Weaponizing Lord Ram to justify bigotry and violence contrasts sharply with his portrayal as a symbol of righteousness and compassion in various retellings of the Ramayana

Early this year, the consecration of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya, which signifies the return of Ram Lalla to the city of his birth, was seen as the deliberate instrumentalisation of Ram’s legacy, with the BJP capitalising on the emotive appeal of Lord Ram across all strata of society ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The Ram Mandir movement, of course, has been a rallying cry for the party, which has succeeded in positioning itself as champions of ‘the Hindu cause’ by strategically appropriating Ram, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who has fascinated the faithfuls not just in India, but throughout the world; Ram is worshipped in several countries of the Southeast Asia, including Tibet, Myanmar, Indonesia (Bali), Malaysia, and Thailand as the God incarnate.

“For hundreds of years, for millions of people, across history and geography, Ram’s name and Ram’s story has been a window to the divine. Ram’s name, the Ram-nam, is repeatedly chanted to tide over a crisis, for the name, Ram, when reversed becomes Mara, which means ‘die’. Ram is the opposite of Mara. Ram is life — with all its demands and desires and destinies,” writes mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, in The Book of Ram (Penguin, 2015), which celebrates the Ram of the common man — and not the Ram which has been reduced to be ‘a potent political lever’ by the Hindutva brigade — in the light of the many retellings of his tale.

Who is Ram and what was his Dharma?

The story of Ram, as depicted in Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayana (written in Sanskrit around 500 AD) and Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas (written in Awadhi in the 16th century), has not been uniform throughout history. Ramayana has undergone several interpretations, especially since the 19th and 20th centuries. For instance, Dravidians, Jains and tribals have their own versions of Ramayana; needless to say, they offer different perspectives on the character of Ram. According to Pattanaik, Tulsidas presented Ram as a form of the divine; it contributed to the Bhakti movement, which stressed on the mystical union of the individual with God. This emphasis on divinity was not confined to Ram alone but also extended to Krishna. But it’s Ram who occupies the pride of place in the Hindu pantheon of Gods.

The virtues attributed to Ram across the many Ramayanas, however, remain the same: he is portrayed as the steadfast king, son, and husband. He is the ideal man, supreme in honour and righteousness, the Maryada Purushottam, who always upholds dharma. Whether presented as the epitome of royal integrity or hailed for his adherence to his father King Dasharatha’s decisions or commitment to a single wife, Ram remains a symbol of duty, sacrifice, compassion, and virtue. This portrayal is evident not only in mainstream North Indian interpretations but also in the Dravidian and Jain Ramayana, where Ram is revered for his augustness — he is someone who follows the rules, unlike Krishna who broke or bended the warrior codes to defeat the enemy (the Kauravas) in the Mahabharata.

According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, the purity of Ram’s character was evident in his early years when he was completing his education under the tutelage of Rishi Vasishtha. When he was asked by his guru to defend Rishi Vishwamitra’s hermitage from attacks by rakshasas (demons), Ram killed many of them, including a female rakshasa known as Tadaka. So pleased was Vishwamitra by his action that he taught Ram many magical chants that transformed arrows into lethal missiles. When Vishwamitra was taking Ram to Mithila, the capital of the kingdom of Videha ruled by Sita’s father, Janaka, they visited the hermitage of Maharishi Gautam on the way. After Indra, the king of the gods, had seduced Ahalya, Gautam’s wife, the latter cursed her to turn into stone because she had been unfaithful to him. But when Ram placed his foot on the stone that was Ahalya, she was instantly released from the curse.

Several instances from Ram’s life show that he was the defender of Dharma, the way of life propagated by the rishis. It was a way of life, Pattanaik writes, based on rules not impulse, where violence is allowed only for self-preservation — for food and in defence. He further elaborates: “Dharma is not about controlling people or striking down the enemy… It is about caring for others, about loving and giving, not taking. It is about understanding people, accommodating people, making people feel secure and giving them a supportive environment. Dharma is about sacrificing desire with discipline on the altar of duty, about refusing to submit to the seductive passions roused by adharma, about outgrowing the animal within us. Dharma is what can transform a man into a god.”

How Ram shook off the limitations of mortality

The greatness of Rama, writes Vanamali Mataji in The Complete Life of Rama: Based on Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Earliest Oral Traditions (2014), lies in the fact that he faced the trials and tribulations of life, along with Sita, like an ordinary mortal. “In Ram, God took on a human form with all its frailties in order to show us how our aspirations for a dharmic life can be fulfilled. In him we see how we can surmount our frailties and become divine, if we are prepared to completely subjugate the ego, live only for the good of the world, and act in consonance with the duties and obligations of our particular positions in society. Valmiki’s Ram is the portrait of a man who shakes off the limitations of mortality and becomes divine by strict adherence to truth and honour,” she writes.

A feminist reading of the Ramayana makes one wonder as to why Ram abandoned his wife, Sita, whom he loved most, and why he asked her to prove her fidelity not once, but twice. When Ram was leaving for exile, Sita insisted that she must accompany him, but Ram was reluctant. Adamant, she burst into tears. Ram took her in his arms, and said: “Not knowing the strength of your purpose, O Janaki, I tried to deter you, not because I wanted to leave you but only because it was my duty to point out to you the dangers of forest life. You know that I cannot bear to cause distress to you, my lovely princess. O beloved Sita, even heaven has no charms for me without your bewitching presence. I, too, would love to sport with you in the woods and glades of the forest and on the mountain tops, so make haste to give away all your jewels and costly clothes and prepare yourself for a sojourn in the forest with me.”

However, years later, when Ram became the king of Ayodhya, he asked his brother, Lakshmana, to take Sita (who was pregnant then) to the forest and leave her there alone; Sita took shelter in the hermitage of the poet-sage Valmiki, where she gave birth to twins, Luv and Kush, and raised them on her own. Vanamali underlines that it was yet another sacrifice by Ram to uphold dharma. As for the chastity trials, after Ram killed Ravana in Lanka, and Sita was released from her prison, he asked her to walk through fire to prove to the world that she had been a faithful wife during her stay in Ravana’s palace. Even though she was startled by the suggestion of infidelity, Sita walked through fire and emerged from its, unscathed — protected by the power of her chastity. After this episode, Ram’s fourteen years of exile came to an end, but Sita’s ordeal was far from over. The reason was the gossip doing the rounds among the people of Ayodhya, who were unwilling to accept Sita — a woman of ‘soiled reputation’ — as their queen.

It was then that Ram asked Sita to prove her chastity before the people of Ayodhya to wipe off the stain on her reputation once and for all and take her rightful place beside him as queen. “Sita, tired of her character being questioned repeatedly, begged the earth to take her into its folds if she had truly been a faithful wife. Instantly the earth split open and Sita disappeared under the ground. The people of Ayodhya now had their proof but it came at the price of Ram losing his wife. Unable to live on earth without his beloved, Ram decided to renounce his mortal body. Passing on the crown of his forefathers to his children, he walked into the Sarayu River and never rose again,” writes Vanamali. Ram lost the only woman he loved and renounced the world for the sake of his subjects. This was also part of his Dharma.

Have we strayed off Ram’s path?

The Ramayana may be an ancient chronicle, but Vanamali argues that it has deep meaning even in modern times. “We live in an age that is at a loss to know the meaning of human existence and doubts the existence of God. We are perplexed as to how we can act with righteousness when the whole world seems to have gone mad, when the meaning of truth and love cannot be found, and when hate and self-interest seem to be the only rules of conduct, from the highest to the lowest. Answers to these perplexing questions can be found in the Ramayana, for human nature, as such, has hardly changed through the years. Situations may change, avataras come and go, but human nature remains the same,” she writes.

On Ram Navami, as we celebrate his birth, the very mention of Ram’s name should remind us of the inherent divinity within each of us. The hate and bigotry we see around us run counter to what Ram stood for, and his commitment to upholding dharma. One of the most poignant lessons from Ram’s life is his capacity for forgiveness. He forgave even those who wronged him, including his estranged brother, Bharata.

Today, alas! Ram has been weaponized to serve narrow political agendas and promote divisive ideology. One of the most alarming manifestations of this is the use of Lord Ram to justify violence against religious and ethnic minorities. Hindu fanatics often invoke Ram’s name to justify acts of hatred and oppression against Muslims, Christians, and other marginalised communities. They have reduced him to a symbol of exclusivity, intolerance, and aggression. This distortion does not only tarnish Ram’s legacy but also undermines the very essence of Hinduism, which advocates for inclusivity and pluralism. Hopefully, someday, we will be able to challenge and resist this. And reclaim Ram.

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