.

The article stated categorically that the ‘Riddles’ should be published. Later Sangh organized a seminar titled, “Stop the Riddles Controversy” in Mumbai. State General Secretary of RSS, Sripada Sastri clearly stated the Hindu nationalist position on the controversy thus:

A noisy controversy has been raised in Maharashtra on the chapter, ‘Riddles of Rama and Krishna’ written by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It would be a great blunder to regard Dr Ambedkar as the enemy of Hinduism by misinterpreting his controversial writings. To resort to this type of propaganda in respect of Dr Ambedkar is tantamount to distortion of his work and message.

Dr Ambedkar’s lifetime mission was to reconstruct and reorganize the Hindu society on the basis of equality, freedom and fraternity….The Hindu society, therefore, should not sentimentalize the Riddles issue and should look at it in the perspective of reason. Heavens are not going to fall if the chapter ‘Riddles of Rama and Krishna” remains in the fourth volume published by the State Government.

Sangh could well have joined hands with Shiv Sena to get those specific works of Dr.Ambedkar banned. That would have given BJP a short term political advantage also and also a communal ego satisfaction that the Hindus too could obtain a ban on a book similar to Muslims who obtained a ban on Satanic Verses.

However by rising above such parochial and myopic views of short term victory, Sangh proved that Hindus are not a mere community in Hindustan but the definers of civilizational values of Hindustan. This is what Karan Thapar failed to comprehend when he asked Mr Jethmalani how he can be in BJP after making a remark against Ram.

The Congress politicians calling to castigate Ram Jethmalani on similar account, the sustained media projection of lunatic fringe elements like Ram Sena or Sanatan Sanstha or for that matter neo-Internet Hindutva groups asking for a ban against anything and everything they deem anti-Hindu –from Sony play station game featuring Hanuman to idols showing Ganesh as using laptop- they all have to be seen against the background of this rich canvas of Hindu pluralism and in this framework of Hindutva which is a holistic historical process that should be understood as being at the vanguard of this unique geo-cultural spiritual tradition.