The Hindu epic Ramayana has had the unusual function of providing rallying points for two contradictory and clashing nationalisms, namely, Hindu-Indian nationalism in India, and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka.
While the Hindutvic forces in India have been assiduously turning the Ramayana and its protagonist, Rama, into a rallying point against Indian Muslims seen as an “outside force,” Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism has been fostering the epic’s antagonist, Ravana, as a rallying point against outside forces like India and the West threatening the island’s sovereignty.
The Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi issue helped the forces of Hindutva prevent the separation of the Backward Classes from the upper castes when the V.P.Singh government implemented the Mandal Commission’s report to give 27% reservations in jobs and education to the Backward Classes, thus “jeopardizing Hindu unity”. Later, the demolition of the Babri Majid and the demand to build a Ram temple in its place, helped defeat the forces of secularism represented by the Congress and the Left parties.
Presently, the building of the Ram temple in the place of the destroyed Masjid under the direct supervision of Hindutva icon and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is going to be used to consolidate the hold of Hindutva in the face of mounting challenges on multiple fronts. The Modi regime has to contend with its utter failure to revive the flagging economy, combat COVID-19 and safeguard the borders against Chinese intrusions.
Ravana Cult in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have been building a parallel nationalist cult around Ravana, the ancient Lankan ruler, who is Rama’s antagonist in the Ramayana. While efforts to build the image of Ravana as the embodiment of Sri Lanka in its fight against an Indian invader had been on for some years, the present nationalist government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has revived the nationalist project to consolidate its political base vis-à-vis the opposition which is perceived as pro-India and pro-West. The Ravana project should help the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the August 5 parliamentary elections.
Recently, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation had issued a newspaper advertisement in Sinhala urging people to share documents, books, and research material on Ravana, the legendary king of Lanka. The advertisement said that the Ministry is “conducting in-depth research on King Ravana and the ancient domination of the aerial routes that is now lost”. Ravana is believed to have manufactured an aircraft called “Dandu Monara” (known as Pushpaka Vimana in India). He had used the aircraft to fly to India and several other places overseas.
Although the research is being given a scientific goal – to find out Ravana’s air routes, it has a nationalistic purpose in the context of the internal and external challenges that Sri Lanka is now facing. The vestiges of Tamil separatism are still there with almost all Tamil parties in the electoral fray calling for “self-determination” within a federal system marked by maximum devolution of power to a united Tamil province. The Tamil Peoples’ National Alliance (TPNA) led by former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran has even sought an UN-supervised referendum among the Tamils to determine the kind of solution they want , It wants an interim administrative arrangement in the Tamil areas supervised by India and the international community. The TPNA has also sought the reduction of Lankan army strength in the Tamil areas to the 1983 level.
Additionally, there is US pressure to sign agreements which dilute national sovereignty like the Millennium Challenge Corporations (MCC) Compact and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA). Though the threat to Lanka on the human rights front is less now because of the weakening of the UN and the Western bloc by COVID-19, it could be revived to intimidate it into toeing the West’s line vis-a-vis China, which is a major investor in Lanka.
From “Big Brother” India, there is pressure to yield to it the Eastern Container Terminal in the Colombo Port. But giving it to India goes against the national policy of not leasing out national assets like ports and airports to foreign interests. This policy stemmed from the controversial 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to China. The building of the Ravana cult is meant to tell foreign hegemons that attempts to enforce their will would be met with resistance.
Since Ravana stood for Lankan power, there is a Buddhist monk-led political organization called “Ravana Balaya”. Sri Lanka’s first indigenously made satellite was named “Raavana I” as Ravana was the first Lankan aviator.
In her paper “Remaking and Trans-creating Ravana in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” Dr. Kanchuka Dharmasiri of the University of Peradeniya says that popular songs, films, plays, television series, social media, and “historical” narratives on Ravana have gained “unprecedented popularity” in 21st. Century Sri Lanka. She delineates the ways in which Ravana has been reimagined and trans-created during significant socio-political transformations in Sri Lanka since the 1950s. She examines how performances of Ravana are intertwined with present-day ideologies of nationalism, neoliberalism and power, and how the image of Ravana is in a process of continual transformation.
Deborah De Koning of Tilburg University in The Netherlands, in her paper entitled: The Ritualizing of the Martial and Benevolent Side of Ravana in Two Annual Rituals at the Sri Devram Maha Viharaya in Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka says that in this recently constructed Vihara, Ravana is the object of devotion. In addition to erecting a Ravana statue in a shrine of his own, two annual rituals for Ravana are organized by this temple. In these rituals one can clearly discern the portrayal of Ravana as a warrior king, and as a benevolent healer. De Koning says that the glorification of an ancient civilization “are part of increased nationalistic sentiments and an increased assertiveness among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in post-war Sri Lanka.”
Role of Arisen Ahubudu
Sinhalese historical chronicles like the Mahawamsa, Rajavaliya and Ravanavaliya mentioned Ramayana but identified Ravana as a Sinhala king and extolled his intellectual, artistic, physical and political prowess.
However, the credit for starting the Ravana cult in the modern era goes to the Sinhala cultural and linguistic revivalist, the Late Arisen Ahubudu. Ahubudu represented the “Hela” movement founded by the Late Munidasa Kumaratunga. The Hela movement has been urging the Sinhalese to go back to their roots, shunning Indian, Hinduistic and other alien influences.
In his book Sakvithi Ravana (1988) Ahubudu says that Ravana reigned from 2554 to 2517 BC. He quotes Ravanavaliya to say that Ravana belonged to the “Sun race”, as “Ra” signified the Sun and “vana” signified generation. Ravana’s ten heads represented the ten crowns he wore as a result of his being the sovereign of ten countries.
Ahubudu trashes the story that Rama invaded Lanka because Ravana had kidnapped his consort Sita. According to Ahubudu, Ravana’s step brother Vibhishana, had invited Rama to invade Lanka because he was wanting to oust Ravana from the kingship of the island and take it over. “Considering the fact that Sita’s chastity was proved, this (the alleged abduction of Sita) can be taken as a story concocted by Yuwaraja Vibhishana in order to discredit Ravana in the eyes of his people and take advantage thereof.”
According to Prof.Buddhasasa Hewavitharana, the Sinhalas disapproved of Vibhishana’s conduct. In popular lore, the area to which he belonged to (Kalutara North) came to be known as the land of the Desha Shatru (betrayer of the country).
Munidasa Kumaratunga claimed that Ravana had written medical books such as Nadi Pariksha, Arka Prakashata, Uddisa Chiktsaya, Oddiya Chikitsa, Kumara Tantraya and Vatina Prakaranaya in Sinhala, which were translated into Sanskrit.
Historically, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have had problems with Rama. Prof K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia recalled that a 15th century Sinhala poet had asked why Rama, a God, could not hop across to Sri Lanka like Hanuman did, and had to get a bridge constructed. “Could a God’s power be so small in this world?” the poet wondered.