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What the Ram Mandir’s Consecration Means for India

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What the Ram Mandir’s Consecration Means for India

For many Hindus, the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya is not just a Ram temple, but the Ram temple, located at the site where their deity Ram was born.

What the Ram Mandir’s Consecration Means for India

People buy flags of Hindu Lord Ram from a local shop in Mumbai, India, Jan. 16, 2024, ahead of the opening of the grand temple for the Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most revered deities, in Ayodhya on Jan.22, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

On January 22, 2024, one of modern India’s most important stories will reach its culmination: the Ram Mandir will be consecrated. The Ram Mandir, a temple being built on the spot in the city of Ayodhya believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram — also transcribed as Rama — is pivotal to the story and evolution of post-independence India.

The prana pratishtha, or consecration refers to the ritual by which the presiding idol of the temple — in this case, Ram — is installed and “brought to life.” While devotees can beseech deities for favors anytime and anywhere, certain spots are considered especially holy and potent, especially if they are presided over by a consecrated deity. While the temple is not yet completed, the worship of the deity may begin once he is installed in the finished garbhagriha, or inner sanctum.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been instrumental in constructing the temple, are attending the ceremony, as are major business leaders, actors, sports stars, and other celebrities. In short, most of India’s elite will be attending, a sign of the event’s social, political, and religious importance for a cross-section of society.

However, the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (Congress) is split: top leaders are not attending — a move seen by some to be “suicidal” in a devoutly Hindu majority country — but other, state-level leaders are.

The construction of the Ram Mandir has been a point of major political and religious tension in India for decades. The primary reason for this is that the site where the temple is being constructed was home to a mosque, the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur), that was demolished by a mob on December 6, 1992. For decades prior to that, Hindus had been agitating for the right to worship at the site of the unused Babri Masjid, said to have been built over the ruins of a Hindu temple.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress Party opened the locks of the mosque for worship in 1986. However, the movement to build a temple at the spot of the mosque gathered steam with the Ram Rath Yatra, a pilgrimage across India to Ayodhya in 1990 led by the then-president of the BJP, Lal Krishna Advani. Finally, in 1992, a mob demolished the mosque after a religious procession converged on Ayodhya. The agitation for a Ram Mandir, which included substantial grassroots organization, helped transform the BJP into the largest party in India’s Parliament in the 1996 election. Subsequently, multiple BJP election manifestos included a pledge to build a Ram Mandir.

Even though the quest to build the temple has been intertwined with politics and communalism, it would be incorrect to dismiss the movement as merely a political ploy, although undoubtedly the BJP will benefit electorally. Hundreds of millions of Indians have been waiting for the temple’s construction because of religious faith, unconcerned over legal and philosophical nuances. Nalin Mehta, a political scientist and author of “The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party” describes this common view in his book:

…[W]hen I questioned my devout mother-in-law about what motivated her kar-seva, she insisted it was personal belief…‘Hamaare Bhagwan hain (He is my God)’ was her gentle but firm answer each time I attempted a wider discussion on her beliefs. What about the underlying politics of the movement? What did she think it meant for Muslims? I could never draw her into a deeper dialogue on the questions I was used to discussing in my professional circles — the ‘idea of India’, ‘secularism vs communalism’, ‘minority rights.’ Her answer started and ended with faith. It confounded me because her gentle religiosity did not square with the aggression, machismo and anti-Muslim-ness I had seen in many of the movement’s stormtroopers.

The atmosphere throughout much of India currently resembles a giant festival: People are receiving daily updates about the temple, distributing sweets, dressing up as figures from Ram’s life, and dancing in the streets. Much of this is difficult for the Western, secular mind to comprehend, but analogous events would include the mass outpouring of faith when the Virgin Mary appeared at Fátima in Portugal in 1917, or if the entire Eastern Orthodox world were celebrating the hypothetical restoration of the Hagia Sophia to Christianity.

The story of Ram is well known throughout South and Southeast Asia. As narrated in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki, and more recent regional iterations, especially the 16th century Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas — a very influential text in North India — Prince Ramachandra, or Ram, the heir to the throne of the Kosala kingdom in present-day Uttar Pradesh, was exiled along with his wife Sita and half-brother Lakshman for 14 years by his father on the behest of his stepmother. This, however, was preordained, because the god Vishnu had been born into the world as Ram to defeat Ravana, the rakshasa (demon) king of Lanka. Ram was believed to be the perfect man, or purushottam maryada.

During his sylvian exile, Ram’s devoted wife, Sita, was kidnapped by Ravana and taken to Lanka, whereupon Ram gathered an army of vanaras (sentient, humanoid monkeys), the most important of whom was Hanuman, marched to Lanka, slew Ravana, and freed Sita. Afterward, Ram returned to Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala, and ushered in a golden age, one frequently evoked by Modi as an example of things to come. This Ram Rajya has been described by the Nobel-laureate author V.S. Naipaul as “Rama’s rule or kingdom…the highest Hindu praise: Rama the hero of one of the two great Hindu epics, the embodiment of goodness, universally loved, the man who in any situation could be relied upon to do the right thing, the religious thing, the wise thing, a figure at once human and divine: to be ruled by Rama’s law was to know bliss.”

By the time of the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE), the worship of Ram had begun to gain steam, and Ram became a paragon of kingship throughout the region; even today, Thai monarchs all take the name Rama. The Guptas promoted Ayodhya as a second capital and it is considered one of the sapta puri, or seven holy cities of Hinduism. Since the Middle Ages, Ram has been an important object of focus and adoration especially of the Hindu population of North India, as a result of the spread of the bhakti, or devotional movement.

It was widely believed that the Babri Masjid had been built by Mir Baqi, a general serving the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, over the ruins of a preexisting Hindu temple in 1528. A subsequent report by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that was cited by the Indian Supreme Court concluded, neutrally, that while mosque was built over pre-Islamic structures dating back to the Gupta Empire, the nature of the structure before could have been Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain, and the evidence is not strong enough to demonstrate that there was a Ram Mandir. However, other historical evidence, including records of pilgrims journeying to Ayodhya, did seem to indicate there was a temple there until the 16th century.

The archaeology of whether there was an active Ram temple at the exact spot where the Babri Masjid is irrelevant to the widespread belief that the Babri Masjid was built on the spot of Ram’s birthplace, but some Mughal Muslim sources seem to believe that a temple had been destroyed by Babur. This is plausible as it would fit a pattern whereby temples were destroyed and mosques were constructed over them, particularly at other holy sites, such as Mathura and Varanasi.

Indeed, much of the opposition to building the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya stemmed from a fear that it would set a precedent, although temples would only be built or restored at the holiest Hindu sites. Proponents of temple restorations at the site of mosques do not see themselves as engaging in a campaign of harassing Muslims by tearing down random mosques but as revivers of specifically important and sacred Hindu sites that are occupied by otherwise unimportant mosques built during Muslim rule in India. Construction of the Ram Mandir only began after a 2019 Supreme Court judgment that ordered the creation of a trust for that purpose, notwithstanding a 1991 law that prohibited the conversion of any place of worship away from whatever its religious character was on the day of India’s independence. Already the push to build grand temples at Varanasi and Mathura is gaining steam.

For the most part, the people of Ayodhya and India are celebrating the construction of the Ram Mandir. Why is this the case in a country that has many temples and a need for development? Why is the Ram Mandir so important that the ruling party is involved in its consecration?

The answer is because it is not just a Ram temple, but the Ram temple, the restoration of a grand, public sort of Hinduism that leaders are comparing to a Vatican or Mecca. Most importantly, it symbolizes the ongoing transformation of India from a constitutional state — wherein the state and citizens primarily encounter each other within the framework of rights and duties framed by the constitution and legislatures — to what some Indian leaders, such as Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar are calling a civilizational state, which is “distinguished by a different level of culture and heritage, with accompanying attitudes and mindset as well… many of their goals and objectives also build on traditions that are not readily shared by contemporary peers.” Such a government sees itself not merely as a party to a social contract with its citizens, but as the guardian and promoter of a nation’s culture and traditions.