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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 26, June 15, 2013

Sethusamudram: A Project Crippled By Myth

Saturday 15 June 2013, by K G Somasekharan Nair


The Government of India designed and launched the Sethusamudram shipping channel project in 2005 for which Rs 25,000 crores was the expenditure estimated then. Now ships from the Abrabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka because between Dhanushkodi of Tamil Nadu and Thalaimannar of Sri Lanka there is a shallow sea along with soil formations like broken bund. If a deep waterway is made by dredging out 83 kms there, ships from the Cape Comorin side to Kolkata and eastwards can have a short cut through the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait by saving 758 kms. The government can collect a good user fee too. But after spending Rs 800 crores, the project was abandoned due to irrational intimidations. Now the government is planning to revive it but the meddlers are still there to muddle everything.

According to the fundamentalists, Ramayana is authentic history and that the broken dyke visible from Dhanushkodi is the Sethu made by the militia of Rama commandeered by Hanuman for killing Ravana, the King of Lanka. Hence it is the Ramasethu. But Gandhiji, who considered Rama an embodiment of all virtues and perfections, explained: “I like the ideal of Rama and Janaka. They owed nothing against the people. They lived in their midst a life not above than theirs. But these may not be regarded as historic personages.”1

That is to say, Rama and all other characters in the Puranas are not historical but imaginary. He said it under the authority of Bhagavatha, the 18th and ultimate Purana. The Bhagavatha Purana of Vedvyasa is in the form of advice given by the sage Shuka to Pareekshith Maharaj of the Pandava dynasty to enable him inculcate bravery so as to accept equanimously imminent death which was the inevitable result of a curse by another sage. After discoursing all valorous avatars of Vishnu, sage Shuka says:

“The famous personalities, stories of whom I have narrated so far, are not real, but only imaginary characters created to provide you wisdom and detachment from mundane pleasure.”

The Puranas had a great social outlook when written. Everything was written during the golden age of Buddhism and the Bhagavatha Purana mentions Buddha tactfully. Buddhism was a challenge to the Vedas which are irreligious and materialistic. Vedic rites were to invoke and satisfy the gods to get better rain for the improvement of agriculture and livestock as well as for the annihilation of enemies. Thus the Vedas are world-loving, pleasure-seeking and optimistic. Buddha objected to Vedic ritualism because it involved animal slaughter and the consuming of that flesh by the priests. The Vedas are the earliest source of physical science, mathematics, astronomy, medical science, astrology and music. The Rigveda has 12 cantos and in the 10th Vedanta appears to satisfy human curiosity regarding the origin of the world and the nature of the imperishable spirit. As observed by Fritjof Capra in the Tao of Physics, “Buddha was not interested in satisfying human curiosity about the origin of the world, the nature of the divine or similar questions. He was concerned exclusively with the human situation, with the suffering and frustrations of human beings.”3

It may be seen that Prince Siddhartha, living in the middle of all royal pleasures, absconded from the palace leaving behind his young wife and one-year-old son. He was in search of the root cause of human worries and means to overcome it, forgetting that real life is a mixture of sadness and pleasure, and both are intermittent and transient. He did not know when the period of distress or delight lapsed, and that both were equal in effect. Leaving the palace, he resorted to prolonged wandering, self-torture and meditation. After seven years, while sitting under a Bodhi-tree, he believed he got an apocalypse and achieved Buddhahood. He assumed that together with the attainment of Buddhahood he had discovered the basic reason of human worries and it was desire. He exhorted his followers that the means to get rid of worry was to bulwark passion for pleasure, abandon affinity towards life and overcome the zeal for power. Begging was the means for the Buddhist life disregarding that it was dependency and exploitation. While showing their gourd-bowl for a handful of rice or wheat, they were not bound to think who produced it as well as the pain and fatigue of workers who toiled for its production. That practice ultimately made them lazy. Above all, Buddha did not take care of his father and foster mother at their dotage. He did not give pleasures to his wife in her age of vigour. He did not look after his son. And finally, he did not perform his duty as a king by governing his subjects. Thus Buddha himself refused his dharma as a son, husband, father and king. It would be better to imagine the condition of a society which adopted the dharma of Buddha.

Together with the development of sorrow that figured in Buddhism, refusal of duty and hesitation to work increased among the people. In order to save society from counter-productivity, inactivity and apathy, the worldly-minded and socially committed poets wrote the Puranas. Their intention was to make society active, virile and optimistic. So the heroes of the Puranas were those relishing all the material pleasures of human life. They were ready to conduct prolonged battles and had no hesitation to behead any number of demons. They discoursed that it is not a sin if violence and bloodbath (himsa) is adopted to save society from the enemies. Thus all the Puranas are a total repudiation of Buddhism which rotates on the pivot of ahimsa. During the lifetime of Buddha itself, ideological disharmony emerged among his adherents and subsequently sectarianism developed in that religion. After ten centuries of its origin Tantrism came into practice. Within this time, many kings assigned large tracts of land to Buddhist monasteries which provided them heavy income. Even though Buddhism in its origin was denial of worldly pleasures and voluntary adoption of self-torture, Tantrism and regular income made monks and nuns absolute hedonists. “Corrupt practices like the use of five ma-karas i.e. words beginning with the letter ‘ma’ such as madya (wine), mamsa (flesh), matsya (fish), mudra (woman) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) were encouraged and practised even by men who were supposed to be leading a religious life.”4

The moral turpitude of the Buddhist monks and nuns was depicted by the eighth century Sanskrit poets like Dendi, Bodhayana and Mahendra Varma in their works. According to them, Buddhist nuns were acting as interagents for immoral traffic and men of debauchery became Buddhist monks at their old age. When it degenerated and Buddhism fell into bipedal voluptousness, the super genius and sharp disputant Sankaracharya took birth in the ninth century in Kerala. He travelled all over India and defeated Buddhist scholars in disputes. Buddhism did not believe in God or Soul like the rationalists. Unlike the rationalists Buddhists believed in re-birth. Sankaracharya established logically that re-birth is impossible without soul (atman) and if there is soul there is God (Atman). Thus when Buddhism was proved to be illogical and baseless, people, fed up with the total lazyness and immoralities of Buddhist monks and nuns, organised themselves and attacked the latter violently. They were either murdered or deported. Gandhiji reveals: “The great Sankaracharya did not hesitate to use unspeakable cruelty in banishing Buddhism out of India.”5

Thereafter the minority Buddhists, who remained in India, were enslaved, kept out of civil society and forced to work hard. In the 20th century, during the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China, similar torture was applied on Buddhist mendicants to force them for agricultural production and the most undomesticated were murdered. Together with violent expulsion of Buddhists from India in the ninth century, idols of Buddha from their temples were thrown out and the images of heroes and heroines in the Puranas were installed therein. Buddhists were prohibited from entering such temples. The outer walls of many Hindu temples are still bearing pornographic sculptures, nude caryatids and salacious paintings as monuments of the five ‘ma-kara’ cult in Buddhism. In addition, many vices in Buddhism were absorbed by modern Hinduism, beggary of the Sanyasis being an example. It may be remembered that the Vedas, Upanishads or Puranas say nothing about temple worship but proclaim the importance of Vedic ritualism and holy bath.

In brief, the Puranas, which built up romanticism in world literature before the Christian era, had a social responsibility when written. Likewise heroes in the Puranas began to be worshiped as a social necessity that emerged with the elimination of Buddhism. It may be seen that all novels are stories of imaginary persons living in real places. The events are also imaginary. Similarly Rama and Ravana as well as their battles are poetic imaginations, but Ayodhya and something like a bund visible from Dhanushkodi are real. The project named “Sethusamudram” connotes that the geological abnormality in the Gulf of Mannar to be dredged out for the shipping channel is the “Sethu” built for Rama. It gives justification for the agitation of fanatics who found out the birthplace of the imaginary Rama in Ayodhya and demolished the Babri Masjid. It would be better to give the project another name before reopening it with attempts to evolve a nationwide ideological consensus in its favour.


1. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. V, p. 364 (2006), Navjivan.

2. Sreemad Bhagavatha (Sanskrit original), 12: 3: 14.

3. p. 83. (1984), Bantam Books.

4. P.V. Bapat, 2500 years of Buddhism, p. 300 (2009). Publication Division, Government of India.

5. The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. IV, p. 43 (2006), Navjivan.

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