Rama : an inspiring symbol of Indian culture

By L.K. Advani   |   Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A contribution for the special 'Ramayana' issue of

THE WEEK magazine

The mass movement for the reconstruction of a grand temple at the Janmasthan of Lord Ram in Ayodhya was a major watershed in the history of post-1947 India . Why did it acquire the kind of sweep and strength that it did? The answer lies in understanding the significance of Ram and the Ramayana in our national life. Along with the other great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana has influenced the cultural personality and ethical value-system of Indians, generation after generation, century after century. Ram was an ideal king. Hence the concept of 'Ram Rajya', the epitome of good governance, was extolled as the ideal for India by no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi. He was also an ideal human being. Hence the title 'Maryada Purushottam' (an exemplar among good human beings) by which he is known.

The Ramayana is a confluence of deeply experienced human emotions and moral dilemmas, which are as eternal as they are universal. Each and every character in the epic ― Ram, Sita and Hanuman; brothers Laxman, Bharat and Shatrughna; mother Kausalya and step-mother Kaikeyi; sons Lav and Kush; the Lankan king Ravana; even Shabari, the poor tribal woman who pines for a darshan of Ram; and scores of others ― is etched in the hearts and minds of average Indians. Even apparently minor characters in it animate widely popular moral lessons, such as the squirrel that contributed its own little mite in building the Ram Sethu. How the Ramayana came to be written by Valmiki, a tribal hunter transformed into a venerable rishi-poet by the inspiration of a tragic experience, is itself a gripping story.

There is scarcely a language in India into which the Ramayana has not been translated ― or written with its own creative flavour. There is hardly a folk tradition, which does not immortalize the life and legend of Ram. There is no caste or region in India which does not have names without Ram in some form or the other. All the saintly personalities in Indian history ― from Tulsidas to Surdas, from Kabir to Tukaram, and from Sankaradev in Assam to Kamba in Tamil Nadu ― have sung the praises of Ram in their mission for social reform. Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Arya Samajists (who do not believe in idol worship) have their own version of Ram and the Ramayana. Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, invokes the name of Ram about two thousand four hundred times. Many Indian Muslims, too, have seen in Ram an ideal ruler and an embodiment of great human qualities. Allama Iqbal, the renowned Urdu and Persian poet, described him as India 's "Imam-e-Hind" in a famous eulogy.

Gandhiji's lifelong devotion to Ram naam formed the spiritual soil in which the tree of his social and political received its nourishment. "Ram naam," he said, "purifies while it cures, and, therefore, it elevates." He did not look upon Ram purely as a Hindu deity, but rather as a divine force of universal brotherhood and, in the context of India, of national integration. For instance, his daily all-faith prayer meetings were never complete without the collective singing of the Ramdhun: "Raghupati Raghava Rajaram, patita pavana Sitaram. Ishwar Allah tero naam, sab ko sanmati de Bhagwan." It is worth recalling that the Muslim League criticized Gandhiji's prayer meetings because his socio-political sermons were invariably accompanied by the chanting of "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram…" Some Marxists and Muslims even today hold the view that Gandhiji gave a "Hindu communal" orientation to India 's freedom movement by positing Ram Rajya as his goal. This criticism stems from ignorance and prejudice. For as Gandhiji himself clarified, "By Ram Rajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God."

Ram, therefore, is a unique symbol of India 's national identity, unity and integration. He is one of the ideals for Indians' aspiration to live a life of higher values. The story of his life, the Ramayana, is both a source and a carrier of the continuity of India 's cultural traditions. Is there any wonder, therefore, that the twin causes ― reconstruction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and protection of the Ram Sethu in the south ― are deeply cherished by crores of people in India ?