Plato’s Atlantis, Valmiki’s Ramayana And Modi’s Hindutva Today

Plato’s Atlantis, Valmiki’s Ramayana And Modi’s Hindutva Today
The search for paradise on earth has always fired the imagination of scholars and dreamers, whether it is the Englishman Thomas More in his Utopia or the Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufail in his Hayy ibn Yaqdhan. Names like the mythical El Dorado and Shangri-La have prompted explorers to search for them as if they were a reality, not a fantasy. The earthly paradise promised not only a land of abundant gold and silver, but also people of mystical wisdom and harmony.

What if historical fiction from the ancient past is accepted as truth? We will illustrate how literature some 2,500 years old influences and shapes societies across the world even today. This literature has had enormous impact through history and up to our times. We will examine Plato’s discussion of ‘Atlantis,’ along with the   great sacred texts of Hinduism, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The latter are foundational texts and remain of enormous relevance today. Indeed, the holiest of the holy, Bhagavad Gita, is contained in the Mahabharata (the Gita has inspired millions including the young Gandhi when he was a lonely student in London).

Just as we can identify Plato as the author of the Atlantis story, we can identify Valmiki as the author of the Ramayana and Vyasa as that of the Mahabharata, although accretions and additions expanded the originals. In one society, the past was used for cultural purposes and in the other for religious ones. Atlantis thus became an endless source of literary and cultural fascination while the Ramayana and Mahabharata provided a legitimate, valid and solid base for the attempt to recreate a Hindu past that would form the basis for the present and allow the construction of the future. In both cases, the Greek and the Indian, a mythical past was presented as concrete reality. The process of fiction becoming fact was comprehensively managed, aided and completed by modern media.

Just as admirers of Plato’s Atlantis idea are not restricted to Greece, people who believe in Hinduism are not confined to India alone. They have made and are making a spectacular impact abroad, for example, in the West. For the first time the Prime Minister of Britain is a Hindu and the Vice President of the United States a Christian Baptist who grew up attending services at a Hindu temple and Baptist church. Dozens of CEOs of major brands are Hindus. There is a whole range of companies starting from IBM, Cognizant and Adobe to tech giants like Google and Microsoft, mobile mammoths like Nokia, and content kings like OnlyFans, where the CEOs are of Indian origin (see “Indian Origin CEOs Who Are Ruling the World,” Startup Talky, 03 September 2022). Our discussion, therefore, is neither regional nor parochial. It has universal applicability.

In the case of Hindu mythology, the ideologues of Hindutva have effectively welded it with the contemporary politics of India. Championed by the BJP, Hindutva activists proclaim a time when Hindu religion and culture dominated ancient India and was then despoiled by barbaric invaders, first by the Muslims, followed by the British. Paradise was lost. It was now time to regain paradise. In the process, if there was some violence, it was part of the evolution of history.


The Greek past

Plato had depicted an ideal republic in his imagined Atlantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias. Socrates is depicted by Plato as joining him in a search for an ideally just state in which virtue, the benefits of education and democracy are apparent. Plato had set his discussion of Atlantis in the context of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta. So, although Athens is smaller than Atlantis and poorer, it is high on virtue and therefore victorious.

Plato had written several major studies exploring the ideas of Socrates and his other colleagues on what an ideal republic would look like. One of his key ideas was that of a ruling elite who would be philosopher-kings. They would not themselves own property and would live austere lives, but be the guardians of the state. Plato’s ideas of the ruling elite or the philosopher-king remain widely known. The elite Indian civil service of British India saw themselves as the guardians, that is, the philosopher-kings of Plato. Hitler and the Nazis took the same concept and imagined themselves destined to be the ruling elite for Europe. There would be another category of citizens who would be the producers and whose main task would be to provide for the sustenance of the guardians.
The story of Atlantis may not be true, but it is not a lie. It is what Socrates called a noble lie or noble fiction. Plato has thus written historical fiction. Plato has given us several clues which challenge the veracity of the story

By writing of the ancient past, Plato was breaking with the tradition of contemporary historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. He dated Atlantis to 9,000 years before his time. The Atlantis story gave Plato the chance to discuss its theological, philosophic, political and ethical implications.

With his inventive mind, Plato had given us Atlantis through what we may call historical fiction. Through this imagined island continent, a thalassocracy, or maritime empire, Plato described what the democratic republic could look like. The narrative was in the subjunctive, imagining ‘what if.’ So powerful was this idea that for centuries afterwards and up to our times, scholars, historians, and commentators have written about Atlantis as if it were a historical fact. Europeans wrote about the “Nordic types” of Atlantis in the late 18th and 19th centuries, a time when theories of eugenics and race circulated. These ideas were picked up by the Nazis in the 1930s, who claimed Atlantis as part of their own origin story. Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, for example, believed in the literal truth of Atlantis and established a special SS branch, the Ahnenerbe (Bureau of Ancestral Heritage), to study the path that the Aryan race supposedly took after the fall of Atlantis. There are some 400 films on Atlantis, among them the movie based on the Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. There was an American TV series in the 1970s called Man from Atlantis. Atlantis has even produced an American superhero, his adventures published by DC comics, and depicted in several big budget films: Aquaman, King of Atlantis.

Before DC comics, Namor, Prince of Atlantis, was one of Marvel’s first characters and will feature in the new film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Films continue to be made and novels written about Atlantis. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens television series discussed Atlantis multiple times and the first episode of its spinoff, In Search of Aliens, which states in its opening voiceover, “what we’ve been taught by mainstream scholars is not the whole picture,” was entitled “The Hunt for Atlantis.” Explorers search far and wide for the lost continent hidden under the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantis even featured in the online ravings of David DePape, who reportedly attempted to murder Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul while searching for her. He declared, “Noah survived the collapse of Atlantis” alongside QAnon postings and invective against groups including “elites,” Jews, and Muslims.

At the heart of the Atlantis myth is a love story. Poseidon falls in love with Cleito, an indigenous girl from the island, and they have five sets of twins. In the center of Atlantis, they build a huge temple to Poseidon and Cleito. There are gold and silver statues. There are bulls, waterfalls and waterways and delightful fruit. The Greek philosophers, however, condemned Atlantis for the arrogance of its people on the island and its imperialist policies towards north African countries including Egypt. One thing the Greek gods could not abide and that was hubris. It was not long before Zeus struck. Zeus created earthquakes and floods to punish Atlantis which sank under the waves.

The story of Atlantis may not be true, but it is not a lie. It is what Socrates called a noble lie or noble fiction. Plato has thus written historical fiction. Plato has given us several clues which challenge the veracity of the story. In fact, Plato has been generous with his clues, 51 in all, including a location near the sea; situated outside the “Pillars of Heracles,” which many believe to be Gibraltar; the presence of elephants; mountains to its north; a ringlike structure of the city; and most importantly it had to be within roughly 5,000 kilometers from Athens. Because Atlantis, based in myth, speaks to our psyche and our cultural imagination, it demands the decoding and reinterpretation of the past.


The Indian past

What was the past like in India? The answer lies in two epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The former is said to be the longest epic poem ever written, consisting of over 200,000 verses. Its 1.8 million words are ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The Mahabharata contains philosophic and devotional material and most importantly one of the central texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita.

Valmiki’s Ramayana describes the life of Rama, the legendary prince of Ayodhya. It describes his 14-year-old exile at the command of his father, his travels across the Indian Subcontinent with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana, the king of Lanka, and the war in which Rama killed Ravana and returned Sita in triumph to his kingdom in Ayodhya. Although Ram is the central hero of the Ramayana story, it is important to keep in mind that Sita and Lakshmana are also heroic figures depicting courage and nobility. Both exhibit loyalty to Lord Ram that is exemplary.

Ancient India was, according to the legends, a paradise. We encounter flying vimanas which are like flying saucers mounted with deadly missiles. Heroes leapt over mountains to slay demons with numerous heads. Ravana, the king of the demons, is depicted with ten heads and twenty arms and flies away with Lord Rama’s wife, Sita. In sculpture, a favourite incident depicted is Rama shaking Mount Kailas. Rama recovers Sita with the aid of flying monkeys and demon counsellors. It is notable, however, that the supreme god Brahma aids Rama in his epic final battle with Ravana by giving Rama his magical arrows.

In the Hindu tradition, Lord Ram stands out as a noble, courageous, wise and just ruler. He is a loving son, brother and husband. He is the ideal man and a great exemplar for any human being irrespective of their religion. It is not surprising that the great Muslim poet Allama Iqbal dedicated a poem to Lord Rama called Lord Ram in which Iqbal addressed him as the Imam or religious leader of all of Hind or India. The great Mahatma Gandhi died with the name of his beloved Rama on his lips when he was shot to death in 1948.

In these legends, at one point the god Shiva cut off a boy’s head and that of an elephant which he placed on the body of the boy. Thus, was born the god Ganesh. Henceforth this creature Ganesh will be the resolver of all problems and will be first in the rituals performed by the community in honor of the gods. These historical stories are now projected in modern-day India backed by the power of the media as actual historical facts, like the Atlantis story is for some. The myth is too powerful to dismiss with facts and figures.

The pro-Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) drove a campaign against the minorities that utilised the police, the media, and, fatally for democracy, even the judiciary. In today’s India, Hindutva mixes theology, fake news, media and the politics of hate in a violent brew of historical fiction that permeates the land – like Russian dolls, one right-wing organisation nested in a smaller one and that in turn in an even smaller one and so on. These organisations were widespread, and their links were strong, though on the surface they appeared unconnected and even innocuous. Their ideologues openly and frequently cited Hitler as their role model. If, wrote Golwalkar, one of the earliest and most influential leaders of the Hindu right and proponent of the Hindu Rashtra or Hindu nation idea, the Nazis could do away with the Jews of Europe, why cannot we do the same with our minorities in India?
Rama recovers Sita with the aid of flying monkeys and demon counsellors. It is notable, however, that the supreme god Brahma aids Rama in his epic final battle with Ravana by giving Rama his magical arrows

Hindus wherever they live, East or West, are deeply religious. Whether it is modernist Hindus like Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street, Hindu members of the Indian cricket team, the astronauts aiming for Mars, or those living more traditional lives in the towns and villages of India, Hindus adhere to the customs and values of Hinduism. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the dramatic rise of the BJP and Hindu right-wing nationalism began with the 1980s television series on the Ramayana, which gained audiences of several hundred million at each showing. Every Sunday morning when it was broadcast, buses would stop running and shops would suspend business. The entire nation was transfixed. Spotting an opportunity, the BJP organised political processions with the actors from the TV series dressed up in their costumes. The BJP then in a stroke of political genius decided to march to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, with the intention of demolishing a mosque said to be built in the time of Babar, the first Mughal emperor, and constructing a temple dedicated to Lord Ram in its place. Given Lord Ram’s widespread popularity, the move proved hugely successful. Starting with two seats in parliament, the support for the BJP jumped to numbers that allowed it to form a government with their own prime minister. But riots followed and Muslims were targeted. A not-so-subtle link was traced in the media between Muslims, vicariously blamed for Muslim invaders in the past, Pakistan as representing an inveterate enemy of India and the BJP as the champions of Hinduism.

The pattern of politics which would lead to the triumphant emergence of Narendra Modi and his unstoppable electoral strength was established. Even Modi’s well-documented complicity in the genocide against Muslims that took place on his watch in Gujarat did not dampen his support. When asked if he regretted the slaughter of helpless Muslims, he answered chillingly, “If someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is.”

In order for the BJP philosophy to grow and thrive in India, the compassionate and inclusive liberal ideas of the founding fathers of India, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had to be dismissed and even eliminated; it is a zero-sum relationship. There has been a vigorous and sustained attack on these early Indian nationalists to the point that Gandhi’s effigies have been burnt and shot at. Nehru is widely dismissed as a shallow playboy, an ineffective and insincere leader. Conversely, Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse has temples dedicated to him and a cult has grown around him. He is addressed as Mahatma, the Great Soul, the title traditionally given to Gandhi. Modi has won election after election. In a democracy, that is the final arbiter. After the emergence of Modi, nothing could stop the Hindutva juggernaut. Just as the kingdom of Lord Ram in the ideal embodied virtue and nobility, the era of Modi has come to symbolise the grubby politics of modern India.

We must be careful in separating the great religion of Hinduism, with its concepts of shanti (peace), seva (service) and ahimsa (non-violence), and some of the ways it is being interpreted today as violent fascism against the minorities. The early Hindutva ideologues themselves distinguished Hinduism and Hindutva, with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, for example, writing “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva” while he defined Hindutva as encompassing “the whole Being of our Hindu race.” Yet Hindutva had mobilised the noble Ram in Indian politics, and Ram was unbeatable.


Misery of the minorities

The minorities of India are harshly treated, in spite of the guarantees that they enjoy in the constitution. Of these, Muslims in particular face widespread prejudice and violence. But Muslims today are fragmented, impoverished and leaderless. So, the BJP hit upon the device of picking on the rulers from one of the most famous dynasties of India, the Mughals, and converting their reputation from great pluralists to fanatic Muslim terrorists. Aurangzeb, the last great emperor, was reduced to the caricature of a Muslim tyrant killing Hindus and destroying Hindu temples. Angry mobs chanted slogans baying for the blood of Muslims: “you are the children of Aurangzeb, and your fate is either the grave or Pakistan.” In short, Muslims had no place in modern India.

Bulldozers are used to destroy Muslim homes. Muslim students are picked up, accused of treason to the state and locked away under draconian laws aimed at them. Mobs at random stop and lynch young men that they may come across, or assault women going about their business. Nuns have been assaulted in churches and statues of Jesus have been smashed.

For the first time in modern Indian history, Muslims are systematically excluded at every level of national politics. There is not a single Muslim in the central cabinet or in the lower house of parliament and they are virtually non-existent in the police, civil and military services. The announcements of denial of citizenship and the construction of camps also target Muslims. The special status of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority province of India, was abrogated and laws were passed allowing non-residents to flood the area and buy property. Almost a million troops are deployed in Kashmir to keep the lid on the local freedom struggles – amid horror stories of rape, torture and killings. In the background, the media vociferously mocked and attacked Muslims as terrorists and potential enemies of the state.
It is time that devout Hindus and serious-minded Indian scholars rescue Lord Ram and introduce him as a figure of compassion and justice to modern India. He deserves it; and so do the Indians, especially the minorities

Almost every significant mosque in India is now targeted by right-wing organisations as having been built on destroyed temples. Their aim is to demolish the mosques and rebuild temples in their place. The Mughals are accused by Hindutva of the wanton destruction of almost 40,000 temples. Western scholars of India, however, challenge this narrative. The well-respected American historian Richard Eaton believes only some two dozen temples were altered not destroyed during Mughal rule (“Thousands of mosques targeted as Hindu nationalists try to rewrite India’s history” by Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Uttar Pradesh, The Observer, 30 October 2022). Professor Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asia at Rutgers University, has written on the Mughals and has received an avalanche of hate mail and tweets. Two instances below give a sample of their vitriol:

“Keep loving Mughals and we’ll keep loving Hitler you stupid jew,” read one tweet. Another declared, “I wouldn’t mind if this female bitch is beheaded” (“Far-Right Hindu Nationalism Is Gaining Ground In The U.S.” by Rowaida Abdelaziz, HuffPost, 22 October 2022). Even Bollywood, which more than any other institution maintained the secular promise of the early days of independence, was infected with Islamophobia (“In India, Modi's Hindu nationalists declare war on Bollywood’s Muslim superstars” by Samaan Lateef in Haaretz, 29 September 2022).

Accompanying these sinister moves were major political figures announcing that India would soon be entirely free of minorities such as Muslims and Christians. Where would this lead to? India, it appeared, if its leaders were to be taken on face value, was heading for the final solution for over 200 million Muslim citizens of India.

As for Pakistan, senior members of the BJP have issued bloodcurdling threats against the country that they see as part of India, which needs to be rejoined to it. They have threatened nuclear annihilation. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, speaking in Srinagar in October 2022, made a statement that India intended to forcefully take the northern areas of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. In such a contingency where the nation faced an onslaught from a nuclear neighbour, Pakistani leaders, in spite of the huge economic woes, corruption and political challenges, are nonetheless unanimous that their nuclear weapons would be used to defend the country. With so much hate swirling around, a nuclear exchange is a dangerous possibility; such a conflict would be a catastrophe for the planet.



Different religious traditions have different stories which inspire believers, although they may create skepticism in the non-believer or those not part of the tradition. Thus, stories of the burning bush and the voice of God on Mount Sinai, walking on water and bringing a dead man to life, and riding to the presence of God on the legendary horse Buraq, fall within the confines of the Abrahamic faiths. Chinese mythology describes a dragon from the heavens that arrives on earth to give birth to Chinese emperors just as Hindu mythology talks of flying chariots and gods with ten heads and twenty arms.

But in the mythology, what comes shining through is the extraordinary nobility and character of the main protagonist in these religious traditions. In the Hindu tradition, we have pointed to Lord Ram as the central iconic heroic figure.

There are also echoes of the myths across cultures. Just as Zeus seduces a mortal woman, Leda, Krishna, the blue god, seduces the human Radha. Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu. He is considered the god of mercy and childhood and associated with love and mischief. He is depicted with blue skin as he is said to have evolved from an aboriginal tribe. He is known to cavort with milkmaids. His beloved Radha is a married mortal.

Just as there is a debate among scholars and commentators about whether Atlantis ever existed, there is an equally heated debate about the existence of the characters in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Historians tend to believe that these are mythical fiction, believers are adamant that they were in fact real historical characters. Recall an exasperated Lord Macaulay who wrote in the hugely consequential Minute on Education, which would impose English on British India, that “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

I write out of respect for the great world religion of Hinduism, but as an outsider I am aware of my limitations as someone outside the faith. Fortunately, there are many courageous figures who are demanding a more balanced approach to the understanding of Hinduism. Among these names we may include Rajmohan Gandhi, Karan Thapar, Romila Thapar, Pratab Mehta, Arundhati Roy, Shashi Tharoor, Sunita Viswanath and Ajit Sahi. The last two are active members of Hindus for Human Rights in the US, countering the image of Hinduism as a violent religion of hate and anger. There have also been bold initiatives to start long overdue dialogue between the right-wing leaders and Muslims. In September 2022, a small but influential group of Muslims met Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, a master affiliate of the BJP, in what was reported as a cordial meeting. It is a small step, but it offers a ray of light.

Before the Hindutva brigade begins to attack me through their army of trolls, I want to emphasise that I am an admirer of Lord Ram. I want Ram’s virtues to permeate Indian society. For thugs to beat individual Muslims and force them to say, “Long live Lord Ram” (Jai Shree Ram), is to disgrace Ram’s memory. The acts of egregious cruelty are now widely discussed and condemned. American professors studying dangerous trends in genocide are alarmed that India is well on its way to full blown genocide (see, for example, the work of Professor Gregory Stanton, founding president and chairman of the organisation Genocide Watch).

It is time that devout Hindus and serious-minded Indian scholars rescue Lord Ram and introduce him as a figure of compassion and justice to modern India. He deserves it; so do the Indians, especially the minorities. Muslims would learn to acknowledge the greatness of Ram, of course without compromising their own faith, but no one wants to be beaten into chanting alien slogans. Today the figure of Rama is associated in the minds of the minorities with cruelty, violence and misery.

If the leaders of modern India wish to reproduce mythology from the past wholesale, and interpret it as reality, then they must retain its ideal virtues of compassion, wisdom and justice too. It is time to project Lord Ram in his true colours. His adventures end in the jubilation with which his community greets him. He will bring, they anticipate, healing and love to his people. The minorities could then love him and not be petrified of his supporters. In re-making India as paradise on earth, in regaining lost paradise, India’s leaders need to accommodate its diverse communities, the different genders and the different religions, all who call India home.

In this article, we have established that evoking the spirits from the past carries huge responsibility. In the case of Atlantis, it is today largely harmless if there are sometimes heated controversies around the origin story. But in South Asia, myths from the past can generate violence and destruction. Perhaps greater thought and wisdom are required when inviting the past into our age of political correctness, extreme religious sensitivity, and heightened sensibilities to ideas of the self. Empathetic scholarship will go a long way in creating more balance in such perspectives without compromising devotion.

Final thought: the BJP is ideally placed with its vast resources, loyal following and committed leadership to invite influential South Asians of every background in order to jointly plan to overcome the existential challenges that the region faces in the Covid pandemic, the depredations of climate change and religious violence.

If this is to happen, hate must turn to love and cruelty to virtue. This is a challenge worthy of the protagonists of the ancient Hindu epics.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland