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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas: Transmission, Interpretation And Dialogue In Indian Traditions

Sunday 27 November 2011


A.K. Ramanujan, while referring to the diversity and apparently contradictory element of unity in the Indian traditions, refers to an Irish joke about whether to classify trousers as singular or plural: singular from the top, plural from the bottom.1 A Concurrent Discipline Course in the University of Delhi for Second Year Honours students not doing History was introduced in 2005 on ‘Culture in India—Ancient’, and had sought to very sensitively juggle the singular/ plural problematic raised above in relation to Indian culture. A Ph.D scholar at my Centre, teaching in a DU college, remarked that it was so delightful to have a paper that actually allowed you to look at culture beyond the confines of the mainstream with its emphasis on normative lenses. A lecturer involved in the University of Delhi’s annual evaluation this summer reports 840 answer scripts for this course, an optional one, pointing to its popularity amongst students. I have only looked at the course outline just now, which has six themes relating to diverse topics such as material cultures, classical Sanskrit, folk and popular literary traditions and on icons and artisans, a course eminently teachable and reflexive.

In 2008, political activists of the Hindu Right vandalised the History Department in protest against this essay. The Supreme Court ordered the appointment of a four-member Academic Committee to look into the matter. Three of the members were of the opinion that the essay was germane to the course and that there was nothing wrong with it. A fourth member did not contest the academic worth of the essay but felt it should be dropped from the readings if it offended people’s sentiments. The DU authorities, it is alleged, decided on this issue in favour of the dissenting opinion without consulting the larger community, when in fact this item was not even on the agenda. It does cross my mind that the University’s appellate academic body, after having gone through a rigorous process of whetting the philosophy behind this course, introducing it and having the paper taught for the past few years, appears to have actually woken up from a yoganidra (cosmic sleep generally associated with the recumbent Vishnu in brahmanical lore) to decimate the demons of cultural pluralism in one clean swipe, without taking the larger academic community’s opinion in this regard.

The controversy engendered by the celebrated scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three thoughts on Translation’ that was included in the theme on ‘The Ramayana and Mahabharata—Stories, Characters, Versions’ suggests a complete lack of understanding of the major issues raised by the author. Ramanujan’s engagement is first and foremost with a very old debate: can we take one version of a narrative, even if it is the earliest written one, to represent the original text of a tale that was well known across the Indic subcontinent, told in myriad ways and understood variously in different idioms? This relates further to an argument that many scholars have enunciated, best represented in the work of Madeline Biardieu about the structure of the Indic literary tradition— particularly the epics and Puranas, which was rooted in orality and interpretation rather than on the sacro-sanctness of the written text.2 Ramanujan’s essay starts with one version of the end of Rama’s sojourn on earth. But this end brings home to Hanuman, the ever faithful bhakta of Rama, that there is no one Rama, there are many Ramas, and no single Ramayana but many Ramayanas. In fact, as many scholars have pointed out, in its earliest renderings, the Rama story is found in the Buddhist Jatakas, moral tales about the past lives of the Buddha, which narrates the story of the two sons and one daughter of the king of Ayodhya, Dasharatha, who were Rama, Lakshmana and Sita.3

IN 1992, after the shameful demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on the ground that the mosque was built after destroying an earlier temple that allegedly stood at the site of Rama’s birth, saw the same fascist forces protesting and attacking secular voices that had protested against undemocratic practices and unsubs-tantiated claims. The refutation of the Buddhist and other Ramayana traditions at that point was by the same political forces that have recently browbeaten, physically assaulted and coerced University authorities to remove Ramanujan’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ from the prescribed reading list for the culture course. Obviously, those who speak in the name of upholding Indian (read Hindu) culture lack the legacy of that which they are claiming to uphold—respect for diversity, dialogue and interpretation.

The second major point that Ramanujan makes is, given the diversity and spread of the tradition, to privilege one as the original Ur text and see others as variations does not factor in the ways in which ideas and traditions are disseminated and take root in different language cultures. Using the story of Ahalya, the virtuous woman turned adultress in the Valmiki Ramayana and Kamba Iramavataram, Ramanujan analyses the contexts in which the same episode of Rama redeeming a ‘fallen’ woman from her curse takes on different meanings because of historical contexts. Thus, the Tamil Kamban in the 12th century CE weaves in the tapestry of bhakti, unquestioning devotion that ties the bhakta, even a fallen one at that, to the god in keeping with the Tamil alvar traditions of venerating Rama as the saviour of all and as the embodiment of grace. Kamban lived in a society in which caste, class and gender inequalities were entrenched, for early medieval Tamil Nadu presents the transformation of the cultural landscape as a result of ‘northern’ influences at a time when agrarian society and state structures were expanding across the macro-region. This was a time when ethnic communities known in earlier literature were labelled as polluting castes and untouchables, where women’s salvation appeared to lie only in their distancing from society. Women and lower caste bhaktas, we learn from the hagiographical Saiva PeriyaPuranam and Vaisnava Divyasuri Prabandham, relinquished their sexuality and/or lives in their bid to enter the so-called equal spaces forged by the devotional fraternity. The bhakti ideology has been seen as a reaction to brahmanical orthodoxy, but as many have pointed out, at the moment of the institutionalisation of the bhakti tradition, the dissenting element became the orthodoxy.4 Rama-nujan didn’t stray into this terrain, which would have been even less palatable for our cultural purists, who would like to see class, caste and gender oppressions perhaps as representing the harmonising principles of Indian society!

The third issue raised by Ramanujan is in the context of what he labels ‘Jaina tellings’. Subversions and inversions, contestations and rebuttals abound—was Ravana indeed the evil demonic figure of the brahmanical imagination; did the rakshasas actually gorge on flesh and blood; was it the lust of Ravana that led to his ruin? Are the Jaina texts denouncing Rama, then? An emphatic no is what you hear from Ramanujan—it is only to correctly represent Ravana, who is a Jaina ‘great being’ or salaka-purusa (Rama is too), that certain assertions of the brahmanical versions are contested in the Jaina texts.

There are two distinct traditions within the Jaina Ramakathas, and although Ramanujan does not directly refer to this himself, I extend his assertion that there is no one text that can be upheld for even the counter narrative. The first tradition includes the Prakrit, Sanskrit and Apabhramsa Ramayanas of Vimalasuri, Ravisena, Svayambhu and Hemacandra. These are obvious counter narratives—the main story and characters remain the same. In the second tradition, in addition to countering, the narrative seeks to provide some alternate views as well. This is exemplified in Gunabhadra’s Sanskrit Uttara Purana and Pushpadanta’s Apabhramsa Maha Purana, where a subtle shift in characteri-sation and political geography is indicated when Sita is depicted as the daughter of Mandodari, and Dashratha is portrayed as the king of Benares.5

The story of Mandodari begetting Sita is present even earlier in Jaina mythology. The 5th century CE Vasudevahindi of Sanghadasa narrates the prophecy that the first child born of Ravana and Mandodari would bring about his destruction.6 After her birth, the girl was placed in an urn and buried in a far away land, and subsequently found by Janaka. Gunabhadra borrows this motif in the 9th century CE, and the girl child is placed in a casket and buried in Mithila by Marica, the demon that could change his form at will.7 Interestingly, the same text borrows a motif linking up this episode from the Valmiki Ramayana—in a previous birth, a woman performing penance, Manivati, is disturbed by Ravana, and before giving up her life due to this insult pledges to be reborn as his daughter and bring about his downfall.8 Ramanujan does not go as far as Padmanabh Jaini in his analysis of the tendency in the Jaina Puranic tradition of entering into a debate and creating a counter-tradition to the brahmanical one.9 Jaini argues that the Jaina authors delibe-rately set out to retrieve Rama and Krsna, historical heroes and mythological signifiers, who were gradually being appro-priated into the Vaisnava pantheon.10 Ramanujan does not seek to engage with the impetuses for the Jaina tellings, and particularly points to the resurrec-tion of the anti-hero in the Jaina texts, where Ravana is humanised and depicted as a victim of circumstance and past deeds.

The question of folk traditions of the Ramayana are more difficult to address because we move into a different realm, from the written text to orality. Using a Kannada folk tale about the birth of Sita from the nostril of Ravana (sita = sneeze), the inter-borrowing of motifs, episodes and resolutions allows for the brahmanical—Jaina, Sanskrit—Tamil versions to share the singular space Ramanujan refers to in the context of the Irish joke about trousers being singular or plural. The South-East Asian versions of the Ramayana appear to bring more nuanced readings of all the primary protagonists. Difference (the plural, if we continue with the Irish trouser) does not necessarily mean rupture or devaluation, but even if it does, it would be more fruitful to read the contexts in which these were produced rather than debunk the other traditions.

Finally, the crucial point that Ramanujan makes is with regard to translation of texts: into other language cultures, from different religious frames. The iconic translation allows an exact copy of a text, the indexical forges the essentials but fills in its own cultural particularities, while the third is symbolic—the apparent frame is used to subvert or create a completely different text.

Ramanujan’s essay itself is not sacrosanct. I could take issues with his complacent reading of the Tamil Kamban, his hermeneutical rendering of Jaina and other tellings, his disengagement with the politics of caste in subversive texts, his translations, etc. However, mine is an academic disagreement, which I would like to place within academic parameters. It is apparent that those who’ve attacked this essay haven’t read many of the other prescribed essays, which interrogate myths, legendary figures and traditions. By giving in to such coercion and withdrawing readings because of ‘community’ protests, we are ceding the space for debate and disagreement, and eroding the foundations of the disciplines of liberal arts and social sciences.


1. Ramanujan, A.K., ‘Where Mirrors are Windows: Towards an Anthology of Reflections’, History of Religions, 28:3, 1989, p. 188.

2. Biardieu, Madeline, ‘Some more considerations about textual criticism’, Purana, X:2, pp. 116-18.

3. Jaiswal, Suvira, ‘Historical Evolution of the Ram Legend’, Social Scientist, 21:3/4, 1993, pp. 89-97; Chakravarti, Uma, Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of Ancient India, p. 224.

4. Narayanan, M.G.S. and Kesavan Veluthat, ‘Bhakti Movement in South India’ in S.C. Malik (ed.), Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform, IIAS, Shimla, 1978, pp. 33-66.

5. Chaudhary, Savita, ‘Status, Identity and Community in the Jaina Ramayanas’, Ph.D synopsis submitted to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, Monsoon 2008.

6. Singaravelu, S., ‘Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story’, Asian Folklore, 1982, pp. 235-6.

7. Ibid., p. 236.

8. Ibid.

9. Jaini, Padmanabh S., ‘Jaina Puranas: A Puranic Counter Tradition’ in Wendy Doniger (ed.), Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jain Texts, pp. 207-250.

10. Ibid., p. 208.

Dr R. Mahalakshmi is an Assistant Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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