Section 2.04 Ramayana Argues for Colonization

In 1996, Vijay Prashad gave a talk on the occasion of Diwali, one of the most important Hindu festivals.  One would expect the talk to be about Diwali and its significance to Hindus.  However, the topic was ‘Diwali and Decolonization’.  After mentioning that there are multiple tales surrounding Diwali, Prashad quickly shifts his focus to demolish the stature of Lord Rama in Hindu tradition.  He laments on the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue and the subsequent riots and then blames Lord Rama for the controversy.  He wonders: “The blood which has sanctified this deity makes me wonder if there is any need to remember Diwali through him…”[1] He continues, in his talk to describe Rama as a “commonplace hero” who was transformed later into a “personal God accessible to the masses”.  Though Hindus view Rama as a model of righteousness and compassion, Prashad distinguishes his righteousness versus that of the righteousness found in the Vedas, as if they are both separate.  He states: “Rama does not keep to his varna domain, but consorts with various oppressed castes and outcast tribes”[2].  So, if, through his own conduct, Rama shows compassion and friendliness to others in the society, this is not acceptable since according to Prashad’s view the “Brahminic Vedic texts” are frozen and can only be viewed as oppressive.  In essence, Hindus are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’.  If Hinduism has examples of personalities and deities transcending class barriers or overcoming any restrictions, those are viewed with suspicion and discarded as not part of the ‘core oppressive Brahminic religion’.

Then, he makes one of his most outrageous statements:

The various texts offer the story of Ram to make pedagogical and moral points: the Ramayana argues for the colonization of the peoples of the subcontinent while the Ramcaritmanas argues for the worship of an iconic figure [Emphasis Added] rather than, for instance, a consideration of the Upanishads’ metaphysics.[3]

Without providing any evidence or context to his position, Prashad basically demonizes one of the most revered texts of Hinduism as sanctioning colonization!  Does he refer to Rama’s battle with Ravana as colonizing the ‘black’ people of the South, in line with his biased beliefs of the Aryan/Dravidian racist theories?

His argument sounds extremely similar to the crackpot theories peddled by the likes of Kancha Ilaiah, whose ideas and work FOIL members widely support.  For example, in his book Why I am not a Hindu, Ilaiah maintains that the “The Ramayana is some primeval race war in which the Aryans suppressed the Dravidian south.”[4]  It seems that both Prashad and Ilaiah are oblivious to the fact that one of the most popular versions of Ramayana was composed by Tamil poet Kamban and became widely popular in the South.  Why would a ‘Dravidian’ poet compose a glorifying tale of a ‘colonizer’?  Furthermore, Ravana himself was a learned Brahmin and the son of sage Vishrava and the grandson of sage Pulatsya.[5]  So, in terms of ‘caste hierarchy’, Ravana (Brahmin) was of a higher caste than Rama (Kshatriya)!  Similarly, Ravana is described by Valmiki as having knowledge of the Vedas and a great devotee of Shiva.  He was a Samavedin and composed the Shiva Thandava Stotram[6].  So, why would a ‘Dravidian’ king be a Brahmin and knowledgeable in Sanskrit as well as the Vedas?  This information contradicts Prashad’s and Ilaiah’s views on the Ramayana.

Next, let’s analyze Prashad’s argument that “Ramcaritmanas argues for the worship of an iconic figure rather than, for instance, a consideration of the Upanishads’ metaphysics”.  Prashad again subjects Hindu texts to ridicule and suspicion while making outrageous and unsubstantiated statements.  His lack of knowledge of Hinduism shines out brightly with such as comments.  Ramcharitmanas as well as many other Bhakti works are richly embedded in the Saguna (with qualities) Brahman concept of the Upanishads and express this concept beautifully.  Tulsidas preferred the Saguna Brahman form of the Absolute Reality over the Nirguna (without qualities) Brahman.  Thus, to him, Lord Rama was the embodiment of that Saguna Brahman.  Rambhadracharya (2008) illustrates this from the Uttar Khand of Ramcharitmanas:

In the Uttar Kand of Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas describes in detail a debate between Kakbhushundi and Lomasha about whether God is Nirguna (as argued by Lomasha adhering to monism) or Saguna (as argued by Kakbhushundi adhering to dualism). Kakbhushundi repeatedly refutes all the arguments of Lomasha, to the point when Lomasha becomes angry and curses Kakbhushundi to be a crow. Lomasha repents later when Kakbhushundi happily accepts the curse but refuses to give up the Bhakti of Rama, the Saguna Brahma[7]

The Svetashvatara Upanishad provides splendid examples the connection between the philosophy of Bhakti and the Upanishads.  Chapter 1, verse 11 mentions:

When the Lord is known all fetters fall off; with the cessation of miseries, birth and death come to an end. From meditation on Him there arises, after the dissolution of the body, the third state, that of universal lordship. And lastly, the aspirant, transcending that state also, abides in the complete Bliss of Brahman.[8]

Similarly, Chapter 4, Verse 11 states:

By truly realising (sic) Him who, though non-dual, dwells in prakriti, both in its primary and in its secondary aspect and in Whom this whole world comes together and dissolves-by truly realising (sic) Him Who is the Lord, the bestower (sic) of blessings, the Adorable God, one attains the supreme peace.[9]

Furthermore, it is surprising that Prashad takes issues with Tulisdas’ work, since Tulsidas is one of the most famous Bhakti saints and Ramcharitmanas is one of the cornerstones of Bhakti writings.  In fact, Prashad himself describes Bhakti as “… one of the foundation stones of modern Hinduism”.[10]  What is Prashad implying by demoting this great work of Bhakti against the Upanishads?  Or, is he holding Rama in contempt and therefore implying that Ramcharitmanas argues for worship of this ‘contemptuous icon’?  It is interesting to note that he holds Kabir, Mira, etc. saints in high esteem and lauds them for starting “spiritual and social rebellions”,[11] while Tulsidas is not given the same stature based on Prashad’s analysis of his work.  If he blasts the Ramcharitmanas, he is blasting the entire Bhakti movement since it essentially calls for unconditional devotion to ‘iconic figures’ like Rama, Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, etc.

Interestingly, Kabir had this to say about the name of Rama (Raam Naam): “If any one utters Rama Nam even in dream, I would like to make a pair of shoes out of my skin for his daily use.”[12].  One of the verses in Kabir’s Bhajans is as follows:

bhajo re bhaiyaa
bhajo re bhaiyaa raam govi.nd harii .
raam govi.nd harii bhajo re bhaiyaa raam govi.nd harii .. [13]

Translation: Brother, chant
Brother, chant the name of Raam, Govind (Krishna), Hari (Vishnu)
Raam, Govind, Hari, chant, o Brother, Raam, Govind, Hari

Furthermore, if Prashad takes issue with Racharitmanas because it is ‘non-upanishadic’, he is indeed taking issue with the works of Kabir, Mira, Tukaram, Narasinh Mehta, Lord Chaitanya and numerous other Bhakti saints that have enriched India and Hinduism.

Prashad, in his talk, then equates the “test of loyalty”[14] of Site in Ramayana with the situation of India.  He says: “Like the roots of Diwali, the history of our republic is marked by the tales of many Sitas — women, dalits, adivasis, Muslims, the working-class — who have had to face tests of loyalty, ordeals of fire”[15].  However, in the beginning of his talk, Prashad maintains that there is “no single story which explains Diwali”[16].  That’s a correct statement, since Diwali is celebrated with various stories and even among Jains and Sikhs[17].  Yet, in an attempt to spotlight the ‘oppression by Hindus’, Prashad makes the story of Ramayana as the “roots of Diwali”.  And, in his categorization of ‘Sitas’, he leaves out the mass killings of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan as well as in India, during Partition.  For examples “The Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946 was an immediate consequence of Jinnah’s call for ‘direct action’ for the achievement of Pakistan, which he certainly knew meant violence here and elsewhere in the country”[18].  October 10, 1946 saw another massacre of Hindus in Noakhali.

The majority of the population in the area was Muslim, around 82%, while most of the land belonged to Hindu landlords. As a consequence of the riots in Calcutta, a massive anti-Hindu pogrom was organized by Muslim locals so as to cleanse the region from Hindu presence either by killing them or by forcing them to flee the area. The death toll is close to 5,000 dead according to the press (Sengupta, 2007: 138), though Moon considered that it should rather be counted in hundreds (Moon, 1998: 59). It is claimed that nearly 75% of Hindus previously in the area left the place. (Sengupta, 2007; Moon, 1998).[19]

Senator Edward Kennedy, submitting a report to the US Senate about the 1971 Bangladesh massacres, had the following to say:

Field reports to the US government, countless eye-witness journalistic ac-counts, reports of international agencies such as World Bank and additional information available to the subcommittee document the reign of terror which grips East Bengal (East Pakistan). Hardest hit have been members of the Hindu community, who have been robbed of their lands and shops, systematically slaughtered, and in some places, painted with yellow patches marked ‘H.’ All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad.[20]

How about the ethnic cleansing of estimated 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits[21] out of Kashmir in the late 80s and early 90s?  KPS Gill, the famous former Director General of Police in Punjab, has this to say about the situation of Kashmiri Pandits: “Among the worst victims of this conflict are the Kashmiri Pandits, descendents (sic) of Hindu priests and among the original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley”[22].  He describes that, while people have had huge noise about other riots in India, very little is known about the pogrom against these Pandits, who were integral to the economy of the Kashmir Valley and to the cultural harmony that existed there.

On [January 13,] 1990, a Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital in Srinagar was raped and later killed by Pakistan-backed terrorists. The incident was preceded by massacres of Pandit families in the Telwani and Sangrama villages of Budgam district and other places in the Kashmir Valley. While the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) claimed a ‘secular’ agenda of liberation from Indian rule, the terrorist intent was clearly to drive non-Muslim ‘infidels’ out of the State and establish Nizam-e-Mustafa (literally, the Order of the Prophet; government according to the Shariah). Accounts of Pandits from this traumatic period reveal that it was not unusual to see posters and announcements – including many articles and declarations in local newspapers – telling them to leave the Valley. Pandit properties were either destroyed or taken over by terrorists or by local Muslims, and there was a continuous succession of brutal killings, a trend that continues even today.[23]

It is even peculiar that Prashad, in his 2007 letter to young American Hindus, talks about his Hindu and Sikh heritage.  However, he hardly seems to care about his Hindu heritage and brethren and to make a case for people like the Kashmiri Pandits.  Is this a case of selective interpretation?  Why does FOIL continue to ignore Hindus and the atrocities they have faced (even in the last fifty years)?  Granted, the Partition riots killed many Muslims and this should not be forgotten.  However, presenting a one-sided view of the story only highlights the bias of FOIL and continues to simmer the pot of communal mistrusts and hatred.

Towards the end of his talk, he quotes Gandhi: “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide”[24]  But, Prashad hasn’t even ‘skinny dipped’ in the waters of the Hindu tradition because he has already developed a preconceived notion that these waters dirty.


[1] Vijay Prashad, “Diwali and Decolonization, a talk at Brown University”, October 26, 1996, http://www.foil.org/culture/diwali.html, accessed June 24, 2011

[2] Prashad, Ibid.

[3] Prashad Ibid.[1]

[4] Ranbir Singh, “Review of Kancha Ilaiah’s ‘Why I am not a Hindu’”, February 13, 2011 http://www.chakranews.com/review-of-kancha-ilaiahs-why-i-am-not-a-hindu/1100, accessed June 24, 2011

[5] Devdutt, “This was Ravan Too”, September 30, 2009, http://devdutt.com/this-was-ravan-too/, accessed June 24, 2011

[6] P.R. Ramachander, “Shiva Thandava stotram by Ravana”, http://www.hindupedia.com/en/Shiva_Thandava_stotram_by_Ravana, accessed June 24, 2011

[7] Please refer to note 59 in Wikipedia’s entry of Tulsidas, under the section entitled Doctrine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsidas#cite_note-58, accessed June 24, 2011

[8] Swami Nikhilananda, “Holy Upanishads – Svetasvatara Upanishad”, English Translation, http://www.ishwar.com/hinduism/holy_upanishads/svetasvatara_upanishad/, accessed June 25, 2011

[9] Nikhilananda, Ibid.

[10] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[11] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[12] Swami Sivananda, “Name, Faith and Love, GLORY of RAMA NAM”, http://www.sivanandaonline.org/public_html/?cmd=displaysection&section_id=1042, accessed June 24, 2011

[13] “Introduction to Sant Kabir”, extracted from “Devotion Alone Matters to God”, The Hindu, December 29, 1997, http://sanskritdocuments.org/hindi/bhajan/kabir.htm, accessed June 24, 2011

[14] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[15] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[16] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[17] See the entry of Diwali in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diwali, accessed June 26, 2011

[18] Paul R. Brass, “The partition of India and retributive genocide in the Punjab, 1946–47: means, methods, and Purposes”, Journal of Genocide Research (2003), 5(1), 71–101, http://faculty.washington.edu/brass/Partition.pdf, accessed June 28, 2011

[19] Lionel Baixas, “Thematic Chronology of Mass Violence in Pakistan, 1947-2007”, June 24, 2008,  http://www.massviolence.org/Thematic-Chronology-of-Mass-Violence-in-Pakistan-1947-2007, accessed June 26, 2011

[20] Vivek Gumaste, “The Hindu genocide that Hindus and the world forgot”,  http://www.indiatribune.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2105&Itemid=524, accessed June 28, 2011

[21] K.P.S Gill, “The Kashmiri Pandits: An Ethnic Cleansing the World Forgot”, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/kpsgill/2003/chapter9.htm, accessed June 28, 2011

[22] Gill, Ibid.

[23] Gill, Ibid.[21]

[24] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

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