(The article was originally published in Indian Express on January 20, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
As the country is preparing for the greatest spectacle after Independence — the consecration ceremony at Ayodhya — some non-issues are being raked up as controversies to mar the occasion. In the Hindu dharmic tradition, temples are not merely the “abodes of god” but an institution in themselves. God in Hindu dharma is omnipresent. Temples house the murtis of the God, but they perform many other socio-religious functions.
Temples performed five important socio-religious and economic functions — the provision of food, education, healthcare, promotion of traditional art forms and propagation of spiritual values. In the Hindu tradition, they were considered as centres of social cohesion, economic support and cultural revival. That’s why they were always patronised by the kings. South Indian kings like the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas to the North Indian royals like the Guptas, Palas, Pratiharas and the various kingdoms of Rajputana (Rajasthan) were known for building great temples in the early and medieval periods of Indian history. Even the first Ram temple at Ayodhya was said to have been built by King Vikramaditya of the Gupta dynasty in 4th century AD. Hence, the controversy over whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is qualified to consecrate the temple at Ayodhya is meaningless.
One may argue that the era of kings is over, and we are in a secular democracy. Secularism is not understood as the same in every country. In France, a total rejection of religion in public life is considered secularism, whereas in the UK, the monarch must always publicly pronounce adherence to Anglican Christianity. In the US, Presidents take oath by placing a hand on the Bible held up by a bishop. All those countries are not less secular.
In India, we historically practised the principle of “sarv panth samadar” — equal respect to all religions, which became the secular creed here. When K T Shah proposed in the Constituent Assembly that secularism be explicitly mentioned in the Preamble, B R Ambedkar argued against the inclusion of that word since the entire Constitution carried that spirit anyway. Jawaharlal Nehru too suggested that one should “go slow” on that word. It was decided in the end to omit reference to it in the Constitution.
The Somnath temple saga was the first occasion when this concept was put to test. It, too, was rebuilt with support received from the public. However, when the question of its consecration came, a debate ensued between Prime Minister Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad. Ignoring Nehru’s remonstrations, Rajendra Babu went ahead and installed the Shiv Linga in the sanctum of the new temple with his own hands. The then President of the Congress Party, P D Tandon, the Rajpramukh Jamsaheb and others were present on that occasion.
In 1973, when Swami Satyamitrananda Giri invited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for the consecration of the Bharat Mata Mandir in Haridwar, she readily agreed and performed the rituals. In the states, it is very common for chief ministers and others to engage in such activity. During his tenure, former chief minister of Chhattisgarh Bhupesh Baghel went on a spree of opening Ram temples in many villages.
Thousands of saints belonging to different orders are going to attend the consecration ceremony. The organisers have decided to restrict the invitations to a few thousand eminent citizens, besides a large number of saints. All the workers involved in the temple construction, too, have been invited. While the Opposition sought to portray it as an RSS-BJP event, none of their leaders were invited except the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of UP, and the RSS chief.
Criticism that the consecration ceremony is being held with an eye on the elections, too, is hyperbole. The Somnath temple consecration happened in May 1951, just four months before the general election. A large number of Congress leaders, including the AICC President, were present at the event on that occasion. When the shilanyas ceremony for the Ram temple was held on November 9, 1989, several Congress leaders, including Buta Singh, the home minister in Rajiv Gandhi government, and Kamalapati Tripathi landed up in Ayodhya. Rajiv Gandhi, wanting to take electoral mileage from the shilanyas, launched his election campaign from Ayodhya in that election. The Congress accusing the BJP of politicising the Ram temple issue is thus tantamount to the pot calling kettle black.
A couple of revered Shankaracharyas have voiced reservations over the ceremony. They argued that pran pratishtha shouldn’t happen in an incomplete temple. However, many other saints and scholars have contested this line of argument. In fact, temples take a long time to complete. Somnath temple, too, was not complete when its consecration ceremony happened. Vedic scriptures permit the installation of the murti once the sanctum sanctorum is ready. In the case of the Ayodhya temple, not just the sanctum, but the entire ground level is ready for inauguration.
Two prominent Shankaracharyas, from Kanchi and Sringeri, conveyed their support and good wishes to the event. Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt, Vijayendra Saraswati Swami said in a statement that “Due to the blessings of Lord Rama, the Ram temple pran pratishtha ceremony will take place on 22nd January in Ayodhya. The yagyashala will also be worshipped during the ceremony. More than 100 scholars will start the puja and havan of the yagyashala. Prime Minister Narendra Modi especially has faith in the development of pilgrimage places in India”.
Revered Shankaracharya of Sringeri Sharada mutt, Bharati Tirtha Swami also expressed support, confirming that the ceremony aligns with Hindu rituals. As the mutt also emphatically stated, the criticism of some Shankaracharyas “has nothing to do with the Hindu religion and its rituals, which are being performed as prescribed in our religious books”.
Ram is the greatest unifier of our nation. Let’s celebrate January 22 in that spirit.