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Ramkatha, Rambhakts and the University

The recent decision of Delhi University's academic council to remove A K Ramanujan's essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas" from its undergraduate syllabi has done violence to the university's integrity and undermined the independence and autonomy of its academic life. Rather than stand by its own faculty, the university has pandered to right-wing violence. This is a dangerous precedent.

COMMENTARY

Ramkatha, Rambhakts and the University

Ashwin Anshu

for its inclusion in the undergraduate course. Delhi University, following extensive deliberations and due procedures, had put into place from July 2005 the restructured syllabi for undergraduate students for Honours courses. This was done by the academic council (AC) based on the report

The recent decision of Delhi University’s academic council to remove A K Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” from its undergraduate syllabi has done violence to the university’s integrity and undermined the independence and autonomy of its academic life. Rather than stand by its own faculty, the university has pandered to right-wing violence. This is a dangerous precedent.

Ashwin Anshu (ashwinparijat@gmail.com) is a doctoral student of Delhi University working on the “Ramkatha and the Construction of Hindu Identity”.

A
n essay by the world-renowned Indian folklorist and linguist A K Ramanujan, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” has been at the centre of controversy ever since Delhi University’s history department office was vandalised in February 2008 by youth belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in protest against the introduction of that essay as part of undergraduate readings. Three years down the line, Delhi University, going against the recommendation of the expert committee established on the orders of Supreme Court, has set a perverse seal of legitimacy on that attack by shelving the essay from suggested readings.

It is a well-known agenda of the Hindu right to control education in a way that supports its own anti-secular ideology. Earlier attempts were made via the rewriting of school textbooks. An even more sinister method is that of invoking “religious” or “popular sentiment” to attack writings that question the prevailing orthodoxies or put forward new perspectives. This is more dangerous as it erases the crucial line between the freedom of rational enquiry, which is basic to any academic pursuit, and the limitation of this freedom by ideologies which uphold the supremacy of religion and the religious community. The Hindu right wing has increasingly sought to curtail academic freedom by setting up this criteria of “religious sentiment”. The works of some of the best historians in this country, like the late R S Sharma, Romila Thapar and Sumit Sarkar, have been targeted in the past for hurting “religious” sentiments. This time it is Ramanujan’s essay.

A brief summary of the background and context in which Ramanujan’s essay had been included in the syllabus will help remove misconceptions about the justification

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of the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) restructuring committee that had been set up by the vice chancellor on 11 October 2004. The major change effected was to do away with defunct subsidiary courses and replace them with a set of concurrent courses which sought to expose students “to a range of challenging academic debates in areas other than the one covered by the main subject”, considered necessary for students to acquire “critical social awareness” and avoid “over-specialisation”.

Why Ramanujan’s Essay?

For students, from streams other than History, a range of disciplinary courses had been framed which included “Culture in India: A Historical Perspective” that had ancient, medieval and modern components. Ramanujan’s essay was included along with Irawati Karve’s novel Yuganta, based on the Mahabharata, for the sub-theme “Ramayana and Mahabharata: Stories, Character and Versions” for the ancient component of the course. These essays were selected in order to expose students from non-History backgrounds to the “best and most innovative historical scholarship” of an “interdisciplinary nature”. The inclusion of Ramanujan’s essay was thus in tune with the nature and purpose of the course that sought to instil a critical and historical understanding of a diverse and plural Indian culture.1

History as a discipline has been a favoured site for extra-academic and coercive interventions since it serves as an important tool for legitimising certain constellations of power or to question them. It is a matter of extreme concern when a secular state and its institutions buckle before the hooliganism of right-wing elements and endorse their undemocratic and anti-rational stand point which subverts the very premises of a healthy academic environment. The recent decision of the AC of Delhi University to shelve that essay from the reading list of

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the undergraduate courses is precisely such an action.

The question that arises is, who has the authority to decide whether a piece of writing hurts sentiments or not? Surely self-appointed groups, which are rising by the dozen in the country these days, cannot be given that authority. The correct thing to do in this case would have been to go by the recommendations of the committee appointed to look into this matter as a result of the Supreme Court order. What makes the AC decision a matter of concern is that three out of the four members of that committee did not find anything objectionable in Ramanujan’s essay, and yet the AC decided to remove it.

The Storytellers’ Reservoir

The particular essay, rather than hurting religious sentiments or pronouncing moral judgments, is actually a creative effort, from an ”objective” standpoint to draw upon many pre-existing studies of the Ramkatha tradition and points out an important historical and cultural fact – the diversity of stories connected with Ramkatha. The title “Three Hundred Ramayanas” drew from the enumeration of 300 Ramayanas by one of the most well known of such surveys, that by Camille Bulcke, widely regarded as a classic of the Hindi literary sphere. There are different stories about Ram in different cultures, which reflect the beliefs and attitudes of these cultures. In Jaina Ramayana for example, Ravana rather than being a rakshasa (demon) is considered one of the 63 great Jaina heroes.

It has been common to study Ram stories by setting up the Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana as the standard and definitive Ramayana and to regard other versions as borrowings or distortions, depending upon how the story was presented. This view reinforced the perception that whatever was beautiful and good about Indian culture came from Sanskritic “great traditions”. Ramayana could thus also symbolise an Indian identity which was rooted in an “Aryan” past often seen as the “golden age” of Indian history.

Ramanujan’s essay posed afresh the issue of the wide popularity as well as diver sity of the Ramkatha tradition. Without diminishing the importance of the Valimiki Ramayana, Ramanujan proposed a level

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at which Ramayana could be conceptualised as a cultural language through which different social groups have engaged in a cultural dialogue – the level of a “meta-Ramayana”. Drawing a beautiful analogy, he likened the Ramkatha tradition to a “pool” or “reservoir” which contains characters, plots, events, geography, incidents and relationships into which poets and storytellers have dipped to weave new stories relating to new contexts. It is for this reason that Ramkatha tradition remains a living and thriving tradition, which can travel in different cultures becoming part and parcel of different beliefs and attitudes.

In explaining the ways in which different Ramayanas communicate with each other, Ramanujan chose five examples which represented five different contexts. He selected extracts from the Valmiki Ramayana representing the Hindu tradition, Paumachariyam representing the Jaina tradition, a Kannada folk tale representing an oral and dalit tradition, Kamban’s Iramavtaram representing a regional Tamil tradition and Ramakien representing a Thai south-east Asian example. He proceeded to analyse patterns of difference and similarities among these Ramayanas to explain the argument that each of these Rama stories, while sharing characters and plots nevertheless, are radically different as they relate to different contexts. The fact that Rama and Sita are not treated in an equally reverential manner in all these examples has been held as hurting religious sentiments. But the same charge can be levelled against the Valmiki Ramayana itself, which contains the story of Shambuka, a shudra child who was killed by Rama for performing Vedic austerities. Should dalits and other oppressed castes then demand that Valmiki Ramayana or its Uttar Kanda be taken off from syllabi of universities?

Ramayana among Historians

Ramanujan’s essay provides a corrective to interpretations of cultural traditions that privilege dominant discourses. In the Indian context, the Valmiki Ramayana, and Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas in north India, are regarded as sacred texts. However, its significance is not the same for every social group. For example, for Kabirpanthis Ram represents nirguna Brahma and does

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not have any name and form. The Valmiki Ramayana too was not a sacred text to begin with, as Rama was represented as an exemplary man whose story or charit was the fittest of subjects for a great poetical work. Even in modern times, the human side of Rama has appealed to many, as Maithili Sharan Gupta wrote “Rama tumhara charita swayam hi kavya hai, koi kavi ban jaye yeh sahaj sambhavya hai” (Rama, your life/personality is itself a poem, those who recount it will be called poets).

For historians, epic traditions like Ramkatha are important as the changes in narratives shed light on changing beliefs and attitudes. They cannot be guided by faith while interpreting these stories since their very work involves deconstructing sources to decode various and varying layers of information that can be gleaned. It is this critical study that led to the conclusion that there was no “Ramayana age” or a particular time in which the “Ramayana” was written. The Valmiki Ramayana continued to change and acquire new passages over a long period. Like Homer’s epics Ramayana was composed from floating oral legends and ballads which were given the shape of an epic by the genius of a great poet. There has never been historical evidence that the events narrated ever happened in reality.

But for the Hindu right, Ramayana rather than being a mythological poem becomes a fact whose historicity cannot be questioned. Romila Thapar and many others have argued that the historical interest of epic traditions like Ramayana lies precisely for the information they provide about beliefs and attitudes of the social groups which produced the different stories. For a historian therefore, it becomes all the more relevant to pay attention to different versions of the Ramkatha in order to get a better picture of social and historical reality. The traditions of dalits, tribals, peasants, women and lower strata are not borrowed from Sanskrit Ramayana but from their own social experiences and values which are reflected in the Ramkathas that circulate among them.

Conclusions

The controversy over Ramanujan’s essay highlights some key issues. One of them is the Hindu right’s claim to act as the

COMMENTARY

custodian of Hindu identity and to assert its hegemony over all “Hindu” traditions is often successful due to the weaknesses of our institutions. The other is that the defence of academic freedom and autonomy is central to the life of a university. The supremacy of rational enquiry is the fundamental basis of all academic endeavours and undermining that destroys the basis of a university. If the logic of the criticism of Ramanujan’s essay is extended, then historical studies will be transformed into theological works that discuss religion only from the theological rather than secular standpoint.

If the aim of history education is to broaden minds and to infuse a critical understanding of the past then shelving of essays like that of Ramanujan on non-academic grounds does not help. The climate of intolerance will only be furthered. Therefore, it is the duty of all members of the university community, the larger academic community as well as citizens concerned

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about our secular public institutions to impress upon Delhi University authorities that they should not bow down to violence but defend their own faculty and academia and reinstate Ramanujan’s essay in the undergraduate syllabi.

Note

1 The details of this and other restructured courses, including the guidelines and objectives from which I have quoted, can be accessed at http://www.indiastudychannel.com/resources/22833-University-DelhiB-A-H-Restruc-Syllabus.aspx

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