Book Reviews

Approaching The Ramayana

Robert P. Goldman: Reading with the Rsi—a cross-cultural and comparative literary approach to Valmiki’s Ramayana. Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2023, pp. xvii+54, Rs.385/-

Jadavpur University’s Department of Comparative Literature (the first in the country) has embarked upon an ambitious series of research publications in four categories: Texts, Contexts, Methods; Indian and Asian Contexts; Literature and Other Knowledge Systems; and Lecture Series. The overpriced slim volume under review belongs to the last category. It seems from the editors’ Introduction that Goldman did not deliver this lecture but sent it as a written contribution, which is a pity because documented interaction with an audience would have made it a more significant publication.

Extremely well-written, the “lecture” is really an introduction to Valmiki’s work for beginners. As such, one wonders how it fits into the category of “research”. The Ramayana (R) presents specific hurdles before today’s readers: it portrays a civilization of the first millennium BCE far removed from us; its language is antique Sanskrit, not accessible with ease; and Sanskrit did not have a principal script universally used. The R has spawned widely varying versions in almost all languages and differing scripts of South and Southeast Asia “from Afghanistan to Bali” and is depicted in varied media. It is surprising that Goldman makes no reference to the Belgian priest Camille Bulcke’s encyclopaedic study in Hindi of these variations, whose English translation was published in 2022.

Goldman identifies two types of group-approaches to R, adopting the linguist Kenneth Pike’s terms: emic (subjective) and etic (objective). In the former fall variations in Indian languages and media. The latter is made up of scholarly studies in various disciplines world-wide, including translations in non-Indian languages.

Goldman clarifies that the presumption of a single divinely inspired composer disseminating his composition through twin rhapsodes who recited it in toto before the public is a myth. The text would have undergone changes on the lips of differing bards and redacteurs owing to lapses in memory and improvisation in response to the changing audience and place. These rhapsodes were given the collective name, “Valmiki”. He denies that so bulky a work could have been transmitted orally from Afghanistan to Bali without being reduced to writing, as evinced by innumerable manuscripts in circulation through South and Southeast Asia from about the end of the first millennium CE. Errors and changes occurred while copying a manuscript into a different script as seen by the fact that between the Northern and the Southern Indian script recensions only about one third are identical. Further, within each recension there are regional variations depending on the script in which the copies have been made.

A very important clarification provided by Goldman is that the Baroda critical edition of “India’s National Epic” does not represent the original, but seeks to present an archetype constructed out of the best manuscripts that would be nearest to the period of the oldest available manuscripts. The abundance of textual variants poses a major problem in trying to assess the poem’s original form. Goldman hazards a guess that the R was produced around 500-100 BCE, while its oldest manuscripts go back only to the 12th or 13th centuries CE. So we have over 1700 years of no written record of the R. Therefore, “the etic reconstruction of the Ramayana’s genetic history is naturally going to be at odds with its emic receptive history of the work.” Where, to scholars, it is a bardic poem orally performed and transmitted, to its audience it is the work of a single composer, the first poet, who was a contemporary of the hero in a mythical epoch. An avatar of Vishnu, he descended on earth to destroy demonic oppressors of sages and establish a golden age lasting millennia. Thus the emic view is that “it is a chapter of divine history rendered in a new form, that of poetry.” Goldman asks, is the R “a poetic history or a historical poem”?

Looking into the nature of the R vis-à-vis the Mahabharata (M), Goldman notes that one is far more poetic and emotional than the other. The predominant emotion of the R is “karuna rasa”, the pathetic, whereas for the M a new emotion had to be added, “shanta rasa”, detachment from the worldly. A much later poet, Bhavabhuti, asserted that “karuna” is the only rasa. Alf Hiltebeitel has argued persuasively that the M’s rasa is “adbhuta-wonder”. Where the R is a mirror for rulers and families, the M portrays the incredibly complex ramifications of dharma in society and the individual.

Goldman expatiates at length on how the R records the inception of Valmiki’s composition, which is “a later addition to the fully developed work” for establishing it as the divinely inspired first poem. It lists seven of the eight “rasas”, showing it to be later than Bharata’s treatise. Goldman goes on to show how the R differs from the Homeric epics in characteristics such as rapidity, being plain and direct in syntax, language and in thought. He finds Valmiki hyperbolic, using rhetorical figuration aplenty, highly formulaic and repetitive, unlike Homer’s directness. The literary quality of the R is complicated, being a poem to delight as also a chronicle. It has grammatical forms that violate Panini’s rules and could be seen as poetic flaws. Its first and seventh books are of a later date, in less refined language. Goldman quotes at length from Homer and Valmiki to exemplify his arguments and show how adept the latter is in portraying beauty in persons and in nature including the frightful. Pursuing Abhinavagupta’s view of rasadhvani, Goldman analyses how the raw emotion of grief is sublimated by Valmiki to make karuna rasa the major aesthetic flavour of poetic composition, transmuting shoka to shloka. This climaxes in the R ending with Sita descending into the depths of the earth, leaving Rama desolate.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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