art by Sol Skelton
I have always been religious, waking before the sun to pray — the Om necklaces and the small figures of a god I wear round my neck, hands, and waist gleaming a bright orange in the first rays of light. The chants evoke each of the Hindu gods, starting with the elephant-headed Ganesha, remover of obstacles, and ending with bow-wielding Rama, the paragon of virtue and morality.
As such, it strikes me as odd that the very same god revered for his glorious, inclusive reign and strong sense of morality acts as the justification for the country’s biggest politico-religious conflict. For a majority Hindu country, with a capital shaped by Mughal Muslim influence and cuisine by British trade, the Times of India’s recent article covering the ceremonial laying of the first brick for the Ayodhya Rama temple by the Prime Minister marks a shift towards Hindu nationalism for a country founded as strongly secular. The new temple is built atop the ruins of an old mosque demolished by Hindu “activists” whose rather recursive justification was that the mosque was built atop the ruins of an older temple marking Rama’s birthplace demolished in the 16th century — each brick building the temple also trampling the similarly ancient Muslim heritage underfoot and setting a dangerous precedent for the country. The ceremony itself comes soon after a supreme court decision overturning a previous verdict that forced Hindu and Muslim communities to share the land, an ominous sign for the nation shared by the same two communities albeit on a greater scale.
Prime Minister Modi’s administration and the rise of the nationalist government have fanned the flames between the two religious communities — relying on a millennium-old religion to propagate heinous Islamophobia not just culturally but also legislatively with the passage of recent controversial bills effectively banning asylum for Muslims from surrounding nations.
For my family, the supreme court decision on the Ayodhya temple is merely a day of celebration for the creation of a temple on Hindu sacred ground, one that my status as Hindu and religious should find me elated at. Yet, the corruption of religion to justify the opposite of its universal preachings of peace and tolerance leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The ancient epic of Rama has lasted the ages as the Ramayana, in part because of the secular message it shares about doing the right thing at all costs — waging war to vanquish an immoral demon king and even self exiling for 14 years merely to uphold a promise — an ideal clearly disavowed by the hyper nationalistic groups. India’s colorful culture relies on the subtle interplay between different heritages and its rich history. Erasing the rich Muslim background of the country would not only ostracize the substantial community of Muslim Indians but also reject the ideals the nation was founded on. At its core, the little figure of Rama around my neck is not an emblem of blind faith but a reminder to do good: a notion that maybe India can rediscover amidst a senseless war of faith.