Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ram Setu: the importance of religious symbols

It is a “chain of limestone shoals” between India and Sri Lanka, variously called Adam’s Bridge, Ram Bridge, and Ram Setu. To the Hindus it is the bridge built by Lord Ram’s supporters in the Ramayana.

It is currently agitating Indians to extreme lengths, that some are questioning whether the epic Ramayana was actually a record of historic events. Even TV channels in India are plunging into what should have been, if at all, a debate by religious scholars and historians.

The immediate cause of this crisis is that the Indian government has has approved a multi-million dollar Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project that aims to create a ship channel across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka.

The debate about the historical accuracy of the Ramayana and Ram Setu, I think misses the point. Any religion has its sacred spots that come from a set of beliefs. These spots provide the points of reference to that religion, and are a part of the iconography of a religion. For centuries the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which stands on the spot where Christian believe Jesus was born in a manger, has been a source of inspiration and piety for millions of Christians worldwide.

So why not the Ram Setu ?

The separation of state from religion requires that religion should not interfere with the way a country is run, but does not require you to deny religion. For many communities, including communities in India, their religion describes their worldview, prescribes certain behavior, and proscribes others. So religion is about building communities, about promoting social stability through a set of rules of conduct.

The dangers come when a religion assumes a certain exclusivity that is believed to be derived from God, and gets intolerant of other religions. Every religion has gone through these phases in India and abroad. The Spanish Inquisition from 1478 was born out of this intolerance, and so is a lot of Islamic fundamentalism.

The demand that Ram Setu be protected is not a reflection of intolerance. It is a demand from a religious community that the government preserve a place that it considers sacred. That parties like the Bhartiya Janata Party (known to have some intolerant people in their ranks), have espoused this cause, does not make the demand per se intolerant.

To be sure, there are development objectives to be met. The channel will cut down shipping time, as many ships will no longer have to go around Sri Lanka, to traverse between the east and west of India. Sure, there may be room for compromise, but whatever scope was there may have already been snuffed by intemperate comments about the Ramayana.

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