June 11, 2021
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'The Traditions Of Hindu Culture'

'The Traditions Of Hindu Culture'

Mukul Kesavan on the controversy over A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas

The reason Hindutva militants attacked this essay is not difficult to understand. Hindutva seeks to re-make the diversity of Hindu narratives and practices into a uniform faith based on standardized texts. When Ramanujan tells, in scrupulous translation, Valmiki’s version of Ahalya’s unfaithfulness, where Indra is emasculated by the sage Gautama for cuckolding him, the Hindutva right is embarrassed and appalled because it likes its epics sanitized.

If the members of the academic council and the vice-chancellor are appalled by the Ahalya story, they should know that their objection is to Valmiki’s Ramayana, not Ramanujan’s essay. They should also reflect on the implications of a decision that suggests that the academic guardians of the University of Delhi believe that their Honours students shouldn’t be introduced to an unexpurgated version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, that even references to the original of this epic text, should be bowdlerized or purged on the surreal ground that they distort the “…traditions of Hindu Culture…”

...A university’s academic guardians must know that there have been attempts in other times and places to fabricate an authorized past, to speak for an authentically Indo-European people, to concoct an ‘Aryan’ canon. Ramanujan’s essay is an intellectual antidote to projects such as these, it is a text that revels in the incredible diversity of our epic narratives. [Read on at the Telegraph: Three hundred Ramayanas
- Delhi University and the purging of Ramanujan

PS: For those interested in the Ramanujan poem Kesavan quotes: Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in the Indian Express, takes the debate forward:

The exclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s great essay from the syllabus of the Delhi University highlights the ways in which both the Left and the Right have reduced a great tradition to an impoverished political totem. In the process, both have elided larger questions. The deeper crisis is that our public culture no longer has even the minimal intellectual resources to engage in a serious debate over different “meanings” of Ramayana. The invocation by the Left of a diversity of traditions is technically correct. But in this invocation, diversity is merely a formal gesture. We like the fact that there are diverse Ramayanas. But we don’t want to have the space to discuss any one of them. It is a bit like Amartya’s Sen’s invocation of the unilluminating phrase “argumentative”. We wear the term argumentative as a badge of honour. But are embarrassed by everything the tradition argued about.

...The Left and Right in India share one deep premise. The tradition, in its final analysis, has to be reduced to the social question. Whose group interests does a particular narrative serve?

...But once texts are reduced to the social question, the contest over them will be a contest between raw group power. There will be no space for larger questions of meaning, ethics and ontology. So this Diwali, we wonder what is left of Ram, beyond personal piety on the one hand, and sectarian enlistment on the other. [Read on at the Indian Express: Questions Lit Up]

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