In The Name of Ram...

A while ago, I made a video questioning whether the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabharat were historical events or mythology. It drew a lot of anger from a lot of people. The thing is – I was not always aware that I was an atheist. There was a time when I prayed to God as well – Lord Shiva actually. But I never believed the stories to be true or historical. I viewed them as mythology – which even if it ever happened, happened in some other realm or alternate reality. Because with what we know about science and our own development, we can safely assume that the magical elements in the holy books of all religions are just not possible. I thought everyone knew this – I thought everyone knew that these were stories – metaphorical mostly and meant to impart a moral lesson to the people. So, it was astonishing when a very close friend of mine became seriously offended because I questioned the authenticity of Mahabharat and hence, Shri Krishna in association. 

I tried to reason with him, saying that his belief didn’t have to be dependent on the historical authenticity of the epics. I told him that the message of Shree Krishna is a great one, irrespective of whether said by a magical Godly character or by the imagination of the poet Tulsidas in Bhagavad Geeta. As I saw it, faith is not supposed to be rational. Because if you examine any religion through the lens of rationality, it doesn’t hold up. Hence faith is a belief. In a recent interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, Mr. Devdutt Pattnaik said “Justice is not a fact, it is a belief.” He meant that a lot of things are intangible and cannot be measured by science. That’s where belief comes into play. Belief gives things value. He said that to create peace, society needs to believe in stories of honor, stories of good men, and noble actions. He was speaking of Shri Ram’s story and his character. He said that irrespective of whether you believe it to be history or mythology, Shri Ram’s character is worth emulating. That resonated with me.

I had always been taught to look at holy books like that – like stories about good deeds by great writers, aimed at keeping the civilization honest – stories filled with magic and miracles to make them interesting, most of these elements were metaphorical and allegorical. Like the story of Narasimha and the asura Hiranyakashipu. I always thought this was an allegory for justice and law. Where the asura uses a loophole in logic to get what seems like immunity to all punishments, Vishnu’s avatar takes the form of a hybrid creature (half man, half lion) to dole out justice – this, I thought represented the evolution of the justice system based on the nature of crime. I am not saying that these stories were meant like this by the people who wrote them – I am saying that I believe these stories were meant to make us think. And a story does NOT need to be TRUE for it to make you think or be inspired to do good deeds. This is why I was shocked to find out that educated people like my friend who took offense, claimed to believe the epics to be true.

Now I am also aware that a lot of these hyper-religious reactions in present-day India have their roots in the fundamental Hindutva ideology of RSS. Let me explain what I mean by that. The Hinduism I grew up with was inclusive, welcomed free thought, and wasn’t rigid and binding. The Hinduism I grew up with didn’t necessarily view Muslims and Christians as “different people”, it had a place for all of them, regardless of whether they thought the same way or not. But the Hindutva ideology is like Islam in more ways than one. Followers of Hindutva believe that Hinduism is the superior and/or true religion. (Just like Islam believes it is the only true religion.) Hindutva is not inclusive. (Like Islam isn’t inclusive.) Hindutva needs you to say Jai Shree Ram to be a Hindu, just as Islam needs you to concede to Allah as the only true God to be a Muslim. Hindutva has grown radical elements like the saffron-clad goons who beat up people in the name of Ram, just like certain Islamic groups have grown radical terrorists who attack people they consider infidels. You can argue that the saffron-clad goons are created by politics, but then you would have to agree that the same applies to the terrorists as well. But the fact is that Hindutva as an ideology, encourages a more radical form of Hinduism, something that in my view, is polar opposite to the Hinduism this country once practiced. So, this ideology perpetrated by political groups needed people to take their faiths more seriously and that is why my questioning the authenticity of our epics rubs people the wrong way.

A guy who chanced upon my video on Facebook, actually tagged, Modiji, Yogi Adityanath, and a page called Randomsena and threatened to get me arrested. I laughed him away and nothing happened. But yesterday, one of my contacts shared Randomsena’s page with me and told me to check out the online version of Bajrang Dal. The posts on that page were of the Randomsena targeting people who made fun of Hindu gods and pressurizing police through politicians to arrest such people and persecute them. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth – I couldn’t believe that people were doing this. People in my video kept saying I was insulting Hinduism, but I never saw it that way. I always thought that religion is open to scrutiny as it is made by people. Now I know Randomsena didn’t come after me for one of two reasons – either I am not viral enough as a creator to give them clout by persecuting me, or my content doesn’t really have any element that can be persecuted. I didn’t abuse any God. I didn’t abuse any person. I just refused to believe in the version of God painted by different religions. My videos were more about the social element of religion – when I was pointing out how serious people get about their Gods, I was pointing out how silly it is to use religion, which was meant to keep people good, to justify doing bad things. 

I have been called names for speaking my mind. I have been called names for supporting Gandhian thought. People keep questioning my atheism, even though I have told them I am not preaching it to them. All I have told people is to treat people from other religions better. People keep saying I am a “Hindu-hater” because I point out atrocities justified in the name of Hinduism in our society. Well, I have questioned all beliefs in my videos, and it is only the Hindus who have told me to stop making videos. So, am I wrong to assume that it is the Hindus in our society who are more rigid in their thought today? I keep being told that I would be beheaded in Saudi if I questioned Islam. I am sure that is true because they have anti-blasphemy laws. But being slightly better than that – is that all we aim for? While using the Saudi argument, these people are essentially threatening me too. So, how different are we really from a country like Saudi, especially when we have started persecuting people for making fun of religions? If you criticize Islamic traditions, then you must not emulate them. Right?

Somebody asked me why I started making the videos, perpetrating my atheist thoughts. I thought about it. And the answer is – “Maybe for the exact reason why my school friend has started feeling so religious after all these years. Because of the politics around me.” I also took pride in how inclusive Hinduism was, and how much more peaceful the philosophy was. But then politicians managed to change that – Hindus started lynching people to death in the name of Ram, Hindus started saying “Have you seen a Muslim coming to a temple? No. But we Hindus go to their dargahs in Ajmer like stupid sheep that we are.” Hindus started bullying people from minority communities, barraging them with profanities and derogatory comments online – and just like that, I was no longer a Hindu ‘naastik’. Because there was no place for the Hinduism I believed in once in the Hindutva that people believe in today. 

Even so, I don’t hate any religion or any people – so I am still more Hindu in spirit than those Hindutva guys who ardently hate their Muslim neighbors. I love the Hindu philosophy and mythology – our mythology is way more creative than the mythology of Abrahamic religions. But I hate it when people try to claim that our mythology has science in it – because it takes away from the creativity of the ancestors who wrote them, and it takes away credit from the Indian scientists who actually did science research – in the present and in the past. Someone argued, “Even scientists believe in Hinduism.” That doesn’t make our mythology science – scientists are also people and people can be spiritual as well as religious but science needs empirical evidence. My cousin argued with me yesterday that Hanuman Chalisa accurately calculated the distance between Earth and the Sun in the following verse:

“yuga-sahasra-yojana para bhanu
leelyo tahi madhura phala janu”

This translates to “Considering the Sun to be a sweet fruit, Hanuman jumped to swallow it.” Here the distance he traveled is mentioned as yuga-sahasra-yojana. Here is the article that sheds light on how they interpreted these words to reach the conclusion that it was an accurate calculation.

Now, I read the article, and it seemed like someone was retrofitting the calculations instead of the poet actually meaning it – because whether you agree or not, a scientist would publish his findings in mathematical form, with numbers and not poetry. This interpretation is a desperate attempt to make people think that our mythology is science. And that demeans the creativity of our mythology – it actually insults it. That is what I believe.

But, even if I am wrong and the Hanuman Chalisa actually has an accurate calculation of Earth’s distance from the Sun, does that prove that a boy existed who could leap the distance to reach the Sun? All it proves is the author of Hanuman’s amazing story had some scientific knowledge. When we reduce it to this interpretation, we ignore it for the beautiful piece of literature that it is. Anyway, I asked my cousin the same question: "Does it prove the existence of God?" He said that wasn’t the point he was making – he insisted that he was only saying that our mythology is more scientific. 

“More scientific than?” I asked.

He ignored my question. But he meant ‘more scientific than Quran and Bible’. Is that reason enough to believe that these are all real incidents and not fantastical stories? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My cousin also told me that if I have a problem with politics, I should talk about that. Am I the one who made politics all about temples and religious identity? And how can I talk about problems in politics without at least trying to tackle how religion has been used to poison our minds, how religion has been used to make us hate our own countrymen. What can be worse than that? 

‘Secular’ and ‘liberal’ have been reduced to derogatory words in the India of today. The idea of a ‘welfare state’ is scoffed upon by people who know nothing about the perils of letting monopolies dominate the market as they support the Ambanis and Adanis of the world. I am called a commie for speaking for the poor, a casteist for speaking for the oppressed, and a “bhadva” for speaking against hate speech. Did I insult Ram when I said Ramayan is an epic and not history? Or did the BJP insult Ram when they claimed to have "brought him home" when Ram already lives in every Hindu’s home? Who is more Hindu – the saffron-clad goon beating people in Ram’s name or the atheist who is imploring people not to use Ram’s name to justify their violence?

That is for you to decide.

Comments

  1. Brilliant note. Love it.. keep writing more.

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