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Book Review: Ayodhya's Shared Culture and Traditions

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  • yogi sikand
    Book Review Name of the Book: Ayodhya—Sanjhi Sanskriti, Sanjhi Virasat [Hindi] (‘Ayodhya: Shared Culture and Traditions’) Author: Vidya Bhushan Rawat
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2006
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      Book Review

      Name of the Book: Ayodhya—Sanjhi Sanskriti, Sanjhi
      Virasat [Hindi] (‘Ayodhya: Shared Culture and
      Traditions’)
      Author: Vidya Bhushan Rawat
      Publisher: Books for Change, New Delhi
      (mani@...)
      Pages: 115
      Price: Rs.70
      Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

      Ayodhya, which literally means ‘a place free of war’,
      is today a veritable battle-field. Hindu supremacist
      forces have used the Ayodhya issue to unleash a trail
      of terror and bloodshed, resulting in the tragic loss
      of life of thousands of people, mainly Muslims, and
      causing a sharp deterioration of inter-communal
      relations in India. According to Hindutva ideologues,
      Ayodhya is a Hindu town and must be ‘cleansed’ of all
      Muslim presence. Yet, as Vidya Bhushan Rawat shows in
      this remarkable book, Ayodhya is not a holy place only
      of the Hindus. Rather, for centuries it has been home
      to a variety of non-Hindu traditions, some of which
      predate the presence of Brahminical Hinduism in the
      region.

      According to available evidence, Rawat says, Ayodhya
      was for long a Buddhist centre. The seventh century
      Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang noted the presence of
      several Buddhist temples in the town, but by this time
      Buddhism, the religion mainly of the oppressed castes,
      was rapidly declining in the face of Brahminical
      revivalism. Rawat tells us of how numerous Buddhist
      temples in Ayodhya were forcibly taken over by the
      Brahmins and turned into Hindu shrines, some of which,
      such as the Dant Dhawan Mandir, still stand today. In
      addition to its Buddhist link, Ayodhya also has a Sikh
      and Jain connection. A gurudwara in the town
      commemorates the visit to the town of Guru Nanak, and
      five Jain tirthankaras are also said to have been born
      in the town. Likewise, the region of Awadh, of which
      Ayodhya was a part, was also a great centre of the
      Kabirpanthis, followers of Muslim weaver-saint Kabir,
      who was bitterly critical of the Brahminical religion
      as well as of the legalist approach of the Muslim
      ulama. In short, Rawat argues, the notion that Ayodhya
      has always been a principal center of Brahminical
      Hinduism, so central to contemporary Hindutva
      discourse, is grossly erroneous. Buddhism, Jaininsm,
      Sikhism and the Kabirpanth have all been fiercely
      opposed to Brahminical hegemony and their association
      with Ayodhya points to the significant presence of
      anti-Brahminical movements in the region.

      Ayodhya has also been a leading centre of Muslim
      Sufis, Rawat writes. He tells us of the popular belief
      of Ayodhya being the ‘Khurd Mecca’ or ‘little Mecca’,
      owing to the number of Sufis who are buried in the
      town, many of whom arrived there much before the
      Mughal Emperor Babur, who Hindutva ideologues claim
      was responsible for constructing a mosque in the town,
      allegedly on the ruins of a temple. Local lore has it
      that the prophets Noah and Sheth are buried in the
      town. In addition are the literally dozens of Sufi
      saints whose names Rawat provides. Many of their
      shrines or dargahs were destroyed in 1992 by Hindutva
      terrorists along with the Babri Masjid and numerous
      other ancient mosques in Ayodhya. Yet, Rawat says,
      even today large numbers of Hindus visit these
      shrines, revering the buried Sufi saints as men of God
      and as powerful beings capable of providing succour
      and help. Rawat mentions one such shrine as being
      looked after by a Hindu, and he quotes a Hindu woman
      who regularly visits a dargah as saying that the Sufi
      buried there ‘is no less than any Ram’.

      For numerous Dalits, the dargahs provide a sharp
      contrast to the Brahminical temples, where they face
      routine discrimination. A Dalit respondent tells Rawat
      that the current Hindutva wave is the latest phase of
      Brahminism, a conspiracy to strengthen the caste
      system and further strengthen Brahminical hegemony.
      Understandably, then, Rawat says, the free access that
      the dargahs provide to people of all castes, Dalits
      included, and the egalitarian message of the Sufis,
      exercise, as they have historically, a special appeal
      for the oppressed castes, many of whom continue to
      visit Ayodhya’s dargahs in large numbers.

      Rawat provides other such instances of cross-community
      interaction to press his point that the Hindutva claim
      of Ayodhya being a purely Hindu town is erroneous and
      to counter the Hindutva agenda of pitting Hindus
      against Muslims. Thus, he says, in Ayodhya Muslim
      artisans sell flowers to people visiting temples and
      manufacture wooden sandals that are used by some
      pilgrims and sadhus. In 1992, when the Babri Masjid
      was torn down by Hindutva terrorists, and more than
      250 houses and shops belonging to local Muslims were
      burnt down and 13 local Muslims were done to death,
      some Hindus and Dalits saved Muslim lives. In
      Ayodhya’s twin town of Faizabad, the Lal Begis, a
      sweeper community, continue to maintain a liminal
      identity, not quite Muslim but not quite Hindu either,
      but somewhat in between. And, as in Ayodhya, large
      numbers of Hindus flock to the Sufi shrines in
      Faizabad despite the relentless anti-Muslim rhetoric
      of the Hindutva brigade.

      Rawat links this to Ayodhya’s rich cultural past,
      which witnessed a remarkable cultural synthesis under
      the Muslim Nawabs of Awadh. Several temples in the
      town, he writes, are built on land granted by the
      Nawabs, under whose reign there is no record of any
      major Hindu-Muslim conflict. Rawat refers to Tulsidas,
      author of the Hindi Ramcharitramanas, who wrote his
      work while living in a mosque in Ayodhya, probably
      because he was not allowed by the Brahmins to live in
      a temple because he dared to defy the strict rule of
      not sharing their religious scriptures with the ‘low’
      castes. Closer to our times, Rawat says, other
      charismatic figures in and around Ayodhya played a key
      role in the struggle against British imperialism and
      ‘upper’ caste hegemony, bringing together people of
      diverse faiths. These included Baba Ramdas, Acharya
      Narendradev, Ram Manohar Lohia and Ashfaqullah Khan.

      In the struggle for social justice and against
      Hindutva fascism, the little-known aspects of history
      and the invisibilised voices such as those that Rawat
      has recorded urgently need to be highlighted.
      Hindutva’s mythical history must be countered with the
      histories of these dissenting voices and traditions
      that defy power and authority and articulate a
      humanitarian tradition that goes beyond narrowly
      inscribed boundaries of caste and religion.





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