Ramanuja’s Battle for Bhaktas

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R Srivatsan was a Senior Fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies, Hyderabad till 2018. His work has been on the concept of development in politics, healthcare, religion and culture over the past three decades.
17 November 2023

The Statue of Equality, which was installed in February 2022 in Hyderabad, is a monumental installation. More than the statue, it also consists of 108 temples dedicated to the various deities of the Vaishnava pantheon. This installation in the context of other large statues being installed in India (like the Statue of Unity), gives rise to the questions “what is all this about?” and “what does it teach us about where Hinduism is headed today?” This photo essay is an attempt to probe these questions along three dimensions: a) the experience of visiting the installation, b) understanding the history of Ramanuja and Vaishnavism in South India, and c) probing the way in which the Statue of Equality plays out in the political iconology of statuary in India, with specific reference to the statues of B R Ambedkar that dot the Indian urban and metropolitan landscape.

Visit

Spurred to write on the gigantic Statue of Equality (installed near Hyderabad in February 2022) given my current interests in contemporary Hinduism and its culture, I decided to see it for myself.  

I chose to visit on a Sunday as soon as the complex opened at 11 AM. The Bengaluru highway after the Hyderabad airport turnout was busy, but the approach road branching towards the temple was deserted. I saw the statue from behind on the final stretch and wondered what the hubbub about it was, until, as I neared it, the gilt figure towered. Ramanuja is depicted as young, well-formed, and amiable but not muscular (which seems like a great relief from the modern-day depictions of Rama and Ganesha as ripped superheroes in the misguided war against Islam).   

To my surprise, the parking lot already had about 800–1,000 cars by 11.30 AM. I do not remember seeing any motorcycles. There were very few buses so early in the day, and there is no train connection so far. The devotee composition seems to be solidly middle class at least till this point in time. I heard from my driver that upward of 30,000 people visited the temple on weekends.

Chinnajeeyar.org

Figure 2: Layout of the complex. Source: https://chinnajeeyar.org/site-layout/

The statue rises from the second storey level. The first storey is a sprawling complex housing 108 temples and deities called the divya-desam described in the Azhwar (more about them later) canon. It took a tiring hour to walk through the complex. The architecture is a mix of south Indian temple styles—Kakatiya, Vijayanagara, and Pallava. The idols are all of black stone, perhaps basalt; some better carved than others. Each idol is resplendent in brilliant silk—I was impressed by the tastefulness of each drape. Every temple has an archaka (or somewhat inaccurately speaking, priest) who performs specialised archanas (or poojas) for families that pay a fee. 

Some archakas were young—sitting bored, and one even napping, as they waited for their clientele. They all wore dhotis that were a bright yellow. According to other blog entries, yellow pitambara is worn by Vishnu, Krishna, and Ganesha as well as ordinary people including young women seeking to find suitable men to marry (Rao, p 73). It signifies, variously, knowledge, peace, wealth, chastity, and sexuality. We were also given a yellow wristband on entry that had two slogans “I STATUE OF EQUALITY” and “EQUALITY STARTS WITH US.” A web search showed that yellow is worn by those who are grhastas. Saffron is for celibate monks and Rajput warriors. I felt soothed by the absence of militant saffron in the milieu as I was by the claim of the statue (“equality”) and the gentler masculinity of the image. Doubtless, this was the intention of the developers too.

The middle-class faithful were devout, perfunctory, stylish, gaudy, flirtatious, chattering, running, sauntering, young, old, and one visitor (me!) even striding purposefully through looking at each of the idols with a stern eye. Many even commissioned archanas. The place was noisy: the drones, shouts, and murmurs of priests on their individual sound systems (all 108 of them Bose speakers), the “Govinda Goovindaa” of the devotees, and the constant blare of Ramanuja’s message of equality across the parking lot. One does not know if it will have an effect, but 10,000, presumably upper-caste middle-class visitors, at a time are exposed incessantly to the mega sound bites of equality and toleration. The cacophony fades as we drive away.

 

In retrospect, the most interesting structural aspect is that the Statue of Equality of the saint, or human being, Ramanuja, towers over the land of the gods (divya desam), that is, the 108 temples dedicated to Vishnu and Lakshmi, sitting over their heads. Has Ramanuja become a god? Or are gods ultimately becoming imaginings subordinate to the very human saint who sang their praises? Only history will tell, but today the temple crowds are devout while the statue looms genially in the background.

The 12 Azhwar saints revered here as gods have a sanctum dedicated to them in the complex, although I did not see any archakas presiding over this unit.

What then is the history of this statue?

The Azhwar, Ramanuja, and Srivaishnavism

Long may she love, this girl with luring locks,

Who loves the feet that heavenly ones adore,

The feet of Kannan, dark as rainy clouds:

Her Red eyes all abrim with tears of grief,

Like darting Kayal fish in a deep pool.

Hot in this village, now doth blow the breeze,

Whose nature coolness is.

Hath he, this once, the raincloud hued, his sceptre turned aside,

To steal the love-glow from my lady, lorn for tulasi, with wide eyes raining tears.

Nammazhwar

(Dasgupta 1973)

The Azhwar (5th to 9th century CE) are seen as the initiators of (Vaishnava) bhakti in what is now a significant aspect of what is popularly practiced as Hinduism. While the later (7th to 8th century CE) Nayanar Saiva saints were more about submission and devotion to the supreme being; Azhwar bhakti was about being immersed in a relationship of sublime erotic love (with Krishna like in the verses cited). 

They were fabled to have been from both Brahmin and various non-Brahmin castes, including Tiruppan Alvar who was from the Panar caste, today registered as a Scheduled Caste (Seshadri 1996: 293).

Ramanuja is known to have fused three practical elements into his teaching: 

a) bhakti of the Azhwar;

b) the Pancharatra tradition (of worship, ritual and temple architecture, Dasgupta 1973: 12–62); and

c) the content of the Purana narratives, which are known to include historical, regional, and sectarian deities representing non-Brahmin castes (Colas 2003: 229–51). The Puranas struck a path to god that was more egalitarian than the caste hierarchical theory of conduct and exclusion according to the Dharmasastras.

This reformative thrust in Srivaishnavism opened the structure of Hinduism to become more hospitable to the “lower” castes and entice members of other communities such as Buddhist, Jain, Carvaka, and Nastika groups (Pande 2009: 111; Champakalakshmi 2011: 615). These practical elements were backed by Srivaishnavism’s philosophical arguments about the relationship between god and man (Advaita versus Viśistadvaita), the criticism of Sankara’s concept of maya (or illusion) in the argument for a real world in which people lived, and the openness of God to the common man’s faith (bhakti) as opposed to elitist knowledge (jnana) alone (Pande 2009: 113).

The idea of bhakti (in general) and devotion to one supreme being is a somewhat benign monotheistic moment in what will ultimately be called Hinduism (for one account of the evolution of the name “Hinduism,” see Truschke 2023: 1–26). The monotheistic moment in Hinduism is a movement outward, incorporating local deities by recasting them as avatars of one god and thus including local worship under the umbrella of a superior religion.  If the early Vedic religion was polytheistic in its practice, this trend towards unification begins to express itself in the mainstream Brahmanism of the first millennium of the Christian era, in what may arguably be called the historical movement of the “Great Tradition”. Scholarly opinion invites speculation that an earlier, less benevolent turn of this movement was marked by Manu’s Dharmasastra. (Olivelle and Davis 2018: 8–10). Despite its exclusive and punitive flavour, this text promoted inclusion through a rigid legal/social hierarchy of other traditions of the subordinate castes. Manu’s waspish resentment of other castes is born of an age of chaos from the Brahmanical perspective—of a world during the first centuries BCE ruled by the mleccha, that is, the outsider, the impure (Bronkhorst 2016: 10–11). Eight centuries later, the developments heralded by Sankara and Ramanuja seem to be a resurgence of (what will become) Hinduism in South India after about two centuries of rule of the lower caste kings and the predominance of non-Hindu religious traditions (Champakalakshmi 2011: 614–15).

Paralleling the philosophical and everyday religious stakes in the tussle between the followers of Sankara and Ramanuja was also the political stake of having royal patronage. Contrary to the popular ideology of Hinduism that was originally non-violent (but now highly willing to be violent if need be), Ramanuja’s mythically long life exemplifies violence that was central to the pursuit of patronage by the royal power. There were several attempts to assassinate him. The literature is not clear to what extent this compliment was returned by Vaishnavites to the leaders of Shaivism. Legend has it that a settlement of untouchables provided Vaishnavas shelter during one such attack, and in gratitude for their generosity, Ramanuja renamed the untouchables thirukulathar (men of the holy caste; a similar term harijan would be used by Gandhi). Thus, it would seem that contemporary Hindutva’s politicisation of Hinduism is not new. This politico-religious history of 15 centuries, if not more, gives short shrift to the lamentations regarding the corruption of Hinduism by the contemporary politics of Hindutva. Hinduism for all its vaunted grandeur, like all other religions, seems to have always been neck-deep in power, violence, and greed even before it had begun to recognise itself as a unity.

The statue of Ramanuja with the 108 temples of the divyadesam is the latest exorbitant exemplar of the burgeoning of temple-building, rooted originally in the replacement of earlier small earthen shrines to other gods by sprawling stone monuments with elaborate carvings, colour, and living pageantry that have a history of the same period of about 15 centuries (Champakalakshmi 2011: 495–514). This is also a point to be remembered before we secular citizens object to temples (or mosques for that matter) growing, intruding into, or resisting their removal from busy roads as if this were a new phenomenon of “unruly lower caste” enthusiasm.

The Significance of the Statue

Modern interpretations of Hellenic sculpture see them as exemplary forms of a universal art that stood serene and aloof from the chaos of everyday strife (for a canonical view, see Hegel 1975: 427–41). In contrast, it seems as if contemporary sculpture produces contested objects of politics that orient and dominate public spaces. They stand or fall with the hegemonic force of a given culture. Thus, as Isabel Wilkerson (2020: 333–43) notes, the contemporary white culture of the United States does not take kindly to the removal of sculptures that celebrate heroes who were also known to have been slave owners.  On the contrary, the statues of Vladimir Lenin in the post-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics nation-states during the 1990s (Thodōros Angelopoulos’ film Ulysses’ Gaze [1995] comes to mind) or the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 were seen by the new political culture as eyesores to be razed. I wonder whether scholars have looked at the statues of Greek antiquity from this (albeit somewhat 

jaundiced) perspective and whether such an examination has illuminated the culture and politics of that time and place.

In India, in the current moment, the force of the statue is in construction more than destruction; thus, Sardar Patel’s statue (of Unity), that of Ramanuja (of Equality), and, of course, the several statues of B R Ambedkar (that silently represent equality, freedom, and fraternity) dot the urban and mofussil landscape in India.

Sam Gundimeda has researched the politics of the proliferation of Ambedkar statues in Uttar Pradesh and has argued that in a public topology and culture known to be discriminatory, oppressive, and often lethal to Dalits, the presence of Ambedkar’s statue is like a breath of oxygen; the reminder of a constitutional guarantee of freedom to the dispossessed—that this park or that street belongs to them too (Gundimeda 2013: 189–92). This initiative of the Mayawati government was savagely criticised by other parties, political figures, and public intellectuals as overweening, wasteful, and useless. It is telling how an unmarked space that invisibly guaranteed upper-caste domination was defended so vigorously by members of all shades of the non-Dalit political spectrum and indicative of how wide and deep the roots of upper caste hegemony are. In the case of Ambedkar statues, it is not the presence of a statue that is being defended, rather it is the absence, an erasure, which is sorely longed for as the mask and invisible sign of the continuing hegemony of the dominant castes.

If Ambedkar’s significance (limited to religious freedom) is that of the untouchables becoming disenchanted with Hinduism and finding other religions (Buddhism or Christianity) more hospitable, the Ramanuja Statue of Equality is a resurgence of contemporary Hinduism and its intent to regain hegemony. By promising equality, it seeks to seduce deserters and strays yet again as it did a millennium ago. The opposition between the ubiquitous blue suit on Ambedkar statues and Ramanuja’s Brahmin attire is clear—the former is represented as modern, giving no quarter to religious expression; though, significantly, Ambedkar himself knew and deeply respected (however ambivalently) the command of religion on people’s thought. What the Ramanuja Statue of Equality banks on, in contrast, is the habit of devotion and submission that many castes and classes seem so reluctant to abandon. Thus, yet again, contradicting the myth of its exclusionary aloofness, the returning tide of Hinduism seeks to engulf all those who threaten to leave its shores.

In the end, the statue of Equality expresses the better, more open, and inclusive side of a deeply schizophrenic Hinduism that hopes for global relevance and respect. Its other side is of close-minded exclusion, intolerance, hatred, and persecution of the other, imbricated through the millennia with its better aspect. And there is no telling on which side of this (unlike Occam’s, highly complicated, violent, and very real) razor’s edge our history to come will fall.

 

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R Srivatsan was a Senior Fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies, Hyderabad till 2018. His work has been on the concept of development in politics, healthcare, religion and culture over the past three decades.
17 November 2023