Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1922, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar first declared his intention to burn the Ramayana and Manusmriti, after Brahmin members of the Tamil Nadu Congress committee, during its Tiruppur session, defeated a resolution he had moved, demanding that people from all castes be allowed to enter and worship in every temple.
He was no ordinary member—having served as provincial Congress president in 1920, Periyar had in fact been elected for the second time during the 1922 conference itself. The demand he raised, had existed in the state for over two decades, but was never supported by the political hierarchy. Its defeat at Tiruppur convinced Periyar that ancient Hindu epics and scriptures were among root causes of Brahminical dominance in Dravidian society and polity.
In 1927, three prominent figures brought the idea of burning Manusmriti to practice—M.C. Rajah in October and J.S. Kannapar in December, both in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, as well as B.R. Ambedkar in December in Mahad, Maharashtra. But it took till 1956 for the attack to physically reach Ram, the central character of Ramayana, when Ram’s portraits were burnt on a beach in Trichy in August 1956, amid a cat-and-mouse game between the police and Periyar’s followers.
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Another 15 years later, in January 1971, Periyar led a massive rally in Salem on the occasion of a ‘Superstition Eradication Conference’. Amid protests by Hindu nationalists, the 92-year-old iconoclast and his followers were seen beating portraits of Ram with shoes. They also burnt a Ram effigy. “If they burn our Ravan, we’ll burn their Ram,” the protesters shouted.
A cultural clash
Periyar’s writings critical of Ramayana and Ram started appearing in Tamil publications and as pamphlets in the 1920s. Ramayana Pathirangal, meaning the characters in Ramayana, was published in 1930, reprinted and translated to other languages several times over the next few decades. It gained attention after the first English translation was published under the more famous title, The Ramayana: A True Reading, in 1959. Its Hindi version, Sachchi Ramayan, was published in 1968. A year later, the Uttar Pradesh government imposed a ban on it, which the Supreme Court removed in 1976, three years after Periyar’s death.
By 1955, B.R. Ambedkar, too, had finished his series of writings on Hindu scriptures and epics, including Ramayana and Mahabharata—though they got published only in 1987—31 years after his untimely death. The writings triggered controversy almost instantly, facing demands for a ban on the book, The Riddles in Hinduism. The essay titled The Riddle of Rama and Krishna was included as an appendix to the book.
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Periyar and Ambedkar followed each other’s work since the 1920s, had their similarities in viewpoints and also disagreements. However, when it came to the Ramayana, none was any less scathing than the other in their criticism of the text and its hero. Both went by the Valmiki Ramayana and made several similar observations. They differed only on Sita.
“The story of the Ramayana is a very short one. Besides, it is simple and in itself there is nothing sensational about it.,” Ambedkar said.
These radical interpretations of the Ramayana, India’s oldest epic, came much before Ram was to become a political icon in free India. But the two targeted these epics, particularly Ramayana, after coming to the understanding that these stories help perpetuate subjugations—of the Dalit by the Brahmin and the upper caste, and of the non-Aryan by the Aryan. Both of them had fallen out with the Congress before Independence, once they realised the party was controlled by upper castes.
According to Periyar, epics like Ramayana were “designed to lure Dravidians into their (Aryans’) snare, to wipe off their sense of self-respect, to blunt their discretionary faculty and to destroy their humanity.”
In another article, titled Hate Aryan Literature, he opined that the Tamil attitude towards Ramayana and Periyapurana was “an indication of our slavish character”.
Both Periyar and Ambedkar critcised Ram for his treatment of Vali, Sita and Shambuka.
Periyar wrote, “He stealthily killed Vali who had done him no harm, from behind, for the sake of Vali’s disloyal brother.”
Regarding Vali’s killing, Ambedkar, wrote, “It was a crime which was thoroughly unprovoked, for Vali had no quarrel with Rama.”
Ambedkar also contended that Ram was far from being an ideal king, with the administration entrusted to Bharat.
The zenana, housed in Ashoka Vana, was the place where Ram had his meal, amid apsaras, uragas and kinnaris, who drank and danced.
Ambedkar found that Valmiki made only one mention of Ram giving an audience to his subjects—regarding the untimely death of a Brahmin’s son—and that led Ram go out to hunt down the Shudra who was suspected of practicing penance, an act reserved for Brahmins. He found Shambuka in his tapasya, breaching the caste barrier, and killed him. Ambedkar described Ram’s killing of Shambuka as “the worst crime that history has ever recorded”.
Ambedkar and Periyar differed on Sita. While Periyar argues that Ravan could not have dragged Sita out of her jungle residence, or touched her inappropriately in any way, as he faced the curse that his heads would explode if he touched any woman without her consent.
Ambedkar, on the other hand, had profound sympathy for Sita. Questioning Ram’s love for his wife, Ambedkar argued that the first thing Ram should have done after disposing of Ravan was to have gone to Sita but he, instead, focussed on Vibhishana’s coronation.
“Even when the coronation is over he does not go himself, but sends Hanuman. And what is the message he sends? He does not ask Hanuman to bring her. He asks him to inform her that he is hale and hearty. It is Sita who expresses to Hanuman her desire to see Rama,” he wrote.
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“Could there be anything more cruel than this conduct of Ram towards Sita?” Ambedkar asked, adding that Ram also told Sita that he suspected her conduct. “You must have been spoiled by Ravan.”
Ambedkar quoted Ram as saying, before Sita took her first agnipariksha.
Ambedkar was deeply pained by Ram’s abandonment of Sita after returning to Ayodhya. “To get rid of this disgrace, he takes the shortest cut and the swiftest means—namely to abandon her, a woman in a somewhat advanced state of pregnancy in a jungle, without friends, without provision, without even notice in a most treacherous manner,” Ambedkar wrote, adding “The life of Sita simply did not count. What counted was his own personal name and fame.”
However, the above interpretations by the two learned leaders leave a few unanswered questions. First, why did both Ambedkar and Periyar choose to focus only on Valmiki’s text, perhaps the oldest of the Ramayanas? Subsequent generations composed innumerable versions of Ramayanas in a variety of Indian languages and removed a number of uncharitable and objectionable instances. A Jaina version, for instance, makes Rama a thoroughly non-violent person to an extent that eventually Lakshamana has to kill Ravan. In Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas there is no mention of the banishment of Sita or of the killing of Shambuka. Similarly, Kamban’s Ramayana in Tamil, sanitises several of the harsh episodes present in the Valmiki text. There are also a large number of Ramayanas, including those composed by adivasis which have lent an enormous authority to Sita. But Ambedkar and Periyar focussed on Valmiki’s version alone.
While several of their arguments hold water, at some instances their criticism gets a little tangential. That’s perhaps inevitable when criticism becomes a political enterprise.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Rebels’ Ramayana")