The islands, so this story goes, are the remains of a bridge built by an army of monkeys and bears to enable Lord Rama to cross the sea and reclaim his wife Sita from the clutches of the 10- headed demon Ravana, King of Lanka.
The battle between the two armies, and the ensuing duel between the two kings, provide the climax of the Ramayana, the epic poem which is one of the literary pillars of the Hindu religion. Rama, the hero, is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, placed on earth in human form, like Christ, to save mankind. He is revered by Hindus as a paragon of the higher virtues.
In the north Indian city of Ayodhya last week, devotees of this same Lord Rama took the law into their own hands and tore down a mosque which stood at his supposed birthplace, and which they saw as a desecration. This set off waves of violence between Muslims and Hindus across India which claimed a thousand lives and once more threw into doubt the country's viability as a secular state.
Rama is not a distinct historical figure - certainly less so than Christ - and no contemporary record survives to show that any such person was born on the disputed spot. There had, moreover, been a mosque there for almost five centuries. It seems like madness for the sake of a myth.
But these are Western, or at least non-Hindu, reactions. They underestimate the power the Ramayana exerts over 700 million Indian Hindus and overestimate the relevance of literal, modern judgements. The very word 'myth', which implies something between a legend and an illusion, is misleading. These perceptions, say some Hindus, are part of the problem of modern India.
In Britain, outside the Hindu community, the Ramayana is familiar mainly to those who happened to see episodes of a long and extraordinary serial dramatisation produced for television in the 1980s. When it was screened in India, it caused a sensation. Although the production standards were low, the special effects feeble, the acting often poor and the dialogue arcane, the viewers were spellbound.
Every Sunday morning for more than a year, almost every television in the country was tuned in to follow the fantastical doings of Lord Rama. Villagers clubbed together to hire televisions. People who had no set converged on the homes of neighbours and relatives, or in shops, to watch. Mark Tully, the BBC's Delhi correspondent, found himself playing host to the taxi-drivers from a rank across the road from his home, who could not bear to miss it.
When a power failure blacked out screens in one district at a crucial moment, the substation was burned down by an indignant crowd. When negotiating difficulties arose over renewing the production contract, government ministers were drawn in. And when the
serial threatened to end without recounting the final (and disputed) section of the epic, strikes forced it to carry on. All for a story which most Hindus already knew backwards.
That story, brutally abbreviated, runs as follows: the god Vishnu comes to Earth as Rama, eldest son of the king of Ayodhya in northern India. Although he is human in form, his miraculous powers enable him, for example, to be in two places at once, and to kill a great she-demon while he is still a boy.
He grows up, and wins the hand of the princess Sita by stringing - and breaking - a bow which no other man could even bend. Because of jealousies at his father's court, however, Rama is driven into exile. In the course of his wanderings he provokes Ravana, who by trickery seizes Sita and carries her off to Lanka. Rama turns to the monkey kingdom for assistance, and together their armies storm Lanka and free her. At last, Rama returns to his capital, Ayodhya, where he is crowned king and begins a glorious reign.
EVERY incident of this tale is wrapped in colourful sub-plots full of battles and celebrations; every character has a tale of his own to tell; every scene is elaborately described and every emotion lovingly teased out. Rama gathers around him lesser heroes, notably Lakshmana, his loyal half-brother, and the flying monkey Hanuman, son of the Wind, who can pick up an entire Himalayan mountain. As the story unravels, their adventures become steadily more theatrical, their enemies more fearsome and their victories more resounding. The Ramayana is the richest and most grandiose of epics.
Its origins are obscure. Like the Iliad, it was probably spoken for many years before it was written, and may at first have been based on the exploits of a particular prince. It is believed that it was first written down in about the fifth century BC, and a celebrated early Sanskrit version is usually attributed to a sage called Valmiki. But Valmiki's is one of hundreds of different versions which are accepted today in different parts of India, and like the four Gospels, they tell the story in different and sometimes contradictory ways.
The most popular version - before television produced its own - was certainly the Hindi Ramayana of Tulsi Das, written in the 16th century, significantly at the time when the power of the Muslim Mogul empire was at its height. Just as the vernacular versions of the Bible transformed the practice of Christianity, the flowery language of Tulsi Das brought Rama to the masses.
And there he has stayed. In the villages and cities of India, the story of the Ramayana is constantly retold to enraptured listeners. A special occasion might be marked with a reading of the entire text. Professional reciters know the whole story by heart and will delight audiences by playing word games with the text, like British memory men conjuring up FA Cup goalscorers.
Above all, dramatisations of extracts are an important part of Hindu life, with children in elaborate costumes taking the parts. No matter how poor the community or how unsophisticated the production, and no matter how many times they have seen the episodes acted out before, Hindus will gather to laugh at the slapstick, applaud the combat and swoon at the romance.
Like medieval mystery plays, these dramas have a devotional role, and while they play their parts the child actors take on a certain holiness. People will sit and gaze at them in silence, or touch them as an act of reverence towards the deity. In the same way, the adult actors in the television serial found themselves called on to bless the children of devoted viewers.
THE Ramayana, then, is not just an epic poem or a myth, but a scripture and a religious tradition, and Rama is more than a hero, he is a religious model and an object of worship. Mahatma Gandhi was a devotee, and used to speak of his desire to see Ram Rajya, or the rule of Rama, return to India. A British Hindu, asked last week what the name of Rama meant to him, replied: 'Duty personified. He preferred duty above all else. Whatever Rama did, he did with conviction. He was the ideal son, the ideal husband, the ideal lord, the ideal friend and the ideal king.'
These qualities emerge in various aspects of the Ramayana story, but most strikingly in the story of his exile. Rama's earthly father, King Dasharatha, chooses him as his successor, but is obliged by Kaikeyi, one of his wives, to repay a debt of honour and to give the crown instead to her son, Bharata. This means banishment for Rama, and King Dasharatha is heartbroken. But Rama, seeing his father's distress, willingly embraces his fate. 'Blessed is the son who obeys his parent's commands,' he tells Kaikeyi. Later he says: 'Obedience to our father's command is the highest object we can have, our greatest gain, our glory, our duty and our salvation . . . Whoever observes the injunctions of guru or father and mother, or master, treads an easy path and never stumbles.'
As a husband no less than as a son, Rama is dutiful almost to a fault, although he sets exacting standards. After her captivity in Lanka, Sita is obliged to go through fire to prove to him that her virtue is intact. Significantly, she is Rama's only wife. By contrast Krishna, the deity associated with love and the pastoral, had 16,000 wives.
In the Ramayana, as in the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, India is the world. Many of the places of the story are still to be found today, and in this sense the story is an agent of national unity, at least among many Hindus. As Hinduism sets great store by shrines, the modern city of Ayodhya is an important place of pilgrimage. It no longer boasts the 'fine squares and beautiful streets, constantly sprinkled with fragrant waters', or the 'handsome bazaars and gorgeous balconies studded with jewels' of the Ramayana; today Ayodhya is a place of temples.
There is a temple at the place where Sita cooked, and at a spot where Lakshmana bathed. At the birthplace of Rama, much of the site was until last weekend taken up by a mosque, the latest of a succession which had stood there since Mogul times.
How do Hindus know that is where he was born? Not by grubbing around in documents, for the age in which Rama lived is immeasurably distant from our own. That was the second age in the cycle of ages that turns from perfection through degradation to destruction. We exist in the fourth age.
Again and again, we come up against this gap of comprehension. The words that we in the West use to describe Hindu culture (even 'Hinduism' is an English coinage) fail to describe it as Hindus see it. The yardsticks of critical judgement that we use are not the yardsticks that they use. Forty-five years after independence, one might think that these failures of comprehension hardly matter, except that many Hindus today believe the Indian state they have inherited is still using those words and yardsticks. The imperial secularism of empire, they say, was simply replaced by the left-wing secularism of westernised Indians such as Nehru and his heirs. Hindu life, the life of 80 per cent of the population, is still just as misunderstood in its own country as it was under the Moguls and the British.
This is one of the wellsprings of Hindu fundamentalism. Its adherents argue that the Hindus have not enjoyed their proper place in Indian life in the centuries since the Mogul invasion. They say that this does not mean dominating or excluding others, for they insist that Hinduism is itself a broad church and a tolerant one. Indian Muslims and Sikhs do not see it that way.
The fourth age, in which we live, is the final age of the cycle, the age of destruction. It is called Kali-Yuga. After last week, even the most sceptical rationalist would surely concede that India, from Ayodhya to Delhi to the Bombay slums, seems to be living in it.
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