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Religion: Forbidden Song

2 minute read

Ragupati ragava raja ram, pathita pavana sita ram!

Chanted over & over to the accompaniment of clapping hands, this Song of Ram has for generations been Hinduism’s most popular hymn. It was a favorite with Gandhi, who believed that mere repetition of the name of the god Ram was an effective means of banishing fear. Gandhi added two lines of his own to the song: “Ishvar [Hindustani for God] and Allah are both thy names; give wisdom to all.” Gandhi encouraged the use of the amended version to promote Hindu-Moslem harmony.

Recently the Song of Ram has pointed up another disharmony—Moslems & Hindus v. Christians. In the dusty railway town of Jhansi, 225 miles south of Delhi, students of the Christian High School asked permission to sing the hymn during their daily prayers. School authorities refused, on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to worship non-Christian gods in a Christian institution. Representatives of the 800 students promptly protested that they merely wanted to do the will of Gandhi, who “died not only for India but for the whole of mankind.”

A student strike was narrowly averted by the president of Jhansi’s Congress Party. But Jhansi’s Moslem and Hindu citizens, united in their newly found nationalism, were incensed at what seemed to them both Christian bigotry and foreign interference. They held an angry mass meeting to protest.

The school’s embarrassed Indian Christian headmaster wrote soothingly to the press, passing the buck to his sponsors—the United Church of Northern India (a coalition of Protestant mission churches).

This week, as Christian High’s students trooped back to class after the Dusehra festival vacation, there were prayer meetings for them in all the town’s other schools. And, though Christian High School’s prayer hall was kept closed, students marched out of their drab yellow school building and defiantly sang the forbidden hymn in the yard.

Was it all a teapot tempest? One nervous Delhi churchman said: “It is a symptom of a subtle attempt to put Mahatma Gandhi—for whom, mind you, I have the greatest respect—on the same pedestal as our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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