"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Oct 15, 2007

Lord Ram and his Army of Monkeys

Existence of God questioned before India's Supreme Court

Lord Ram with his vaanar sena building a bridge to Sri Lanka

The Indian government withdrew a report submitted before the Supreme Court that challenged the existence of the Hindu God Ram. The report was in connection with a proposed shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka.

According to the story linked at

Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys.

Scientists and archaeologists say the Ram Setu (Lord Ram's bridge) - or Adam's Bridge as it is sometimes called - is a natural formation of sand and stones. . . They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real.

As a result the Bharatiya Janata Party (conservative Hindu nationalists that led the government until 2004 - basically the equivalent of modern Republicans) condemned the report for questioning the “faith of the million.” Large-scale protests by Hindu hard-line organizations (which blocked roads and allegedly set a bus on fire) ultimately caused the government to withdraw the report.

While I may have a personal stake in building a primate army I think I'll have to go with the archaeologists on this one.

Lord Ram and his Army of MonkeysSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


Mahendra said...

Hey thanks! Nice to see you writing about India, Eric.

This controversy has exploded more violently in our nation than the terrorist bomb blasts. More than the people being killed by the real bomb blasts, they seem to be more offended by their religious sentiments being hurt!

Even NASA was drawn into the controversy.

The proposed bridge is actually not economically viable, so there are actually rational grounds for opposition. But that doesn't matter to the millions of Hindus in our nation who are 'offended' by the suggestion that Lord Ram did not exist!

Eric Michael Johnson said...

I did also find this article in the Hindustan Times that suggested environmental concerns about dredging Ram Setu and how the land bridge offers some defense against Tsunami's. These seem like reasonable concerns. Too bad the environmentalists and religious nuts can't get on the same page in the United States. We could rename extinction hot spots "Garden of Eden" and then release the dogs on those companies that continue to pollute.

Bruno Héroux said...

Eric, firstly let me congratulate you on your blog and the quality of your posts. I particularly appreciated the trilogy "Anthropology Goes to War". But, when it comes to Ram Setu and the issue of the Sethusamudram, I have to take a stand and rectify some facts which are of the utmost importance in the light of Mahendra's comment.

1. It is not the Government of India per se who withdrew the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court record but rather the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), which is under the administration of the Indian Ministry of Culture. The Government of India does not have standing before the Supreme Court in this affair, it is the ASI who is making its own representations. Nevertheless, I do admit that the withdrawal of the affidavit was forced by some political intervention.

2. Richard Dawkin's account of the events is far from accurate since he relies on sources of information which lack the rigorous use of quotation marks. Unlike Dawkin reports, the affidavit nowhere stated that "there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real". Dawkin faultily relied on BBC, which faultily relied on some newspapers, which misleadingly paraphrased the content of the affidavit (because it sells to surf on the wave propelled by the BJP, in my opinion) by repeating what was BJP's leader "political paraphrase" of the affidavit content.

I have covered a number of different newspapers (Indian Express, Times of India, Hindustan Times) as the Sethusamudram was a live debate in order to gather a more complete and accurate record of the content of the controversial affidavit. What was written in the affidavit was: "the petitioners while seeking relief have primarily relied upon the contents of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulasidas and other mythological texts, which admittedly form an important part of ancient Indian literature, but which cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events, depicted therein." You can read more extracts of said affidavit in my bilingual blog (Unfortunately for you this post ( in French but the extracts quoted are in English).

I now turn myself to Mahendra's comment. I have read one of Mahendra's recent posts regarding Atheism and the education of children and I believe that when she writes "they seem to be more offended", she refers to "believers" (or whatever else which is the contrary of your very personal self-definition) and not to "Indians" as she is Indian herself. I feel like her comment is prejudiced by her ideas about religious mysticism. It is not correct, from a rhetorical point of view, to point out that the Sethusamudram is not economically viable and that "they", having not raised this issue, are irrational. (Interestingly, Dawkin also comments only the economic feasibility of the Sethusamudram project but takes a different view --- all I have read about its economic efficiency is that it may not be as high as what porjected by optimistic sources, but nowhere I read a similar opinion to that of Mahendra's). There are a number of stands which could have been taken in regards to the Sethusamudram (ecological for instance, or geo-political) but have not been. The political turmoil around the affidavit is merely partisan in my opinion: it is not primarily a religious issue. The poll results of the Indian Express (Sept. 15) seem to prove me right because 77% of the respondents answered "NO" to the following question: "Has the UPA done the right thing by admitting Ram affidavit was a mistake?" It is clear that most of Indians were ready to let the Court decide on the face of the arguments submitted by the BJP and the ASI.

Also, I must rectify that NASA did not take part to the controversy. I recall vividly seeing NASA's administrator Mike Griffin being interviewed by NDTV at 9PM. Griffin was probably tricked in accepting to participate to this interview as the only thing he did as soon as it began was warding it off: he said he did not read the affidavit, he did not look at the pictures himself, and he had plenty of important matters to occupy himself with and would not take part into some debate which is not his, then excused himself.

Finally, what are the consequences I wish we draw from the Ram Sethu debate? Left aside political considerations, I feel like the Supreme Court could have taken a stand in support of ASI affidavit which basically opposed archeology as a science (relying on empirical methods) and religion (relying on faith). But it was robbed of the opportunity to do so and it only serves the purpose of Atheists and Religious believers/fanatics alike. The hearth of the debate, which transcends the sole issue of Adam's bridge, and applies theoretically also to all construction projects around religious shrines (like around Swoyambunath in Kathmandu).

Should you wonder now what my religious views are, I am agnostic. Bomb blasts kill people. But the political protests following Ram Sethu issue did not. This is both a subjective and an objective rational truth.

Olive Ridley said...

I blogged about this recently as well. Karunanidhi (the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) is part of the Dravidian movement that successfully dismantled the theistic hegemony of the Brahmins (yes, I happen to be one of the reviled Brahmins!). He most definitely has some deep antagonism towards the gods of North India (Rama is most definitely a north Indian God!). Of course, I could go on and on about the significance of the Dravidian movement's symbolic reasons for supporting this dredging process.

I am personally torn between liking their atheism and hating their personal corruption and caste baiting (I had to tolerate all the racial epithets hurled at us Brahmins growing up). Buried in all this craziness is the unvarnished fact that the ocean they're dredging is a haven for marine mammals, sea turtles and traditional fishery practices.

Also, the whole monkey army is (IMHO) very racist. To a fair skinned North Indian like Rama, us darkie southerners surely seemed like monkeys. It is amusing when metaphor is taken literally, but not when you're the one being called a monkey!!

Remind me to talk to you about the social and political significance of the Ramayana next time we have a blogger meetup! And congratulations on all the awards!

Bruno Héroux said...

Erratum! I owe Mahendra sincere apologies. I referred to him as "she" but intended to do no wrong. As I reviewed its blog ( today, I realized my mistake.