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Old Tale, Modern Hate: The Ramayan returns to haunt the Indian polity

by Ananya Vajpeyi, 4 November 2011

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The Telegraph, November 3, 2011

For the world’s largest democracy, India is alarmingly quick to ban or censor books, artworks and films. Usually, the charge in legal parlance is “injury” to the “sentiments” of a community or group, often on grounds of religious belief.

On October 10, the University of Delhi decided to remove a modern essay about the ancient epic, the Ramayan, from its undergraduate history syllabus lest it hurt Hindu feelings about Ram. In the celebrated — and now controversial — piece, “Three hundred Ramayanas”, A.K. Ramanujan lucidly argues that the multiplicity and variation of this text, with different plot structures, contradictory characterization and a proliferation of alternative meanings, have been the lifeblood of the living tradition of the Ramayan. People everywhere love this story because they have made it their own; it speaks in many voices.

The Ramayan is one of the most important texts to circulate in South Asia over the past two millennia, taking as its principal themes the struggle for justice necessary for the exercise of ethical sovereignty and the struggle for trust necessary for the flourishing of any relationship, especially marriage. The protagonist, the divine king, Ram — the text is a vehicle for his personality and his acts — must simultaneously win back the kingdom of Ayodhya from which he is wrongfully exiled, and bring back his wife Sita who is abducted by the demon king, Ravan. A narrative of epic proportions revolves around this kernel of loss and recovery, estrangement and reconciliation.

What makes the Ramayan beloved to audiences not just in India but also all across Southeast Asia is the surprising twist in the tale, which takes the story beyond the happy ending to an eventual unravelling. Ayodhya, once attained, turns out to be a hollow victory for the prodigal prince, and the marriage of Ram and Sita does not really survive their separation during her imprisonment in faraway Lanka, Ravan’s stronghold.

Now once more this protean text is in the eye of controversy and conflict in secular, democratic India. Earlier this summer, expatriate Hindu activists in the United States of America attacked Nina Paley’s film, Sita Sings the Blues, a modern woman’s inventive and irreverent take on the Ramayan. This month, Delhi University’s academic council decided to withdraw the brilliant essay by the late professor, Ramanujan, postcolonial India’s greatest classicist. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has been agitating against this essay since 2008 and appears to have succeeded at last in pushing it off the university’s reading list.

The Ramayan of the poet Valmiki is in Sanskrit. Its best known medieval retelling, the Ramcaritmanas is by Tulsidas, who lived in Benaras during the 16th century and wrote in Braj and Awadhi, ancestors of modern Hindi. Countless versions of the story exist in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions, in the subcontinent’s major languages whether classical or vernacular, and in places further afield like Cambodia and Indonesia.

Anyone familiar with the Ramayan knows it is scarcely possible to find a Bollywood film or an Indian soap opera that does not incorporate some awareness of this narrative and its cast of characters. Two art exhibitions in New York this year, one about the god Vishnu and his avatars (including Ram and Krishna) at the Brooklyn Museum, and the other about master painters in India between 1100 and 1900 CE at the Metropolitan Museum, both display with magnificent clarity how central the Ramayan has been to aesthetic and religious life in India. The new book of the scholar, Arshia Sattar, Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (2011), emphasizes that Ram has long been ubiquitous in South Asian cultures.

The Ramayan had at least two revivals in the last hundred years, when its appeal as a love story receded and its political meaning came to the foreground. First Mahatma Gandhi described an ideal polity and just rule as Ramrajya, the reign of Ram. He did not mean to suggest a kingdom of heaven in any religious sense, but rather, in his own words, “true democracy” — a conception of power that was ethical, a ruler who was benign and fair-minded, and a dispensation where even the weakest had a share. This was his way of criticizing colonialism: British raj was the inverse of Ram’s raj. But the Mahatma’s Westernized political heirs had no use for the traditional vocabulary of sovereignty in fashioning independent India as a modern nation-state and a liberal democracy.

Towards the end of the 20th century, India returned once more to the Ramayan. In the late 1980s the epic was serialized and broadcast, bringing the cable television revolution to India. A resurgent Hindu Right demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, claiming it stood on the hallowed ground where Ram himself had been born on earth. A constitutional crisis, widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims, legal battles in India’s courts on the authenticity and historicity of competing religious beliefs and claims, and the attenuation of minority rights in secular India followed throughout the mid-1990s.

On the back of its virulent Ramjanmabhoomi movement (a campaign based on the idea of recapturing the so-called “birthplace” of Ram from Muslim control), the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power and led the national government until the general elections of 2004. The Ramayan had once again captivated India’s political imagination — just like it had done repeatedly in premodernity, as Sheldon Pollock, a translator of the Sanskrit Ramayan argued in an important 1993 essay.

Today, like every other site of cultural and intellectual debate in India, Delhi University too experiences the tension between opposing political forces — the BJP (via its student wing, the ABVP) on the one side, and the broadly Left-liberal-secular academic community on the other — that try to legislate the meaning of texts, artworks, architectural monuments and other symbols of religious or national identity. A petition to the vice-chancellor of Delhi University, protesting against this removal of the essay, is now circulating widely among academics in India and abroad.

The Hindu Right’s allegation that the Ramanujan essay is “almost blasphemous” ignores the fact that Hindu thought does not posit or support a category like “blasphemy” anywhere in its doctrine, canon, theology or practice. Hinduism is not monotheistic, nor is the Ramayan a holy book like the Quran or the Bible, as prominent intellectuals like Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have pointed out.

In any case, a political party lacks the authority to interpret literary works, especially one with such enormous value as both a sacred and a popular text, passed on for hundreds of generations throughout the country and beyond. It is also patently absurd to insist that versions of the Ramayan that begin with different characterizations of the protagonists — for example, taking Ram and Sita to be siblings rather than spouses — are somehow suggestive of “illicit relations” between them.

After the Babri mosque was demolished, American political scientists and India experts, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, published a powerful piece in The New Republic, “Modern Hate: How ancient animosities get invented”. What they wrote almost 20 years ago bears repeating:

“Which identities become relevant for politics is not predetermined by some primordial ancientness. They are crafted in benign and malignant ways in print and electronic media, in textbooks and advertising, in India’s T.V. mega-series and America’s talk shows, in campaign strategies, in all the places and all the ways that self and other, us and them, are represented in an expanding public culture.... The doctrine of ancient hatreds may become the post-cold war’s most robust mystification… The hatred is modern, and may be closer than we think.”

P.S.

The above article by Ananya Vajpeyi in The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use

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