Reruns of religious dramas comfort Indians in dire times

GURUGRAM, India — (AP) — Staying home under lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their gods. Not in prayer rooms, but on TV.

Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are devouring reruns of popular Hindu religious dramas. They're drawing on shared experiences of Indian mythology, which is replete with tales of moral and ethical choices in times of crises and invokes the virtues of individual sacrifice for social good.

The country’s public broadcaster has revived epic television shows like “Ramayan” and “Shri Krishna” — both highly revered mythological tales — airing them in prime time every night.

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“Shri Krishna," a TV series originally broadcast in 1993, is an adaptation of the life of one of Hinduism’s most popular gods.

In “Ramayan,” a wildly popular series from the '80s, filmmaker Ramanand Sagar tells the story of Lord Ram, the prince of Ayodhya, who was sent into exile for 14 years and rescued his kidnapped wife Sita from the demon Ravan.

“When the show was first telecast, the streets used to be completely deserted and everyone watched it with devotion. The stories about the victory of good over evil were very engaging,” said Vijay Kumar Jain, a physician and gastroenterologist practicing in New Delhi and an avid fan of the dramas.

On April 16, the show had a record 77 million viewers, India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati tweeted.

“In this era of crisp and Gen Z content, these figures clearly indicate that there is still demand for values and ethos driven content in the world’s largest democracy," Prasar Bharti said in a press release.

Meanwhile, on the streets, an epic but tragic drama of another kind is playing out.

Millions of poor migrant workers, hungry and in despair, have walked from cities to their villages after India's nationwide coronavirus lockdown took away their jobs and left them to fend for themselves.

With India's virus caseload at more than 126,000, the economy is beginning to reopen with some restrictions. But the anxiety over what lies ahead is running high.

"Showing majoritarian mythologicals when a diverse country faces a human crisis of unparalleled scale may create an illusion of wellness," filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

“In the midst of a pandemic that levels all, the chosen and the downtrodden, many of us fantasize about a return to a golden, simple past," he wrote.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often invoked Hindu scriptures in his speeches during the lockdown, asking people to do their duty and follow social distancing rules to win the battle against COVID-19.

“There is no bigger force than our enthusiasm and conviction. There is nothing we can’t achieve,” Modi said in a national address on April 3 , taking inspiration from a verse in the Hindu epic “Ramayan.”

A court verdict last year paved the way for building a grand Ram temple on a site in northern India where Hindu hard-liners demolished a 16th-century mosque in 1992, sparking deadly religious riots.

But faith transcends the politics of strident Hindu nationalism, and millions of moderate, practicing Hindus keep idols of Ram in their homes for daily prayer.

“In today’s uncertain times, people are trying to make sense of their lives — who am I, what is my place in the universe," said Jain. “And mythology offers us truth and wisdom.”

An Indian family watches epic television series “Ramayan” at their home in Jammu, India May 18, 2020. The country’s public broadcaster last month revived the wildly popular series from the 80s and brought back to life for a captive audience under lockdown. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)
An Indian family watches epic television series “Ramayan” at their home in Jammu, India May 18, 2020. The country’s public broadcaster last month revived the wildly popular series from the 80s and brought back to life for a captive audience under lockdown. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Channi Anand) (Channi Anand)
FILE- In this March 7, 2020, file photo, a school boy dressed as Hindu mythological character Krishna has colored powder applied on his face to celebrate the spring festival of Holi, the festival of colors, in Kolkata, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File)
FILE- In this March 7, 2020, file photo, a school boy dressed as Hindu mythological character Krishna has colored powder applied on his face to celebrate the spring festival of Holi, the festival of colors, in Kolkata, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File) (Bikas Das)
FILE- In this Nov. 11, 2019, file photo, Hindu women devotees pray to the bricks reading "Shree Ram" (Lord Ram), which are expected to be used in constructing Ram temple, in Ayodhya, India. A court verdict last year paved the way for building a grand Ram temple on a site in northern India where Hindu hard-liners had demolished a 16th century mosque in 1992, sparking deadly religious riots. But faith in the deity as a symbol of virtue and moral authority transcends the politics of strident Hindu nationalism, with millions of moderate, practicing Hindus keeping idols of Ram in their homes for daily worship. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File)
FILE- In this Nov. 11, 2019, file photo, Hindu women devotees pray to the bricks reading "Shree Ram" (Lord Ram), which are expected to be used in constructing Ram temple, in Ayodhya, India. A court verdict last year paved the way for building a grand Ram temple on a site in northern India where Hindu hard-liners had demolished a 16th century mosque in 1992, sparking deadly religious riots. But faith in the deity as a symbol of virtue and moral authority transcends the politics of strident Hindu nationalism, with millions of moderate, practicing Hindus keeping idols of Ram in their homes for daily worship. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File) (Rajesh Kumar Singh)
FILE- In this Nov. 2, 2015, file photo, Indian actors dressed as Rama, right, Dasharatha, center, and Laxman, the characters of Hindu epic Ramayana perform at a theatre in Bangalore, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File)
FILE- In this Nov. 2, 2015, file photo, Indian actors dressed as Rama, right, Dasharatha, center, and Laxman, the characters of Hindu epic Ramayana perform at a theatre in Bangalore, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. Staying home under a lockdown as they wait for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic to pass, millions of Indians are turning to their Gods. Not in their prayer rooms, but on their televisions. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File) (Aijaz Rahi)
FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi applies vermilion on the forehead of an artist dressed as Hindu monkey god Hanuman, watched by artists dressed as Rama, his brother Lakshman and wife Sita, at an event marking the end of Dussehra festival in New Delhi, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are devouring reruns of popular Hindu religious dramas as the country’s public broadcaster has revived epic television shows like “Ramayan,” the story of Lord Ram who was sent into exile for 14 years and rescued his kidnapped wife Sita from the demon Ravan, and “Shri Krishna," both highly revered mythological tales. On April 16, 2020, the show had a record 77 million viewers, India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati tweeted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often invoked Hindu scriptures in his speeches during the lockdown, asking people to do their duty and follow social distancing rules to win the battle against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi applies vermilion on the forehead of an artist dressed as Hindu monkey god Hanuman, watched by artists dressed as Rama, his brother Lakshman and wife Sita, at an event marking the end of Dussehra festival in New Delhi, India. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are devouring reruns of popular Hindu religious dramas as the country’s public broadcaster has revived epic television shows like “Ramayan,” the story of Lord Ram who was sent into exile for 14 years and rescued his kidnapped wife Sita from the demon Ravan, and “Shri Krishna," both highly revered mythological tales. On April 16, 2020, the show had a record 77 million viewers, India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati tweeted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often invoked Hindu scriptures in his speeches during the lockdown, asking people to do their duty and follow social distancing rules to win the battle against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File) (Manish Swarup)
FILE- In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh writes onto a Rafale jet fighter as a ritual gesture during an handover ceremony at the Dassault Aviation plant in Merignac, near Bordeaux, southwestern France. In India, the relationship between faith and science is complicated. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File)
FILE- In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh writes onto a Rafale jet fighter as a ritual gesture during an handover ceremony at the Dassault Aviation plant in Merignac, near Bordeaux, southwestern France. In India, the relationship between faith and science is complicated. Seeking comfort in the certainty of the past, Indians are tuning into re-runs of popular Hindu religious dramas, drawing on shared experiences of old times when most questions had answers. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File) (Bob Edme)