Ram: The gentle, tragic prince who became the face of aggressive Hindu nationalism

Born again.
Born again.
Image: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool
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Ram, the Hindu god, was born in Ayodhya. Ever since, his has been a tale of loss.

Ayodhya is where he was born to King Dasharath and Queen Kaushalya. This is where he brought his devoted wife, Sita, from the kingdom of Mithila. This is where he returned after a 14-year exile. And this is the kingdom his sons Luv and Kush eventually inherited.

Or so the story goes, according to the Ramayan, the Hindu epic narrating Ram’s tragic storyAll of these, some of these, or none of these stories could be true. But that is immaterial to most Hindus. The eldest prince of Ayodhya, considered an avatar of lord Vishnu, is beloved for reasons beyond material facts and perhaps even beyond his nobility.  

So much so that today he has turned into a symbol of the resurgent Hindu identity, progressively shedding his gentle image to fuel a more muscular Indian nationalism.

But first the epic.

The story

Hours before he is anointed king of Ayodhya by his father, a cruel turn of fate dispossess Ram of his kingdom. In exile for 14 years, accompanied by his wife and brother Lakshman, Ram faces off with the rakshasa king Ravan after the latter abducts Sita.

Ram soon vanquishes Ravan and returns to retake his kingdom. However, he is forced to abandon Sita again after aspersions are cast over her fidelity. Torn between being a dutiful king and a dutiful husband, he chooses his larger role. In exile again, Sita bears twins. Years later, Ram and Sita are reunited, but only to be subjected to taunts again. This time, Sita chooses to abandon Ram and return to her mother, earth.

Once again, Ram loses.

This tragic tale is made all the more poignant by the many highs and lows in the narrative and the utter helplessness of the protagonists in the face of destiny’s vicissitudes. For these reasons, the Ramayan evokes a deep mix of sympathy, reverence, and a protective instinct towards Ram.

No wonder the prince of Ayodhya has seeped so deep into the Indian social texture and consciousness, irrespective of class, race, or religion—among the many versions of the Ramayan is a Muslim one, too.

And no wonder then that political Hinduism found a ready icon in Ram, and a rallying point in his birthplace.

A political icon

It was in the 20th century that Ram fully became a political figurehead for the Hindus.

“For most of the pre-independence era, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya simply did not exist for the majority of Indians,” wrote SP Udayakumar, activist and writer, in “Historicizing Myth and Mythologizing History” for the Social Scientist. “The mosque emerged as the most bitterly contested terrain ever since the partition of the country primarily because the issue was built up carefully by the Hindutva forces with an eye on appropriating it for contemporary politics,” he wrote.

Even as the Ramjanmabhoomi movement was gaining momentum, a televised version of the Ramayan became a family staple in Indian homes in the late 1980s. Ram virtually brought together families in religious fervour.

The values that he espoused—gentleness, righteousness, selflessness, dutifulness, and valiance—were what parents sought in their sons and wives sought in their husbands. 

However, political Hinduism sought more.

Ram versus Babur

The need for a villain is an inescapable part of political battles. 

And to place a villain opposite such a noble character as Ram was to render that villain simply irredeemable and all the more menacing.

Who better then, than the man whose name “tarnished” the birthplace of Ram? Enter Babur.

The Babri mosque, allegedly built on the ruins of a temple that marked Ram’s birth became the lightning rod for Hindu nationalist anger. Ram’s honour and pride needed to be restored by “rebuilding” the temple. And the “evil” Islamic Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, had to be defeated—even if posthumously.

It is thus that through the seven-decade long the Ayodhya-Babri mosque court case, Ram became the figurehead of India’s primary religious fissure.

As Udayakumar wrote, “The controversy is more mythological than historical, and hence it is a matter more of faith than fact. Since the issue stands on popular culture and not on recorded history, it becomes even more prone to manipulation and politicisation.”

Ram may now regain his mythical birthplace. But after all the violence and social disruption it has created in India till now, it is difficult to imagine how he will win. Even this time.