Culture War Ensnares a Beloved Indian Epic: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Returning to New Delhi early last month, after two weeks on the road without much exercise, I passed my neighborhood park (where 10 laps every evening provide the reflective state of mind and the adrenalin that lead to columns such as this one) and realized there would be no run for me that day.

It was the festival of Dussehra -- the day on which the victory of the godly king Rama of Ayodhya over his 10-headed antagonist Ravana of Lanka, and indeed of Good over Evil, is celebrated across India. In the middle of my park towered three effigies, each 40 feet high, of the bloodthirsty Ravana, to be burnt to ashes that evening like hundreds of other effigies across the city. As dusk fell, the streets of my neighborhood filled with hundreds of visitors, mostly families resplendent in festival finery, the children wearing red horns and piping on whistles and bugles, rippling with pleasure at the prospect of the shared narrative and spectacle that would soon unfold in front of them.

The story and the tradition in which millions of my countrymen were participating on Oct. 6 might be called the Rama katha (the word in many Indian languages for "story"), one of the oldest legends of the subcontinent and still the most popular, containing hundreds of archetypes, symbols, metaphors and proverbs that undergird Indian beliefs and ethical and philosophical ideas. The story is one of our greatest oral traditions and creates, as with many such narratives handed down from one generation to another, a sense of the telescoping of time that allows people to speak of Rama and the events of his life as if they occurred in the recent past, not in the mists of mythological time.

But there is also a textual genealogy to the tradition, which takes the form of various narrations of the story in the Indian languages, many of them in dialogue with the version considered the ur-text, the enormous Ramayana (about 50,000 lines of verse) composed in Sanskrit, the root and precursor of many modern Indian languages, by the sage Valmiki around the fifth century BC. In a preface to the most recent scholarly edition of Valmiki's text in English translation, the Indian economist and public intellectual Amartya Sen gives a sense of the story's power and geographical reach:

The spread [of the Rama story across space and time] was, however, accompanied by many distinct transformations, some minor, some quite major [...] Within India there is a huge dichotomy, involving serious differences between the Northern and Southern versions. There are differences even between Northeastern variants and Northwestern ones, all in Sanskrit. As the Rāmāyana gets translated into the later Indian languages, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, and others, the narrative takes again many different turns. And there were particular variants seen from different perspectives, for example that of women, rather than men. And as the Rāmāyana spread abroad, also like wild fire, with translations and adaptations across the eastern world, with Rāmāyana stories circulating in Annamese, Balinese, Cambodian, Javanese, Khotanese, Laotian, Malayan, Sinhalese, Thai, Tibetan, and others, we get a huge cluster of generically linked but partially divergent narratives.

To the Rama story's many traditional versions across languages and cultures, we may add a modern one, again with a constituency mainly in north India, which has many towns and rivers named in the Valmiki Ramayana and believes itself uniquely connected to the epic through this "sacred geography." This is the idea of a political, martial Rama, returning to redeem Hinduism from the marginalization it has suffered at the hands of the secular Indian republic put in place after Independence, as well as the violence inflicted by Islamic invaders over the last millennium. This Rama seems to want to unite all Hindus politically (though usually upper-caste Hindus in practice) in an effort to assert the dominance of "Hindu civilization" in multi-faith, multicultural modern India.

Rama as a political symbol is central to the idiom and political program of the main opposition party in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which orchestrated in 1992, with the support of various militant Hindu groups, the bringing down of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, on the grounds that it had been constructed by the Mughal emperor Babur on the site where Rama was thought to have been born, and deserved to be replaced with a new Ram temple. Indeed, the BJP often speaks of its ideal of government as "Ram Rajya," which would be modeled on an order that prevailed during the time of Rama. In the last three decades, the BJP, along with the mass media -- particularly in the form of a vastly popular television version telecast on India's national channel Doordarshan in the late 1980s -- have done a great deal to homogenize the public understanding of story of Rama, privileging the versions of the story produced by Valmiki and by the 16th-century poet-saint Tulsidas in his Ramacharitamanas. The dangers of this reduction of a widely circulated story to the authority supplied by one or two texts have been pointed out by historians such as Romila Thapar in a perceptive essay from 1989 titled "The Ramayana Syndrome."

This is the context of a controversial and deplorable recent decision by Delhi University, the country's leading institution, to excise from its history syllabus an essay by the Indian scholar of classics AK Ramanujan called "Three Hundred Ramayanas." Ramanujan's scholarly text would be intriguing and even insightful to anyone who recognizes a secular right to inquire into the origins and variants of religious tradition. The ruckus was first raised by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the BJP, in 2008, when it vandalized Delhi University's History Department in real or cooked-up outrage over the essay.

The protesters claimed that the essay, which treats the many different versions of the Ramayana circulating in the subcontinent as "tellings" without privileging a particular one as authoritative, circulates many untruths about the Ramayana and is offensive to Hindus. It is easy to see how the Ramayana knowledge in Ramanujan's text -- for example, that in some versions, the villain Ravana is really a kind of tragic hero, and that in one he is even, unknown to himself, the father of Sita, the woman whom he lusts after and abducts -- would seem heretical to those who would regard the Ramayana not as story but as scripture. A sentence like "When we enter the world of Jain tellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values" would inflame someone who sees the story as a vessel of idealized Hindu values: Rama's nobility and ideal of dharma or right conduct, Sita's famed chastity, the monkey-god Hanuman's sacrifice and devotion.

In voting 111 to 9 to delete the text from the syllabus, then, Delhi University's Academic Council was, in an atmosphere of violence, intimidation and unreason, choosing to take the path of least resistance. Perhaps it reasoned that the backlash from the excision of the essay, which would be widespread but nonviolent, would be preferable to another round of vigilante justice from hotheads who would be able to frame the debate in such a way that they would have a groundswell of popular support.

The university practically ensured the veto for Ramanujan's text by allowing for a referendum on the matter in the first place, when it should have stood its right to teach the syllabus it had originally prescribed. One might say the Council, when faced with a vote, was being quite pragmatic. The ideas of humanistic inquiry and free speech are insufficiently grounded in Indian public life, and very few spaces -- even classrooms -- are free of the weight and creeping pressure of religious belief. The evidence for this might be found not just in the youth wing's charmless and intimidating approach, but even in the report of the four-member academic committee appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the matter. The one dissenting member of the committee argued that he was skeptical that students -- even students of history -- would be able to tolerate the relativization of what many considered a sacred text, and further that teaching it was "likely to become more difficult in the case of a non-Hindu teacher."

Meanwhile, the protestors were ignoring Hinduism's own tradition of honoring pluralism, opting instead for the gesture of a more modern believer, that of competitive religious chauvinism against the common enemy of secularists and "leftists." This was clear from a press conference held by the BJP's youth wing after Ramanujan's text was eliminated. Ragini Bhuyan of the Sunday Guardian reported, in a piece called "Ramanujan and the Ramayana":

Chahal [a youth group functionary] argued that the world erupted in protest when cartoons of Prophet Muhammad were published by a Danish newspaper. Christian organisations also protested against the portrayal of the Vatican in Dan Brown's worldwide bestselling thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Chahal went on to cite the example of the professor in Kerala who wrote a question in an exam paper referring to Prophet Muhammad, and who suffered the horrific fate of having his hands cut off. The inference was clear: other religions don't tolerate it, so why should Hindus?

The press conference also brought to light some undercurrents in this battle. The press release [circulated by the organizations involved with the protest] says, "It is a well-known tactic of the Leftists to attack deep-rooted religious beliefs of Hindus." [...] Dr Awasthy claimed at the press conference that "these historians are all Left wing. This is a conspiracy by the Left." ... [The] press release also asks "Whether the same historians will recommend [sic] a narrative by Salman Rushdie as a compulsory text for the study of the Quran or Islam?"

And in one of the best responses to the controversy, the journalist Hartosh Singh Bal offered the big picture:

The ideological route from the Babri Masjid to the removal of this essay is clear. If Rama is to be a historic personage, if the Ramayana is to be history, then there cannot be many tellings, there cannot be many Ramayanas, there cannot be many Ramas.

In a biting essay in The Telegraph, the historian Mukul Kesavan cited a poem by Ramanujan that would have served as an account of this unsavory episode:

A part of Ramanujan’s oeuvre is a sharp poem called “Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day”. The poem tells the story of an Indian professor of Sanskrit making his way around Berlin in 1935, unable to make sense of the city or its German signs till familiar symbols, a “gothic lotus on an iron gate” and “the swastika on the neighbour’s arm” give him a fleeting, spurious sense of home. A university’s academic guardians must know that there have been attempts in other times and places to fabricate an authorized past, to speak for an authentically Indo-European people, to concoct an ‘Aryan’ canon. Ramanujan’s essay is an intellectual antidote to projects such as these, it is a text that revels in the incredible diversity of our epic narratives.

I can only imagine that the vice-chancellor and the academic council made an honest mistake, that, prompted by a misplaced sense of prudence or superabundant caution, they offered “Three Hundred Ramayanas” at the altar of a lumpen god, hoping to appease it. It won’t, of course: this god is insatiable. Instead of pandering to unreason, the university should be true to itself, stand its ground and reinstate Ramanujan.

Even as some aspects of India's vibrant Ramayana tradition are, as Kesavan says, being sacrificed, the country's rich traditions of renewal and reinterpretation of the Rama katha continue in a parallel universe. Two excellent contributions to this tradition in English have appeared in the last six months. "Sita's Ramayana," a graphic novel by the writer Samhita Arni and the folk artist Moyna Chitrakar, is narrated from the perspective of Sita and not Rama, and was recently on the New York Times bestseller list. "Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's Anguish" is a book by the scholar and Ramayana translator Arshia Sattar about the relationship between Rama and Sita, and their respective dilemmas after she is abducted by Ravana.

Sattar's book, one can safely assume, would also be attacked by the censorious religious right if it made its way onto a university syllabus. But in truth, it makes Rama come alive by making his problems come alive in all their moral complexity, holding that we can best understand the story only when we are furthest "from the all-encompassing bhakti universe [universe of devotion] that renders Rama's deeds unquestionable and beyond reproach." One might say that some of India's self-appointed guardians of knowledge and culture, breathing fire and hatred like the cardboard villain Ravana of their black-and-white Ramayana, have in this particular episode successfully come between Ramanujan and university students. But it will be much harder for them to wedge themselves between India and its many Ramayanas.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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