Questioning Ramayanas - A South Asian Tradition


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I have been told that the poet Intizar Hussain, speaking at a gathering of authors at Kathmandu, stated that he had never known that Ayodhya actually exists on a map of the world. It had always been for him a fabulous kingdom, a sound, a resonance. Mter the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he was compelled to remap his geography as a writer.

In a sense, remapping the location of the katha, or the story, of Rama has been a constant feature of Indian civilization. This was made quite apparent in the earlier companion volume edited by Paula Richman, Many Ramayanas, which added to our awareness of the range of variants and versions, an awareness which has led to much discussion on these in recent times. The Valmiki Ramayana should not necessarily be taken as a fixed text and the others necessarily as variants of this fixed text, for the latter often contextualized the differing worldviews of particular segments of Indian society. Each variant is better seen in its own specific context before it is juxtaposed with the authoritative versions.

The range of variants-now generally recognized and part of the discussion on the story of Rama-includes those previously ignored or neglected, as for example from the regional languages, or even the dialects of these; tribal versions; and some composed by and for the lower castes. The collecting of these, which has revealed a new discourse on the Katha of Rama, is of course not a sufficient point at which to stop, for they too must be analysed. Questioning the Ramayana is therefore questioning that which is seen as the norm, but it also involves an explanation of why variant versions were composed and why they retain a vitality different from that of the authoritative versions. The variants point to the richness of a narrative which has been appropriated by a vast number of people in diverse ways. To reduce it to a received version would be to rob it of its richness. Even a national culture has to be nourished on variants. Investigating these would involve investigating authorship, audience, location and purpose. These are in part the explanations sought in the present book.

The questioning process also raises the related issue of whether the Valmiki and Tulsidas versions can be described as the authoritative ones, and the others as oppositional. The authoritative versions should not be treated as somehow chronos-free and without a historical context. From a social and historical point of view this treatment reduces the meaning of the texts, however much such an approach may add to their philosophical connotations. My intention is not to suggest that their historicity must be established if their historical context is to be known: this would be uncalled for. But even a fictional account relates to a moment or moments of time and to a socio- political niche, which provided it with a historical context but not necessarily with historicity. In the history of the katha of Rama two occasions when the historicity of the story was crucial to the argument of its identity were in the earliest Jaina version, the Paumacariyam, which insisted that its retelling was not the version told by the Brahmins but was instead the historically true version of the story, and was recited in the presence of the king, Bimbisara; and the equal insistence of the Vishva Hindu Parishad on the authenticity of the location of the Ramjanmabhoomi and the historicity of the events of the Ramayana, even if both differed from the Jain version. Are there similarities in both these concerns? One may well ask who and what was being mobilized through such insistence.

In contemporary India, the kathd of Rama, quite apart from its enduring symbolism in the Vaishnava and in some bhakti traditions, has taken on a political role. This role draws largely from Valmiki's Ramaya'1a as well as the Ramcaritamanas of Tulsidas. These were the inspiration both for the television version of the serial Ramayana as well as in the debate on the location of the Babri Masjid as the Ramjanmabhoomi. It would be worth investigating whether the story has always been used as a metaphor in Indian politics. How often and in what ways has the Katha of Rama been used to negotiate power and status, and to claim access to knowledge? Can it be that we have not recognized its role as such because we have not viewed it in juxtaposition with the variants? Some attempts have been made to suggest a rather obvious form of its political role by arguing that the appellation of Ravana was given to the Muslim enemy. But this argument is questionable when one knows that the same appellation was applied to Hindu kings as well. One can reverse this argument and ask whether Ravana was not actually the personification of "the other" -any threatening" other", and could therefore be extended to a multiplicity of persons. Nor was this a simplistic or restricted "otherness." Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Meghanadavada kavya empathizes with the family of Ravana. As a political and literary statement it had a powerful appeal in the nineteenth century, but in the Hindutva society of today, it would in all likelihood be rejected, assuming that an attempt could even be made to give it visibility. The received version, whether it be of Valmiki or Tulsidas, can be used for political purposes, for projecting an upper-caste dominance or a lower-caste opposition where there is an identity of lower castes with Ravana; or it can be used to assert Hindu dominance over the Muslim, as in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. But where the presence of variant versions is made visible, there the political use of the dominant version becomes more complicated. There is a need to recognize that a range of social groups adapted the story or fragments of the story to express their worldviews.

A more subtle argument is implicit in this volume, raising the question of why the variants were composed. The multiple forms of questioning within the tradition of the Rama story range across norms of rulers hip, of social obligations and relationships, of gender constructions, of the ethics of behaviour, of demons and deities-in effect of every aspect of human activity.

Perhaps the one most evident feature of these studies, and some others which pertain to the variants of a folk and tribal nature, is the revelation of the diversity in treatment of the story. This diversity not only adds to the richness of the versions that we are already familiar with, but also demonstrates the ways in which the story has been contextualized. Such multiple contextualization’s come into confrontation with the current attempts-often politically motivated-to legitimize a single version as the "authentic" one. If even today the "authentic" version is not that which is telecast but that which is sung, recited or performed by groups of people in different parts of the country, such rendering would have been even more characteristic of the past.


The edited volume Many Ramayanas: The Diversity if a Narrative Tradition in South Asia appeared in print before the religious violence of 1992-3 that centered around the North Indian city of Ayodhya. As a result of those events, debates about the nature and boundaries of Ramkatha (Rama's story) acquired new urgency. In the discussion following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, some scholars and journalists implied that the problem lay with Ramkatha itself, as if it were a story that necessarily led to religious intolerance. Our edited volume titled Questioning Ramayanas, A South Asian Tradition suggests that a condemnation of the story itself ignores the centuries of questioning carried on within the Ramayana tradition questioning of authoritative values, interrogating notions of the ideal polity, challenging the rationale for ways in which various characters behaved, querying the gender norms depicted, and criticizing the ways in which members of particular castes have been portrayed. Such questions have helped to perpetuate a tradition of openness and generated a range of tellings of Ramkatha which have kept the Ramayana tradition vital, fluid, and multi-faceted. This volume highlights the process of questioning and brings to the fore the multiplicity of tellings and perspectives included in the Ramayana tradition, both in the past and in the present.

My thanks goes first and foremost to the contributors for their generosity of spirit, capacity to adapt to the temporal and spatial constraints that our project required, and willingness to revise their papers to ensure the overall coherence of the volume. Second, I appreciate the thoughtful responses of the following people to my introductory essay: an anonymous reviewer, Michael Fisher, Sally Sutherland Goldman, Linda Hess, Mary McGee, Velcheru Narayana Rao, Augusta Rohrbach, David Shulman, Romila Thapar, and Sandra Zagarell, as well as audiences at talks given at the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi and the History Department of Delhi University, the Bookpoint in Chennai, Utkal University in Bhubaneshwar, and the Dhvanyaloka Center in Manasagangotri. My two editors, Lynne Withey at University of California Press in Berkeley and Rukun Advani at Oxford University Press in Delhi, dealt efficiently with the complexities of co-publication in order to make the volume available simultaneously in India and the United States. I am especially grateful to Rimli Borooah and Anupama Arora for their patience and care. To all of these people I express my gratitude, but I alone am responsible for any errors that remain.

**Contents and Sample Pages**