Whose Ramayana do you know?

by Samyuktha PC

Recently Delhi University’s Academic Council turned to a team of experts, four faceless and nameless historians, to assess if A K Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and three thoughts on translation’ (read the essay online) should be removed from the syllabus of the course ‘Culture in India: A Historical Perspective’ for BA (Honours) students, even though three of the experts voted against the removal. This team was formed as per the directions of the Supreme Court following a writ petition by some Right wing groups that the essay hurt their religious sentiments. (read the article in The Hindu for expert opinions).

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While I was in the hospital, eleven years old, recovering from a bout of malaria, my mother told me the Ramayana, the story of Sita. My grandmother used to narrate the many folk stories spun around the Ramayana to put me to sleep at nights. My aunt elucidated the Dravidian Ramayana to get me to read more Tamil. And I have read, watched, told, and listened to so many more Ramayanas in these two decades.

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I chose to study my undergraduate in history in Tamil Nadu, because I knew if I went to Delhi there would be so much about South India missing in the syllabus. The choice was both correct and wrong, because I realized that for me the rigid educational system does not work, but nevertheless enjoyed two years submerged in the history of Tamil Nadu. North-east is ignored everywhere!  I was informed that the capital of India is extremely nurturing in academic and political exploration, but I haven’t yet taken my chances and I’ll stick to talking about this essay for now.

The idea of banning books, censoring viewpoints, to keep it away from your students’ eyes are a bit too old. Anyway, it takes only one person to put it online before the banned and the censored becomes the most popular. So, Delhi University’s Academic Council by removing the essay has instead reintroduced it to a large audience who had either forgotten it or rather never read it.

Expert D, as quoted from The Hindu, says, “If the teacher explains the background of these versions, the students may be convinced, but I doubt if college teachers are well-equipped to handle the situation which, is likely to become more difficult in the case of a non-Hindu teacher.” What does A K Ramanujan say that would be so difficult for the teachers to handle or that would be so offensive to the Right wing?

The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan—to say nothing of Western languages. Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story. Sanskrit alone contains some twenty-five or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres (epics, kavyas or ornate poetic compositions, puranas or old mythological stories, and so forth)…

In this paper, indebted for its data to numerous previous translators and scholars, I would like to sort out for myself, and I hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted, transposed…

I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur -text—usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana , the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But as we shall see, it is not always Valmiki’s narrative that is carried from one language to another.

Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and three thoughts on translation by A K Ramanujan

He is not the only one to have written on the various versions of Ramayana or to have documented and retold the story. Maybe, this is where the problem lies. Do you understand Ramayana as history or as a story?

It’s unclear how and why some rightwing parties decided to target the late poet and scholar, AK Ramanujan, more specifically his classic essay on ‘Many Ramayanas’. This may have been part of the general climate of intolerance and the battle over who had the right to tell the country’s history and its myths that was part of the Indian landscape between the 1980s and the 2000s. The objections to Ramanujan’s essay appeared to be based on simple and willful misreadings of his writings.

This narrow-focus way of reading texts—scanning them only for “offensive” phrases—would happen a year later with RohintonMistry’s subtle tale of Bombay and India in the Indira Gandhi era, Such a Long Journey, where many of those who demanded a ban on the book had not read it, but could quote the few sentences where Mistry’s characters had slammed Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena.

Silencing Ramanujan by Nilanjana Roy

Having been born to storytellers, I have never approached Ramayana as history. I was in second year college when I first read A K Ramanujan’s essay. I am a great fan of his collection of folktales, but it wasn’t this text exactly that transformed me like it did so for Manan Ahmed as he says in blog, Chapati Mystery:

Ramanujan’s essay is, in my view, one of the best pieces of scholarship the discipline of South Asian Studies has produced – theoretically rich, innovative and amazingly perceptive about the lived ways in which texts continue to exist – the importance of reading, of listening. It ought to be, if it already isn’t, required reading for anyone working on epic or performative texts in any historical or geographical period.

So, when I hear that the Delhi University has removed the essay from History syllabi, I feel the urge to grab my print copy, a chair, walk to the busiest intersection on campus, stand on the chair and start reading out loud his essay. Every word. Make them listen. They will be transformed.

The book that actually transformed studying history for me was E H Carr’s essay What is History? If my teachers knew that, they would have burnt my only copy. If my father knew this, he probably would have hesitated a second before he gifted it to me. I would quote Carr to teachers and people in class only to be turned away by blank stares most of the time, but here’s one book I would like to make compulsory for all students of history.

What I find peculiar with this whole Right wing obsession with preservation of the authentic Ramayana is that Hinduism’s protectors are forgetting their own strategies. The unique characteristic of Hinduism is its high ability to assimilate things around it as a part of it. Like the family union of Shiva, Parvathi, Ganesha and Muruga. Or the welcoming of Buddha and Jesus as Vishnu’s avatars. Why not embrace (read assimilate) the many Ramayanas too?

Anyway, now that this essay is banned and popular, I hope more people read it. All that DU has done is to make it easier for teachers and professors to avoid dialogue in the classroom. After all, Ramayana is a spectacular story that many people have made their own over many centuries and we will continue to encounter the Many Ramayanas every day.

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