D.P. SATISH writes from New Delhi: The late A.K. Ramanujan is arguably one of the best-known Indian writers worldwide. Ramanujan, who taught at the University of Chicago for decades, introduced India’s oral folktales to the West through his scholarly and fascinating writings and translations.
The Mysore-born Ramanujan died 15 years ago in the United States but he is now making news in Delhi, no thanks to our ill-informed and self-proclaimed custodians of Hinduism and Hindu mythology: the outfits of the RSS like ABVP and VHP. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas—Five Examples And Three Thoughts On Translation,” is embroiled in an ugly controversy created by the members of the saffron brigade.
In their protest, the lathi-wielding gang reveal that they don’t even know the basic difference between Hinduism and other religions.
Hinduism, which is described as a way of life and not a religion in the strictest sense, is highly pluralistic in nature. It allows greater freedom of expression than other religions, and the right to question the very religion, rituals and beliefs. In my view, that is what makes Hinduism the most tolerant and unique religion.
The ABVP activists who never try to understand these basic strengths of their religion, and are ignorant of India’s diverse culture and languages, are trying to trash Three Hundred Ramayanas as the work of a pseudo-secularist, intended to hurt the sentiments of Hindus.
Indians have been reading, writing and listening to the Ramayana for at least 2,000 years now. Most of our Ramayanas are in oral form, preserved and popularised by tribals and illiterate villagers across the length and breadth.
Valmiki‘s Ramayana isn’t the only Ramayana that we have. There is nothing called authentic mythology. Ancient Dravidian languages like Tamil and Kannada have Ramayanas by ancient poets that are thousands of years old. Kamba Ramayana in Tamil and Pampa Ramayana in Kannada treat the epic in entirely different styles. The story may be the same, but their interpretation is different.
The Department of History of Delhi University, which is facing the ire of so-called ‘Ram bhakts‘ clarifies its decision to teach Ramanujan’s work in the following statement:
“The sole purpose of this course is to create an awareness and understanding of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of ancient India among students, and to acquaint them with original sources. Apart from the reading mentioned in the letter, the course includes readings on Kalidasa‘s poetry, Jataka stories, ancient Tamil poets and poetry, ancient iconography, and the modern history of ancient artifacts.
“The essay is part of a unit titled ‘The Ramayana and Mahabharata —stories, characters, versions.’ It is accompanied by an excerpt from Iravati Karve‘s book, Yuganta: The end of an epoch. Supplementary readings include the Introduction of Robert P. Goldman‘s The Ramayana of Valmiki: an epic of ancient India (the most recent and most authoritative English translation of the epic), which gives a detailed, scholarly introduction to the Valmiki Ramayana.
“The late A. K. Ramanujan (recipient of several national & international honours, including the Padmasri) was a widely acclaimed scholar with impeccable academic credentials. His expertise in a range of languages including English, Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada was perhaps without parallel. His credentials as a scholar, writer, and teacher with extensive knowledge of ancient Indian literary traditions are incontestable.
“It is sad to see his name and work being subjected so such ill-informed controversy. In the article in question, he illustrates and analyses the great dynamism and variety in what he describes as ‘tellings’ of the story of Rama within India and across the world.”
The Ramayanas in the form of folk stories and songs in different parts of India have a distinct local flavour.
Indian folklore believes in anthropomorphism. They bring gods and human beings closer by imagining to behave them just like us. The gods of many ancient societies were thoroughly anthropomorphized, both in their form and in their familial and social relationships; for example, as presented in the folk tales and songs which were familiar throughout the ancient India, they get drunk, marry, quarrel, and make up just like we people.
In Assamese folklore, for example, Sita and Surpanaka are good weavers. It is so probably because Assamese women are traditionally good at weaving. Telugu folk songs speak of Kousalya‘s morning sickness and baby Rama’s bath, things that women can relate to.
A Telugu folk song titled, ‘Lakshmana‘s Laugh’, explains how, in order to guard Sita and Rama round the clock, Lakshmana prays to the Goddess of Sleep that he be relieved of the need to sleep. The Goddess agrees, but on one condition. The moment Lakshmana returns to Ayodhya, he would have to start sleeping again.
When Lakshmana returns to Ayodhya, the Goddess appears before him in the palace hall, and says, “The deal’s over. You start sleeping from tonight.” Lakshmana bursts out laughing. Now, only Lakshmana can see the Goddess. So every person there wonders if Lakshmana is laughing at him for some reason. This is a self-reflective folk song, because each character in the story reflects on himself.
A modern example of self-reflectivity would be a short story by Amba, in which Sita writes her version of the Ramayana, and calls it Sitayanam. Stories have a better appeal when they incorporate local customs and traditions.
Paula Richman, who has done in-depth research on various Ramayanas, says there is a Tamil folk song which is about the various dishes the pregnant wives of Dasaratha crave for. One of them wants murukku, one wants idlis, and another wants dosas!
Idlis in Ayodhya? A deft touch! Women in Tamil Nadu can relate to pregnant women who crave certain dishes.
Writer Pudhumaipithan contemporises Rama in one of his stories where a grandson of Rama is named Bharata. The story is set in the 1900s and Bharata is Gandhi! The allegorical touch is further strengthened when the writer dwells on the imperial powers discovering the culinary delights of India, and each wanting a monopoly over Indian food. Thus the humble dosa becomes expensive!
One night Rama waits for Sita, who is busy cleaning the kitchen. When she finishes, she massages the feet of her mother-in-law. Rama keeps asking her to come up to their room, but Sita continues to massage Kousalya’s feet. When Sita finally goes up, an angry Rama shuts the door, and locks her out. “You have time for others, but not me,” he says angrily. Thus goes a Telugu folk song! These are marital tensions that any couple could face.
According to a tribal folktale in Bastar district of Chhatisgarh, Ravana is an ideal man ‘Maryada Purushottama‘. Because he strictly followed the ethics till his death.
Do these modern retellings matter? “They’re important because, as A.K.Ramanujan said, they show how both folk stories and modern short stories improvise in order to make the epic contemporary,” says Paula Richman.
Why the special interest in the Ramayana?
“Many reasons,” Paula Richman says in an interview to The Hindu. “One of them is the portrayal of Sita as a strong woman who faces difficulties unflinchingly. When Rama banishes her, she brings up her children all by herself. The world’s earliest example of a single parent!”
A cultural fascist organisation like the RSS doesn’t believe in pluralism of any kind. It doesn’t allow pluralism or freedom of expression within Hinduism. The essence of Hinduism is free thinking. One can disown all rituals and beliefs of that religion and still remain a Hindu. As far as I know this isn’t possible in any other religion.
This isn’t the first time that the ABVP has taken objections to a Ramayana which isn’t in an ‘ approved ‘ format.
The same ABVP activists assaulted a noted Kannada writer and English professor, the late Prof. Polanki Ramamurthy in mid-1980s in Mysore. They were ‘ incensed ‘ by his audacity of writing his own Ramayana called Seethayana. Time and again they have demonstrated that either entire the Hindu population in India must accept their version of Aryan-centric Hindu mythology and religion, or be ready to face their wrath.
The RSS, which draws its strength from the Aryan thoughts and principles, has always been trying to impose its own version of Sanskritised Ramayana over all Hindus across India. For these self-styled protectors of Hindus, the different versions of epic are seemingly an insult to their religion and belief. After all, it has always been denying the existence of the Dravida race, Dravidian history, and, very importantly, Dravida mythology itself.
They must understand that there are a hundred Indias in one India, and a hundred Ramayanas in one Ramayana. All are equally imporant and equally vibrant.
I am for many Indias in one India—and many Ramayanas woven around one Ramayana.