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Many Rams: Many Ramayanas
By Ram Puniyani

The recent (Feb. 2008) rampage by ABVP activists in Delhi University protesting against the introduction of Ramanujan's essay "Three Hundred Ramayana's", as the reading text, was not the first such act of political vandalism around Ram's story. This essay by the much acclaimed scholar, A.K.Ramanujan is part of his "The Collected Essays of A.K.Ramanujan (Oxford1999). Earlier in the aftermath of Babri demolition a Sahmat exhibition on different versions of Ramayana was attacked by RSS combine's goons. This was done on the pretext that one of the panels based on Jataka (Buddhist version) showed Ram and Sita as brother and sister, and it is an insult to their faith. Ramanujan's essay also talks of different versions and presents five of them as an example.

It is known that there are hundreds of versions of Ramayana, Buddhist, Jain, Valmiki etc. Paula Richman in her book Many Ramayana's (Oxford) describes several of these. And again there are different interpretations of the prevalent Valmiki Ramayana, many of which are not to the liking of those who are indulging in this hooliganism in the name of their faith. It is another matter that this intolerant attitude and aggression is done in the name of Hinduism, while asserting that Hinduism is tolerant and other religions are intolerant.

It is a fascinating exercise to go through various tellings and interpretations of Ramayana's. The RSS combine harps on the telling of Ramayana by Valmiki alone and that too its particular interpretation. Even the other renderings acceptable to this intolerant but currently dominant political force are not uniform. Valmiki, Tulsidas and later the one adopted by Rmanand Sagar for his serial Ramayana have their own subtle nuances, which are very different from each other.

Ramayana has been rendered in many languages of Asia in particular. Ramanujan points out that the tellings of Ram story has been part of Balinese, Bengali, Kashmiri, Thai, Sinhala, Santhali Tamil, Tibetan and Pali amongst others. There are innumerable versions in Western languages also. The narrative in these is not matching. RSS combine takes Valmiki as the standard and others as diversions which are not acceptable to it for political reasons. The version of Ramayana it wants to impose has the caste and gender equations of pre-modern times so it is hung up upon only that version as the only one acceptable to it.

Interestingly one can see the correlation between the class-caste aspirations of the narration-interpretation. In Buddhist Dasharath Jataka, Sita is projected both as sister and wife of Ram. As per this version Dashrath is King not of Ayodhya but of Varanasi. The marriage of sister and brother is part of the tradition of glorious Kshtriya clans who wanted to maintain their caste and clan purity. This Jataka tale shows Ram to be the follower of Buddha. Similarly Jain versions of Ramayana project Ram as the propagator of Jain values, especially as a follower of non-violence. What do both Buddhist and Jain versions have in common is that in these Ravan is not shown as a villain but a great spiritual soul dedicated to quest of knowledge, endowed with majestic commands over passions, a sage and a responsible ruler. Popular and prevalent "Women's Ramayana Songs" of Telugu Brahmin Women, put together by Rangnayakamma, keep the women's concern as the central theme. These songs present Sita as finally victorious over Ram and in these, Surpanakha succeeds in taking revenge over Ram.

In Thai Ramkirti, or Ramkin (Ram's story), there is a twist in the tale and Shurpanakh's daughter decides to take revenge attributing her mothers mutilation primarily because of Sita. More interestingly here the focus is on Hanuman, who in this telling is neither devout nor celibate but quite a ladies man, looking into the bedrooms of Lanka. In Valmiki, Kampan and Tamil tellings Hanuman regards seeing another mans sleeping wife as a sin, but not in this Thai version. Incidentally he is a very popular Thai hero even today. Also like Jain Ramayana this Thai telling focuses on genealogy and adventures of Ravana and not of Ram.  

In recent times Jotiba Phule who stood more with the interests of Dalits and women, was amongst the first to interpret this mythological tale from the perspective of those subjugated by caste-varna-gender hierarchy. Phule points out that upper castes were descendents of conquering Indo-Europeans who overturned the original egalitarian society and forbade the conquered from studying texts. His mythology is woven around King Bali, who could invoke the image of peasant community. Needless to say his murder by Lord Ram from behind is condemned and is seen as an act of subjugation of lower castes by the upper castes. And Ram is seen as an avatar of Vishnu out to conquer India from the Rakshasas (those protecting their crops) for establishing the hegemony of upper caste values of caste and gender hierarchy.

Dr. Ambedkar and Periyar's commentaries are more an alternative reading of the Valmiki's text rather then a separate version. There is a good deal of overlap in the interpretation of both. Dr. Ambedkar focuses his attention on the issues pertaining to Ram's killing of Shambuk for violating the prevalent norm where a low caste has no right to do penance, tapasya. Like Phule he also castigates Lord Ram for murdering the popular folk king Bali. He questions Ram's act of taking Sita's agnipariksha, trial by fire, and his patriarchal attitude towards her. After defeating Ravan he tells Sita that he had done all this battle not to get her released for her own sake but to restore his honor, and his banishing her in response to the rumors about her chastity when she was pregnant comes for severest criticism from Ambedkar.

Periyar is basically taking the same line but in his interpretation the North Indian upper caste onslaught-South Indian resistance becomes the central theme. Periyar the initiator of Self Respect Movement was the pioneer of caste and gender equality in Tamilnadu. In one of the movements, which is very less known, on the lines of Dr. Ambedkar burning Manusmriti, he planned to burn the photo of Ram, as for him Ram symbolized the imposition of upper caste norms in South India. This was a part of his campaign against caste Hinduism. Periyar also upheld Tamil identity. According to him the Ramayana story was a thinly disguised historical account of how caste ridden, Sanskritic, Upper caste North Indians led by Ram subjugated South Indians. He identifies Ravana as the monarch of ancient Dravidians, who abducted Sita, primarily to take revenge against the mutilation and insult of his sister Surpanakha. In his interpretation Ravana is practitioner of Bhakti, and is a virtuous man.

The rampage by RSS combines' ABVP can be understood also in the light of current cultural manipulation and cooption of Adivasis by Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, another RSS progeny. This organization is at the core of anti-Christian attacks in the remote areas. In most of these Hanuman, as the loyal devotee of the Lord, is being projected as the idol of Adivaisis. This is done through distribution of Hanuman lockets etc. The symbolism of upper caste with Rama, and Adiviasis with Hanuman gives a political message given by RSS combine of the relationship of upper castes with Adivais. Similarly in these areas Shabri another destitute woman is being projected as the role model for Adiviasis. One shold also note that the telling of Ramayana in the Adivasi areas of Dangs, Gujarat, where Shabri Kumbh was held, is very different from the one prevalent in other parts of the country.

The version of Ramayana to be upheld and projected by RSS combine is that of 'Maharshi' Ramanand Sagar's tele-serial Ramayana, which went many steps further than some of the earlier one's in glorifying norms of caste and gender hierarchy. As an example here Sita herself is keen to be banished to jungle by her 'Lord and master' to ensure that people don't talk ill of Him. And currently this is the bottom line, and any deviation from such blind obeisance comes for severe reprimand from the RSS family. This selection of Ram and this version of Ramayana have more to do with political agenda than faith per se. And so this politics being doe in the name of tolerant Hinduism, can not tolerate the Many Rams: Many Ramayanas prevalent World over!