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A Debate On Tulsidas, Ramcharitmanas And Analysis Of Controversial Verses

Outlook's Omar Rashid spoke to three senior scholars from Varanasi who shared their interpretation of certain controversial verses in the Ramcharitmanas.

Ramlila Festival in Banaras.
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Dhol Gawar Shudra Pashu Nari 
Sakal Tadana ke Adhikari 

 
This chaupai (quatrain verse) written by 16th-century poet Goswami Tulsidas in the Sundarkand of Ramcharitmanas has been one of his most debated verses. The Ramcharitmanas is an epic poem in the Awadhi dialect retelling the story of the life of Lord Ram in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Progressive writers, feminists and proponents of the social justice movement have over the years held that the above lines justify misogyny and caste bias against the lower castes.  
 

On a simple reading, this particular chaupai says: A dhol (drum), a gawar (illiterate person), a shudra (lower caste person), a pashu (animal) and a nari (woman), are all deserving of taadna. 

What taadna implies here has been a subject of debate among scholars. While some read it as reprimand or beating, others have interpreted it as schooling or imparting guidance to set someone right.  
 
This chaupai is one of the many quoted by senior Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya from Uttar Pradesh in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to get portions of the Ramcharitmanas deleted or amended. Maurya argued that many verses in the epic poem justified a Varnavadi mentality, denigrated lower caste people and used derogatory language for women while establishing the supremacy of the Brahmins. The controversy was first triggered when some weeks ago Chandra Shekhar, the education minister of Bihar and a leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, remarked that the Ramcharitmanas and Manusmriti promoted social discrimination and “sowed hatred” in the society and even compared them with the Bunch of Thoughts by M. S Golwalkar, the second supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.  
 
Following this, Maurya too raised a pitch against the alleged casteist and misogynist references in the text, which has played an unparallel role in popularizing the story of Lord Ram, one of the most popular Hindu gods and in recent decades, also their most politicized. 

Maurya claims the above chaupai justifies the thrashing of women and lower caste people and even equates them with drums and animals.   
 
“I have heard that the Gita Press in Gorakhpur changed the meaning of the word taadna. In place of peetna (beating), the meaning was changed to shiksha (educating). But now the question arises, what shiksha does the Gita Press want to impart on a drum or an animal, when in the ancient religious scriptures and in the feudal Hindu varna system, the Dalits, the shudras and the women were barred from education? Then how could Tulsidas talk of educating them,” asked Maurya in his letter to Modi. 
 
I spoke to three senior scholars from Varanasi who shared their interpretation of the said verses in the Ramcharitmanas. While they slightly differed in their reading of the text, all firmly believed that it was senseless and futile to demand to alter or delete the lines of a poem written many centuries ago in a different socio-political setting. At best, one could critique the text or just reject it. Also, it was necessary to assess a verse in its full context. 
  
Sadanand Shahi is a well-known Hindi poetry critic with a specialization in Bhakti poets. He has taught Hindi at the Banaras Hindu University and was recently appointed the vice-chancellor of the Shri Sankaracharya Professional University in Chhattisgarh. This is what he says: 
 
Dhol, gawar, shudra, pashu and nari…these lines mean exactly what has been alleged: a drum, an illiterate person, a shudra, an animal and a woman behave well only when you beat them. This is the meaning. But it’s a different matter that this was said in a particular reference. First of all, we need to acknowledge that Tulsidas was first and foremost a poet. Some people feel that he authored a dharm granth (religious scripture) and that whatever he has written is right. On the other hand, some people argue that he propagated special rights for Savarnas and are totally against him. Both viewpoints are extreme. In Hindi as well as in our social discourse, we always believe in black and white. In either or, for or against. The questions of culture, poetry and society are very complex. The grey area in between the black and white has its own role. And the difficulty of the entire debate arises when you instead of calling it a maha kavya or kavya granth, view it as a dharm granth or a sociological text. The beauty lies in its poetic traits. Even God makes mistakes. A human being can have limited vision. Even someone like Tulsidas had that limitation.  

What was the background of the 'dhol, gawar, shudra, pashu, nari, chaupai'? 
 
Lord Ram stood in front of the sea while trying to cross over to Lanka in search of Sita. Ram made several requests to the samudra (sea) to allow him to cross and give him the path to travel to Lanka. For three days Ram kept pleading. But the samudra did not accept his request. Lakshman insisted with his brother that it was time to punish the sea. After three days of pleading, even Ram got furious with the insolent sea for not paying heed to his politeness. There was a need to instil fear and then Ram aimed at samudra and stretched his bow. At that moment, the sea felt this would be disastrous for it and appearing before Ram, said, ‘This is my nature, I am deserving of punishment. I am your culprit’. It is then samudra recited the 'dhol, gawar…' chaupai. Samudra stated the chaupai as an example to say that he fit the same category and deserved punishment. When you beat a drum, it makes a sound. The reference to the drum leaves no room for confusion. The sea is saying that he is deserving of a beating, this is him speaking. This is not Tulsidas’ point of view. 
 
Do you support that the controversial chaupais be removed or edited out? 
 
No, I do not support this. I consider the Ramcharitmanas a kavya granth. Except for the poet, nobody can make changes to it. We can only critique it. We must also take into consideration what Tulsidas himself stood for. On the one hand in the same epic, he demands independence for women while crying over their lack of freedom. On the other hand, he says that when women become independent, they go astray. Any viewpoint, the Indian viewpoint, cannot be a singular viewpoint. There can sometimes even be paradoxes. It is puerile to say that some lines be removed from the Ramcharitmanas. You can symbolically burn it like B R Ambedkar did when he burned copies of the Manusmriti. But he didn’t ask for changes in the text of the Manusmriti.  
 
Acharya Mrityunjay Tripathi is a retired professor of the Sampoornanand Sanskrit University and an expert in astrology. He says: 
 
Dhol Gawar Shudra Pashu Nari 
Sakal Tadna ke Adhikari 
 

From time to time, people have sought to interpret this chaupai. It has been said very clearly that unless you beat a drum properly, it won't produce a sound. Till you provide sanskar to a pashu, i.e an animal, and teach them to walk, run and talk, they will be useless. A pashu means one that doesn't have a hriday (heart). A cow has a hriday, it shows affection towards its calf. We call it a mata. But a donkey is still called a pashu. Gawar means a murkh, not someone who lives in a village but someone who has a lack of reason. Nari doesn’t mean wife or a domestic woman but a woman without sanskar or values. The chaupai is written in that context, that you must keep such people under control but it doesn’t mean you beat them.  

But only show them the right way. When you say beat a drum, it doesn’t mean you go around thrashing it. There is a particular technique needed to give it a tune. There are also two ways to discipline an animal. If the animal is smart you can show it a stick and it will obey you. But for the ones who are even better, you simply have to rub your hand on their back. 

This is their taadna. It doesn’t entail thrashing them. A gawar also needs to be taught manners. Some people also erroneously read the pashu and nari together, to talk of women without reason. A woman without sense is a ‘pashu nari’. They should be corrected by imparting values to them but not beaten.  
 
Je Barnadham Teli Kumhara 
Swapach Kirat Kol Kalwara 

 
This chaupai talks of those castes which are without sanskar, like Adivasis. The banars (colloquial Hindi for monkeys) are not animals but people without the sanskar of those times. There is no insult to any caste. The crux is that if any being is without values, it is needed to impart those values to them. And sanskar comes through reason, not by beating them. If you beat a dog, it will bite you. But if you caress its back, it will sit up and down as you command. There are characters in the Ramayan. If we honestly embrace its characters, it is very fine granth. Their roles are laid out as per the incidents and we must also assess them in that context. 
 
Professor Awadhesh Pradhan, retired professor of the Department of Hindi, Banaras Hindu University. He says: 
 
Even during the progressive movement of Hindi literature, writers like Yashpal and Rahul Sanskritayan accused Tulsidas of being Brahmanical, feudal, anti-women, and anti-Dalit. And this was based on some lines. There is one stand which totally rejects Tulsidas. This is wrong. Tulsidas was a vociferous writer and he wrote a lot. 

And there is the other side, which is trying to justify all these lines. There is no scope for a middle ground in this debate. Ram Vilas Sharma, one of the top-most critics of Hindi, had raised the question of reasonable and logical evaluation of our traditions. Many things in our traditions and things of those times will not be relevant to us today. It depends on us what we pick and choose. Sharma said that in our traditional poetry, we will always have to leave behind something. And what is relevant and what is lustrous for our era, we need to bring that forward through our reason. 
 
Swami Vivekanand had said that even under the best of trees you will find some rotten fruits. But the speciality of a tree is not judged on the basis of the rotten fruits but the fresh, sweet fruits. 
 
There are not one but several such sentences written by Tulsidas. We should not deny this. Some people try to defend it (misogynist and casteist references) by arguing that he does not mean shudras and that taadna means to scold and not beat someone. Both meanings are valid. But there are attempts to cover up for him. The greatness of a poet like him cannot be saved by hiding some portions with a leaf. Sanskrit has many words with multiple meanings. Taadna is also one of them. But I do not want to use that argument. I do not want to do any cover-up. Taadna means to reprimand. It also means to educate.

When we give taadna to our child, we don’t torture them but school them. Similarly, when we beat a drum, we do not just poke it with a stick. There is a particular technique to be used. Also, the reference to Shudra in the chaupai does refer to the caste category like the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. There is no other meaning. There is no need to defend Tulsidas over this. In fact, another instance is much more clearer and objectionable. These are the lines: Pujiya bripr seel gunh heena, Shudra na gun gyan prabina. This is highly objectionable that a characterless and immoral Brahmin is also considered worthy of worship but even a knowledgeable shudra is not deserving of respect. There are several such references here. But we need to view it in the context of Tulsidas’ extensive literature. Tulsidas needs to be seen in his entire totality. There are two branches of which one wants to cover up his flaws. Ramcharitmanas is not a dharmic book. It is not like the Gita or the Quran. People are free to criticize epic poems like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. But when politics touches something, it gets entangled in conflict. 
 

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