In his letter in the Stabroek News of November 16, Pandit Haresh Tewari is correct in pointing out that I was wrong to describe the Ramayan as a myth, and I apologize for that. What I should have said is the Ramayan is a fictionalized narrative/epic that draws its setting from historical reality as myriad other similar works have done and will continue to do.
The ‘evidence’ to support the Ramayan being historical is either geo-specific (as one would expect when setting is not fictionalized) or attempts to fit the evidence to support the hypothesis (what is called confirmation bias, a mechanism used to telling effect by Erich von Daniken in his bestseller Chariot of the Gods). In its simplest form, the logic goes something like this: Ayodhya existed so Rama had to exist or a certain temple mentioned in Ramayan exists so Ravan must have existed. Yet the direct linkages to the action and events in the Ramayan either do not exist or are mere conjecture at best.
In fact, the absence of historical artifacts is quite an enigma, with some attempts made to rationalize it by claims of destruction by weathering, biological degradation and so on. To add to the confusion there are myriad views about Ramayan dating from between 1000,000 to 8,000, 000 years at one end of the range, to between 2,500 years and 8,000 years at the other end. Then there are issues such as how many Ramayans there are in existence (around 300 with significant degrees of variations) and who actually wrote it – theories that vary from Valmiki as the sole author to him being a partial author with others completing it, as well as a general agreement that Valmiki wrote the Ramayan quite a while (varying time frames are offered) after the story took place.
Add a textual landscape dotted with fantasy and mythical content – tribes of bears and monkeys with human qualities as well as mythical qualities, primitive weapons with nuclear capability, shape-shifting beings, and a host of other similar references. Then there are the ossified norms and mores that reflect a particular socio-historical period, including sexism, subjugation of women, societies ordered according to notions of superiority and inferiority et al. The list of goes on…
Contrary to Pandit Tewari’s assertion, “For Mr. Boodram to therefore suggest that the deeper significance of good triumphing over evil was not entertained…” what I actually wrote is: “…good does not always triumph over evil even when God’s name is invoked by the most devout. After all such triumph has to be located within karmic confines…” Surely the revered panditji is more au fait with karma than I am? And surely he must be aware of the teeming instances throughout history where good did not win out, the latest being the terrorist massacre in Paris?
Also, the statement, “Many moons later, here in New York City, I have come to the place where I now know that the story of Rama is mythology with a message…” was simply referring to a process of evolution which is one of life’s inevitabilities, catalyzed not by geographic location per se, but by personal evolution. ‘Place’ in that particular context, is metaphorical and internal, not literal and external.
Adds Pandit Tewarie, “If by his own argument of ‘evidence-based’, then one can easily cast doubt over the Vedas, the oldest scriptural injunctions of the world, and deem them as mythical.” But the Vedas are not creative narratives per se; they are compendiums, although myths are part of the collections, especially in the Rig Veda. In fact myths are a recurrent commonality in all major Hindu (and other religious) scriptural texts, including the Brahmanas, the Upanishads and the two epics – Ramayana and Mahabharat. Numerous esteemed commentators and scholars have attested to this.
Panditji then goes on to state: “Finally, given the thousands of years that have elapsed, I shudder to even contemplate that generations from now may want to deem Mahatma Gandhi as a myth, given that time tends to bury history.” The fact is that Gandhiji is a historical figure, prodigiously documented and the state of technology is such that time can never bury his history. After all, time did not succeed in burying the history of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indus Valley, Chinese and other great civilizations of yesteryear, or of the figures that loomed large on those historical backdrops.
And while I agree that millions still see the Ramayan as historical, Hinduism over the centuries has been characterized by reformation, and layers of irrefutable but outmoded and once ossified beliefs are slowly being peeled back and discarded, or gradually eroded. These include the practice of sati (women jumping into the pyre of their dead husbands), the caste system (now only rigidly held on to in certain parts of India); human and animal sacrifice; dowry (now illegal even in India); subjugation of women to men, whom wives had to worship as their ‘gods’; the concept of avatar and especially deification of man by man (more and more God-men swamis and modern day ‘avatars’ are being exposed as mere men characterized by human frailties, including exhibitions of embezzlement, fraud, dishonesty, lying, rape, coercion, abuse ).
Furthermore, Hindu religious scriptures are being re-examined, as literal acceptance is slowly being replaced by symbolic interpretations with renewed focus on transforming the esoteric to the practical and pragmatic, separating myth from philosophy and applying the philosophy to real world functionality. And gradually closed minds are opening themselves to this process of transformation.
Yet at the end of the day what matters more than the talk is the walk. And in the context of Hinduism the most profound spiritual journey has little to do with which scripture is accepted as historical and much to do with practising what one preaches, especially as it relates to seva or service to our fellow man.