My Friend Does Not Want Rekhta To Call Lord Ram as Imam-E-Hind. I Disagree.
A close friend of mine recently posted the following in his story.
Do you notice anything odd, does anything trigger you? See if this was coming from a troll on the internet or that nutcase who spews venom every hour on Twitter, I would just ignore it and scroll to the next tweet. This human happens to be someone that I know for a long time; someone I respect, and look up to and someone whose views have shaped my own. I used to be amazed by his progressive stances and how he arrived at those conclusions (this is important to me, how you make decisions, how you arrive at your concluding views, what you consider important and what you discard as noise). And mind you, he is fairly young to me and a couple of times I have mentioned my amazement how at his age I was far from forming any such coherent thoughts. I do not want to name and shame because the internet these days has a quality to remember the garbage for posterity but people change regularly, and that’s how it should be. We acquire new information, we discover our views aren’t progressive, we find fault in our arguments and we change, we update our ideas of the world and about our surroundings. He has of course updated his views; gone over to the edge and jumped onto the other side albeit still hovering near the fence so as to make an odd appearance every now and then to his audience on this side. I write this not because of him but the post itself and so many posts like this. I see a discerning pattern and aim in these kinds of posts.
Let me elaborate and for that, let’s travel back in time.
“Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” is an essay written by Indian writer A. K. Ramanujan in 1987. It is a scholarly work that summarizes the history of the Rāmāyaṇa and its spread across India and Asia over a period of 2,500 years or more. Many have pointed out that the count of three hundred is an underestimation. Even if that not be the case, we have 300 different tellings of the epic. To enunciate this point his essay begins by narrating a story from one of the tellings.
One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”
Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.
He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali ). The King of Spirits (bhut ), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.
While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”
“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”
Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”
“It will be done,” said Rama.
Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.
Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”
Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”
“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”
Laksmana said, “I’11 have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”
“Go in and ask then.”
“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”
“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.
Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”
So he went right in.
Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”
“Visvamitra is here.”
“Send him in.”
So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.
Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”
Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”
Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”
Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.
When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.
All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”
Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”
“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”
“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”
The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”
They were all exactly the same. “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.
The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go.”
This essay was a required reading on Delhi University’s syllabus for history undergraduates from 2006–7 onward. RSS forces were incensed by this. On October 9, 2011, the Academic Council of the University decided to remove the essay from their curriculum for its next academic cycle.
According to the Sangh, what is to be simply consumed is not supposed to be ‘studied’; it is to be kept away from the realms of history, anthropology or literary departments and, if possible, from universities themselves. There is an overwhelming angst that it would be subjected to interpretation. They fear that if ‘studied,’ it would affect the prevalent patterns of belief that helps their politics. The agenda appears to be crystal clear, yet again. The Sangh Parivar wants us to believe in one single Ramayana that they have stamped as ‘official.’ Mind you, it is not Valmiki’s version that they seem to be endorsing. It is a linear, soap-retelling of the epic poem which primarily concentrates on the iconisation of Rama and instantly charges the faith batteries. They want the narrative to retain the structure and simplicity of a bedtime story so that you fall asleep in consent and total belief as you listen to it. Asking questions, pointing out contradictions or speaking of versions are after all activities that happen in the wide awake world.
— How many Ramayanas?
It is amply clear that there are many Ramayanas, and some of them don’t even see Ram as the protagonist. That’s again not the point. Ram of each story is a different being (you would object if I used ‘person’ here, wouldn’t you?).
Anyway, it was Allama Iqbal who first referred to Ram as imām-e-hind.
Hai Ram ke vajūd pe hindostāñ ko naaz
ahl-e-nazar samajhte haiñ is ko imām-e-hind
(India is proud of the existence of Ram
Spiritual people consider him prelate of India)
Allama probably does not see Ram as a god here but nonetheless, he sees Ram as someone very important. Iqbal, who right-wing zealots propagate as a vile human being who is against Hindus and the idea of a new India, considers Ram as so important as to christen him as the spiritual leader of India. Mind you, the India that Allama is referring to was British India which consisted of Pakistan and Bangladesh. That is, he considers Ram a leader even of Muslims and other faiths. Allama Iqbal is considered a founder of the idea of Pakistan and is hugely revered there and across the Muslim world. Allama was revered in India too until a few years ago. His famous poem, Tarana-ae-Hind, popularly known as ‘Saare Jahan Se Achha’ which he wrote for children is still sung in schools. On that note, I would not ask you to name me a revered Hindu poet or gent that wrote about Prophet Muhammad or any Muslim icon as a religious/spiritual leader of India/world. Comparisons as such are belittling to the original person and more importantly, add nothing to the conversation.
My friend objected to the word imam. How dare Rekhta call our Ram an imam, a Muslim religious figure/nomenclature? But did they? They called Ram Imaam-e-hind which according to Rekhta’s website means ‘priest of India’.
My friend noted that imams aren’t worshipped. So we want our gods to be worshipped by Muslims the way we do? Rekhta was merely speaking about a musical play they were going to screen at their annual function. Can’t we stage a play without certifying our worship to the characters of a play? Now one can object and ask why should they call Ram by an Islamic name at all. To answer that, let me tell you another story. This is from my home town. I live along the western coast and where I live, across the road lay two religious buildings on two hills facing each other. One is a temple to Maa Durga and another is a Sufi shrine (what you would refer to as Dargah) of Saint Shah Karamuddin Auliya. Hindus refer to the Dargah as Pira Devul (Pir’s temple; Pir is the Persian word for a Sufi spiritual guide, devul means temple in Konkani which is a local tongue). And it is not just Hindus but even Muslims while referring to Dargah with Hindus refer to it always as Pira-devul. You see, it is just a reference to a place in our own tongue in words familiar to us. The emotion or gist, that the structure is a religious place like the Hindu temple to Durga Maa which we refer to as Durgadevi-devul, remains the same. What my friend is picking on above is semantics. What it means, the emotion behind it is immaterial to him. Or he hasn’t even cared to take note of the same.
Why are we picking on such straws to attack Muslims?
Hindus will always talk about Muslim heritage or culture using their own vocabulary; it is also easier to do so that way. Plus it comes naturally to us. Like many Hindus that visit the Dargah or say a church, fold their hands in prayer like they would at a temple. They do not do what Christians do or how a Muslim prays at a mosque. And this difference is never noticed and pointed out by the other because everyone knows they are all but praying in their own different ways. How they pray, and how they regard the god in their hearts is their own private thing. Mirabai for instance saw lord Krishna as more than just a god, she saw him as her partner, her lover. Her poems are largely poems of love. And she is allowed and celebrated for her devotion. There are other poets like her too. The target here is shared culture, amalgamation and interaction between two communities. The whole Hindutva project promulgated by RSS-BJP survives on constantly hating the Muslims, Dalits and Christians. Muslims form a large chunk of Indian minorities and they are present in small numbers everywhere and also nowhere. Like Jews in Germany, absurd myths and stories are created about Muslims, about their great muscle power, virility, their food habits, their sexual lives and prowess, and lot lot worse. This is done so as to create an entity that is separate from us (being Hindus, especially upper caste Hindus but that’s the next stage), a group of people who are not like us, who are different from us culturally and just in any other way. They are to be feared. Because when you fear and have a common enemy then it becomes easier to communicate with you, easier to herd you. Then they don’t have the need to talk to you about how they will uplift your life or solve the matters of governance and issues you face daily. Instead, they have propped up a new imaginary issue — Muslims ganging up to take over and annihilate the Hindus — the 14 per cent taking over and marauding the 80 per cent who also happen to hold the state apparatus in their absolute control. You see, this whole project of dehumanizing and othering the Muslims that garners votes for the BJP and its affiliates only works as long as both communities remain on separate sides of the aisle. Since the rumours and stories spread about Muslims are far from true, the moment a Hindu interacts with a Muslim or partakes in their culture or religious activity or say a Muslim partakes in a Hindu gathering or function, that act thereby opens a channel for communication resulting into the crashing down of bogie of fear and propaganda. For example, what do you think the story of Taufeeq Bhai, Naeem Sheikh, and Hussain Pathan, who rescued as many as they could after the Morbi bridge collapse, a tragedy that took more than 135 lives would do to the fable of Muslims-killing-Hindus that gets circulated on Whatsapp? Hussain Pathan rescued 35 lives to the hospital, and Taufiq, an expert swimmer, swam 50 lives to safety. Hussain’s own cousin died in the tragedy. Haseena, a social worker at the civic hospital helped clean bodies at the Morbi hospital to help families identify loved ones.
What my friend wants or what his story achieves is the rupture and blockade of sharing and interaction between two communities. When I say, you cannot talk about my god (or you cannot pray to my god) in your-own-vocabulary then I’m stopping you from building any bridges that would lead to me. We all have our own vocabulary in which we speak and in which we understand the world around us, whatever new that we encounter in life gets consumed via this same vocabulary. I understand Buddha is a god when I see Buddhist bhikkus praying or meditating before the statue of him. Although later I discover that Buddhism has no concept of god but I cannot shrug it off. In my world and in my vocabulary, one we pray or meditate to is god and so I think of Buddha as god despite knowing otherwise and so in my writing Buddha would be a god. In fact, I have relatives who have pictures of Buddha among Hindu gods and they pray to Buddha the same way they pray to their gods. A Buddhist might object (if the person has framed his thoughts like my friend) to treating Buddha as a god. But in my own language and vocabulary, I would continue to treat and refer to him as a god. For instance, Christians and Muslims have different stories about Jesus Christ. One sees him as a god while others see him as just one of the many prophets. But they both respect him. It’s just they see him in different ways. Now, do we want this diversity? And if we do not, which one, whose Ramayana should get sacrificed? And why?
How is my friend’s pushing away of people who call and see Ram as Imaam-e-Hind different from Indian tv news anchors who recently objected to Muslims playing Garba/dandiya with Hindus? Aman Chopra on News18 asked, “Why do Muslims want to attend Garba events, What is it about Garba that makes you forget all of Islam’s teachings? What business do you have in our Garba? Humaray garba main tumhara kya kaam?” Sudhir Chaudhary on AajTak asked, “why do people from a faith that prohibits dance and music — he meant Muslims if you were wondering — want to participate in Hindu religious festivities.” Think of it. What do they want? Basically, stop each community from participating with one another. What will that achieve? It will strengthen the lies and falsehoods spread by RSS-BJP about Muslims. It will help strengthen and further the hatred Hindus have been made to harbour against Muslims. This will also unite Hindus which will greatly benefit the BJP politically because this unity is based on a shared hatred of Muslims. Other parties since they do not share this viral hatred (at least not openly and viscerally as RSS-BJP) will be sidelined further. These are the aims and end goals, and to achieve these all kinds of objections are taken. It started with the food they ate, then moved to how they prayed to their god, what they wore and now to control how they see and accept our gods.
One of the important things we all have to understand is how Indian Muslims (more aptly the Musalmans of the subcontinent) are different from Muslims elsewhere. The idea of Muslims that RSS-BJP propagates repeatedly tells us that Muslims only believe and pray to one god and that they discard other gods. But most Indian Muslims on most days pray at many Sufi shrines. Now, these are tombs of ordinary humans who wrote poetry and spoke of harmony between different sects and communities. Shrines at Ajmer and Delhi to Sufis, or at the place that I mentioned earlier, what are they? Don’t they disprove the idea of Muslims propagated by RSS? Then how come we continue to repeat this lie? Muslims are this, Muslims are that, but are they really? Just look around you. And if you don’t look around, if you refuse to interact, if you refuse to participate and converse, how will you know the real Muslims? In absence of lived experience, you are bound to believe what you hear and see on social media and places like opindia that are stuffed by RSS with their hateful ideas to further their political project. Indian Muslims are different people than Muslims of the world, and for that matter and for the existence and prosperity of India as a whole, Hindus would also have to be different. We belong to this shared space. We cannot survive and sustain ourselves with narrow and bigoted minds that are always on alert looking to latch on to a crack here and there.
Let’s create common spaces, shared forums, and safe corners for both communities to freely interact with each other. Share each other’s stories, find common ground and mix up so much that the idea of the other, the idea of us-versus-them evaporates into thin air. I will err, I will make mistakes, I may pronounce your name wrong, may offend you by virtue of my ignorance but let that not widen the schism that exists between us so much so that we stop speaking to each other. Please correct me when I’m wrong, indulge me and let’s build these bridges so we can easily and comfortably crossover into each other’s spaces.