Modi’s Diwali extravaganza shows why we need to tell the many stories of Rama

Some Hindus fear that Hinduism’s rich diversity is being erased in favor of a common Hindu canon.

Rangoli depicting the life of Hindu god Rama are displayed on the banks of the Saryu River in Ayodhya , India, Nov. 2, 2021. Thousands of earthen lamps, rows of which are visible in the background, will be illuminated for Deepotsav celebrations on the eve of Diwali on the banks of the Saryu. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

(RNS) — Across India and the global South Asian diaspora, Hindus will be watching on Thursday (Nov. 4) as an extravagant celebration of Diwali — the festival that marks the birth of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and the start of a new year in the Hindu calendar — lights up Ayodhya, a city in northern India believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

India’s pro-Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is organizing a spectacular show to celebrate the legend of the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom with his consort, Sita, and brother Lakshman after vanquishing the demon king Ravana. It is believed that the people of Ayodhya lit earthen lamps to welcome him, and some 10,000 earthen lamps will be lit this year in Modi’s dazzling display.

The celebration is as much political in many South Asians’ eyes as it is religious. Central to Modi’s long-term project of bringing about Hindu unity is the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya on a site where, in 1992, Hindu nationalists brought down a 16th-century mosque, claiming it was built by the Mughal ruler Babur on the birthplace of Rama. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court allowed the construction of the Rama temple.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, third from left, sits for the groundbreaking ceremony of a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The coronavirus restricted large crowds, but Hindus were joyful before Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground Wednesday on a long-awaited, controversial temple of their most revered god Ram at the site of a demolished 16th century mosque in northern India. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, third from left, sits for the groundbreaking ceremony of a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India, Aug. 5, 2020. The Hindu temple will be at the site of a demolished 16th-century Muslim mosque in northern India. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Now the Modi government is developing the city into a major pilgrimage center. Work is underway to transform the sleepy town that I visited two years ago into a modern city. Among the construction projects is an imposing 825-foot-tall statue of Rama. The city, where I met generations of Hindu and Muslim weavers, flower sellers and other small-business owners, peacefully living in close-knit communities, will be transformed — and so will be this diversity of Hinduism.

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The subject of a 2,500-year-old Sanskrit epic Ramayana, written by the sage Valmiki, the legend of Rama is popular not only in India, but across southeast Asia. A few days before Diwali, Ramlila — dance-drama shows that enact the life of Rama — are performed by local actors in rural and urban areas alike.

The story has hundreds of versions: In some, Rama is a divine hero, and Sita is the virtuous consort — but others have a vastly different telling.

The one that has come to be popularized and supported by the Hindu nationalists is from a poem composed by the 16th-century poet Tulsidas, known as Ramcharitmanas. Written in devotion to Rama, this lyrical poem is a daily prayer chant for many Hindus. In this telling, Rama and Sita are the exemplary man and woman. The poem projects the values of an ideal Hindu family.

Devotees light earthen lamps on the banks of the River Sarayu as part of Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya, India, on Nov. 6, 2018. The north Indian city of Ayodhya attempted to break the Guinness World Record for most lit earthen lamps on the banks of river Saryu on the occasion of Diwali – the festival of light. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Devotees light earthen lamps on the banks of the Saryu River as part of Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya, India, on Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

But there are some other versions, in which Rama is not the model hero, nor Sita the chaste, virtuous woman. One central Indian ethnic group tells a story in which Sita is seduced by Ravana. In yet another version, it is Sita who goes to war and slays the 10-headed demon Ravana, when Rama is unable to defeat him. For another ethnic group, it is Rama’s brother Lakshman who is the protagonist of the story.

Different versions of the Rama story are popular across Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Java and Indonesia. In one Thai version of the story, Rama is not the supreme lord, but subordinate to the Hindu god Shiva. In Sanskrit alone, as A K Ramanujan noted in his famous essay on the “Many Ramayanas,” there are about 25 or more tellings of the Rama story. 

Other South Asian religious traditions also celebrate the five-day festival, which began this year on Tuesday.

For Sikhs, Diwali is a time to commemorate the release of Guru Hargobind, the sixth of 10 spiritual leaders, who was imprisoned by Jehangir, an emperor in the Mughal dynasty that ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1857.

As a Jain, I fill my home with the light of earthen lamps to welcome Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, who, Hindu mythology holds, was born on Diwali during the churning of the cosmic ocean. I also meditate on Mahavira, the 24th spiritual teacher of the Jain path, to celebrate his attaining “nirvana,” or enlightenment, on this day.

Carving of Vardhamana Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara, in the Samanar Hills of India. Photo by Francis Harry Roy S/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Carving of Vardhamana Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara, in the Samanar Hills of India. Photo by Francis Harry Roy S/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

But the Jain literature contains at least 17 different tellings of the Diwali story. In one of the earliest I am familiar with, both Rama and Ravana are evolved souls, on the path of enlightenment. Rama does not commit violence — so he does not kill Ravana.

RELATED: The many stories of Diwali share a common theme of triumph of justice

“The Ramayana in India is not just a story with a variety of retellings; it is a language with which a host of statements may be made,” writes another scholar, Velcheru Narayana Rao. He describes how women in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh sing the Ramayana to express their feelings. The songs change depending on who is singing: The Ramnami Samaj, a sect of lower-caste Ram devotees, remove the verses that contain references to Brahmins and lower castes. 

Some Hindus fear that this rich diversity is gradually being erased as Hindu nationalists seek to create a common Hindu canon in events like the Ayodhya celebration. Cultural unity has been the Hindu nationalist goal ever since it emerged in the early 20th century, under British colonial rule. One of the most well-known features of Hinduism, the protection and sacredness of the cow, was part of this creation of a common symbolism under which the diverse strands of Hinduism could find commonality.

This Diwali, as many in the diaspora and across the world welcome the goddess Lakshmi, they will not do so without worshipping Ganesha, the God of wisdom and discernment. And that is important to note, along with the many stories of Rama.

(Kalpana Jain is a senior editor for religion and ethics at The Conversation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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