Book Reviews

Questioning Ramayanas

'People make love over and over, but only you
Know how it feels. I write about the same Rama
Everyone else has known, but my feelings of love
Are mine.'
'Viswanatha Satyanarayana's Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu(1934 ff)

This was the theme of Paula Richman's first anthology Many Ramayanas that illustrated how re-mapping the location of kathas is a constant feature of Indian Civilization. However, Richman discovered that each variant is better understood in it own specific context, not vis-'-vis Valmiki's text. This includes hitherto ignored regional languages, dialects, tribal and lower caste versions and re-making by Indian diaspora to reveal the richness of a narrative appropriated by different peoples in diverse ways. For instance, there is G.V. Chalam's remarkable tour de force:

'You, Rama, rejected me because you fear that my body was defiled by his touch, though you know my heart was pure. This anti-god wanted my heart, even though he knew my body was taken by you. Some day, intelligent people will know who was a nobler lover.'

With this, Sita jumps into Ravana's funeral pyre!

National culture is nourished on variants that contextualize different world-views of particular segments of society. Therefore, this anthology studies authorship, audience, location, purpose and highlights the fact that in these retellings the assumptions and values projected in the original Sanskrit text are questioned in many different ways. The composition of variants was triggered by rulership norms, social relations and obligations, gender, ethics of conduct, demons and deities'every aspect of human activity. This very multiplicity denies the validity of a single authentic version. We find this reflected in the very different, 'empowered' Sita projected in B.R. Chopra's TV serial, distinct from the faithful copy of Tulsidas' heroine in the earlier Ramanand Sagar version and in Sanjay Khan's 'Jai Hanuman'. Richman argues that Valmiki and Tulsidas' versions were not divorced from the historical context. The JainaPaumacariyam stresses it is not a Brahmin version but the true one recited to Bimbisara. We are invited to compare with this the Viswa Hindu Parishad's insistence that the location of Rama's birthplace is a historical verity. What is sought to be mobilised here? How has Ramayana been used to claim access to knowledge and to negotiate power and status? Is Ravana seen as the threatening 'other'? Besides cultural clash, points out Romila Thapar in her Foreword, there is the clash between Ayodhya's monarchy and chiefdoms (the Rakshasa and Vanara gana sanghas), between settlement and forest comparable to that inMahabharata between the forest dwelling tribes and the Pandavas. Paula Richman provides a superb introduction that summarises most of these issues. Provocatively, she asks: Is Ramayana in itself a source of intolerance? On 15 Aug 1993 the VHP destroyed an exhibition on Ayodhya because it contained the JainDasharatha Jataka version depicting Rama and Sita as siblings. The multitude of differing versions shows centuries of questioning within the tradition that has two keynotes: multiplicity and accommodating questioning. This is what sustains the tradition over time and space.

The book is in four parts containing fourteen papers: four each on forms of questioning and assertions about social rank, three each on modalities of speaking and applied Ramayanas. Such openness is rare in religious traditions. Even in the Sanskrit text later additions are themselves questions. The book stresses the centrality of questioning within a single narrative tradition by focusing on a tradition of authoritative narratives that are open-ended in order to contain multiple tellings and questions why should Valmiki be THE authentic one? Most people being ignorant of Sanskrit, how is it that the epic is so popular? Obviously, through local retellings. Each author dips into the depths of the epic to bring forth a unique texture, a fresh context that is not a variant but a different telling relevant to its social background. That is why the impact is so varied, even where the Sanskrit text was never heard. Deviations from dharma noticed in Valmiki's text are tackled in retellings shaped by factors of gender, social location and regional identity. Oppositional tellings present alternative perspectives'the upper caste women's version is different from that of the lower. Retelling always carries political messages, Richman points out, e.g. Ram-raj and leadership standards; the concept of maryada purushottama ushering in a utopian society; Baba Ramchandra's use of Tulsidas to inspire a peasant movement against absentee landlords collaborating with British; E.V.Ramasami critiquing Valmiki and Kamban for anti-Aryan polemic, glorifying Ravana in a powerful anti-Brahmin movement in South India; the VHP glorifying Rama vs. Muslims. All the more is it dangerous to insist on one version as authentic and blind ourselves to the explosive potential of the epic today.

In the context of the current inflammable climate in India, the most important revelations in this book are Vasudha Narayanan's paper on the existence of Muslim exegetes on the Kamban Ramayana and Usha Nilsson's presentation of the voice of Sita in low-caste women's songs. As a contrast, Bina Agarwal's two poems present the sophisticated woman's anguish, not very memorably though:

'Sita speak!'
how did they silence you?'
Sita, Shree, stree.
Captive of a name? A religion? Love?'
Love perished with your test.'

One wonders why the editor chose this author when far more significant work is available like Amreeta Syam's long poem 'Kaikeyi' (Writers Workshop, Calcutta) and Dr K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar's epic Sitayana.

Linda Hess studies the 'Shankavali' dialogue with readers of theRamcharitmanas for removing doubts regarding the acts of Rama (700 questions and answers covering proper conduct, devotion, inconsistency, scholarly and literal details) on the lines of the Shiva-Parvati conversations in Tulsidas. Sectarian differences are sought to be resolved in the Tantric agama tradition linking Shiva with Vishnu worship. Shulman shows how Bhavabhuti sees Rama as tragic hero torn between love and a totalitarian notion of raja-dharma. Aklujkar discusses howAnanda Ramayana grapples with contemporary social problems of caste and gender, using the text to avoid blame and gain currency. Here Valmiki composes a billion verses of which the war portion is Mahabharata, the sorrow of life portion theRamayana, and the love-centred part the Bhagavata. It grafts Ramayanacharacters on to the Krishna story, reworks the tale of the Shudra Shambuka to show Rama punishing Yati to be just to a dog, keeping to the spirit and not the letter of law. In 'Ravana's Kitchen' Goldman explores the theme of self-restraint vs. license in terms of sexuality and diet, body and spirit as critical cultural markers of status and identity. Lutgendorf's study of the Shabari episode notes how Sagar's TV representation has a cloying sweetness, omitting the incident of the arrogant male rishis excluding the low-born as polluting, as this might be unacceptable to the viewing public even today. Lutgendorf does not realise that Sagar's productions on Rama and Krishna follow not the questioning but thebhakti tradition. On the other hand, in the B.R. Chopra version this episode specifically shows Rama berating the prejudiced sages and enlightening them as to what makes for true spirituality.

Usha Nilsson's contribution is possibly the most startling discovery in the book. She shows how women's songs resist Tulsidas' dominant male discourse and indicate a hidden hostility between women of different castes and status. High caste women support their own system of domination. It is the Kayastha women's privilege to sing Ramayana songs, not of lower castes. But songs framed by barber women, sung when men are at work and kids at school to an audience of servant maids, speak of Lakshman's desire for Sita, calling her to make his bed and serve him. When different classes sing, they follow the traditional story line, but in their own group new forms emerge concentrating on human frailties such as Rama's insensitivity to Sita's needs, her pique, Kaushalya's cruelty to servant maids and her lament on barrenness. The innovation depicts self-empowering by Kaushalya and Sita to reach their goals through women's rituals and not being beholden to the male, giving Kaushalya credit for Rama's birth and not the yajna. Sita's penance wins her Rama, not his lifting the bow. Rama leaves Sita behind due to inadequate dowry and is pulled up by his mother. A song tells how Rama goes alone to forest with a hunchback maid. In another, Rama's sister complains to him that Sita draws Ravana's picture. Sita refuses to return to Rama. Women sing of Sita's betrayal by her husband's sister, her husband and his brother, the support given to her by ascetic women, the barber woman who excludes Rama from the celebrations of sons' birth and the sweeper woman who is superior to the barren king. Thus the lower caste women appropriate Sita.

V.N. Rao examines how each Ramayana constructed a suitable Valmiki or left him out of the retelling altogether. The story is a text-field of which poets make a Ramayana suitable to the community, time and place. While the integral problem of the epic is kingship and succession, the Telegu bhakti (devotional) Ramayanas move 'from communication to communion', concentrating on building a personal relationship between the listener and the deity. An enormous number of Telegu Ramayanas were composed in the pre-modern times to elevate patrons to Kshatriya status, non-Brahmin kings composing it to win respect. A major change, says Rao, came with the British who took over Kshatriya position of rulers and the Brahmins lost their role as advisers. The upwardly mobile western educated castes saw Brahmins as enemies and showed them as failing to convert Dravidians by getting them to eat beef and drink liquor. Ramaswami Chaudari'sSuta Puranamu is the most important of these variants frontally attacking Brahmin texts. However, Rao overlooks the equally sudden rupture, which lasted much longer, caused by the Muslim invasions and what changes that brought about in this respect. In the 1960s V.Satyanarayana's Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu used the sheer brilliance of poetry to attack English education as destroying Indian culture and enslaving minds, and defended the traditional Brahmin ideas of caste, child marriage. This fuelled anti-Ramayana discourse afresh, climaxing in by Muppala Ranganayakamma's fiercely polemical Ramayana, The Poison Tree[1960s] showing the epic as pro-male, pro-rich, pro-upper caste, pro-ruling class and exploitative.

Rich Freeman's lengthy study of the deification of Vali in the Teyyam cult of Kerala shows how Vali/Bali reflects Keralite social tensions of the soldiering low caste, supposed to be having bestial traits. The sibling fight is traced to having different fathers, which reflects the routine local situation. The tail is a symbol of his identity, tapping into a semiotic of social conflicts that remain unresolved and therefore are productive sources of narrative and actual tension. Bestiality signifies social lowness, but the strength of the tail signals the ambivalent recognition of power of this stratum. The dominated stratum seized upon the might of Bali to re-signify its status as truly noble despite the rigged defeat, making a symbol of victimization into a god. He is reborn as deity of the artisan caste. Originally South Indian, the story of Bali's origins is found interpolated in north Indian manuscripts belonging to the southern recension and in the 14th centuryAdhyatma Ramayana. Sanskrit 'vaala' has the uncertain meaning of 'hair', while in South Indian languages 'vaal' means 'tail'. The north Indian linguistic environment lacked the word associations of the original southern story and so underwent secondary elaboration to resurface in Adhyatma Ramayana where Indra spills semen on the ape's hair and Surya on the neck. Freeman shows that where the Bali of Kathakali reached down into society, the Bali of teyyattam reached up'hence the hybrid and polyvalent meanings of his character.

S.J. Sutherland Goldman's study of the Sundarakanda brings out how Sita confronts her irremediable dependence on husband: she cannot even commit suicide being other-dependent and even gives up power of pativrata, chastity, and fruitlessly contemplates suicide. T.K. Stewart and E.C. Dimcock deal with Krittibas' ambiguous view of kingship in the Bengali telling. Luv and Kush kill Rama and his brothers because of their perverse injustice, thus, eradicating adharmic rule. Here is an excellent example of a subversive theme. The strategy followed is one of criticizing and then deflecting the attack. The Uttarakanda of the Bengali telling survives because it incorporates two attitudes of a non-conformist people who side with noble losers and Sita. It replays the entire Ramayana, correcting social injustice by voicing the inexpressible through indirect criticisms (a general malaise prevails in Rama's rule, subjects were happier under his father and are cynical about Ramarajya being truly beneficent). There are two major howlers in this paper: on page 260 the quote 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow' has been attributed wrongly to Netaji instead of Gokhale and on page 264 B.C.Roy has been transmogrified from chief minister of West Bengal to governor of Bengal.

Vasudha Narayanan's paper analyses how Tamil Muslims'the greatest scholars on Kamban'used his Iramavataram as a model for the Prophet's biography. The epic was not significant before 5th century CE in the south but is mentioned by the Alvars (7-9th century CE). Umaru Pulavar, Omar the poet, in 1665-1773 wrote Cira (Arabic sirah, hagiography) Puranam, copying the conventions of Kamban, transposing Tamil landscape on Arabia (e.g. torrential rain, rice sugarcane fields), as Kamban had done for Ayodhya. Medina women  are dressed like Tamilians and erotically described. In the latter part of the 20thcentury, Chief Justice M.M. Ismail wrote and lectured on Ramayana, was celebrated as 'Rama Ratnam' and honoured by the Sankaracharya of Kanchi for justifying the slaying of Vali. Narayanan points out that the TamilRamayana is never for devotional use or domestic piety unlike Tulsidas in the North, being considered a literary masterpiece not a devotional work.

Madhu Kishwar interviews women from different cultural and economic strata and finds a consensus that while Sita is the symbol of ideal commitment for marriage, she ought to have refused the fire ordeal. Shiva is considered the ideal husband, not Rama who tries to be great in society by maltreating his wife. Muslim women also find Sita a perfect wife, but regard Mohammad, not Rama, as the ideal husband because he kept all his wives happy. Even to the men Rama was not a good husband being suspicious, rumour-led and insecure,  over-eager to please and earn praise. In his film, through Luv and Kush's song before the people of Ayodhya, Homi Wadia condemns Ramarajya as flawed and the state as evil till women get justice. The strongest indictment comes from Mithila (Sita's homeland) whose people still avoid marrying daughters to men of Avadh, omit Rama's name in songs, name all temples Janaki, not Rama, with Sita legends attached to even trees and ponds. Mahatma Gandhi celebrated Sita's purity and fearlessness encouraging women to follow her as an active pacifist, forcing husbands to abjure communal squabbles by refusing to cook for them, starving themselves, refusing carnal approach. Kishwar records how the Shetkari Sangathan led by Sharad Joshi turns Sita into a powerful symbol for social reform, persuading villages to transfer land in the wife's name in recognition of Sita's sacrifices and Rama's cruelty. The NGO used the tale of Sita's curse on villagers who refused her food when abandoned as a source of power to redress wrongs to women and launched the Lakshmi Mukti programme to atone for the original misdeed by transferring land to wives. Kishwar mentions a poll among women aged between 9 and 22 years in Uttar Pradesh to show that Sita is not a removed ideal but a role model whose sense of dharma is superior to Rama and who seen as emotionally stronger. They gloss over her treatment of Lakshmana and see her as flawless. Rama is emotionally unreliable and her refusal to return to him is a symbol of a culture's rejection of Rama as a model husband. Hindu tradition valorises not tyrannical husbands, but wives who put up with them and it expects a high level of loyalty from a good husband, as Shiva always respects Parvati's whims. Sita-like conduct enlists kinship support and domesticates the husband, restraining his straying, as society disapproves of such a man.

Paula Richman's study of Southall Ramlila brings out how it linked an ancient story with the current predicament of coloureds in UK besides the racism and sexism of its own community, reversing gender roles. Its topicality is the most precious feature. John Kelly studies Fiji where the exile and struggle tropes of the epic help us to understand the politics of Hindutva. Here the epic is a fifth Veda, celebrating the consolidation of virtue in permanent exile to solve Fiji's social problems. The Indian diaspora had to grapple with a life of indenture because of their race long before oppression of Mother India lead to mass public action in India. They used cultural materials to constitute a counter-colonial symbol pool, giving the Ramayana political imagery to become not just girmitiyas, coolies by nature, but Indians who were Hindus in exile. The demonization enabled byRamayana tropes consolidated racial identities and differences establishing self-righteous and frankly racist ranking of them, producing a counter-racism. As victims of Ravana calling to Rama for aid, looking to India for deliverance, Fijians celebrate more the return from exile than the immolation of Ravana. Now no Ramlila includes burning of Ravana, but Rama's return to Ayodhya on Diwali night is vigorously celebrated as an end to exile. After 1987, says Kelly, the coup undercut Ramlila and in 1991 fire bombing of 4 major worshipping centres, cancelled Diwali celebrations.

This excellent anthology needed a study of how elite audiences are being exposed to radical questionings through powerful dramatic creations like Mallika Sarabhai's 'Sita's daughters', bringing home through dance-drama the oppression practised by Indian patriarchal society today on its women, behind pretensions of worshipping her as goddess. This reaches out to far more people and has a much deeper and wider impact than Bina Agarwal's little known poems. One also misses coverage of the questions raised and answered in Bengali and Hindi re-tellings such as D.L. Roy's play, 'Sita', Narendra Kohli's epic novel Abhyuday, to mention only two, the rethinking on the Rama story set off by N.R. Navlekar's A New Approach to Ramayana and Amit Chaudhuri's startling 'telling', 'Surpanakha' that totally reverses the traditional account.  


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 3410      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.