Every nation has its sacred spaces and every religion its sacred places. Culture determines the sacredness of physical and metaphysical spaces. Cultures are the soul of nations. Nations create their sacred identities around cultural manifestations like language, history, religion, and morals. During the revolution years in France, only half of its population spoke French and only 12 per cent spoke it “correctly”. The renowned American historian Eugen Weber narrates how France toiled in the aftermath of the revolution through a “traumatic and lengthy process” for what he describes as “self-colonisation”. That effort led to the creation of the modern French state and gave birth to notions of “French superiority over non-European cultures”.
Theodor Herzl was the visionary founder of the Zionist movement in the early 20th century that laid the foundation of the Jewish state of Israel. Herzl was non-religious. But he understood that Judaism was an inseparable aspect of Jewish personal and public existence. Jewish history is largely linked to its religion. That’s why Herzl always respected religion. The first Zionist Congress, held at Basel in France in 1903 under Herzl’s leadership, had a special announcement on the invitation — “Yesh Achsanya Kshera” — meaning, “there is a Kosher restaurant in Basel”. “Sabbath lives in the hearts of the people”, Herzl declared at the Congress and rejected the British offer for a Jewish homeland in Kenya, invoking a Psalm from the Jewish Book of Psalms: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem! Let my right hand forget its cunning.”
All religions have sacredness attached to spaces and places. The Romanian scholar of religion at the University of Chicago, Mircea Eliade, had coined the term “hierophany”, meaning the sacredness attached to places brushed by God’s presence. For the Jews, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, believed to belong to the temple built by Solomon in 10th century BCE is sacred, while it is Jerusalem for the Christians, because of its association with Jesus — from childhood until after the resurrection. For Muslims, Mecca is sacred as the birthplace of the Prophet. Even the Greek still attach sacredness to classical Greek sites like the shrine of Apollo at Delphi or the temple at Ephesus, the ancient Greek city, now in Turkey.
In the history of Semitic religions, there are many instances of sacred places being defiled and restored. Whether it was during the early Babylonian conquests of the Greek cities or the Roman conquests of the Jewish lands, or the medieval religious wars between the Christians and the Muslims, called the Crusades — the sacred places have all along been a target of the victors. As the fortunes of the crusading parties changed, so did the fortunes of those sites. Mosques became churches and cathedrals turned into mosques. Some, like the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul, which has been turned into a functioning mosque recently, stand testimony to these conquests of the sacred to this day.
Non-Semitic lands like India too were subjected to invasions of scared spaces during the medieval conquests. Countless temples were destroyed and converted. But hierophany in India is not about just the physical spaces associated with the divine persona — they are far too many — but about the values and morals they represent. Places like Ayodhya represent a universal sentiment of sacredness, not merely because of their association with the epic Ramayana and its hero Ram, but also because of a value system that they represented.
The restoration of the temple at Ayodhya must be seen in the context of this sacredness of a value system that is at the core of this country. Ram and the Ramayana are hugely popular across Asia. Robert Goldman, the Sanskrit professor from the University of California, observes that “Few works of literature produced in any place at any time have been as popular, influential, imitated and successful as the great and ancient Sanskrit epic poem, the Valmiki Ramayana.”
Ram is a god to many. But the sage Valmiki presents him both as an avatar of Vishnu as well as an ideal human being. “Who is the most accomplished man on earth at the present time?”, he asks Narad, explaining the word “accomplished” as “one who knows the secret of religion, one who knows gratitude, truthful, one who is ready to sacrifice his self-interest even when in distress to fulfil a religious vow, virtuous in his conduct, eager to safeguard the interests of all, strong, pleasing in appearance with power of self-control, able to subdue anger, illustrious, with no jealousy for the prosperity of others, and in war able to strike terror in the hearts of Gods.” Narad’s reply was “Ram, the son of Dashradh”.
Valmiki goes on to describe Ram as “Vigrahavan Dharma” and “Maryada Purushottam” — the epitome of Dharma and morals. For Gandhi, Ram was truthfulness. His Ram Rajya meant “people first”. Ram became great not when he was ruling, but when he was struggling. Power, for him, was an object of worship. Two phrases Valmiki used to describe Ram’s rule were — “Raamo Raajyamupaasitva” (Ram worshipped his kingdom); and “Aaraadhanaaya Lokasya”(worship of the people).
Ayodhya is sacred not only for Hindus. At least five of the Jain Tirthankaras came from Ayodhya. The city of Saket in Buddhism is Ayodhya only, where Buddha was believed to have lived for several years. Sikhism’s connection with Ayodhya is much deeper. Guru Granth Saheb vividly describes Babur’s invasions and iconoclasm. The tenth guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh led an army to Ayodhya to support Baba Vaishnavdas who was fighting to reclaim the Ram Janmabhoomi from the Mughals. Sant Kabir, who never believed in idol worship, declared “Raam bina nahi tham” — there is no place without Ram. That’s why Ram Manohar Lohia, the renowned Socialist leader, called Ram the greatest unifier.
The Prime Minister will be laying the foundation of those great values, hidden in the fabulous tale of Ayodhya that has for millennia been “treasured as the common property of every Hindu — as well as that of many Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians”, as historian William Dalrymple puts it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 5, 2020 under the title ‘Great unifier, universal hero’. The writer is national general secretary, BJP, and director, India Foundation