Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ramayana as History

Criticism of the move to drop A. K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from the BA History syllabus at Delhi University has been entirely predictable.

Those who wear their “secular” label on their foreheads, saw the decision to drop the essay as a response to pressure from the Hindutva brigade. Some Press reports said the Hindutvadis considered the essay “blashphemous.”

“Cultural fascism” said some. “Talibanizing history” said others. "A matter of academic freedom" said milder folk. The truly fatuous decried the attempt to negate the Ramayana as "a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions."


It was as if the country had hit a time warp and woken up in the 1980s with its poisonous "Left-Secular" v "Right-Hindutva" confrontation.

I think we should all take a breather and re-examine what the essay contributes to our understanding of the past.

Ramanujan’s essay is nothing more than a testament to the enduring popularity of the epic in many lands and the irrepressible creativity of those who have retold its story. It says nothing about the Ramayana's significance in Indian history or its impact on Indian society. Written for a foreign audience, the essay emphasizes what we might call the folkloric, the quaint and the bizarre.

An essay on the Ramayana of value to Indian students of history would examine its enormous role in inspiring and shaping Indian society.

For millennia, the Prince of Ayodhya has been a role model for Indians. More, it is a critically important marker in the evolution of our society.

The story of Rama brought into the daily life of India the philosophical wisdom of the Upanishads.

The Ramayana records and justifies the emergence of the unitary State, not the Leviathan of enforced national security as in Hobbesian Europe, but acclaimed in the person of the virtuous and beloved king.

Rama is not an all-powerful dictator to whom people bend in awe but a popular ruler solicitous of his people's opinion in all things. He even rejects Sita because of murmurs among the citizens of Ayodhya that her pregnancy soon after returning from Ravana’s clutches implied a violation that made her unfit to be queen. In that, as in his self-doubt and anguish at critical points of the story, Rama is everyman. As king, he is a democrat.

 In the devotion to his father, love for Sita, loyalty to Laxman, and generosity towards Kaikei, he is the archetype of the good family man. He goes to war not to extend his kingdom or for profit but to regain his wife. In his misfortunes he is graceful, in victory he is modest. Rama is the God-king next door, neighbourly, considerate and kind.

In short, Rama is accessible to all Indians regardless of status or caste, a point the Ramayana underlines in many ways. Perhaps most striking is the legend of Valmiki the author of the Ramayana, the low born brigand whose devotion to Rama makes him India's First Poet-Sage. Repeatedly, the narrative underlines Rama's openness to all people. The gods applaud when the prince sits comfortably with the low caste forest-dweller Guha. A poor woman offers fruit to him after biting into it to make sure it is sweet; Lakshman protests but Rama silences him; she acts out of love. That unforced love of the ruler is the basis for Ramrajya – Rama’s virtuous rule – the widely held ideal of the Indian state for thousands of years.

Another point an essay written for Indian students might explore is the significance of Rama's insistence on going into exile to make good his father's old pledge. It makes clear the critical importance the Ramayana places on the integrity of the king, the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the state.

It might also be useful to get the young thinking about how India's rise from foreign domination by mobilizing the best of its tradition, and its success in maintaining democratic rule in the face of staggering odds, owe a great deal to values we can trace back to the Ramayana.

In the face of all this, I am all for dropping Ramanujan’s essay purely on the basis that it is a tawdry, insubstantial treatment of a great subject.

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