The old suspect, A.K. Ramanujan emerges out of the woodwork on Outlook’s pages. The magazine’s leader to this article says:
…in a pocket of the Delhi University, right-wing student activists have taken exception to this essay by the celebrated scholar A.K. Ramanujan, on the many Ramayanas living across languages and narrative genres, each different but no less legitimate than Valmiki’s epic.
Given that right-wingers are always at fault, let’s see what this
inebriated celebrated essay says. The Outlook essay is a condensed form of the complete version found here. Where relevant, this post quotes from both sources.
Ramanujan dwells on why he has used the word tellings of the Ramayana instead of versions or variants.
I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-textâ€”usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But it is not always Valmiki’s narrative that is carried from one language to another. We have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them.
Granted. But there’s a more insidious reason that has entirely to do with Ramanujan. That insidious reason is unrelated to the tellings/variants/versions by themselves. Fundamentally, it serves as a foundation to build Ramanujan’s case upon.
For starters, Ramanujan says it is not always Valmiki’s Ramayana that’s carried to other languages. That begs asking this question: were these Ramayanas pulled from thin air? Assuming they were, why were all of these called Ramayana and containing the same characters? Ramanujan lists out some of these tellings complete with the radical differences.
Valmiki focuses on Rama and his history in his opening sections; Vimalasuri’s Jain Ramayana and the Thai epic focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana; the Kannada village telling focuses on Sita, her birth, her wedding, her trials. The Santhals, a tribe known for their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithfulâ€”to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana. In Southeast Asian texts, Hanuman is not the celibate devotee with a monkey face but a ladies’ man who figures in many love episodes. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama is a god; in the Jain texts, he is only an evolved Jain man who is in his last birth and so does not even kill Ravana. In the latter, Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself, while he is in other texts an overweening demon.
These extreme variations are understandable and if anything, they actually emphasize the epic’s overwhelming and sustained influence, and its role in shaping entire cultures. To the extent that a specific variation is perceived with “shock and horror” by Hindus, the answer is relatively easy to find. It can be found in the culture of the borrorwer. When an epic like Ramayana finds its way to a far-off land like Malaysia or Indonesia, it is not farfetched to conclude that they will paste to it aspects and interpretations derived from their native culture.
But Ramanujan is on a different note. He quotes from these different sources to prove that the original Ramayana, more so, that Rama is not the hallow person he is held to be.
When we enter the world of Jains tellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. Indeed the Jaina texts express the feeling that the Hindus, especially the Brahmins, have maligned Ravana, made him into a villain. Here is a set of questions that a Jaina text begins by asking: “How can monkeys vanquish the powerful raksasa warriors like Ravana? How can noble men and Jaina worthies like Ravana eat flesh and drink blood? How can Kumbhakarna sleep through six months of the year, and never wake up even though boiling oil was poured into his cars, elephants were made to trample over him, and war trumpets and conches blow around him? They also say that Ravana captured Indra and dragged him handcuffed into Lanka. Who can do that to Indra? All this looks a bit fantastic and extreme. They are lies and contrary to reason.”
Ramanujan, one of the forerunners of progressive/secular literary movement, treads on familiar ground: spanking the baby and consoling it when it cries. To his credit, he had scholarship unlike the anti-Ram Mandir drumbeaters. These drumbeaters term Ramayana a work of fiction. If that’s true, why examine the Ramayana inch-by-inch and poke real and imagined holes? Ramanujan’s essay fits this mold. If a large number of people believe it is real, what gives you the authority to tamper with their beliefs?
We now come to the point of what Ramanujan is trying to prove here.
We read the scholarly modern English translation largely to gain a sense of the original Valmiki, and we consider it successful to the extent that it resembles the original. We read Kampan to read Kampan, and we judge him on his own termsâ€”not by his resemblance to Valmiki but, if anything, by the extent that he differs from Valmiki. In the one, we rejoice in the similarity; in the other, we cherish and savor the differences .
A question for Ramanujan: why do we value the original Mona Lisa so much despite having thousands of honourable imitations? If Kamban differs from the original, it is a different work. If Kamban has captured the essence of the original, we rightfully celebrate that. But Ramanujan is not content. He strikes the final blow with a finesse that makes our head bow.
…a folk legend says that Hanuman wrote the original Ramayana on a mountaintop, after the great war, and scattered the manuscript; it was many times larger than what we have now. Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment of it. In this sense, no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling…
Ramanujan mixes legend and fact and heresay so cleverly that it is hard to refute his assertion. Hard, not impossible. The universally-accepted story behind Ramayana’s composition is found in a verse that begins with Maa Nishaada… When he saw a hunter mercilessly killing two birds making love, that verse spontaneously emitted from the depths of his sorrow. Or when “shoka became sloka.” The version of Ramayana I have narrates how Lord Brahma himself commissioned the thief-turned-sage Valmiki to compose the Ramayana. But Ramanujan wants to prove that the original itself doesn’t exist. In other words, there’s nothing like an “original” Ramayana. Let’s extend that: there’s no original play called Hamlet, the one written by Shakespeare. Paradise Lost in the form written by Milton is really not Milton’s.
But that shouldn’t surprise us. A.K. Ramanujan is after all a reteller himself. He translated Anantha Murthy’s pseudo-classic, Samskara into English.