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Beyond Ramanujan and the Ramayana

Delhi University has removed A K Ramanujan's essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation" from its history syllabus. Ramanujan is an engrossing writer, drawing attention to a range of narratives related to the epic from Sanskrit to Kannada and Thai. Most importantly, he uses the different tellings of the Rama story as cultural artefacts that shape and are in turn shaped by our daily existence. Why then should young adult learners be prevented from learning about them?

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Beyond Ramanujan and the Ramayana

Kumkum Roy

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would like to sort out for myself, and I hope
for others, how these hundreds of tellings
of a story in different cultures, languages,
and religious traditions relate to each other;
what gets translated, transplanted and
transposed (Dharwadkar 1999: 133).
Note the generous acknowledgement

Delhi University has removed A K Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” from its history syllabus. Ramanujan is an engrossing writer, drawing attention to a range of narratives related to the epic from Sanskrit to Kannada and Thai. Most importantly, he uses the different tellings of the Rama story as cultural artefacts that shape and are in turn shaped by our daily existence. Why then should young adult learners be prevented from learning about them?

Kumkum Roy (kumkumroy@gmail.com) is with the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Ramanujan’s essay, “ThreeAK H undred Ramayanas: Five Exam

ples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, originally written in 1987, has been in the headlines recently, because of the way in which it has been deleted from a teaching programme in Delhi University. What has attracted attention, predictably, and has been seized on in the polarised world we inhabit, is the purported possibility of hurting religious sentiments, an almost knee-jerk reaction the moment the Ramayana is mentioned. But are there other questions we need to raise, other issues that we can open up in exploring the significance of this essay?

To start with, we need to underline how quickly and deftly Ramanujan demonstrates the futility of attempts to count the number of available Ramayanas. So, while mentioning 300 Ramayanas, he draws on a narrative from the Hindi tradition that demonstrates the impossibility of such a census – there are, in fact, countless tellings (the word Ramanujan privileges over versions), each of them rich and significant in their own ways.

The issue that he wishes to address then is different: not how many, but how are they related to one another. Perhaps his agenda is best stated in his own words:

In this paper, indebted for its data to numerous previous translators and scholars, I

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of previous scholarship, and the way in which Ramanujan draws us into his intellectual voyage, as fellow travellers setting out to explore a complex set of issues. These are issues of communication, correspondence, and perhaps even conflict, i ssues that are of significance to our collective coexistence.

The Five Examples

What do the five examples illustrate? The first, which draws on Valmiki’s telling of the Ahalya episode and juxtaposes it with the telling in Kampan’s Iramavataram, draws attention to the ways in which “the structure and sequence of events may be the same, but the style, details, tone, and texture – and therefore the import – may be vastly different” (p 134). The episode, to state its bald elements, deals with the seduction of the wife of the sage Gautama, named Ahalya, by Indra, the king of the gods, and her ultimate redemption by Rama. Ramanujan draws on the two renderings to highlight how the apparently “same” story can be told differently. More specifically, he points out how the dramatic transformations that can be wrought by bhakti are integral to Kampan’s telling, where Ahalya’s release is symbolic of a more general phenomenon:

From now on, no more misery, Only release, for all things In this world (ibid: 137).

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In other words, Ramanujan provides us with tools to read the familiar with an eye for differences rather than sameness, and draws attention to the need to understand these differences in terms of their contexts, rather than evaluating them in judgmental categories of “better” or “worse”.

The second example sharpens the question of perspective – Ramanujan draws on Jaina tellings of the Ramayana to illustrate how Ravana can and has been conceptualised differently, as a tragic figure. Within this tradition, Rama, as an evolved Jaina, does not kill Ravana; that task is assigned to Lakshmana. Ramanujan provides an exquisite thumbnail sketch of the salient features of Jaina narratives. Once more, the implicit plea seems to be to understand these variations rather than rank them h ierarchically. We are also made aware of a shift – taken from the comfortable zone of apparent sameness to one where the differences are much more palpable, and therefore challenging.

The third instance, drawn from oral traditions circulating in Kannada is a narrative where Sita is Ravana’s daughter, born because he has broken a vow made to Siva. Ramanujan captures the rhythm of the oral narrative and opens up a new dimension – a narrative that centres around Sita, and one where the conflict between Ravana and Sita acquires distinct psychological overtones. In this powerful telling, the web of sameness is stretched to near breaking point – we can barely recognise parallels with Valmiki’s narration, and the differences allow us to think through the complexities of the fatherdaughter relationship, at once disturbing and exciting.

The fourth, summarising Thai tellings of the epics highlights differences that may seem less striking – the text is popular, but not viewed as part of religious traditions. What are enjoyed most are the descriptions of warfare and Hanuman’s exploits. The narrative moves, as it were, along a different register.

Ramanujan reverts to a comparison b etween Valmiki and Kampan in the fifth example. This is at once complex, dense and rich. The metaphors of dying birds and animals that occur at turning points in Valmiki’s narrative are contrasted with the imagery of the river, at once literal and figurative, with which Kampan’s narrative begins. In other words, Ramanujan reiterates his argument about apparent sameness masking differences with a far more complicated example – his own working through multiple traditions leads us to what seems to be a return to where we began, but we realise that we have actually been led up a spiral, to a deeper understanding through a consideration of these five examples.

The Three Thoughts

This leads the reader to the three thoughts mentioned in the title of the article. These are categories Ramanujan introduces to allow us to make sense of the relationships that exist amongst these tellings, as well as of their distinctive features. The first is a relationship that he defines as iconic – one in which there is a conscious, deliberate attempt to ensure that there is a strong resemblance between the tellings/translations.

The second category he introduces to enable us to understand the relationships is indexical – Kampan’s telling, he argues is at once iconic but not only iconic. To start with, it is longer, it uses different p oetic devices, and it is located in a Tamil milieu. To appreciate it, then, we require a familiarity with the salient and distinctive features of that world.

The third category, an intellectually more demanding one, invites us to explore the relationship as symbolic, where an apparently identical name can be invested with a partially or even completely different identity. For instance, the Ravana of the Jaina tradition or of Kannada oral traditions may appear rather different from that of Valmiki. And yet, understanding the one requires prior knowledge of the other.

Further, Ramanujan invites us to explore the possibility that all three elements may be and indeed are present, in varying degrees, in virtually every telling that we may turn to.

A Dangerous Text?

If we reflect (which, assumptions to the contrary, teachers do when they find time to breathe after coping with academic workloads and mind-numbing administrative pressures), we try to choose readings for our learners, and persuade them to read material for a variety of reasons.

One would be whether the writing is engrossing, something that is capable of holding the attention span of a generation of learners whose modes of communication are often very different from what ours were. Here, Ramanujan’s extraordinary skills in juxtaposing argument with narrative, in illuminating his concerns with vivid examples, would make him an exemplary and arguably irreplaceable author.

A second concern would be in terms of relevance to the theme. In a course on culture, an essay that draws attention to a range of narratives related to the Ramayana

– from Sanskrit to Kannada and Thai – with ease and felicity would be hard to find.

But, significant as these are, these are relatively minor concerns. If we were to think of an article that is thought-provoking, that introduces the concept of intertextuality, that provides us with the tools to identify inter-textual linkages in other contexts as well, Ramanujan’s contribution is virtually irreplaceable. While he uses tellings of the Rama story effortlessly, they are there not simply for their aesthetic merits or their striking imagery or their dramatic qualities, important as all of these are. They are there because Ramanujan is using them to illustrate his larger argument, the three thoughts on how to understand the relationship amongst texts, understood not simply as abstruse or rarefied literary creations but as cultural artefacts that shape and are in turn shaped by our daily existence.

In other words, the connections Ramanujan laid out for us have wider implications – understanding, applying, refining

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and qualifying them can help us make sense of the communicative webs in which our lives are embedded. In denying students access to this rich resource we are not merely succumbing to pressures that threaten to suffocate intellectual spaces, but are also burying carefully crafted tools with which to investigate, understand and appreciate the world around us. Reinventing them would be an epic endeavour.

One can, if one wishes, cull out socalled derogatory descriptions of gods from

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the article, but then all these references are from texts that have been in circulation for centuries. Also, if we look at the contexts within which Ramanujan cites these, it is not to hold up the deities to ridicule, but rather to illustrate the point that they can and have been viewed from different perspectives that need to be understood and engaged with if we wish to come to terms with the diversities of a polychrome world. If anything, young adult learners (the average undergraduate students) need to be encouraged

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to understand and appreciate these differences rather than be prevented from learning about them. The dangers of suppressing the text in particular and the implications of a policy of suppression of dissent in g eneral are far more threatening than any comments Ramanujan makes about Indra and Hanuman.

Reference

Vijay Dharwadkar, ed. (1999): The Collected Essays of A K Ramanujan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 131-60.

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