Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ayodhya, Mecca: same struggle! (What if Rama and Mohammed were born elsewhere?.)

(First offered to First Post on 19 May 2022, but deemed too controversial in view of the erupting Nupur Sharma affair; then published by Pragyata magazine, Delhi, on 7 July 2022) This week we’re not going to write about the Kashi Vishvanath, except for remarking that its claim to historicity is weaker than that of its counterparts in Ayodhya and Mathura. It is obvious that historical characters including Rama and Krishna, later deified but originally just human beings born from a womb like everyone else, had a birthplace. We can still argue about its location, but that some actual birthplace lurks somewhere is unavoidable. That Shiva sent down a Jyotirlinga to Kashi, however, will be dismissed by rationalists as just a story, a mere manner of speaking without any factual historical dimension. Just as they make fun of the belief that Yahweh sent down the Biblical Ten Commandments or that Allah sent down the Quran. For secular legislation regarding sacred sites, this possible absence of a solid foundation to these beliefs is totally immaterial. Places of pilgrimage are protected regardless of whether the reason for their sacredness can be proven. The Israeli government facilitates pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus supposedly lay buried, and to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Yet it is not impressed with the revelation of the Sepulchre’s location to Constantine’s mother Helena in a dream. Nor with the Islamic tradition that the Prophet flew to Al-Aqsa on a winged horse. The French governments, often militantly secularist, have had a good laugh at Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary’s apparitions in Lourdes, yet they facilitate a pilgrimage there. So, the fact that worshippers of Shiva, Rama and Krishna venerate specific sites in Kashi, Ayodhya and Mathura is enough for officially recognizing and protecting them. When? Nevertheless, historians still have the liberty to be curious about the factual basis of these beliefs. Regarding Kashi, they tend to consider the Jyotirlinga belief as outside history. Regarding Mathura, they see no reason to doubt the belief about Krishna’s birth. But regarding Ayodhya… In her recent book about the Ramayana, Sanskritist Neena Rai compares the measurements of the relevant sites and distances in Valmiki’s Ayodhya with those actually found in today’s Ayodhya. She opines that this may not be the same town. In my judgment, too hastily, for even Valmiki may have been mistaken. Apart from the trivial demythologizing option that he may have been wrong, or that as a forest-dweller he could only describe the city from hearsay, he may not have foreseen geographical changes. Indeed, a river-bed can gradually or dramatically shift location, so even if he was truthful and accurate in locating a building "by the riverside", it may be far from that riverside today. The present town is already more than three thousand years old according to archaeologists, and houses a Hindu religious site deemed Rama’s birthplace. But was this the palace of the Solar Dynasty to which Rama's father Dasharatha belonged? According to Valmiki, Rama was born in the very palace built by his distant pre-Vedic ancestor Manu. Here, a possible problem with Rama’s own chronology becomes really acute. Whether Rama’s epic adventure was historical or not, he himself was at any rate a historical figure, appearing in the Puranic king lists. (For those faux skeptics who think these are just myth: there would be no history of Mesopotamia or Egypt extant but for their king lists.) But when did he live? This much we know for certain, that it was earlier than the Bharata dynasty’s war of succession, which refers to Rama's story as a fact from the past. The report about this war, much embellished, became Vyasa’s Mahabharata epic (just like Homer’s Iliad from ca. -700 was dimly based on a historical war from ca. -1200). Bypassing the traditionalists who insist that this war took place ca. -3139, which is a chronology invented only ca. +500, we stick by the modern sciences and their convergence on a much less spectacular date, roughly -1500. It so happens that -1500 is about the farthest we can stretch the known archaeology of the Rama Janmabhumi site. During the Ayodhya agitation ca. 1991, India’s legendary archaeologist BB Lal, still active today at age 101, gave a lecture to an audience of Sadhus. He explained that his team had found temple pillars on the contentious site, and the Hindu claim on it was thereby assured. This much, they liked; but they were disappointed when he continued. Digging deeper, Lal's team had found human leftovers as early as the -2nd millennium. To the Sadhus, even Krishna lived in the -32nd century, and Rama still earlier; so archaeology had not confirmed this? When they protested, Lal famously replied: “I am not saying this, but my spade tells me so.” You might yet save the day by observing that Lal had excavated only a small part of Ayodhya; or by accepting the Aryan Immigration chronology (which BB Lal rejects). This holds that after entering in -1500, the Aryans in Haryana wrote the Rg-Veda, and among their nephews in Ayodhya, Rama was born in -1200 or so, and Krishna in Mathura still later. This would narrowly put Rama within the period identified by archaeology. Yet even then it would not be satisfactory. Human habitation at the site should spread thousands of years farther back, as it was no less than the palace of the already-ancient Solar dynasty. Maybe the Solar Dynasty was not that static? This is suggested by the detail that Rama’s father Dasharatha organized a population transfer within his domains. That the townfolk vacated the city after Rama’s passing also indicates a more mobile view of Ayodhya. And when centuries later, the city was rediscovered and revived, presumably by Vikramaditya, he may simply have been mistaken in his choice, or he may have had a reason for deliberately locating his favourite city elsewhere. So it is possible that the real capital of the Solar Dynasty is still waiting somewhere underground for excavation. On the other hand, Rama’s background may be less glorious, but his modest birth location may be exact. When the Ayodhya debate raged thirty years ago, I sometimes thought to myself: there is, in spite of the ongoing peak in research, much on Ayodhya that we don’t really know yet. Common people including the many Twitter polemicists are quick to pronounce their proposals “proven”, but historians should be more hesitant in passing judgment. This doubt regarding Ayodhya brings to mind another sacred city with a far more controversial location: Mecca. In the Ayodhya controversy, the lead in disputing Rama's birth location was given by the secularists, not the Muslims, but just to spite the Hindus, many Muslims followed suit. They wouldn't have done so if they had been more aware of the problems surrounding Mohammed's birthplace. The Saudi government has initiated big construction projects in Mecca with considerable demolitions. When this happens in old cities, say Kashi, the archaeologists come flocking, for the diggings by the construction company throw up many old artefacts that will interest them. Well, in Mecca they find nothing. On pre-Islamic maps, Mecca finds no mention. The Quran’s description of the city layout and the landscape, with a river and olive trees and a Kaaba surrounded by idol temples, do not correspond to the Mecca we know. It is unfit to be a crossroads of caravan routes. That's way exactly during the years of the Ayodhya conflict, Danish historian Patricia Crone concluded that in Mohammed's lifetime, Mecca did not exist. Even in the first century of Islamic history, the mosques were not directed towards Mecca. Islam itself admits that the original Qibla (direction of prayer) was more to the north, which it identifies as Jerusalem, but another city nearby could also do. Indeed, another city fits the bill, as mapped out in great detail by the Canadian historian Dan Gibson: Petra, in modern-day Jordan. This place also had a Kaaba housing a Black Stone, a meteoric rock fallen from heaven and therefore held sacred (essentially like Kashi's Jyotirlingam). A half century after the Prophet's death, one Abdullah ibn-al-Zubayr rebelled against the Ummayad Caliphate of which he had been an official. He spirited the Black Stone away from Petra and installed it in a backwater in the Arabian desert (where no existing townfolk could lay claim to it), where a new sacred site then sprang up. Then he made his own rebellion part of the power play of a Mesopotamian clan that would later become the Abbasid Caliphate. Summing up: in this emerging scenario, the Prophet was not born in Mecca at all, but was relocated there long after his death as part of the upcoming Abbasid clan's rewriting of history. To be sure, Muslims argue against these discoveries. They resist modern insights in the same way that the Ayodhya Sadhus resisted archaeology as an independent source of chronology. In the real world, this debate will go on, just like the search for the early Solar capital will resume. But in a secular state this won’t matter: the sacredness of all sites with a religious meaning is guaranteed. Also reassuring for the Hajjis (pilgrims to the Black Stone) is that the object of their pilgrimage is not something contingent like Mohammed's birthplace. Even if this is accepted to be near Petra, many miles away from Mecca, the actual object of the Hajj is still verifiably present in Mecca: the Black Stone. This way the beliefs underpinning the Muslim pilgrimage may be saved by Islam's only idol.

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