Many Ramayanas

A book of essays edited by Paula Richman and published by Oxford India. I can’t remember where I heard of this book first, but I do remember it was something to do with some controversy in Delhi University about removing this book from their syllabus under right-wing pressure *.

I grew up during the dark ages in the deep south when, at least our house had not succumbed to the attraction of owning any means of electronic (or do I mean electrical?!) entertainment**.My earliest memories of my childhood are of my paternal grandmother telling us stories from the Puranas, interspersed with folk songs purportedly sung by the main characters. I also remember later on having my idea of the “facts” of the story challenged by my mother but just ignored these by attributing it to her blind adherence to her “maikay” version. But since I had heard my grandmother’s version first, I of course took that to be the authentic version. I also did not care much, because, well which self-respecting, “strong, independent woman of the world” would ever identify herself with the wimpy Mythili when there was the far stronger Drupadi just a yuga away? Then I found this book. Now I wish I knew all the languages and scripts so I can go read the originals of all the many Ramayanas.

This book is divided into three parts, each dealing with one aspect of there being many Ramayans. This book doesn’t actually give you the story in each of the many versions, but attempts (and quite successfully) to highlight the major differences in the many versions and discusses the impact of these variations on social, political and cultural leanings of the South Asian diaspora. Most of the essays were originally presented as papers in conferences. I am not sure if it is this reason; the need to not just be informative but also entertaining enough to keep the attention of listeners, but the essays have a very gripping quality. I have rarely encountered socio-political essays that have been so interesting as to want to finish the whole essay in one sitting.

The first part, which deals with differences in the major written versions of this epic, has three essays which help in setting up the tone of the whole book. The main one being the essay by A.K.Ramanujan titled 300 Ramayanas, around which this whole book is structured. It is an exemplary essay that pushes home the point of this book: that there is no one major text after which all the rest are just variations on theme. All these are different viewpoints of a set of events. How there are significantly different versions of any event in history depending on who you talk to, just so these different Ramayanas tell different viewpoints of the major events in Rama, Sita and Ravana’s life. My point of being entertaining and gripping is also evident in this essay as it begins and ends with a “parable” that apart from being entertaining also serves to drive home the point. The last essay in this part by Frank E. Reynolds, deals with the Buddhist versions prevalent in Thailand and compares it to the Hindu version. The major differences being idealogical; it purposes Rama as an earlier birth of the Buddha, and Ravana’s abduction of Sita is an exemplar of the birth that is caught in the eternal circle of Karma and drawn inexorably towards its own destruction. I found this very interesting not only because of the philosophical overtones in it but also by a curious “incidence”. I don’t know if this is true in all Hindu philosophies***, but the Buddha is considered as one of the avatars of  Shri Vishnu and here in the Buddhist Rama Jataka, Rama is considered the rebirth precursor of the Buddha!

The second part emphasizes how the different tellings are not only an attempt at reconciling the “inconsistencies” in the major Hindu epic, but are also the sole method of communication for an oppressed part of society. The reconciliation part is evident in written works and the essay comparing Kampan’s Ramavatharam and Valmiki’s Ramayan is brilliant. Not only does it deal with comparing writing styles but also with the perception of Rama. David Shulman, contents that while for Kampan, the Rama in Ramavatharam is God himself, for Valmiki he is God in human form, so part God, part human. Kampan’s Rama’s  harsh treatment of Sita after the fall of Lanka and Sita’s accusation of adharma is an allegory for the Lord’s fickleness in dealing with his bhakhtas and the latter’s remonstrations for mercy. But Valmiki’s Rama, being part human is never completely in touch with his divine nature (amenensis, Shulman calls it) and needs to be reminded of it by the Gods. Thus Sita’s trial by fire, is the catalyst that brings the Gods down to earth to remind Rama of who He and Sita really are.

The other essays of note in this category are the ones dealing with oral traditions. The Telugu women’s folk songs, as discussed by Velcheru Narayana Rao, brought back nostalgic memories for me of my grandmother’s songs. These telugu songs talk of women centric issues in the Ramayana with hardly any mention of the major events like the war etc. It talks of Kausalya’s pregnancy (apparently she gave birth standing up!), Lakshmana’s laugh, Kausalya’s mediation with Rama on Sita’s behalf, basically a good old saas-bahu story. I only wish it had more information about the songs sung by dalit women and also an appendix or citation of where these songs and their translation could be purchased. The other essay dealing with performance arts is the one by Stuart H. Blackburn, about shadow puppeteers in Kerala. Blackburn’s love and empathy for the puppeteers shines through in the brilliant essay written with so much humor and insight, that you can’t help but start looking for tickets to India to go watch their performance live. But unfortunately (thanks to my brief google search) this art form seems to be on the decline with not many patrons  coming forward to support it.

The last segment called “Tellings as commentary and call to action” suffers from the mere fact of following the previous section. I mean seriously, what can top vertical birthing and “neelam” jokes? But despite this, Paula Richman and Ramdas Lamb’s essays on Periyaar and the Raamnaamis was quite interesting****. The only thing I knew about Periyaar was that I turn left at his statue to get to the main road to go to college and that he once said, “paapan thotathu malligai um manakkum” which my father would quote every time my mother threaded jasmine blossoms from our yard. Thanks to Richman, I now know what a charismatic and gifted orator he was. He was witty and rousing and knew everything about crowd pleasing long before Martin Luther King Jr. ” had a dream” and Obama came up with “Change we can believe in”. Ramdas Lamb’s essay on the origin of the Raamnaami sect and the change that Ramcharitmanas brought to their social consciousness is an interesting read, but what I liked best was the qawwali style “takkars” that seems to have risen up from these bhajan sessions. If I can’t take in the shadow puppet shows of Kerala, these “takkars” should be doable.

Anyway, to finally end this looong review, it is a great book. Get it from flipkart for ~ Rs. 300, or amazon for ~$30. It should generate some interesting topics for discussion, if nothing else.

* I really don’t know much more than this. I am not even sure there was much of a controversy. So please to not throw literary stones at my figurative self 😦

** In the said dark ages, these were called “transistor radio” much, much later came the TV.  If you think I have dated myself here, you are wrong, wrong, wrong!

*** It was not true in our house. Our golu padi dasavatharam set was conspicuously lacking short, bald, big-bellied statues with serene smiles.

**** It also contains essays by Philip Lutgendorf and Patricia Mumme. The only interesting thing about the former is that he is a professor of south asian studies in Iowa and his course involves watching bollywood movies. So while I was dissecting live cockroaches and sticking impossibly small pieces of X-ray films under their digestive tract, these guys are watching Sholay. There is NO justice in the world, NONE!

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