by David Gitomer
Last month I had the opportunity to slip away to India for three weeks. I had been invited to give a paper at Delhi University on the hero of a Sanskrit drama whose title is actually the name of the heroine, Shakuntala. So I was thinking about how a culture assigns hero status. I took the opportunity to visit in old friends and see familiar places from the several times that I lived there.
I also visited some places that I had never seen before, like the pilgrimage sites of Hardwar and Rishikesh. I made a big triangle: From Delhi I went to Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore, both places where the new, globalized technologized India is in evidence. I saw tall glass towers with windows that don’t open and thought: What happens when it’s hot and the power fails? Each building needs its own generator, given the unreliable electrical infrastructure in many places in India. I saw men and women rushing to appointments, poking at their Blackberries or talking while negotiating the swarms of foot traffic.
Perhaps it’s in part the social dislocation that feeds the Hindu nationalist impulse–wanting to assert a fixed identity of “us” in “our place” against the non-Hindu peoples that have shared the subcontinent for more than a thousand years, and in the case of the Muslims, ruled much of it for nearly half a millennium. Of course it doesn’t help that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba in neighboring Pakistan are even more mistrustful of Hindus than the nominally “tolerant” Hindus are of them. The dream of a utopian Ram-raj, “rule of Ram,” fuels nationalist fantasies of Hindu hegemony in which other groups “know their place.” But what of Lord Rama himself, a convenient god-hero?
In Bangalore I visited with my friend and former student Arshia Sattar. A secular Muslim, she is accomplished Sanskrit translator–of the Ramayana, no less. We talked about different translations of the Ramayana and my ongoing search for the perfect teaching translation. We talked about heroes, and the discomfort that many academics now feel with the figure of Rama because of his adoption as the poster-god for the Hindu right, the hero-god who defends the holy Indian soil against demonic others. Scholars have shown that this appropriation of Rama did not begin with the Hindu nationalists of the 20th century. But Arshia, a woman of Muslim background, defended Rama, suggesting that as scholars we should be able to see Rama in many contexts, especially the oldest ones, where Rama is a prince whose wife has been stolen from him, a defender of Dharma (the right) who is himself not perfect, but flawed.
This conversation made me eager to teach the Ramayana again, which I’ll do in Autumn of 2010 in “Exploring Other Cultures: India.” If you’ve read the “About” of this blog, you know that the banner is Hakki’s bicep, encircled with images of Ramayana characters he became familiar with when he took my course the last time it was offered. Hakki, a Turkish-American (and Muslim) student, is a Chicago police officer who has seen duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fine student, a great guy, and a defender of dharma.