Saturday, November 05, 2011

A.K.Ramanujan's intelligent and unintellectual essay: "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples And Three Thoughts"(1985-86/1991)

Delhi University was silly and stupid as they usually are when they create a controversy when there is no scope for one. But they are what they are and they did what they did: dropped the essay. The secularists and liberals were of course up in arms, and unfortunately they were making the right noises as well about intellectual freedom, diversity of opinion and pluralism. The surprising, and perhaps not surprising, thing is that neither those who dropped the essay from the syllabus nor those who were protesting against it were arguing over the merits and demerits of the essay, playfully titled: "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples And Three Thoughts".

Ramanujan, a poet and translator, a tolerable linguist and a not-so-impressive linguistics academic, had presented his thoughts, impressions and ideas about the Ramayana at seminars on south Asian studies in the US university circuit.

To get a hang of Ramanujan's mood and thoughts, it would be necessary to quote the opening sentences from another essay on the other so-called epic -- the word is used indiscriminately to describe the Valmiki Ramayana which is known as Ádi Kavya' and Vyasa's Mahabharata which is known as ítihasa in the Sanskrit canon -- the Mahabharata. Says Ramanujan: "No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time. As once such native, I know the Hindu epics, not as a Sanskritist (which I am not), but through Kannada and Tamil, mostly through oral traditions." So, Ramanujan is not a Sanskritist by his own confession. He should have also said in the Anglo-American university tradition that he is not a classicist. In contrast, it would be useful for critics and admirers of Ramanujan to read Sri Aurobindo's essay on Valmiki and Vyasa where he compares and contrasts the styles of the two authors and cites examples from the original texts. But then Sri Aurobindo was a Sankritist and a classicist which Ramanujan perhaps did not fancy of being one.

Of course, this does not disqualify him from expressing his views on the two Sanskrit epics and their innumerable variants in Sanskrit itself and in other languages of India. One would take his views on the epics not with a pinch of salt but with the full knowledge that his views are that of a poet speaking about other poetic works rather than that of a scholar. Poets speaking about other poets and poems not their own offer fresh insights but there is a serious limitation: they are impressionistic. A serious student of classics and epics would use the modern poet's insights to study closely and rigorously the texts of the classics. Sometimes, the modern poet may have interesting views but they are not always accurate and they are not always good enough. For example, T.S. Eliot's view on the 17th century Metaphysical poets and Elizabethan and Jacobian tragedies are interesting but not reliable for a sincere literary scholar. Ramanujan's views on the Ramayana and Mahabharata should be treated with respect but should not be taken as authoritative.

That there are many Ramayanas is a radical discovery for Ramanujan, for his audience in the American universities but it is axiomatic for the ordinary Indian. But the Sanksrit scholar or pundit in India is well aware of their existence, apart from the vernacular versions. In Sanskrit itelf, the three conspicuous ones are that of Valmiki, Kalidasa in his Raghuvamsam and Bhavabhuti in his Mahaviracharita and Uttararamacharita. Had Ramanujan known better and was addressing an audience of Sanskrit scholars he would have contrasted the portrayal of the character of Rama in Valmiki and in Bhavabhuti. In Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacharitam, a play, Rama emerges as a wimp, a jester. And the uneducated north Indian traditionalists would not have known what to do when faced with Valmiki and Bhavabhuti, because the two are considered great writers in Sanskrit by the uncritical Sanskritists of India.

Ramanujan is quite clever in not making his biases obvious. He makes them appear as tentative explorations. He rejects the idea of a ur-Ramayana and that the Valmiki text is that ur-Ramayana. Of course, he does not know that Valmiki himself says at the very beginning of the epic that he is retelling the story of Rama, who is considered an ideal man. That means, for Valmiki Rama is a figure from the hoary past. Of course, much of the first canto of Ramayana, the Balakandam, looks an interpolation as well as the last one, the Uttarakandam.

Ramanujam then refers to the Jain version of the Ramayana, that of Vimalasuri. Unfortunately, the Jain tradition is not so well known as it ought to be. Except in the classicist tradition. Ramanujan's subversive intent -- and it is an honourable intent -- is to prove that there is no authoritative centre and that all versions of the Ramayana -- he uses the word 'tellings' -- are of equal standing. This is a typical view of a modern writer and teacher, who is irritated by tradition and canon and such things. But all Ramayanas cannot be equally interesting to the literary critic or classics scholar. First, there is the question of which is the oldest of the texts from the existing ones. Second, there is the question whether the later ones differ from the earlier and in what ways. Kamban even as he makes the changes in his 'telling' of the Ramayana, acknowledges the preeminence of Valmiki, something that Ramanujan overlooks. And Ramanujan also skimpily goes over the south-east Asian Ramayanas without spending much time on their content, their period of composition, their cultural context and their literary merit.

There is a political context to Ramanujan's essay. He was perhaps irritated by the primitive frenzy of the Ramjanmabhoomi fanatics and he was hitting out at them in his own sophisticated way. Paula Richman's collection "Many Ramayanas"coming as it did in 1991, a year when the political temperature of the Ayodhya movement was at its high, was not an innocent publication. It was meant as an intellectual and scholarly riposte to the philistines of the Ayodhya movement. While there is no doubt that the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal are indeed the epitome of cultural vandals, it is necessary to examine the scholarly and intellectual credentials of those on the other side. Ramanujan's essay shows that the credentials are very weak.

Again, Ramanujan uses the example of the story of Ahalya, the wife of Gautama, who had an affair with Indra, the lord of the gods to show that there are many variants of the Ramayana. Ramanujan must have used this particular episode, which is contained in about a dozen and more couplets or shlokas, to grab the interest of a disinterested audience perhaps. The Ahalya story is both instructive and titillating. It is relatively more graphic than what even the Greek descriptions of Zeus' affairs. And of course, the story is so popular even in India that it is a nice starting point to show up the differences between the Valmiki version and that of latter-day Kamban. In Valmiki, Ahalya is invisible and lives on air, yes on air literally. In Kamban she is turned into a stone. The stone version is what all the commoners know, and the other version is known only to those who bother to check Valmiki.

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