Saturday, October 29, 2011

Romila Thapar on the Ramayana

The Hindu carried last Friday (Op-ed page, 28 October), a lengthy interview of historian Romila Thapar. It focused on the decision of the Academic Council of Delhi University to drop from the BA syllabus, the controversial essay on the Ramayana by the poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan.

In introducing the interview, the paper noted that the Academic Council decision came three years after "the Hindutva student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) vandalized DU's History Department to protest against the teaching of this essay."

As I noted in an earlier post, the essay is a very insubstantial treatment of a topic rich in historical significance but the academic combatants of the so-called "secular Left" have risen in its defence as a matter of politics, not scholarship.

That was, in fact, Thapar's first point. She noted that the ABVP activists had arranged for television cameras to be on hand, and that their primary objection to the essay was that it "hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community." That was "hardly an academic demand. And quite clearly, the way in which the activity was organised, it was an act of political opposition to the History department and to this particular essay."

Delhi University had initially appointed a four-member group of academics to look into the matter, and three of them had found in favour of retaining the essay, while the fourth said it was too nuanced and complex for undergraduate students. The University had then, in the face of a law suit, referred the matter to the Academic Council, which had voted 90:10 against retaining the essay.

Faulting that decision, Thapar returned to her primary point: "whether courses and syllabi can be changed by groups beating up faculty and vandalising departments." She thought that was "a very fundamental question which academia has to face and answer and take a position on."
Casting scorn on the ABVP activists who she doubted had even read the work they opposed, Thapar then made a highly questionable argument. She said definitively that the Valmiki Ramayana was coincidental with the Buddhist and Jain Jataka versions, and that it preceded the Tamil Kamban version by a millennium.

That is going far out on a very shaky limb, for there is no scholarly agreement on dating Valmiki's authorship. The work itself says Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama, placing him in the Treta Yuga. Scholars who have studied the descriptions of the positions of stars in the Ramayana have suggested that it was written 7000 years BCE (before the current era). That would place it at about the time when the many tribes of India were jelling into the interdependent castes of new kingdoms supported by the spread of agricultural civilization.

In noting the variations of the Jataka versions from Valmiki's story -- Ravana as a respected figure, Rama and Sita as brother and sister, and other oddities -- neither Ramanujan in his essay nor Thapar in The Hindu interview, pointed to the obvious explanation, that the variants were Buddhist/Jain efforts to co-opt/subvert a much loved Hindu tradition.

Thapar is disdainful of the argument that the Ramanujan essay is too difficult for Delhi University instructors to explain to undergraduate students. She has surely not considered that any adequate explanation will have to explore the matter of inter-religious propaganda wars in a wider context. If academic freedom requires retention of the essay in the syllabus, should Delhi University require the study also of The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code? Should it diversify its faculty and course offerings to reflect the views that were ignored until students turned to hooliganism?

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