I am reliably informed that every Ram Navami there’s the typical celebratory religious procession called the ‘Ram Navami Shobha Yatra’ in Nagpur, out in the heart of India. It begins at the Poddareswar Ram Mandir and at the very first festive arch it passes under, the procession is greeted by a number of community leaders. The group includes local maulvis. That’s how it’s been for the last hundred years.
Makes you wonder, does it not?
At how so many things we do quite naturally have got tainted in our own eyes by politics? As to which, whenever I critique Rama’s treatment of Sita, as my betters have done before me, I always get flak from the faithful who cannot bear one word against this cherished avatar. But I don’t think it’s been easy for anyone. It’s not easy for me either to step back from my own heritage, the devotion I experienced growing up in a believing (and multi-faith!) family, my own instinctive love of the epics. It’s a painful personal journey to the ‘working’ realization that there are things we must question and things that we can honourably keep.
However, to misuse the avatar to put down people – be they women, the former underclass or non-Hindus - is wrong. Can we see either intellectual or emotional honesty in that? A wrong is a wrong. That is the Hindu value system as I was given to understand it, that I was taught to be proud of: something quite stern and unflinching, stripped of sentiment, bare of chocolate.
It was only after you accepted the starkness that you were liberated to ‘feel’, to get ‘emotional’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘celebratory’. There was no easy ‘Paava Mannippu’ (Tamil for ‘forgiveness of sins’). You paid for your actions and once you realized that you had to pay, you had to act.
That is the frightening, lonely core of the Hindu religion and all the elaborate ritual and ceremony, the sensual richness of flowers, incense, music and sweet prasadam, was arranged to cushion the sharp, stony bedrock of this truth. That is why Hindus entertain the notion of avatar, the descent of ‘God’ on earth. It is to give us reassurance through our puny lives, to help us bear the terror of not knowing.
Even through the beautiful games we play, we are meant to stay focused on our quest. By conceiving of existence as a lila or divine play, we play along ourselves, hoping to catch a glimpse of truth someday. That is ‘darshan’. The physical glimpse of the idol is to help us focus the soul-searching hopefully undergone through our prayers and in the long, tiring queue, procession or pilgrimage.
Perhaps that’s why so many people of every religion see ‘darshan’ as both the process and the reward of ‘khidmat-e-khalq’ (service to humanity), for where else may ‘God’ be truly found? The books speak of a hereafter but what if heaven were here on earth in the living present? What can we respond with to the mystery of life, except our behaviour with each other?
So if some of us, as Indian Muslims, come to greet a Ram Navami Shobha Yatra, it is not ‘idolatry’. It is the recognition of our shared quest for ‘darshan’, ‘active pluralism’ if you want jargon. Basically it’s courteous behaviour amongst ourselves as fellow-seekers of the One.