June 16, 2021
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How Many Ramayanas?

The agenda appears to be crystal clear, yet again. The Sangh Parivar wants us to believe in one single Ramayana that they have stamped as 'official.' Mind you, it is not Valmiki's version that they seem to be endorsing...

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How Many Ramayanas?

The agenda appears to be crystal clear, yet again. The Sangh Parivar wants us to believe in one single Ramayana that they have stamped as 'official.' Mind you, it is not Valmiki's version that they seem to be endorsing. It is a linear, soap-retelling of the epic poem which primarily concentrates on the iconisation of Rama and instantly charges the faith batteries. They want the narrative to retain the structure and simplicity of a bedtime story so that you fall asleep in consent and total belief as you listen to it. Asking questions, pointing out contradictions or speaking of versions are after all activities that happen in the wide awake world.

That is perhaps why the Sangh forces were incensed when A. K. Ramanujan's essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation was prescribed as study material at Delhi University's Department of History. According to the Sangh, what is to be simply consumed is not supposed to be 'studied'; it is to be kept away from the realms of history, anthropology or literary departments and, if possible, from universities themselves. There is an overwhelming angst that it would be subjected to interpretation. They fear that if 'studied,' it would affect the prevalent patterns of belief that helps their politics.

It is perhaps for a similar reason that they were so impatient about a light-hearted comment by Karunanidhi in the context of the Sethusamudram project a few months ago. They wove a logic that put Rama and Ramayana and the bridge to Lanka beyond debate. Likewise, the bricks that reached Ayodhya for building a temple were baked in the kilns of sophistry. Now, when elections are at a sniffing distance, the Sangh forces not only want no 'distortions' to the Ramayana, but also want to use this as an opportunity to foreground it in the public mind. It would, they hope, be an invocation to fighting the election on imaginary debates. Anyway, the epic is being re-telecast on one of the newly launched television channels to help sustain the 'debates' in living rooms.

These 'secular' platitudes apart, let's take a quick look at the contents of Ramanujan's 30-page essay (The Collected Essays of A K Ramanujan, Oxford University Press, 1999, which is also available in Paula Richman's Many Ramayanas, and is available online for anyone to read, as linked above). It begins with a fascinating story in which Hanuman goes to the netherworld to pick up the ring that has accidentally fallen off Rama's finger. There, the King of Spirits offers thousands of identical rings on a platter and asks him pick 'your' Rama's ring. Hanuman is confused, at which point the King says: 'There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is to be over, his ring falls down. I collect and keep them.'

Ramanujan says:

"This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana. The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more is astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan--to say nothing of Western languages.

Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story. Sanskrit alone contains some 25 or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres. If we add plays, dance-dramas, and other performances, in both the classical and folk traditions, the number of Ramayanas grows even larger. To these must be added sculptures and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays and shadows plays in all the many South and Southeast Asian cultures. Camille Bulcke, a student of the Ramayana, counted as many as three hundred tellings. It's no wonder that even as long ago as the 14th century, Kumaravyasa, a Kannada poet, chose to write a Mahabharata because he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Ramayana poets." .

In one section Ramanujan compares the two Ahalya stories in Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana and Kampan's Tamil Ramayana. There is an entire section on the Jain tellings of the Ramayana. Vimalasuri the Jain poet, Ramanujan says, opens the story not with Rama's genology and greatness, but with Ravana's. Ravana is considered to be one of the 63 leaders or salakapurusas of the Jain tradition. Hence, there is a set of rigorous questioning in the Jain texts: 'How can monkeys vanquish the powerful raksasa warriors like Ravana? How can noble men and Jain worthies like Ravana eat flesh and drink blood?' etc. In Jain tellings, Rama does not even kill Ravana. It is left to Lakshmana. Even the conception of Ravana as a ten-headed demon is rationalised in these tellings. It is said that when Ravana was born, his mother was given a necklace of nine gems, which she put around his neck. She saw his face reflected in them ninefold and so called him the ten-faced one.

In a Kannada folk narrative, rendered by an untouchable bard, Ramanujan points out, there are separate poems on Sita's birth. Ravana is said to become pregnant with Sita after he consumes the Mango given by Siva. He delivers Sita through his nose when he sneezes. "In Kannada, the word 'Sita' means 'he sneezed': he calls her Sita because she is born from a sneeze. Her name is thus given a Kannada folk etymology, as in the Sanskrit texts it has a Sanskrit one: there she is named Sita because King Janaka finds her in a furrow," says Ramanujan. There are many such stories collected in the essay that indicate how the Ramayana gets translated, transplanted and transposed across cultures.

When there are such heterogeneous Ramayana narratives, which version has the Sangh imported for its ideological purposes? As I mentioned earlier, it is not certainly the one by Valmiki. Ramayana or the Mahabharata are not the only epic poems that witness this diversity of renderings. In fact, it appears to be the trait of all epic poems. They flower with new imagination in different cultural milieus, accommodating the angst of that time. In this context, I would like to mention the book Singer of Tales by Alfred B. Lord that speaks of Homer as not the only narrator of Illiad and Odyssey but just one member of a larger group of singers who continue the oral narration of the epic poems.

Since I learnt of this controversy, I find myself wondering how Ramanujan himself would have reacted to it. I won't hazard a guess by transposing myself into his genius self, like it so often happens in the folktales that he has retold. But I am certain that he would have answered this controversy with his 'own brand of light-hearted self-mockery' by narrating yet another story. In his preface to Ramanujan's collected essays, Vinay Dharwadker says, that for Ramanujan "an ideal critical essay was the one proposed by Walter Benjamin, where a scholar-critic ought to hide behind 'a phalanx of quotations which, like highwaymen, would ambush the passing reader and rob him of his convictions.' Particularly in the second half of his career, Ramanujan constructed an essay as an 'anthology of quotations'." This essay on the Ramayana too is full of enchanting stories. Its sparkling clarity makes it accessible to a non-academic, but yet it 'ambushes' the mind and firmly implants the idea of the many Ramayanas. It snatches the reader away from a monolithic conception of the epic. Which perhaps explains the Sangh Parivar's fear about the essay and why they want it off the History Department's reading list.

Since I may seldom get a chance to write about Ramanujan, I want to end with a personal note about him: As an undergraduate student in Bangalore, I was enormously lucky to attend a few literary meetings at the lounge of Ravindra Kalakshetra where Ramanujan would present his new poems, short stories, translations and folk stories he had discovered to his fellow Kannada writers. I remember all big names of Kannada literature like P. Lankesh, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad, Chandrashekar Kambar being in attendance for those meetings. Then, the joke in the Kannada literary circles was that themes and trends would realign after Ramanujan made his annual or bi-annual visit to Bangalore. At the meetings, I was completely in awe about the ease with which Ramanujan switched between languages, cultures and genres of literature. His serene flow of thoughts; his lexical choice and gentle intonation; his total immersion in work which was more than apparent, naturally made him my hero.

My father, who was himself a writer and celebrated publisher in Kannada, was the first to emphasise the importance of occupying the bilingual intellectual space (Kannada and English) to me, but I seem to have taken to the idea only after having met and read Ramanujan. He also bridged the conflicting gap between classical scholarship and studying the present for me. If I am pardoned the usage, he made both appear 'sexy.' His reading sessions would invariably have both classical Tamil or Telugu poetry and translations from modern poets like Yehudi Amichai. I once mustered the courage to talk to him after one of the sessions and asked if he would permit me to photocopy a particular poem he had read out. He smiled, pulled out the sheet and recalled a new proverb doing the rounds among his students in Chicago: "Xeroxing is learning," he said. India has produced very few intellectuals who are so rootedly cosmopolitan. Now tell me, how can the Sangh Parivar tolerate anything like that?

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