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    Posted on 02 November 2011

    The many stories of Ram

    Ram Puniyani analyses the several versions of the Ramayana and what they mean

    Illustration: Tim Tim Rose

    RECENTLY, THE Delhi University Academic Council decided to drop a scholarly essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by AK Ramanujan, on the various narrations of Ram’s story, from the syllabus of Culture in India for BA Honours students. Of the four experts on the committee, one of them, whose opinion was accepted, said the undergraduate students would not be able to tolerate the portrayal of divine characters in the different versions in the essay. In response to the ban, abvp supporters celebrated and the staff and students protested. Just to recall, in 2008 abvp activists had protested the introduction of this essay and indulged in vandalism. The essay by the much acclaimed Ramanujan is part of The Collected Essays of AK Ramanujan (Oxford 1999). In the aftermath of the Babri demolition, the rss attacked a Sahmat exhibition on the different versions of the Ramayana in Pune in 1993. This was on the pretext that one of the panels based on Jataka (the Buddhist version) showed Ram and Sita as brother and sister, and this was an insult to their faith. Ramanujan’s essay talks of different versions and presents five of them as an example.

    It is known that there are hundreds of versions of the Ramayana. Paula Richman in her book Many Ramayanas (Oxford) describes several of these. And again there are different interpretations of the Valmiki Ramayana, many of which are not to the liking of those who are indulging in politics in the name of their faith. Surprisingly, the intolerance is shown by those who assert that Hinduism is tolerant and other religions are not. It is a fascinating exercise to go through the various interpretations of the Ramayana. Even the other renderings acceptable to this intolerant but currently dominant political force are not uniform. Valmiki, Tulsidas and later the one adopted by Ramanand Sagar for his serial Ramayana have their own subtle nuances, which are different from each other.

    The Ramayana has been rendered in many languages of Asia. Ramanujan points out that the tellings of Ram’s story has been part of Balinese, Bangla, Kashmiri, Thai, Sinhala, Santhali Tamil, Tibetan and Pali amongst others. There are innumerable versions in Western languages also. The narrative in these does not match. Those opposing this essay take Valmiki as the standard and others as politically unacceptable diversions. The version of the Ramayana the communalists want to impose has the caste and gender equations of pre-modern times.

    Interestingly, one can see the correlation between the class-caste aspirations of the narration and interpretation. In the Buddhist Jataka, Sita is projected both as sister and wife of Ram. As per this version, Dashrath is King not of Ayodhya but of Varanasi. The marriage of sister and brother is part of the tradition of Kshatriya clans who wanted to maintain caste and clan purity. This Jataka tale shows Ram to be the follower of Buddha. Jain versions of the Ramayana project Ram as the propagator of Jain values, especially as a follower of nonviolence. The Buddhist and Jain versions show Ravana not as a villain but a great spiritual soul dedicated to the quest of knowledge and endowed with majestic command over passions – a sage and a responsible ruler.

    In the Thai Ramkirti, or Ramkin (Ram’s story), there is a twist in the tale and Soorpanakha’s daughter decides to take revenge after attributing her mother’s mutilation primarily to Sita. More interestingly, the focus is on Hanuman who in this telling is neither devout nor celibate but quite a ladies man, looking into the bedrooms of Lanka. In Valmiki Kampan and Tamil telling, Hanuman regards seeing another man’s sleeping wife as a sin, but not in this Thai version. Incidentally, he is a popular Thai hero even today. Also, like the Jain Ramayana, this Thai telling focusses on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana and not of Ram.

    In recent times, Jyotiba Phule, who stood more with the interests of Dalits and women, was amongst the first to interpret this mythological tale from the perspective of those subjugated by the caste-varna-gender hierarchy. Phule points out that upper castes were descendents of the conquering Indo-Europeans who overturned the original egalitarian society and forbade the conquered from studying texts. His mythology is woven around King Bali, who could invoke the image of the peasant community. Needless to say, his murder by Ram from behind is condemned and is seen as an act of subjugation of lower castes by the upper castes. And Ram is seen as an avatar of Vishnu out to conquer India from the Rakshasas (those protecting their crops) for establishing the hegemony of upper caste values.

    AMBEDKAR’S and Periyar’s commentaries are more an alternative reading of the Valmiki’s text rather than a separate version. There is a good deal of overlap in the interpretation of both. Ambedkar focusses on the issues pertaining to Ram’s killing of Shambuk for violating the prevalent norm where a low caste has no right to do penance. Like Phule, he also castigates Ram for murdering the popular folk king Bali. He questions Ram’s act of taking Sita’s trial by fire and his patriarchal attitude towards her. After defeating Ravana, he tells Sita he had gone to battle not to get her released for her own sake but to restore his honour. Ram’s banishing of Sita in response to the rumours about her chastity when she was pregnant comes for severest criticism from Ambedkar.

    Periyar basically takes the same line but in his interpretation the North Indian upper caste onslaught and the South Indian resistance becomes the central theme. Periyar, the initiator of Self Respect Movement, was the pioneer of caste and gender equality in Tamil Nadu. In one of the movements, which is less known, on the lines of Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti, he planned to burn the photo of Ram as for him Ram symbolised the imposition of upper caste norms in South India. This was a part of his campaign against caste Hinduism. Periyar also upheld Tamil identity. According to him, the Ramayana was a thinly disguised historical account of how caste-ridden, Sanskritic, upper caste North Indians led by Ram subjugated South Indians. He identifies Ravana as the monarch of ancient Dravidians who abducted Sita, primarily to take revenge against the mutilation and insult of his sister Soorpanakha.

    Ram Puniyani is an activist for communal harmony
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 02 November 2011



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