At first glance, the controversy over Delhi University’s decision to remove an essay on the Ramayana from its undergraduate syllabus is needless. For million of Indians the different versions – essentially the crux of the essay – of one of the world’s greatest epics, are immaterial. They have grown up to believe and revere Rama as the Lord and Sita as his dutiful wife. It does not matter to them that some versions identify Sita as Ravana’s daughter, albeit born accidentally, or that Rama comes across as less than divine in others. The retelling of the story over centuries has done little to shake that faith, so what harm can noted scholar AK Ramanujan’s allegedly offensive essay cause?
In any case, most Indians, including the most devout Hindu, have not read the epic. Let alone the many versions, they have not even fully perused Valmiki’s Ramayana, considered a benchmark and easily the most acceptable retelling in the Indian consciousness. In fact, this version too is no longer the oft-quoted one. In most Hindu homes in large parts of the country, where the story of Rama is chanted in prayers, and in its community readings, it is not Valmiki but poet Tulsidas that is the favourite. The reasons for this are twofold: One, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas – which too is a running commentary on Rama and his exploits – is written in Avadhi, a local dialect that North Indians are familiar with, unlike the Ramayana, which is penned in Sanskrit and thus has a limited readership; and two, the Ramcharitamanas reflects the bhakti tradition that the masses easily identify with, because it asks for only complete and unquestioned submission, without seeking to engage a person in dialectics. Since the author here is not a scholar but an unabashed Rama devotee, his dohas and the chaupayees have a ring of innocent faith.
If at all there is a Ramayana that the country largely identifies with, it is the eponymous televised serial by film maker Ramanand Sagar. Stretching to more than 75 episodes, it captured the collective imagination of a nation in love with fanciful renditions of their favourite mythological stories. The serial was a mash of the populist passages from both Valmiki and Tulsidas, and drew, according to a report, more than 80 million viewers. More than two decades have gone since it was first aired, but it is still recounted like a definitive account of the epic.
Given all this, the current controversy over Ramanujan’s essay is strictly confined to the scholarly realm. Unfortunately, there are ‘intelligent’ minds who have over the years gained expertise in dragging in the largely unconcerned population into a ‘for or against’ debate on matters of faith – an exercise fraught with worrisome consequences. And, because the same appears to be happening with the Delhi University’s decision, the issue needs to be addressed. Of course, there is another dimension to the controversy: The right to free speech without crossing the blasphemy line. Incidentally, this right is available to citizens of all ideologies – even those of the Right who, whenever they exercise it in academic matters, are slammed as communal by the ever-so-secular Left intellectuals. But that’s a different story; we are on the Ramayana.
Unlike with the other major religions of the world, Hinduism does not have a definitive sacred text that has not been interpreted multiple times; some of these attempts have been so elaborate that they have virtually become new mythological works. The ¬Bhagvad Gita is a good example. Each one of the profound statements that Krishna makes to guide Arjuna has been interpreted by different people in different contexts. Some of them find sagacity in those statements, while others notice cunningness. But the Hindu mind has over the centuries absorbed the various inferences and cleverly chosen what suited it best in a given situation. It is this remarkable flexibility has given the scholar and the lay man alike the strength to attempt variations that in the case of another religion would have invited a resounding censure. However, that freedom would be severely jeopardised if we allow pressures to work on intellectuals who desire to reach out to an audience with a fresh retelling of our epics. It is on this premise – without going into the merits of the various Ramayanas – that the University’s decision must be faulted.
By all accounts, Ramanujan had said nothing very fresh or revolting that deserved his essay from being axed. All he did in that tract was to present before the students the various available interpretations of some key figures and incidents that are part of the different retellings of the epic. Almost all of them have been around for ages, without causing any visible dent in the faith of the multitude. Considering that the story straddles huge geographical parts – many of them now in East and South-east Asia – including, of course, Sri Lanka, it is natural for it to have undergone contextual changes in the environment it flourishes. If that gives rise to differing versions, it leaves the epic even more enriched. As author and an expert on the Hindu way of life, Wendy Doniger wrote in a magazine recently, “The glory of the Ramayana is its power to sustain an infinite variety of Sitas and Ramas and Hanumans and Lakshmanas. Reducing it to one narrow… constrained way of telling the story would be a terrible cultural loss for India.”
In fact, Sita, who is the second-most important figure of Ramayana, too has been the subject of many character interpretations – from being a docile wife whose husband’s wish is her command to a strong feminist who chose her way to select a husband. A book, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, edited by Malashri Lal & Namita Gokhale, provides excellent takes on this mythological character. Banished by Rama, a then pregnant Sita later brings up her two children courageously as a single mother, imbibing in them the qualities of valour and fair play. This retelling of Sita is very different and more contemporary than the one our have ancestors passed on to succeeding generations depicting her as meek and demure.
Ravana too has been put a varied retellings, and within the country itself – the most common being the one that has privileged him with a near iconic status he enjoys in south India, where is not considered an evil character. Other protagonists like the money-god Hanuman also have undergone many image makeovers, with the Ramayana and its believers none the worse for it.
It would be in the fitness of things to recall perhaps the most famous line of all in the epic. In the Adhyatma Ramayana, Sita resorts to a brilliantly creative argument to persuade her husband to take her with him to the exile. She retorts, “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of even one where Sita does not go with Rama to the forest?” That should convince the die-hards not to lose sleep over the new versions that exist – and may yet be written.