The country is under lockdown. Most activities related to production and construction have come to a standstill, barring a few. One such activity is the construction of the temple dedicated to the Hindu deity, Rama. The path for the construction of this structure was cleared last year by the Supreme Court’s judgement in the long-standing Babri masjid dispute. This judgement has been not widely debated as the “Muslim side” in the dispute had conceded from the very beginning that whatever be the decision of the Supreme Court, they would accept it.
The Hindu side, which includes the RSS and its progeny, had hinted time and again that come what may the temple dedicated to Rama would be constructed at the site only. The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, did not go into the legal ownership of the land on which the temple is to be built, and where the Babri masjid once stood. As in the earlier Allahabad High Court judgment of 2010, “the faith of Hindus” that Rama was born at the site was given primacy and the land was divided into three parts. As such the Waqf Board in Uttar Pradesh had been in legal possession of the land. That apart, to the jubilation of the Hindu nationalists, the central government virtually took over the job of temple construction. (It is the central government which has constituted the 15-member trust to oversee construction and other activities at the site. Plus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s former principal secretary, Nripendra Misra has been appointed to head the construction committee of the upcoming temple.)
Then BJP president, Amit Shah, went on to declare that the temple will be grand and will “touch the sky”. The work on this began on 11 May and in the work of levelling the ground, which is going on, it was claimed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP spokesperson, Vinod Bansal, that many objects have come up while levelling the land, which “includes many objects of archaeological importance such as flowers carved from stone, and figurines depicting a kalash, aamalak, door jamb and so on have been found. Apart from this, during this work, a five-foot Shivalinga, seven pillars of black touchstone, six pillars of red sandstone and broken idols of gods and goddesses were also discovered.”
This elicited two types of responses. One was the criticism of the historians Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, and their criticism that they created an unnecessary controversy over what existed beneath the Babri masjid. (KK Muhammad, an archaeologist, had pointed out that there were remnants of a temple below the mosque.) One Twitter trend went hammer and tongs to denigrate these two outstanding historians at the same time intensifying the hate against the Muslim kings as destroyers of temples.
The second response may worry the Hindu nationalists. Seeing the photographs of the artefacts, many Buddhist groups raised their voice and declared that what has been discovered is not a Shivalinga, but a pillar that is linked with Buddhism and that the carvings are similar to those discovered in the Ajanta and Ellora caves in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. They cited the Ayodhya judgement’s references to the British archaeologist Patrick Carnegie, who has mentioned that the Kasauti pillars which were used in the construction of the mosque at Ayodhya, “strongly resemble” the Buddhist pillars discovered at Varanasi and elsewhere. Many a Buddhist group is coming forward and planning to approach the Courts to intervene in the matter. They also plan to appeal to the UNESCO, the international heritage-preservation body, to take up the issue and get an excavation done under proper scientific supervision at Ayodhya, for, Saket (an older name of Ayodhya) was also an important site to the development of Buddhist arts and philosophy.
The basic argument of the Buddhists emerges from what Constitution-writer and first law minister BR Ambedkar had observed. “India’s history is nothing but a history of mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism,” he wrote in Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient India. This is in strong contrast to the communal understanding of India’s past that the right-wing has been propagating as the basic conflict, leading to schisms between Hindus and Muslims.
Ambedkar sees Indian history as a revolution and counter-revolution. He presents Buddhism as the revolution, for it had been founded on equality, rationalism and non-violence. For him, the writing and enforcement of the rules of the Manusmriti, the ideology of Adi Shankara and the actions of the likes of Pushyamitra Shunga aimed to wipe out Buddhism ideologically and physically. This he called the counter-revolution, in which thousands of Buddhist viharas were destroyed along with elimination of the Buddhist monks.
Where do we go from here—the Hindu communal forces, through a sustained campaign in the 1980s, have constructed a version of history which is a mix of British-planted narratives about how a “temple might have been there” in their description of the Babri masjid, to the “there was a temple and it was the birth place of Rama” of Hindu communalists. The fact is that there are many a temples in Ayodhya whose pujaris claim that it was in their temple that the god Rama was born. Archaeological efforts have not been holistic either, riddled with contradictory half-efforts to arrive at the truth. So KK Muhammad could write that there were remnants of a temple underneath the mosque, while many differing opinions from professional archaeologists also existed. The Supreme Court refrained from commenting on most of these aspects.
Will our legal system and UNESCO give credence to the total picture of history as Ambedkar and many others see it? One interpretation is that the Brahmanical counter-reaction had destroyed the places of Buddhist heritage and that, later, some Muslim rulers plundered them. What is propagated is that Muslim plunderers destroyed these places. Muslim kings, as extensively demonstrated in rational historiography mainly destroyed holy places when either wealth or rivalry over capturing power were their motives. This is a case where the attack on Buddhist sites begins at the ideological and physical level and is followed by the plunder by succeeding Muslim kings. Hiding this earlier attack on Buddhism also hides the reasons for elimination of Buddhism from India; the place of its birth.
The heritage of Buddhism is a valuable treasure of India and the world as a whole. As such when the temple dedicated to Rama is being built by the state, one is reminded of the Somnath temple. Immediately after Independence, there were demands that the state should construct this temple. Gandhi, the great Hindu, said that Hindu society is capable of building its own temple; the state should not involve itself in such works.
His disciple, the builder of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, also did not approve of the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, inaugurating it. Later, the same Nehru who laid the foundation for industries, dams, and universities, called these the temples of modern India! What a contrast from the present times, where the state is deeply enmeshed in the construction of a temple while health, education and all other mechanisms to take care of society are being left in private hands whose aim is profits rather than social welfare.
The author is a social activist and commentator. The views are personal.