Out of India: An epic tale distorted for political ends

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NEW DELHI - The best person, I thought, who could tell me about the Hindu god Ram was Jalabala Vaidya, an actress, who has performed the Ramayana epic more than 1,500 times. She always performs alone, giving soul to more than 20 characters with her rich, extraordinary voice. In the dark, Jalabala becomes the banished hero, Ram, his good wife Sita, and even Hanuman, the monkey-god. There are few props. Yet, with a whip of her sari's edge, she can transform herself into Ravenna, the villainous king of Lanka. And simply by dashing a necklace on the floor, Jalabala manages to conjure up Sita's abduction by Ravenna.

There is something about Lord Ram that inspires acts of incandescent devotion among many Hindus. Jalabala's dedication to the drama is just one example. In Gujarat, an illiterate tribal woman in her eighties has spent a lifetime painting a mural based on the Ramayana; it is now nearly one kilometre long. And a television series of the Ramayana transfixed India every time it was broadcast.

Then there was Ayodhya. 'Hail Lord Ram]' was the cry that brought an invasion of 200,000 Hindus to the small town in northern India where they destroyed a Moghul mosque because politicians had convinced them Lord Ram was born on that very spot. There is no scientific evidence for this, but the devout seldom listen to archaeologists.

Who was Lord Ram? To Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Ram was a spiritual and just king. Many of Gandhi's dreams for India were inspired by Ram's vision of an ideal government, similar to Plato's Republic. Gandhi copied Ram's humble dress, and like him walked barefoot. When Gandhi was felled by an assassin, his dying words were of Ram. And yet today fundamentalist Hindus are invoking Ram as a symbolic warrior who can topple mosques and governments.

There are many versions, running to thousands of pages, but essentially the tale is this: because of a vow made to a scheming wife, Ram's father is forced to banish his son and heir for 14 years. When King Dasharatha dies, Ram's younger brother, Bharata, pleads with him to return to Ayodhya and take over the throne, but Ram refuses until he has completed his term of exile. Shortly before his return, Sita is kidnapped by Ravenna, whose passions are ravenous.

'Even though he's a prince, Ram represents the underdog. He's just a poor man and he and his wife who are trying to get by . . . like so many Indians, living in poverty. But when Sita is whipped away and degraded - or so he thinks - Ram finally stands up and begins to knock things down.' One sees this often in India, the enormous capacity of its people to bear misery and catastrophe until, like Ram, they say enough is enough. 'India is prone to huge, pompous governments, and Indians often feel the impossibility of doing something about it. And then here comes Ram: he's not riding an elephant, he's going barefoot to free his wife.' Jalabala pauses. 'When people in the audience hear that of Ram, they weep.'

'Instead of going all the way back to Ayodhya, he assembles a ragtag army of bears and monkeys and all the tribes oppressed under Ravenna. Gandhi was like this, too. They both had this magic power to pull it all together,' explains Jalabala.

Ram defeats the mighty Ravenna and unifies India under the shining rule of Ayodhya. But doubt is cast on Sita's virtue. Many men - Ram among them - wonder if Sita might have succumbed to Ravenna. She proves her purity by surviving the flames of a funeral pyre. Sita eventually leaves Ram and takes up spiritual retreat. In Jalabala and Gopal's adaptation, the Ramayana ends with Ram and Sita rejoining in mystical union.

It is not the love story that politicians pounced on, but Ram's battle with Ravenna. Portraying the corrupt, all-powerful government in Delhi as the work of a latter-day Ravenna has reaped easy benefits for the Hindu politicians who are trying to unseat the Congress party, the dominant force in India since independence. The rise of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party - it had only two parliamentary seats in 1984 but today is the leading opposition party - is thanks to Lord Ram.

But for Jalabala and her husband, the vision of Rama Rajya - or Ram's government - advocated by Gandhi and the new breed of Hindu revivalists are at opposite extremes. 'Gandhi tried to follow Ram's ideal of giving power to the people, so that the king's role is merely to keep the balance of law in favour of the good.' She added: 'What saddens me now, after Ayodhya, is to see how the power of Ram - and Hinduism itself - has been corrupted by politicians.'