On August 5, many Hindus from around the world will be celebrating the construction of a Rama Temple at the birth site of Sri Rama in Ayodhya. The puja to begin construction comes after a decades-long court struggle and evokes reverence in the wake of the return of Sri Rama to Ayodhya after a long exile—five-hundred, not fourteen years—of Rama not being worshipped at his birthplace. On August 5, the American Indian Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—with which HSC has no affiliation— has organized a display of images of the Hindu deity Rama and 3-D images of the Rama Temple at Times Square, in New York.
Despite the impending celebrations, over the past few days, a wave of Hindu American students and young professionals has reached out to us about the harmful impact protests of this celebration have had on them. As a campus-based youth organization, Hindu Students Council ordinarily refrains from commenting on statements made and events organized by other community groups. But given the particularly virulent nature of the protests of a religious occasion, we feel it is our dharma to issue a public statement—written by and for young American Hindus deeply invested in diversity— that we hope may be useful to others who are struggling with how to react to this moment.
This week, culminating with a press briefing at noon on August 3, several voices from within the South Asian community have “express[ed] outrage with the hatred being displayed” at Times Square. Directly linking this public display with the “destruction of the Babri Masjid, a 500-year old mosque which stood in the same site where the Ram Temple will now be built,” they conclude that this action “glorifies violence, hatred, and legitimization of a Hindu-supremacist agenda.” Finally, they warn of the agenda of “American Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) organizations.”
Hindu Students Council responds to these statements not on behalf of AIPAC, or any other organization, but on behalf of the many students and community members who hold devotion and love for Sri Rama in their hearts. At the outset, we wish to offer what we hope is an uncontroversial statement—
The vast, overwhelming majority of American Hindus observing this moment are not doing so out of spite or hatred, in support of ‘Hindu facism’ or in glee over ‘destruction,’ but in the hope and reverence evoked by Rama ‘lalla’ again being worshipped at his place of birth, after centuries.
This basic truth seems to have eluded the protesters. The continued and repeated labelling of large swaths of the Hindu American community—organizations and individuals that publicly and joyfully express their religious identity—as linked with Indian political organizations is itself offensive. It is reminiscent of the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish Americans owing allegiance to the Israeli government, or Muslim Americans being linked prima facie to foreign actors. In short, it is Hinduphobic. And it comes within a larger context—of a Congressional witness asking these organizations to be “investigated by the FBI” in an open hearing and Hindu American professors being labeled as “virulent Hindutva RSS members” for merely practicing their faith and voicing their scholarly points of view. As a campus-based organization, we want to take this moment to speak out against the trend this protest typifies because it goes to the core of our community’s very safety. We wish that as organizations claiming to be “progressive” and “inclusive”, these voices would have refrained from use of this dangerous, untruthful trope.
Nevertheless, the protesters’ words go beyond even this. By declaring that “hatred” is being displayed, these groups inveigh that images of Rama and the Rama Temple (the displayed images) are themselves hateful. Nothing could be more condemnable, more virulent and bigoted, than claiming that Rama bhakti emerges from hate. We have a duty to speak against the demonization of millions of devotees and the very spirituality that undergirds Hinduism.
Some have even asserted that the date (August 5) is meant to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the revocation of Article 370’s “special status” to Kashmir. However, the timings of Hindu rituals are not set according to the Gregorian calendar but according to which period (muhurtham) is astrologically auspicious. Moreover, the invocation of the destruction of the Babri Masjid to assert that August 5 uniquely represents “Hindu supremacism” is, ironically, what the protesting voices worry about— “a one-sided view devoid of deeply troubling historical context.” Professor B.B. Lal and K.K. Mohammed’s archaeological excavations of the Ayodhya site long ago revealed that underneath the Babri superstructure lay the ruins of the original Rama Temple at Ayodhya, now being rebuilt. This transforms the attitudes of those celebrating this day from one allegedly of imposition, to one truly of reclamation. As Columbia University critical scholar and friend of HSC Indu Viswanathan puts it,
[August 5] is a powerful day of reclamation for us Hindus, within a new global ethos that is supposedly supporting decoloniality, of holding oppressors accountable for their violence and erasure. … Everyone is allowed to celebrate this and embrace this. Everyone except Hindus.
We understand that many will have complicated reactions to the events leading up to today—especially in light of the destructive events of December 1992. Yet, the destruction of the Rama Temple in the 16th century has precipitated all the events, the acrimony, and the interreligious disputes that have followed. It is the historical event that has triggered this moment. Until this day, for five intervening centuries, it has affected the ways in which the collective Hindu memory has visualized and imagined the place of Rama’s birth. It is a moment of collective trauma that has to be dealt with and discussed. This context is important to understand why many Hindus are celebrating August 5 as a day when Rama will be concretely welcomed back to Ayodhya, the symbolic remembrance of which inspires celebration of Diwali each Fall. We encourage discussion within the Hindu community and across faiths to help build a more robust understanding of what this moment represents to us and to others.
Finally, we wish to recognize that for merely stating the obvious: that the construction of a Rama Temple in Ayodhya is a moment that evokes reverence and joy—we will likely be met with accusations of being a fascist, violent, “Hindutva” organization. These accusations are themselves manifest evidence of the vitriol and pressures that young Hindu Americans face on a regular basis. As HSC, it is our dharma to speak out and make sure our students are supported and able to form views critical to their identity as Hindu Americans without fear, intimidation, and misrepresentation of our epistemes, religious tradition, and history.
We understand that many of you have been deeply affected by the statements made against Sri Rama and the Rama Temple in the days leading up to August 5. Should you wish to discuss and share with Hindu Students Council or a fellow student leader, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].
Hindu Students Council