When the god was elsewhere, homeless but still an invocation for those who had lost him to a disputed history, Narendra Modi was among the few of Indian nationalists who felt that no home was complete as long as it kept his god abandoned, and no nation was at peace with itself as long as its cultural memory remained controlled. His struggles and triumphs as a politician were built on a deeper sense of inheritance that didn’t clash with the impulses of the present but made it indebted to a past ravaged by lies and sophistry, but the god still played the guide. On January 22 in Ayodhya, as he, clothed in cream white and carrying the sacred crown, walked towards the cultural destination that was denied to him for so long, he knew the moment was both a culmination and commencement, a realisation and a realignment. After the consecration of his god, he was at home with the divine, finally; he prostrated in total submission, which, in the stories of ideal men and their gods, is the highest expression of victory. A god has come home, and the man who has dedicated him to India added a new chapter to his own legend as rebuilder of the nation.
For the man and his god, the idea of home that day was rewritten by memory and history, mythology and tradition, modernity and inheritance—and an invocation that resonated in the Hindu’s oldest despair for ages was a reality now. When Modi shared the joy of being the god’s volunteer, the chosen one in the loftier imagination of his followers, with India that day from Ayodhya, it was not triumphalism but reconciliation that set his words apart, and it was as if he was taking cues from his personal Ramayana itself. Responding to those who saw in the construction of a Ram temple a project in fire that would consume secular India, he said, “Ram is not fire, Ram is energy; Ram is not a dispute, Ram is a solution; Ram is not just ours, Ram belongs to everyone.” He presented the home-returned god as a unifier whose power transcends geographies. The Ram whose consecration he presided over was, in his telling, the cultural foundation on which modern India would be built, and humility, not aggression, would be the hallmark of this project.
What Modi did in Ayodhya was replace an old inhibition of India with a cultural motivation. As the formative years of free India began to define freedom in the borrowed pedagogy of secularism and socialism, the image of a New Indian, too, emerged. It was in tune with the attitudes of the so-called post-colonial societies: progress as a journey guided by the Leader who knows better. And the Leader, invariably, looked up to the ideal Empire that mastered the science of controlling the minds and means of a people for inspiration. In the science of perfecting the New Man, primordial intimacies formed by faith and communal identities were blacklisted as anti-modern. The post-Independence indoctrination by the modernisers who built their ideological tents on the Soviet model, too, interpreted progress as something incompatible with the little traditions and old cultural habits of Indians. In Ayodhya on January 22, another moderniser was on a stage that would have been an anomaly a few decades ago, and he was there as an agent of restoration as well as reclamation. In the most divine of backdrops, he gave a secular speech, and by placing a god that pervaded the everydayness of Indians at the centre of it, he was reminding a people that the homecoming of a god was also a renewal of civilisational memory. He was there as the first devotee in a temple that brought the ancient into the modern. India came to this moment too late because ideologies have the bad habit of blocking the passage of culture.
It is nothing new in over-ideologised societies: the past frays the present. The aggrieved progressives seek justice in retrospect by historical cleansing. It seems the post-BLM West has got tired of it. Still, the West has never disowned its civilisational indebtedness to religion—Christendom may be an archaic expression, but it is not a lie. Civilisations are indebted to stories, which are religions’ supreme contribution to the evolutionary drama of humankind. Still, why is it that the Hindu identity of India’s civilisational ancestry is a dispute for a section of the intellectual class? Is it the jarring result of an irony, multiculturalism’s aversion to the oldest cultural lineage? India may defy the unipolarity of Book-born civilisations; the multitudinous—the polyphony of traditions and the diversity of scriptures, the absence of a higher authority and the uninterrupted individual freedom to re-imagine the sacred—makes it a never-ending story. When Modi says “Ram is flow”, he echoes the basic trait of Hinduism itself. Only an ideological definition of pluralism can deny India’s civilisational memory its core strength: the fluidity of Hinduism.
On January 22 in Ayodhya, Modi, standing in the sheltering shadow of Ram, took a pledge to channel the flow of faith to India’s future: a nation as modern as the farthest tomorrow and as ancient as its civilisational ancestry. Nations are rebuilt on cultural confidence, and the god of Ayodhya provided the perfect backdrop to a man who has plenty of it.