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The difference is telling

A K Bhattacharya 

What actually said in his essay on the many ramayanas, and why he might have offended those who plan courses for history students.

Political controversies have a tendency of acquiring a life of their own. Politically inspired controversies over academic debates are worse. They manage to overshadow completely the real issues at stake. The debates on such controversies are not centred on the substantive issues but on the political correctness or impropriety of the decision.

A K Ramanujan’s scholarly essay, “Three Hundred ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, has become an unfortunate victim of such a debate. It all began when a few weeks ago the question of whether this essay should be part of the readings in one of the history courses in the University of Delhi became contentious and the issue ended up in the Supreme Court.

The apex court wisely stayed away from the controversy and asked for the opinion of an academic expert committee. However, even though three members of the four-member academic expert committee opined that Ramanujan’s essay on the many ramayanas ought to be read by students, the Delhi University Vice-Chancellor and its Academic Council overruled the recommendation and removed the essay from the list of recommended readings.

What should have remained a purely academic debate turned into a political fight between the Hindutva brigade and liberal thinkers in the University. One collateral damage of this low-level debate was that not much discussion has so far revolved around why Ramanujan’s essay did not deserve to be part of a history student’s recommended reading.

That is a pity because Ramanujan’s essay is an outstanding piece that without appearing to be erudite explains how the different renderings of the ramayana in different languages and in different regions tell broadly the same story, but with varying nuances. What Ramanujan seeks to establish in the essay is not profoundly new. For, most Indians are aware of the different treatments of the ramayana’s characters in the epic’s texts available in different languages.

Where Ramanujan makes a mark is in explaining how the different renderings of the ramayana should not be treated as different versions of the epic. Rather, these should be described as “tellings” of the ramayana. Ramanujan’s logic is unquestionable. He argues that it will be wrong to assume that there was one original ramayana, presumably written in Sanskrit by Valmiki, and all other ramayanas — like the ones written by Tulsi Das (the Ramcharitmanas) or Krittibas in Bangla or by Kampan in Tamil were translations or versions of the original ramayana in Sanskrit.

He argues that there is a “relational structure” that claims the name of the ramayana for all the different “tellings”, but that they are not similar to each other. “Like a collection of people with the same proper name, they make a class in name alone,” he says. This is Ramanujan’s thesis. And to prove his point, Ramanujan narrates several widely known, and some obscure, stories on why the ramayana could not but have several renderings.

There is a fascinating story of how Hanuman, the monkey god and loyal follower of Rama, went to the Netherworld in search of a ring belonging to his master. The Lord of the Netherworld put before Hanuman a platter piled with rings and asked him to pick the one that belonged to Rama. But all of them were identical. A perplexed Hanuman asked about the large number of rings in the basket. The Lord of the Netherworld told him that all those rings had belonged to all the thousands of different Ramas in different times.

Ramanujan also cites one of the “tellings” of the ramayana in which Rama’s wife Sita pleads with him that she should be allowed to accompany the prince during his exile. When Rama turns down her request, Sita offers an argument to which Rama has no answer. “In which ramayana over the ages has Rama ever declined to take Sita along with her when he goes in exile,” she asks. Ramanujan rests his case of many ramayanas on such stories.

Elaborating on how different ramayanas co-existed, Ramanujan notes how in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, there are two endings to the same story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, and the other concludes with the banishment of Sita to the forest, where she gives birth to twins Lava and Kusha, who later defeat Rama’s army without knowing that he was their father. Even the beginnings of the various ramayanas are different. There are other equally significant differences. Valmiki, for instance, focuses on Rama and his history at the beginning, while the Jain texts of the ramayana as also the Thai ramayana lay greater emphasis on Ravana and his genealogy.

It will, therefore, be naive to believe that Ramanujan’s essay became a target of attack from the Hindutva brigade for merely propounding the thesis of several ramayanas based on broadly the same storyline of Rama. Remember that “ramayana” in Sanskrit means the portrayal or resting place of Rama. Thus it is conceivable that there were many ramayanas and that each of these relied on the same basic storyline but gave its own treatment which made it look different from all the others.

That could not have raised anybody’s eyebrows. What did, perhaps, was the liberal use by Ramanujan of lucid translations of certain sections of the ramayana, as found in Valmiki’s ramayana and in the one composed by Kampan in Tamil. This is the story of how Ahalya was seduced by Indra and Ahalya’s husband, the sage Gautama, cursed the seducer. The ramayana is a great epic not only because it is a religious text for the Hindus but also because it brings out a fascinating interplay between forces of good and evil and because it demonstrates that even the best and the mighty can suffer from ordinary frailties.

So, Kampan’s ramayana shows Ahalya as a little desirous of Indra’s company, while in Valmiki’s, Ahalya is more restrained. In Valmiki’s version, Indra loses his testicles on being cursed by the angry and cuckolded Gautama. In Kampan, however, Indra has to suffer the ignominy of having a thousand vaginas planted on different parts of his body. Perhaps such references in Ramanujan’s essay made the Hindutva brigade see red.

There are many other references in Ramanujan’s essay that might offend the religious sensibilities of a devout Hindu. But why penalise Ramanujan’s essay just because he has faithfully presented those aspects of the epic? That is like shooting the messenger. The Jain texts of the ramayana, Ramanujan says, talk about the demon king Ravana’s erudition and wisdom and say he has only one failing — his desire to have the fruit that Shiva had given as a boon for Mandodari, his wife, to consume. In his greed, Ravana eats the fruit and conceives a baby, who eventually is delivered through his nose and later abandoned in a field. That child grows up to be Sita, who causes Ravana’s eventual downfall.

Ramanujan does not mention yet another popular version of a similar story from Kerala, where the ramayana story shows Sita as a secret child of Mandodari and Ravana, about whom the demon king was not aware. Now, both these stories richly bring into focus themes of incest or the Oedipus complex. Ramanujan has done a great job in enlightening us about these themes. Why students of history at Delhi University should not have this essay on their list of recommended readings defies logic. Or is there a deeper politics behind this controversy? Is the Hindutva brigade trying to drag the Congress into this by targeting an essay, because it knows the identity of the historian who got the Ramanujan essay included on the recommended reading list in the DU history course?

First Published: Sat, November 26 2011. 00:31 IST