Srilankan reverence for Sri Rama

November 11, 2007

Even the people of Lanka revere Ram, strange the Indian government doubting his historicity

By Prakash Nanda

It has almost become a passion for the UPA to destroy the Ram Sethu in the name of development. In the process, it seems to have overlooked the importance of “reason” in matters pertaining to science and religion.
If the world’s only Sita temple is allowed to prosper and the characters in the epic Ramayana are revered to in a country where Hinduism is a minority religion, why is it that the leading lights of the UPA government in India have not hesitated in questioning the scientific basis of Sri Ram and Ramayana? If the people of the country of Ravana believe that Ram and Sita had gone to Lanka and respect the Ramayana, why is it that people in the country of Ram are insulted by questioning the very existence of one of their most popular Gods?

During a trip to Kandy in Sri Lanka few years ago for attending an international seminar, the local tourist guide had taken our group on a site seeing to the fabulous mountains nearby, world famous for their scenic beauties and tea plantations. In the process, we came across Nuwara Eliya, the picturesque Sri Lankan hill station, known not only for its fine quality tea but also for “the only Sita temple in the world”. Known as “the Seetha Amman Temple”, it is adjacent to a relatively new temple dedicated to Hanuman, who, according to tradition, was instrumental in rescuing Sita from Lanka.
The Seetha Amman Temple has been built at a spot believed to be the exact place where Sita was held captive by the demon-king Ravana in the Lanka of the epic Ramayana. Story has it that Sita, the wife of Sri Ram, was imprisoned in the Ashoka forests of the region. The temple trustees believe that this is no myth and that Sita’s imprisonment at this spot is a “historical fact”. Because, so the arguments go, there is a concentration of Ashoka trees—various versions of the Ramayana state that Sita’s home in Lanka was inside a thick Ashoka forest (Ashoka Vatika)—and the discovery about a century ago of three idols, one of which was that of Sita. It is believed that the idols have been worshipped at this spot for centuries. There is also a belief that Ravana’s palace existed somewhere in the vicinity.
The Sita temple, let it be noted, is a new structure built in the late 1990s. It looks like any modern-day temple with a multi-coloured dome filled with mythological figures. Three new statues—of Ram, Sita and Laxman—have been installed in the new structure. However, this new structure is very near to a running stream on the bank of which is a small shrine with the three aforesaid darkened idols that were found centuries ago. There is a rock on the opposite bank where Sita, it is believed, sat and meditated. There is also a belief that at a particular point in the stream, the water has no taste. “This is the spot she cursed. You cannot drink the water. Drink it further downstream,” one temple worker told us. Temple workers are keen to show visitors the spot where Sita bathed, the stone she sat on, and where she prayed.
Now, the question is: can one really prove that Sita was actually imprisoned here? One also can go to the extent of asking whether there really was a character called Sita. These questions are particularly relevant given the fact that many right-wing Buddhists, atheists and environmentalists in Sri Lanka had protested strongly when the new Sita temple was constructed as a part of the “Sita Eliya” project in 1990s. The Buddhist Singhala Veera Vidhana, a fundamentalist organisation, had opposed the Sita Eliya project, saying it would lead to the conversion of the township into a “Ramapuraya”. Its argument was that as Hindu devotees begin to throng the temple, it would become the stronghold of Tamil political interests.
In fact, at the time of building the Sita temple the groups protested to such an extent that work had to cease temporarily. Incidentally, Nuwara Eliya’s population of 36,000 comprises mainly Sri Lankans of Tamil origin who work as labourers on plantations. However, the Sri Lankan government, then led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, allowed the project to be completed, though she cited the factor of tourism in justifying the project. Gradually, the issue subsided and now the Sita temple attracts thousands of tourists every year.
Now imagine the following. If the world’s only Sita temple is allowed to prosper and the characters in the epic Ramayana are revered to in a country where Hinduism is a minority religion, why is it that the leading lights of the UPA government in India have not hesitated in questioning the scientific basis of Sri Ram and Ramayana? If the people of the country of Ravana believe that Ram and Sita had gone to Lanka and respect the Ramayana, why is it that people in the country of Ram are insulted by questioning the very existence of one of their most popular Gods?
Will these very elements dare to find out the scientific rationale behind the existence of the supreme figures in other religions such as Islam and Christianity and their propagations?
This writer is not taking a position either for or against the proposed “Sethusamudram” project by breaking the Ram Sethu, believed by Indians over centuries to be the bridge Sri Ram had constructed to enter Sri Lanka to fight Ravana and bring back Sita. The government should convince the people of the necessity of the project by clearing doubts over its environmental, security and economic implications.
In fact, many critics have built sound arguments that the project would be an economic disaster. But instead of doing that, the government has opted for the easy way out by arguing that science must prevail over Hindu religion. It has almost become a passion for the UPA to destroy the Ram Sethu in the name of development. In the process, it seems to have overlooked importance of “reason” in matters pertaining to science and religion.
There is no denying the fact that science is a very successful way of knowing, but not the only way. We acquire knowledge in many other ways, such as through literature, the arts, philosophical reflection, and religious experience. A scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. Science seeks material explanations for material processes, but it has nothing definitive to say about realities beyond its scope. Once science has had its say, there remain questions of value, purpose, and meaning that are forever beyond science’s domain, but belong to the realm of philosophical reflection and religious experience.
No wonder why leading scientists of all ages and the world over have always believed in the connectivity between science and religion. For them, the conclusions reached by scientific disciplines cannot be in contradiction with divine revelation. Most of the great Indian scientists, ranging from Aryabhatt to C.V. Raman were proud Hindus. And most of the great scientists of the past 500 years—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Brahe, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Gassendi, Pascal, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Faraday, Herschel, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ohm, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel, Lemaitre—were devout Christians. In fact, Gassendi, Mersenne and Lemaitre were priests.
As Albert Einstein, the foremost scientist of modern era, had said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Einstein spoke of the laws of nature pointing to an Infinite Mind that to him represented the true nature of God. “Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble… My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
In fact, the problem with the protagonists of the Sethusamudram project is that though they are extolling the virtues of science in breaking Ram Sethu, they, in reality, are pursuing narrow political and personal motives. These champions, particularly the proclaimed atheists such as Karunanidhi and Prakash Karat, should appreciate the two following quotations before ridiculing Ram and Ramayana:
“And science, we should insist, better than any other discipline, can hold up to its students and followers an ideal of patient devotion to the search for the objective truth, with vision unclouded by personal or political motive.”—Sir Henry Hallett Dalt
“It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one”.
—Sigmund Freud
(The author, a senior commentator, and fellow ICHR, can be contacted at prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

One Response to Srilankan reverence for Sri Rama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: