A few days ago, the prestigious Ram Mandir was inaugurated in Ayodhya, India. This Hindu temple is built on the spot where Ram is said to have been born (Ram Janma Bhúmi). For Hindus this is a very sacred site, where several centuries ago during India’s Muslim rule a mosque was built, the Babri Masjid. At the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Modi said the new temple is a symbol of peace, patience, harmony and amity. However, the history of this new temple is far from peaceful and harmonious and one can wonder whether this can now be covered up by pure splendour.
There are various accounts about this particular site in Ayodhya and whether the Babri mosque would have been built after (deliberate) destruction by Muslim rulers of an existing Hindu temple in Ram’s honour. Quarrels about this between Hindus and Muslims over time culminated in the demolition of the mosque by fanatical Hindus in 1992. This action resulted in violent riots that left several thousand dead. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the site belonged to the Hindus to build the Ram Mandir there. Another piece of land was to be made available to the Muslims for the construction of a mosque.
The Ram Mandir is not yet completed, but the installation of the statue of a young Ram (Ram Lalla) was deemed an appropriate moment to inaugurate the temple ahead of time. Addressing the thousands of gathered believers, Prime Minister Modi said “Our Ram has arrived in Ayodhya after centuries of waiting, patience and sacrifices.” “Our Ram Lalla will no longer live in a tent. Our Ram Lalla will stay in a magnificent temple.”
These words brought me back to my first memory of the story of Ram, Ramayana. As a child, my brother and I went with our áji (paternal grandmother) – on our father’s instruction – to see the movie Ramayana that was playing at theatre De Paarl in Paramaribo, Suriname. It was still the time of the old film projector. The film had been shown so many times that the worn out strip with the footage broke off every time in the beginning. So we had to see the first ten minutes of the film four times. The fun was almost gone when the film finally moved on. Then a gripping and exciting story unfolded that made us forget the faltering beginning altogether. Back home, my father started to quiz us. My brother slipped away, so I had to go through the test alone. What had I seen, what had I learnt? I had seen a lot and I was boggled by all the images.
In any case, I had seen a very likeable, serviceable, brave, sacrificial and righteous Ram. One who renounces the throne without grumbling and goes into exile so that his father can fulfil a promise once made to one of his wives (not Ram’s mother). This wife wants her own son Bharat on the throne, but he is loyal to Ram and does not want to become king. Eventually he does, but in Ram’s name and until Ram returns after 14 years. During his exile, Ram leads a sober life. He comes into contact with peoples of other kingdoms. With his brother Lachmon and the strong Hanuman, he helps fight injustice. When his wife Sita is abducted, he battles the almost invincible demon king Ravan of Lanka (now Sri Lanka). Never thinking of ruling himself in the kingdoms where he wins, he leaves them for a righteous relative of the vanquished ruler. Well, what had I learnt? Actually that the story of Ram is a universal story of love, loyalty, sacrifice, justice and knows no narrow boundaries of race, colour, religion, origin and the like.
In his inauguration speech, Prime Minister Modi referred to the controversy surrounding the construction of the temple. He disagreed with critics who felt that the Ram Mandir would set off a fire in the country. “Ram is not fire but energy, Ram is not dispute but solution, Ram is not just ours but everyone’s and Ram is not just the present but eternal,” the prime minister said. This is exactly what I learnt from Ram’s life story, so I agree.
What I cannot agree with is the suggestion that Ram desired a magnificent temple to return to Ayodhya. Austerity and sacrifice are among Ram’s attributes. He is worshipped as a deity and it therefore seems inappropriate to attribute to him typically human traits of ostentation. Ram would happily stay in a tent to serve his people. Therefore, the temple is not there for Ram, but for the people who want to worship him. They should contribute to peace, harmony and friendship in Indian society and, in my opinion, this can only be done if Ram resides in their hearts.