The story of Rama, whose earliest survivals predate all Hindu scripture except the early Vedas, is once more being put to political use. The epic is providing a rallying point for two clashing supremacisms: Hindu supremacism in India, and Sinhala Buddhist supremacism in Sri Lanka.

While Hindu supremacists have used aspects of Rama and his adventures – particularly from the sixteenth century Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas – against Muslims and other Indians they see as “outsiders”, their Sinhala Buddhist counterparts are fostering his rival Ravana as a rallying point against outside forces like India and the Euro-US which threaten the island’s sovereignty.

Demolishing the Babri mosque in Rama’s name helped Hindu supremacists prevent the separation of Hindu Other Backward Classes from higher Hindu castes when the V.P. Singh government implemented 27% reservations in government jobs and universities to OBC communities.

Now the construction of a Rama temple on top of the destroyed monument, under the direct supervision of Hindutva icon and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be highlighted in the face of mounting challenges on multiple fronts. The Modi government must contend with its utter failure to revive the collapsing economy, combat Covid-19, and safeguard India’s borders against Chinese intrusions.

In Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhist supremacists have been building a parallel cult around Ravana, who they believe was an ancient Lankan ruler.

While efforts to build Ravana as an embodiment of Sri Lanka in its fight against the Indian invader had been on for some years, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has revived the project to consolidate its political base vis-à-vis the opposition which is perceived as pro-India and pro-NATO. The Ravana project should help the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the August 5 parliamentary elections.

Recently, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation issued a newspaper advertisement in Sinhala urging people to share documents, books, and research material on Ravana, “the legendary king of Lanka”. According to the advertisement, the Ministry is “conducting in-depth research on King Ravana and the ancient domination of the aerial routes that is now lost”.

They believe Ravana manufactured an aircraft called “Dandu Monara” (known as Pushpaka Vimana in India) and used it to fly to India and several other places overseas.

Historians of early India do not believe the authors of the ancient Valmiki Ramayana were familiar with the subcontinent further south than the Vindhyas. Several later stories of Rama, including the twelfth century Tamil Kambar Ramayanam, present Ravana in a sympathetic light, acting only to avenge Rama’s unprovoked assault on his sister.

As the Sri Lankan government researches Ravana’s aerial routes, it serves a nationalistic purpose in the context of the internal and external challenges it faces today.

A decade after the Sinhala–Tamil civil war vestiges of Tamil separatism remain, with almost all Tamil parties in the electoral fray calling for “self-determination” within a federal system marked by maximum devolution of power to a united Tamil province.

The Tamil Peoples’ National Alliance (TPNA) led by former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran has sought a UN–supervised referendum of Tamil nationals to determine the kind of solution they want. The TPNA itself wants an interim administrative arrangement in the Tamil areas supervised by India and the international community. It has also sought a reduction of the Lankan army deployed in Tamil areas to the 1983 level.

Additionally, there is US pressure to sign agreements which dilute national sovereignty like the Millennium Challenge Corporations (MCC) Compact and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA).

Although the threat to the Lankan government on the human rights front is less now because of a UN and Western bloc weakened by Covid-19, it could be revived to intimidate it into toeing the West’s line on China, which is a major investor in Lanka.

And from “Big Brother” India, there is pressure to yield the Eastern Container Terminal in the Colombo Port. But giving it to India would go against the national policy of not leasing out national assets like ports and airports to foreign interests, a policy that stemmed from the controversial 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to China.

The Ravana cult under construction therefore is meant to tell foreign hegemons that attempts to enforce their will will be met with resistance.

There is also a Buddhist monk-led political organisation called Ravana Balaya. Sri Lanka’s first indigenously made satellite was named Raavana I.

In her paper “Remaking and Trans-creating Ravana in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” Dr Kanchuka Dharmasiri of the University of Peradeniya says that popular songs, films, plays, television series, social media, and “historical narratives” on Ravana have gained “unprecedented popularity” in contemporary Sri Lanka.

Dharmasiri describes the ways in which Ravana has been reimagined and transcreated during significant sociopolitical transformations in Sri Lanka since the 1950s, with performances of Ravana coming to be intertwined with the ideologies of nationalism, neoliberalism and power, in a continual transformation.

Another researcher, Deborah de Koning of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, in a paper entitled ‘The Ritualizing of the Martial and Benevolent Side of Ravana in Two Annual Rituals at the Sri Devram Maha Viharaya in Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka’ says that Ravana is the object of devotion at this recently constructed temple, which in addition to erecting a Ravana statue in a shrine of his own, organises two annual rituals for Ravana.

According to de Koning, these rituals clearly portray Ravana as a benevolent leader and a warrior king. Such glorifications of a putative ancient civilisation, she argues, “are part of increased nationalistic sentiments and an increased assertiveness among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in post-war Sri Lanka.”

Sinhala historical chronicles like the Mahawamsa (sixth century CE) and Rajavaliya (seventeenth century) mention the Ramayana and identify Ravana as a Sinhala king, extolling his intellectual, artistic, physical and political prowess.

However, credit for starting a Ravana cult in the modern era goes to Sinhala cultural and linguistic revivalist the late Arisen Ahubudu. Ahubudu represented the “Hela” movement founded by the late Munidasa Kumaratunga, which urged a Sinhalese return to the roots, shunning Indian, Hindu and other “alien” influences.

In his book Sakvithi Ravana (1988) Ahubudu says that Ravana reigned from 2554 to 2517 BC. He trashes the story that Rama invaded Lanka because Ravana had kidnapped his wife Sita. In fact, according to Ahubudu, Ravana’s stepbrother Vibhishana invited Rama to invade, because he wanted to oust Ravana from kingship of the island.

“Considering the fact that Sita’s chastity was proved, this [the alleged abduction] can be taken as a story concocted by Yuwaraja Vibhishana in order to discredit Ravana in the eyes of his people and take advantage thereof,” Ahubudu concludes.

According to Buddhasasa Hewavitharana, a Sri Lankan economist, the Sinhalas disapproved of Vibhishana’s conduct, and in popular lore the area to which Vibhishana belonged (Kalutara North) came to be known as the land of the desha-shatru, or enemy of the nation.

Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have also had problems with Rama. According to K.N.O. Dharmadasa, editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia, a 15th century Sinhala poet asks why Rama, a god, could not hop across to Sri Lanka like Hanuman did, and had to get a bridge constructed.

“Could a God’s power be so small in this world?” wondered the poet.

Cover Photograph: Ravana Sithabhilashaya scripted by J.B.Dissanayake and Namel Weeramuni