Protecting Plurality

Book: Teen Sau Ramayan (Hindi)
Author: A.K.Ramanujan
Translation by Dhaval Jaiswal
Publishers: Vani Prakahan, Delhi
Year: 2012. Pages 80. Price: Rs 125

How does one react to the omission of a learned essay from the curriculum and its publication by the publisher feeling intimidated by the protests of intolerant-fundamentalist elements? Here is one small answer. Put it on the website, translate it in to other languages and quench the curiosity of concerned readers. In case of celebrated essay Three Hundred Ramayans, this is what has been attempted. While some put it on web, translating it into Hindi has been done by Jaiswal and its publication by Vani Prakashan. Both deserve appreciation in the light of the fact that when Oxford University Press(OUP) decided to pull off this essay, from future publications.

This essay was part of the syllabus of graduate course of History Department of Delhi University. In 2008, the RSS affiliates, Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Movement to Save Education) and the student wing of RSS created ruckus against this essay by saying that it hurts Hindu sentiments. The matter went to high Court, which ruled that since the issue relates to Academia, Delhi University (DU) should take the final call. DU decided to withdraw it from the curriculum and OUP decided to stop publishing it.

This book, Tin Sau Ramayan, is by Ramanujan, a scholar-translator of exceptional caliber, who has pieced together the concept behind the prevalence of many Ram stories. Even before the noted Valmiki Ramayan, there was a prevalence of many versions of Jataka Ramayans. One such version of Jataka Ramayan had come under attack earlier also when in one of the panels of exhibition by SAHMAT, it showed Ram and Sita to be siblings. The diverse versions of Ramayan are also well revealed by one version of Ramayan itself where at one point in one of the Ramayan tales, Sita tells Ram, that she will also come with him to the forest. When Ram opposes this she goes on to say that in most of the Ramayan tales Sita has accompanied Ram, so why are you denying my coming with you to forest!

The essay of Ramanujan begins with a beautiful narration about different reincarnations of Ram, with each reincarnation Ram drops a ring, which falls in to the Pata lok (below the Earth) . All these rings are indistinguishable from each other. The way of looking at Ram differs from each other as per the time and the values of narrator. The birth of Sita, the death of Sita has so many gripping interpretations and Ramanujan brings it out in a masterly fashion.

The local pattern also gets reflected in the particular tellings of the Ram story. In Kamban Ramayan, Ram is a Tamil hero.  Kamban's narration formed the base of Thai version where the names of different characters are not in Sanskrit but in Tamil. Thai version, Ramkirti and Ramakiyen, is another major presentation. This telling of Ram story has a deep impact on Thai society. Here Ram is regarded as the reincarnation of Shiva and not Vishnu. Their Buddha Viharas are painted with events from the Lord’s life on their walls. Hanuman is very popular there. Unlike the celibate person of Valmiki version here Hanuman is shown to be fond of the company of women and does not mind peeping into the bedrooms of others. Jain version shows Ravan in a very positive light of being a great scholar, and follower of Jain Munis (sages). In this version of Ram Story, even Ram is a great follower of Jain values and in this reincarnation of his life he does not kill anybody. Ravan is killed, in this telling, by Laxman, who has to go to hell for this.

After going through the essay, one can become clear as to why the RSS affiliates do not want this masterpiece to be continued in the curricula. RSS politics presents the past in a monolithic way so as to promote a particular type of caste and gender relations. These various tellings of Ram, presented from the folklore, translations and other impeccable sources point out a rich diversity of the narrations, narrations as diverse as the society itself. At another level whole of communal politics in India has been built around the claim that Lord Ram was born precisely at the spot where Babri Masjid stood. With such diverse narratives, how can such claim that the 'Lord was born at a particular place only' of communalists hold water?

In tune with the wont of fundamentalists, such works promoting a genuine respect for popular versions and traditions are not acceptable. They want to selectively cull out the version suitable for their present politics and impose those constructed histories on the present scene. This is where Ramanujan essay is a big obstacle to the communal politics.