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Many Ramayanas enriched the epic

5 November 2011

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The Times of India, 22 October 2011

by Dileep Padgaonkar

Nothing straight can ever emerge from the crooked timber of a parochial mind. Those responsible for the decision to drop A K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from Delhi University’s undergraduate arts course argue in substance that from childhood these students are told about the sacred character of the epic. This is why it occupies a special place in the Indian psyche. Its characters are perceived to be divine creatures. To show them in a poor light is therefore tantamount to blasphemy.

The hard fact is that there is no single version of the Ramayana that qualifies as the most authentic one. Over the centuries Valmiki’s original work has inspired versions without number. In the 1st or 2nd century AD, the epic was given a Brahminical tone which did not exist in the original. Rama’s search for Sita was projected as the triumphant crusade of Aryan civilisation. And the indigenous monarch Ravana was transformed into a monster.

All that Ramanujan does in his essay is to establish this humongous multiplicity. He does not prefer this or the other version but underlines the fact that each version, regardless of the distance it took from Valmiki’s original text, contributed to the perennial appeal of the epic. It struck roots in different cultures. Local myths and folk tales, historical memories and religious or profane superstitions nourished them. In every case, what emerged from such cross-fertilisation was a distinctive Ramayana which guided spiritual and artistic endeavours in India and across the Asian continent down the ages till this day.

The censors of Delhi University obviously have no stomach for an epic whose main characters suffer from human frailties, characters who face tough moral choices and who, like ordinary mortals, sometimes choose expediency over principle and virtue. All that they needed to do was to consult a remarkable volume on the Ramayana Tradition in Asia published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1980. It contains 44 papers presented by some of the most erudite Ramayana experts at an international seminar on the subject held in New Delhi in December 1975.

They would have discovered, to their surprise and delight, that every region in India boasts of many Ramayanas, one more inventive than the other. The Bengali versions, for instance, laid emphasis on piety while, say, the Assamese versions gave the occasional salacious twist to the tale. One of them narrates the story of an elderly, hunchback maid who is smitten by Bharata and uses every trick in the book to seduce him - to no avail. That story finds no mention in the Valmiki original.

The saga of Ramayana becomes even more tantalising as it travels across the rest of Asia. According to one Mongolian version, Rama had to cross nine passes, nine dales and nine rivers while chasing the antelope. It figures nowhere in Valmiki’s magnum opus either. Similar tales are to be found in the folk recitations of the epic in the Muslim regions of the Philippines though in diluted forms; in a 16th century classic Chinese novel known as Monkey; in the sculptural depictions in Cambodia; in the puppet shows of Java and in Malaysian shadow plays. Also of great interest is a version of the Ramayana in Khotanese, an Iranian dialect spoken in Khotan in Central Asia.

If prudery is what drove the Delhi University censors to drop Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus, they would have entertained second thoughts had they come across one Laotian version - the Vientiane one. Contrary to the strict code of moral discipline of Valmiki, its characters show little regard for the ’purity’ of relationships. They abide by their own logic to justify their dalliances. Even Rama and Hanuman cohabit and have children from women they happen to meet. Ravana too is shown in a positive light: after his defeat, he offers his enemy Rama a boat to travel home.

The moral of the censorship story is this: you play safe when you teach your students a monochromatic, sanitised, morally smug and politically correct version of the great epic. In the bargain, you shrivel their imagination, imprison it in the narrow confines of parochialism and plant in their minds the seeds of bigotry. You tutor them to mock at modernity.

P.S.

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