Karnataka: Lord Ram is niche, not main deity, in BJP’s gateway to South
Hindutva activists launch a massive campaign to reach every house in Karnataka ahead of the opening of the Rama temple in Ayodhya on January 22. PTI photo

Karnataka: Lord Ram is niche, not main deity, in BJP’s gateway to South

Professor Phaniraj of Komu Souharda Vedike, a group fighting communalism, says Ram mandir campaign is entirely political, devoid of any spiritual quotient

As January 22, the long anticipated date of the consecration of the RamMandir in Ayodhya draws closer, Hindutva activists have launched a massive campaign to reach every house in Karnataka.

A small group of five to 10 activists, in traditional saree and panche, are visiting homes across the state and handing over akshate (turmeric-laced rice) and a pamphlet with a set of instructions. Among other things, the families are urged to watch the live telecast of the event, take part in special prayers, and light lamps on the evening of January 22 outside their homes.

Karnataka campaign

The pamphlet also points out that lighting crackers, taking out processions and holding public events on the D-day are “not allowed”. This ban from organisations, which have turned mass agitation into a blunt tool of politics, has caught many by surprise.

An activist at the VHP office in Bengaluru said: “It is purely a religious event and hence there will be no speeches or politics.” Lakhs of volunteers have been mobilised to reach every Hindu house in the state between the 1st and 15th of the month, he said.

Mixed reception

Media reports say a few recipients of the spiritual largesse have felt uncomfortable with strangers barging into their homes unannounced and inspecting the puja rooms. But many seem to be acquiescing, even welcoming them.

A Dalit lawyer in Mysuru said she did not worship Rama, as South Indians call the lord. But she nevertheless accepted the akshate and the pamphlet as neighbours were doing so.

Hindutva mindset

Professor Phaniraj of Komu Souharda Vedike, an organisation fighting communalism, politely asked the visitors to leave saying he did not agree with their politics. “They left immediately. One of them tried to argue but was held back by others,” he said. He lives in Udupi, a coastal city, and the epicentre of Hindutva politics in the state.

“Ninety-seven per cent of the people here have a Hindutva mindset. My optimistic estimate is that three per cent may resist, mostly activists like me,” he said.

He expects a similar reception to the campaign in areas which have seen a Hindutva upsurge: Shivamogga, Chikmagaluru and pockets in the rest of the state. “They don’t have to burst crackers or take out processions. They feel they have won the battle. It is celebration time as they think this would be the greatest ever day for Hindus,” he added.

Ram, not a battle cry

January 22 is indeed a momentous day, which marks the culmination of a tortuous multi-decade movement that shook the young Republic to its foundation, and recast the rules of the polity. But as the Ram campaign hits crescendo it is entering an uncharted territory in Karnataka, which usually gets branded as the BJP’s gateway to South. Rama has traditionally been a niche than a popular deity in the state. Even among the Vaishnavites, the pull of other related deities such as Venkateshwara or Ranganatha has been stronger.

Perhaps acknowledging this constraint, the Hindutva mobilisation in Karnataka has never brought Ram to the fore. It has instead opted to organise Hanuma jayantis to build momentum for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Ganapati, Hanuman

In recent years, Virat Hindu Ganapati processions are also drawing thousands of Hindutva members to the streets with many carrying Savarkar photos. At both of these events, Ram is at best an underlying theme rather than a battle cry. The VHP activist said: “Ram is at the forefront of our campaign in other states. We have not done that here so far, but will soon start doing so.”

Prof Phaniraj says there is no serious effort to promote Rama worship as he is seen as a Brahminical deity in Karnataka whose power and prestige has to be maintained exclusively without allowing for any dilution. “In contrast, Hanuman is a Shudra god who can be brought in to mobilise all communities,” he said.

“It would be hard to find any community which considers Rama as their principal deity,” said historian PV Nanjaraj Aras. “People may hang photos of Rama on their wall and celebrate Rama Navami, but he would typically be one of the many gods they worship. Shiva, Vishnu and his forms like Venkateshwara have entire communities following them, but not Rama.”

Long history, limited sway

Many point out that Kannadigas have known and worshipped Rama for ages. Dr Shelvapille Iyengar, who teaches ancient history, said the earliest temples in Karnataka dating back to the Chalukyan times had carvings depicting scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata, a tradition which was followed by later temple builders as well. Historians point out that early kings, many of whom were political upstarts and came from backward communities, crafted genealogies, built temples and embraced Sanskrit to legitimise their rule and impress their peers.

But the influence of Rama failed to sway other spheres of ancient life. Prof MM Kalburgi argued that four religions Buddhism, Jainsim, Vedic and Agamic religions – migrated to Karnataka and engaged in a bitter battle for primacy. These also came with their own languages – Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil.

Sanskrit, Kannada

Though the Vedic religion succeeded in the spiritual struggle for survival, its proponents opted to limit its sacred texts, including Ramayana and Mahabharata, to Sanskrit, the language of the gods. They wrote only worldly treatises like Panchatantra in Kannada, the language of the masses, inadvertently limiting the influence of the two epics.

The Jain poets adapted the epics to celebrate their beliefs and royal patrons, and had no interest in promoting them as religious scriptures in their own right. In the 12th century, poet Nagachandra’s version, the earliest Kannada Ramayana, Ravana, the tragic hero, is killed by Lakshmana and Rama gets initiated into Jainism.

Rejection of epics

The Lingayat or Sharana poets led a rebellion against the Vedic religion in the 12th century rejecting its philosophy, social norms, language and literary works. A famous Vachana said that imposing Sanskrit was like feeding grass to a fish while another Vachana dismissed any educational value in studying Ramayana and Mahabharata.

As Kalburgi points out in the 900 years that followed not one Sharana poet drew inspiration from Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Sharana movement snowballed and produced the largest number of Kannada manuscripts down the centuries, followed by the Jains. With both of them staying away from the epics, Rama lost a fertile terrain to grow his roots.

Lingayats, Brahmins

Dr Veeranna Rajura, a noted Kannada scholar, said: “Kannada poets wrote to promote their religion. While Lingayat poets stayed away from Ramayana, Brahmin poets also mostly stayed away from Basavanna.” The first noted Ramayana in Kannada in the Brahmanical tradition possibly appeared as late as the 16th century when Kumara Valmiki wrote Torave Ramayana. Most scholars date Lakshmisa’s Jaimini Bharata, which has a chapter on the Ashwamedha Yaga segment of Ramayana, to the 16th-17th centuries.

Muddanna brought to life Ramayana, in old Kannada, in the late 19th century. In recent times Kuvempu’s version of Ramayana is considered a classic though highly academic, while many popular books inspired by the epics have widened their readership.

Compared to the hundreds of original works, compilations, commentaries and criticisms the Sharana tradition produced, the body of literature inspired by Ramayana and Mahabaratha remains slim. The Brahmin poets and their royal patrons also chose to explore other subjects to propagate their religion than focus on the epics.

Vaishnava worship

Rama also failed to find traction in the religious traditions, including the Vaishnava sects, that became popular in Karnataka. The Vishishtadvaita school profounded by Ramanuja drew people towards Ranganatha or Venkateshwara and the Madhwa focus was on Krishna.

Nanjaraj Aras says it would be hard to find any Vaishnava King solely invested in the worship of Rama. Hoysalas shifted from Jainism to Srivaishnavism under Ramanuja’s influence but they mostly built temples for Narayana.

After Hampi took a Vaishnava turn, Krishna rose in importance and later Krishnadevaraya built several temples for Hajara Rama, Vijaya Vithala, Bala Krishna, Ganapati and Ugra Narasimha. But his favourite was Venkateshwara and that prompted him to make as many as seven trips to Tirupati showering riches on the deity there.

Rama shrine

Karnataka also failed to produce a Rama temple of any prominence. The temples at Hiremagalur, Haravu, Rama Nagara and Hampi are usually cited as noteworthy places of worship.

But as Dr Shelvapille notes, they are not comparable to the celebrated Rama temples at Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh, or at Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. He says none of these temples feature among 108 Divya Desams, a list of celebrated temples mentioned in the works of the Alvars, the poet-saints of the Sri Vaishnava tradition. Prof Phaniraj says in the coastal districts there are temples for Shiva, Vishnu, Subramanya, Shakti and hardly any for Rama.

Rama mandiras

Dr Shelvapille said the worship of Vishnu has been more popular than his avatars such as Krishna or Rama, as they lacked the antiquity of the source god. He suggests that Rama mandiras, which are widely spread in Karnataka, have been more effective than the ritualistic and restrictive temples in popularising Rama worship.

Rama mandiras can be more open as they are not places of worship and hence exempt from ritual rules. They are places where bhajans and sermons are held, events which are open to everyone,” he said.

Rama mandiras usually offer kosambari (salad), panaka (a cooling drink) and watery butter milk to devotees as prasada or blessed snacks. “The cooked food draws caste restrictions, but as these prasadas are raw, anyone can eat them, further ensuring wider participation in the Rama mandira activities,” he explained.

To reiterate the broader appeal of the deity, he pointed out that the worship of Rama emerged at a time of bitter feud between Shaivites and Vaishnavites. “Rama incorporates elements of both Shiva and Vishnu and is acceptable to both the groups,” he said.

Rama Navami

The Rama mandiras come alive, especially during Rama Navamis, which blend sermons and music, and offer them along with uncooked spiritual fare to devotees. But these seem to have remained staid traditional affairs, which have not scaled up despite the nationwide feverish mobilisation of Ram.

The biggest Rama Navami Utsava happens in Bengaluru which draws the best-known classical music talent for a month. “On a weekday about 2,000 people come to listen and on the weekend the number goes up to 7,000 to 8,000. It has not grown or shrunk for decades,” says Abhijit Varadarajan, an official of the trust which organises the event.

Local legends

Folklorist PK Rajshekar said numerous sthala puranas or local legends related to Ramayana can be found across the state, which shows how the epic caught the popular imagination. But opinion is divided as scholars like Kalburgi dismiss these as Aryanisation or a deliberate attempt to erase indigenous histories and override them with legends drawn from the Sanskritic tradition.

Dr Shelvapilli said a serious attempt has been made to distinguish places, which find a matching mention in Valmiki Ramayana, from the places with made up histories. Suribana, Naamadha Chilume, Chunchanakatte, Melukote, Hampi and Gokarna are the places in Karnataka that are described in the original epic, according to him.

In the long history of Hinduism several gods have climbed or fallen off the popularity chart. The present campaign is also trying to promote the worship of Rama. For instance, the pamphlet that is being distributed now urges people to recite Shri Rama Vijaya Mahamantra, Sundara khanda, Hanuman chalisa and Ramaraksha stotra on January 22.

More political than spiritual

Prof Phaniraj said the Ram mandir campaign is entirely political and devoid of any spiritual quotient. “Ram is the new nation builder, a national hero and a warrior, not the spiritual ruler depicted in Tulsidas Ramayana,” he said.

Commenting on the ongoing campaign, he said 3 per cent of the population is attempting to foist its culture on 97 per cent of the population.

He cited instructions allegedly issued by the Hindutva organisations to its cadre distributing the akshate to support his contention, “The member carrying akshate is instructed to walk bare feet, abstain from meat for the preceding three days. The families receiving akshate are asked to ‘compulsorily’ give up meat on January 22,” he recounted.

'Vegetarian Ram'
Nanjaraj Aras said a carefully calibrated image of a vegetarian Ram is being projected referring to a recent controversy that has raged over his eating habits.
“The Maharashtra minister, who said Ram ate meat, faced a backlash. But shloka 19 of sarga 42 of the Valmiki Ramayana talks about an incident in which meat and fruits were served to Rama and Sita,” he said.
He does not see Rama worship taking off in Karnataka. “People have enough gods already,” he said.
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