By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
The conflict over the now-destroyed structure in Ayodhya, whose chief antagonists have consistently sought to pit Hindus and Muslims against each other, has a hidden dimension, representing a third party, which, if recognised, could well provide a meaningful solution to the still-unresolved dispute. So writes Balwant Singh Charvak, a noted Ambedkarite scholar from Uttar Pradesh, in a book which I recently came across appropriately titled Ayodhya Kiski? Na Ram Ki, Na Babar Ki (‘Whose Ayodhya? Neither Ram’s Nor Babar’s’). Echoing several other Dalit ideologues who have made similar claims, Charvak argues that the disputed spot in Ayodhya belongs neither to Hindus nor to Muslims, but, rather, to an ignored third party—Shudras and Buddhists. This spot, he claims, is where a grand Buddhist temple, dedicated to a Shudra Rishi, Lomash (later identified, so he says, as a boddhistattva or Gautama Buddha in one of his previous lives) once stood.
In his 230-odd page Hindi book, which is based on meticulous research, Charvak argues that there is no evidence of any Ram temple having stood on the site occupied by the erstwhile Babri Masjid. Indeed, he argues, the cult of Ram centred in Ayodhya is of relatively recent origin, and is certainly a post-Buddhist development. He contends that the disputed spot in Ayodhya was actually a hallowed centre of worship of ‘low’ caste Untouchables and Shudras even before Ram's birth, for it was there that a Shudra saint named Lomash was born and where had set up his hermitage. His son Shambhukh, also a saint, was, so he contends, also born in the same place. The father and son were both renowned for their piety, and were immensely popular saints among the Shudras, who were shunned and scorned by the ‘upper’ caste Hindus. According to the Ramayana, Charvak writes, Shambhukh was killed by Ram for having violated the Brahminical code of caste conduct by engaging in tapasya or stern authorities in the hope of entering heaven, something that was forbidden to ‘low’ caste Shudras by the Brahmins and their religion. This indicates, Charvak adds, that Ram was an ardent defender of the inequitous caste system, which was premised on the degradation of the Shudras.
Because of its association with the Shudra hero-saints Lomash and Shambhukh, Charvak writes, the presently disputed spot was widely revered among the Shudras for centuries. Later, Gautam Buddha is said to have visited Ayodhya, and Charvak argues that it was near Lomash Rishi’s chaitya or shrine, supposedly constructed on the disputed spot, that he announced, so Charvak claims (based on a reference to the widely-known Buddhist text ‘The Questions of King Milinda’) that he had been Lomash Rishi in one of his previous births. In other words, Charvak argues, Lomash Rishi was actually a boddhisattva.
The bigoted Brahmins of the area, fearful that the Buddha’s charisma and teaching would attract people to him and that this would threaten their control and privileges, issued orders that no one was to give food or water to the Buddha and his bhikkhu followers accompanying him. Defying their diktat, a woman called Anitya, a Brahmin’s servant, provided the Buddha with water, which so angered her Brahmin master that he beat her to death. This incident, so Charvak argues, took place at the presently-disputed spot, which added to its religious importance for the Shudras. Soon, the spot also became a hallowed one for Buddhists (many of whom were of Shudra origin) particularly because, or so Charvak says, the Buddha had visited the place.
Prior to the Buddha’s visit to Ayodhya, or the Buddhist Saketa, the disputed spot, so hallowed to the Shudras, hosted a chaitya or shrine to Lomash, but after the spread of Buddhism, Charvak argues, a massive Buddhist temple or vihar was constructed on it in honour of 'Lomash Boddhisattva' and other Shudra saints. Charvak quotes well-known historians who have testified to the importance of Ayodhya/Saket as a great centre of Buddhism and of it having once hosted a vast number of Buddhist temples. However, Charvak argues, with the decline of the Mauryas, Buddhism, too, experienced a decline, and when, in the first century BC, the Brahmin Pushyamitra Sangha murdered the last Mauryan king and came to power over much of northern India, he let loose a virtual genocide of Buddhists, destroying many of their temples, including possibly the Buddhist vihar that Charvak claims was built on Lomash Rishi’s hermitage, the site of what Muslims claim to be the Babri Masjid.
When, in the early sixteenth century, Babar or his general Mir Baqi arrived in Ayodhya the ruins of this Buddhist temple, built on a spot that Charvak argues was for centuries holy for the Shudras and Buddhists, were lying scattered about, having, so Charvak says, long since been destroyed by Brahminical revivalists who were as opposed to the Buddhists as they were to the Shudras. Babar or Mir Baqi simply put together the scattered ruins to build what is now known as the Babri Masjid, Charvak writes. In other words, he contends, the structure that originally stood on the disputed spot was not a Ram temple but, rather, a Buddhist vihar, and that it was destroyed not by Babar or any other Muslim but, rather, by anti-Buddhist Brahminical revivalists. Charvak backs his claim by asserting that relics unearthed during excavations around the disputed site show clear evidence of his claims and do not suggest any proof whatsoever of a Ram temple having stood on the spot. Based on references in an ancient Pali Buddhist text, the Dashrath Jataka, he also raises the possibility that Ram was born not in the present-day Ayodhya, on the banks of the Saryu river, but, rather in another place once also referred to as Ayodhya, located on the banks of the Ganga in Kashi, where, according to the Dashrath Jataka, Ram's father orginally ruled. If this is true, Charvak argues, the claim that the presently-disputed spot marks the place of Ram's birth is void.
Charvak is not the only person to have argued on these lines—numerous noted Buddhist and Ambedkarite scholars and activists have made somewhat the same claim. That Ayodhya was once a thriving centre of Buddhism is well-known, as is the fact of Brahminical revivalists destroying vast numbers of Buddhist temples (as did many intolerant Muslim iconoclasts) or taking them over and Hinduising them across India. Charvak’s thesis could thus well have much merit to back it.
Whatever the case may be, a vihar dedicated to the Buddha, the apostle of universal love, instead of a Brahminical Hindu temple or a Muslim mosque, being built on the disputed site might actually be a mutually acceptable and eminently sensible settlement for many Hindus and Muslims themselves, who, I should hope, are fed up of the hate-driven politics of mandir and masjid being played in their name.