“All the towns and villages that lay on their way were the envy of the cities of the gods. The lakes and rivers of the gods lauded those lakes and rivers in which Rama bathed. The tree of paradise gave glory to the tree in whose shade Rama rested, and when earth touched the dust of Rama’s lotus feet, she deemed her blessedness fulfilled.”
Tulasidas in Ramcharitmanas[i]
Ayodhya has been in the midst of a dispute and controversy, since last many decades, which has only increased since late 1980s. Though, Ayodhya is well attested as a sacred place, a Kshetra or a Tirtha, both in the Hindu consciousness and in the received tradition—with it being considered not only as the birth place of Bhagavan Sri Rama, but also as a city constructed by Manu himself in the Satya-yuga, which the Puranas extoll as being one of the seven places that bestow Moksha to the people—there has been an attempt, especially in the recent decades, to not only deny the association of Sri Rama with Ayodhya, but also to desacralize Ayodhya, and in some cases Sri Rama as well.
In the late 1980’s, when the dispute in Ayodhya was at its height and there was a likelihood that it would be amicably resolved in favor of Hindus, the Left historians intervened on the behalf of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC)[ii] and posited arguments rooted in history and historicism, including forwarding arguments questioning the historical existence of Sri Rama, existence of devotion cults dedicated to Rama before the 13th century, and identification of historical Ayodhya with Ayodhya of the Hindu texts[iii].
While Hindus, recognize Valmiki’s Ramayana as a text of Itihasa, the Indian conception of the past with its foundation in cyclical time and pedagogical form, has no parallel to the modern secular concept of unidirectional positivistic historicism. This modern historicism is in-turn rooted in the Abrahamic Salvific notion of history. Also, secularism itself extends Christian theology and is rooted in Christian notions of linear time with God’s unique intervention into history. Thus, by bringing historicism to the debate, the Left historians pushed Hindus to the wall, forcing them to play by their rules.
Though it is to the credit of the Hindu side, and the Archeological Survey of India which has not only impartially dug up evidences that support pre-existence of Hindu temple below the dismantled Babri structure, but have also managed to secure a favorable judgment at the Allahabad High Court. The author hopes that the Supreme Court, which has been hesitant to deliver its judgment, will eventually deliver in favor of Hindus, owing to the extensive evidence, which have been presented to them.
Nevertheless, even a win in this particular case, will remain only a partial win in the long term, since, the battle for reclaiming the Hindu sacred spaces cannot be won as long as we continue to engage the opponent on the basis of history and historicism and not on the basis of Hindu philosophy and practices. This is not to suggest that history as such is not useful. History, especially, in its aspect of records and eye-witness accounts[iv] of the temples destroyed during the Islamic invasion, is a useful account to understand the scale of infringement of the Hindu sacred space. But, the prevalent positivistic historical narrative, which divides beings and events into historical (hence true) and ahistorical (hence false) dichotomies, which desacralizes and dismantles the opponent cultures’ sacred history, oral traditions and collective consciousness, can never be favorable to Hindu worldview. It is such, positivistic historical framework, which has allowed modern historians and scholars to desacralize Rama and deny his being, by reducing him into categories of either a historical person, or a non-existent imagination. Likewise, Ayodhya’s sacredness or its association to Sri Rama is reduced to the question of whether a historical temple of Ram was present at the disputed site or not.
Therefore, in the long run, if Hindus have to reclaim their sacred spaces, which have been forcibly infringed upon, an ahistorical narrative rooted in Hindu philosophy must be developed and articulated to counter the prevalent historical narratives that are inimical to Hindus and Hindu worldviews.
This article makes one such attempt towards this end.
India: The Land of the Tirthas
In her book “India: A Sacred Geography”, Diana L. Eck deals extensively about how geography and Hindu sacred histories[v] are intimately connected, so much so that Indians have for long defined even their identity in these terms. She notes how in the Mahabharata and a few other Puranic texts, India or Bharata has been defined as the land that lies between the Himalayas at the north and the seas at the South[vi], with both of them (Himalayas and the seas) having a religious and spiritual significance for the Hindus. She adds that for the Hindus, the “unity of India is not simply that of a nation-state, but that of geographic belonging, enacted in multiple ways[vii].”
Sankrant Sanu in his essay “Why India is a Nation” reiterates this point. He writes: “From the Manusmriti, we learn of the land of Aryavrata stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans…The story of Mahabharata shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context and inter-relationships, from Gandhari, the wife of Drithrashtra who came from Gandhara, (spelled as Kandahar in present-day Afghanistan), Draupadi from Panchala (present day Jammu and Kashmir), all the way to Arjun meeting and marrying the Naga princess Uloopi on a visit to Manipur in the east (from where he gets the `Mani‘ or Gem). Interestingly, Arjuna is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east when this happens, showing the current North-East was very much linked in this….
“Similarly, the story of Ramayana draws the north-south linkage from Ayodhya all the way down to Rameshwaram, at the tip of which is finally the land of Lanka. Note that it is not, for this particular thesis, important that the stories are historically accurate. What we are interested in rather is whether the idea of India or Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata as a culturally linked entity existed in the minds of the story-tellers and ultimately in the minds of the people to whom these stories were sacred. And these stories were then taken and told and retold in all the languages of the people of this great civilization, till the stories themselves established a linkage among us and to the sacred geography they celebrated. This sacred geography is what makes northerners flock to Tirupati and southerners to the Kumbha Mela[viii].”
Thus, India has sacred sites spread across the length and breadth of the country to which religious pilgrimage is undertaken by the Hindus. These sacred sites, often called as either Tirtha or Kshetra, can be sacred shrines, mountains, rivers, ghats or cremation grounds, and thus, making India, a land of Tirthas. Some examples for such Tirthas are the rivers like Ganga and Yamuna, the Char-Dhamas, the Jyotir-Lingas, Shakti-Peethas, and of course, the places associated with the manifestation of Avataras like Rama and Krishna.
Writing about this deep connection between geography and sacredness in India, Eck observes: “In India, however, mythology and geography continued to be a joint texts. During the course of some fifteen centuries, beginning in the early centuries of the Common Era, we see the composition and expansion of the epics and Puranas, works that constitute a massive compendium of both Hindu geography and Hindu mythic narratives. The epics include south Indian epics, the Shilappadikaram and Manimekalai …. All these texts include sections describing the world, known and unknown, and mapping its features onto the landscape. Geographical knowledge continued to be grounded in the mythical apprehension of the world’s meaning and order. Not only was the geography of the land expounded most prominently in Hindu mythological texts, but conversely, Hindu mythology in these texts was constantly grounded in the topography of the land of India. Here the land is imaged in a particularly imaginative way as the southern petal of the lotus-shaped central island of the universe, an island called as a lotus petal or not, the topography attributed to our particular petal includes the Narmada, the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the rest of the seven rivers, along with many other holy places[ix].”
Pointing to the intimate relationship that Tirthas share with Hinduism, Eck writes: “It is indisputable that an Indian imaginative landscape has been constructed in Hindu mythic and ritual contexts, most significantly in the practice of pilgrimage. The vast body of Hindu mythic and epic literature is not simply literature of devotional interest to the Hindu and of scholarly interest to the structuralist, comparativist, or psychoanalytically minded interpreter. Hindu mythology is profusely linked to India’s geography-its mountains, rivers, forests, shores, villages, and cities. It ‘takes place,’ so to speak, in thousands of shrines and in the culturally created mental ‘map’ of Bharata[x].”
She adds: “The tirthas stretch across India, creating a vast web of sacred sites, with roads and stories linking them to one another. This land of Bharata has been described mythically and enacted ritually in the footsteps of pilgrims for many hundreds of years. Walking the road to a tirtha whether it be a nearby hilltop or a far-off mountain shrine-is part of what it has meant to be Hindu[xi].”
Tirthas and Kshetras: Decoding the concept of sacred geography
Tirthas and Kshetras refer to cites, rivers, or simply a site of sacredness. While Tirthas can refer to a sacred land, water-body, a text or a person, Kshetras, specifically refer large sacred geographical tracts. “Tirtha” literally means “fords” or “crossings” and is derived from the verbal root meaning “to cross over”[xii]. To understand, what exactly this “cross-over” implies, we must first understand the concepts of sacred place.
The concept of sacred places and geographies are prevalent across all religions and cultures. While in Abrahamic religions, sacred geography is more informed by the theophany (or the manifestation of the divine) rooted in history, the non-Abrahamic traditions, including Hinduism is informed by the heirophany rooted in “Sacred Histories”, which the Greeks had called “mythos[xiii]”. These sacred histories, unlike the Abrahamic or modern-secular notions of history, is not limited to “realia” or physical objects that could be perceived by the senses and the accounts they could reveal. Instead, they serve the purpose of etiology, relate “a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time[xiv]” and act as “apodictic truth”. In short, sacred histories are not only informed by the evidences of realia, but also by the collective knowledge and consciousness of a particular community. They hold in themselves, the sum total of the beliefs, knowledge, and truths that are important to a particular community. In the Hindu context, the Itihasas, Puranas, folk and oral accounts, and a large number of Sthala-Puranas act as sacred histories that inform Hindu life.
Mircea Eliade in his monumental work “The Sacred & The Profane” has dealt in detail about the concept of sacred place. “For a religious person”, Eliade notes, “Space is not homogenous[xv].” For him, there is a sacred space, which is strong and significant and there are “other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous[xvi].” That is, the sacred space is considerably different from non-sacred or profane space. While the profane space represents the conventional space, which is “homogeneous and neutral”, and where “no break qualitatively differentiates the various parts of its mass[xvii]”; the sacred space “implies a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different[xviii].” Eliade observes that “When the sacred manifests itself in any hierophany, there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also revelation of an absolute reality, opposed to the nonreality of the vast surrounding expanse[xix].”
In the Hindu context, this means that a Tirtha or a Kshetra is of a qualitatively different nature than non-sacred geographies. Thus, the Mahabharata (13.108-16) says: “As special attributes of the body have been said to be sacred, so there are particular spots on Earth as well, and particular waters, which are considered sacred[xx].”Further, these Tirthas represent the manifestation of Brahman at a Vyavaharika level. Whether it is Ayodhya, Kashi, Tirupati or Rameshwaram, the geographies under these Kshetras in their entirety are sacred, for they represent a hierophany, an eruption of the divine at the physical level and hence, provide access for people to approach divinity.
Thus, the “Tirthas” which mean “crossings” represent the transition from a profane space to the sacred space, a transition from living in Mithya–unreality or temporal reality, to accessing Satya– the eternal absolute Reality. But, Tirthas also represent a crossing over from profane time to sacred time.
Eliade notes: “For religious man time too, like space, is neither homogeneous nor continuous. On the one hand, there are the intervals of a sacred time, the time of festivals (by far the greater part of which are periodical); on the other there is profane time, ordinary temporal duration, in which acts without religious meaning have their setting. One essential difference between these two qualities of time strikes us immediately: by its very nature sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present. Every religious festival, any liturgical time, represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, ‘in the beginning.’ Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself. Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable. From one point of view it could be said that it does not ‘pass,’ that it does not constitute an irreversible duration. It is an ontological, Parmenidean time; it always remains equal to itself, it neither changes nor is exhausted[xxi].” Therefore, entering Tirthas and Kshetras also represent entering and becoming established in sacred timelessness so as to directly experience the absolute reality, called Brahman.
These Tirthas are said to manifest either as Avatarana or descent from heavenly planes, as Svayambhu- self manifestation, or are consecrated[xxii]. Rivers like Ganga, Shakti-Peethas, where body parts of the Devi fell are good examples for Tirthas which have descended from heavenly planes. Mountains like Arunachala, self-existing lingas like Jyotirlingas are examples of Svayambhu Tirthas. Any properly consecrated temple or Kshetra using stipulated rituals and tapas is a Pratishta Tirtha. Then, there are places like Ayodhya, Dwarka, Puri, etc. which are called as “Dham” or “Dhamam”, which indicate that the places are the very dwelling or home of the respective deities. Jan Gonda explains that Dhamam refers to “both the location and the refraction of the divine, a place where it manifests its power and where one experiences its presence[xxiii].”
In short, be it an Avatarana, Pratishta, Svayambhu or Dhamam, a Tirtha or a Kshetra is a sacred geography, which facilitates access to divinity by providing an opening to transit from profane unreality to divine eternal reality.
While in the case of temples, Dvajha Sthamba (Flag Pillar) or Garuda Sthamba usually represents the periphery of the sacred Tirtha, in the case of large geographies like cities and towns (i.e. Kshetas), it is usually the temples of the guardian deities or Kshetra-palas, which represent the periphery of the sacred geography of the Kshetra. For example, a place like Sringeri has four guardian deities at four directions and the entirety of geography within that periphery is considered the sacred Kshetra. On the other hand, Ayodhya in its entirety is a sacred Kshetra, which is marked with temples not only dedicated to Sri Rama, but also to Sita, Hanuman and Shiva. While Hanuman at the Hanumangarhi is the guardian deity of the city and Sita is associated with Kanaka Bhavan, Ayodhya Mahatmya itself praises importance of a number of Shiva temples in the city, including Nageshwaranatha temple. The presence of these temples makes the entire geography of Ayodhya a Kshetra.
Reclaiming the Sacred Places
From the above discussion, it is clear that not just the location marked by the historical temple unearthed at the disputed site, but the entirety of Ayodhya itself is a sacred Kshetra. Therefore, regardless of the presence or absence of a temple at the bottom of the disputed site, any presence or construction either of a mosque or a church in the entire geography of Ayodhya constitutes an infringement of Hindu sacred space, which prevents Hindus from accessing their sacred Kshetra in an uninterrupted manner. This is true not only of Ayodhya, but also of other divine Kshetras like Kashi, Matura, Tirupati, etc. The seven hills of Tirumala have been the target of Christian evangelists in the recent years. These activities must not be understood as simply a “propagation of a religion”, but as an infringement and a violation of the Hindu Kshetras.
While the historical debate raging in the courts and the press in the last few decades, will at best be able to facilitate a temple for Ram-Lalla at Ayodhya, which while being important, is not an end itself. The larger goal must be to free, in their entirety, all the Hindu sacred geographies, including Ayodhya, from the infringement of Abrahamic establishments. This could be achieved only by developing an ahistorical narrative rooted in Hindu philosophy and worldview, with history[xxiv] only providing secondary assistance for reinforcing such a narrative.
[i] Hill, WDP. The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama, a Translation of Tulasi Das’s Ramacharitmanas. 207.
[iv] Hegel calls such recording of events, deeds and states of society as Original History. This sense of history has been prevalent across all cultures and communities, including Hindu communities. It is the notion of positivistic Historicism, which reduces all accounts into “realia” or real objects and thus, denies existence to sacred histories, records and beliefs of different cultures, which is problematic for Hinduism.
[v] In Indian context, sacred histories refers to Itihasas, Puranas, Sthala-Puranas, and oral traditions.
[vi] Eck, DL. India: A Sacred Geography.64. The verses quoted includes Mahabharata 6.9, Agni Purana 118.1, and Vishnu Purana 2.3.1, among others.
[vii] Eck, DL. India: A Sacred Geography. 43
[ix] ibid. 53
[x] Ibid. 16
[xi] Ibid. 48
[xii] Ibid. 7
[xiii] The term “myth” derives from the Greek term “Mythos” which originally simply meant an account or a story about some event or happenings. Mircea Eliade in his work “The Sacred & The Profane”, writes that the “myth” refers to a sacred history, which is a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time and once revealed, it acts as “apodictic truth”. Therefore, in the original Greek conception, “Myth” was not falsehood, but “apodictic truth”. It was only after the emergence of Christianity, with its notion of history as “realia” that “Myth” became associated with falsehood. [Eliade, M. The Sacred & The Profane. 95]
[xiv] Eliade, M. The Sacred & The Profane. 95
[xv] Ibid. 20
[xvii] Ibid. 22
[xviii] Ibid. 26
[xix] Ibid. 21
[xx] Eck, DL. India: A Sacred Geography.25
[xxi] Eliade, M. The Sacred & The Profane. 68-69
[xxii] Eck, DL. India: A Sacred Geography. 17-25
[xxiii] Cited from Eck, DL. India: A Sacred Geography.29
[xxiv] Original history which includes recording of events, deeds and states of society.
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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His first book “Musings On Hinduism” provided an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. His latest book “Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective” examines menstruation notions and practices prevalent in different cultures & religions from across the world. Tweets at @nkgrock