Madhusree and I are part of a Bengali adda which takes place once a month on a Sunday. Like all Bengali addas, it is the adda which is important and while pretending to be only a group for pure conversation, these addas are actually pretty seriously academic. From Tagore to Sukumar Ray, Saradindu Bandopadhyay to Rituparna, folktales to epic, from poetry to poesy all are covered in its ambit. There is a lead speaker, a second speaker and then the floor is open to discussion. The length of the adda can be as long as three hours and never less than two hours. The hosts serve tea, biscuits and some snacks but never more than that. Bottled water, paper napkins and paper cups are kept on a table and the tea is in a flask with sugar cubes and milk saches on the side. One is expected to go and help oneself to the refreshments and otherwise it is all unwavering dedication and devotion to the topic discussed. For the past two sessions, the adda is discussing Ramayana, its many readings and what those readings mean really in terms of the sensibilities of their times, the politics of their authors, the values and morals which they wished to integrate into the Indian culture. The adda is open to all; but because of the level of seriousness of engagement, the entry barrier is somewhat high for the casual dilettante.
Last Sunday, it was my turn to do a comparative study of the Aranyakand of Valmiki, Krittibas and Tulsidas Ramayan; Aranyakand because it is the simplest and after Sundarkand, the shortest of the chapters. I thought that I had read the Ramayana but I had only read the renditions of authors who rewrote the epic in prose and this was the first time that I right into my deep middle age actually lifted up what were the original texts of the epic albeit with English translations, word for word.
In this adda, this time was a youngish, bright and energetic man who refused to give his credentials and only said that he read the adda’s magazine in a Bengali library in Delhi and decided to attend the adda on the Ramayana. He was massively read in Buddhist texts and helped establish my case very well that the Ramayana is a conflict of the morals of the householder and the conqueror. He had read many parallels between Buddhist stories and those in the Ramayana and this broadened my evidence base of my prime suspicion that the idea of Ram was drawn indeed from the emperor Ashoka, known mostly as the Devanam Piya Piyadassi. For it was in Ashoka that, much like in the case of Ram, a uniform set of all-encompassing dharma guided both the king and the householder, binding the people and the king, the conqueror and the vanquished alike was established. My thesis of the Ramayana being an attempt at synthesising the Vedic Aryans, the Buddhist and Jain philosophies and the local faith of the indigenous Indians would be fulfilled by a close reading of the Buddhist and Jain sources and here the RSS scholar appeared to be rather useful for me.
The scholar was very well read in Vaishnav texts as well and he knew the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas by heart. But there was one confusion which he asked me to resolve and which was that Tulsidas, it seems had a tutor, Madhusudan Saraswati who taught him Advaitabad. Interestingly, Saraswati was initially an anti-monist person who read the Advaita doctrines only to confront the philosophy but turned into a convert. Hence the Advaita philosophy which marks Ramcharitmanas. But there were three issues which he missed out totally and these are as follows.
- Madhusudan Saraswati was a Bengali and hence he was familiar with Krittibas Ojha’s Bengali Ramayana. The composition of Tulsidas was different from the Bengali version but he used the stories in the Krittibas’s version for his own compositions.
- Madhusudan’s opposition to advaita and then his eventual acceptance of monism is interesting. The dwaita was useful in Bengali nationalism, which was interestingly the flavour of the Krittibas Ramayana while the advaita was useful in the consolidation of a spiritual empire that would, in the realm of the Hindu world correspond with the attempts at Imperial Unity by Akbar. Tulsi’s work reflected the desire for an imperial unity.
- Tulsi’s work is almost a verbal and a poetic rendition of the series of the Ramayana paintings commissioned by Akbar and these paintings seem to have inspired establish the iconography of Ram and the other characters of the epic.
His face lighted up in excitement at getting the broad context of Ramcharitamanas. The scholar was elated on what constituted his very first experience of Valmiki in original and here Ram’s inherent racism, Sita’s pronouncement of being one with the environment as the dharma of the land, Lakshman’s praise of Sita’s devotion for Ram are issues which enervated and energised the scholar. The scholar was excited at the similarities between some Buddhist writings and Valmiki’s Ramayana. He also was immensely elated by learning of Akbar’s keen interest in Krishna and in the Ramayana. He had little idea that Dara Shukoh was a Sanskritist and that Poland, which had one of the earliest Indology centres keenly learnt much from the Rajputs. He also had no idea that Akbar made Janmasthami the official festival for India and that he used to dance as Radha in the celebrations. In fact, legend says that he was so fascinated by Anarkali that he let her take over his performance as Krishna’s paramour; a cue which Mughal e Azam wasted no time in lapping up. The scholar had no knowledge of the epic called Manas, which is famous all across central Asia and contains the stories of Ram and also of the Pandavs. In the geography of the Ramayana, he had little idea that central Asia was the barren land from which Rishyashringa came. But these new facets thrilled him.
The scholar was very well read in the Greek epics and while my position of India being the forerunner of the concept of the State and the King assured him, he was a tad bit disappointed when someone said that Valmiki was influenced by Homer. He quickly calculated the dates of Alexander’s invasion of India but I stopped him to say that India has absorbed far less from the conquerors and kings and much more from scholars and saints. As Tagore says in his four essay long volume on nationalism that India has little interest in kings and emperors, we are more interested in social matters; our gods and heroes, our men and women, characters of stories. This is why our Ram is sometimes a man, sometimes a hero and at other times God but never really in any seriousness a King. Tagore says that neither commerce nor polity has endeared the idea of nation in India; rather it is a set of comprehensive values and morals that has had the purpose of mitigating the differences among races in India. Aryans, Scythians, Huns, Mongols and the Turks had stormed down India or Arabs, Semitic races, Assyrians, Romans, Persians, Poles and Finns, Dutch and the Portuguese have traded with India making India’s cultural goal one of assimilation of beliefs, social structures, kinship rules, inheritance patterns, marriage rules and incest across the multiple races. I tend to view Valmiki’s Ramayana as a great invention of the idea of the family, of the public space, of dealing with issues of making friends and overcoming enemies. Ram is a social role, who extols the society’s construction of him which often stands in antagonism to his individual will. The conflict between the persona and the personality in which the former always win, is the pattern which the Ramayana invents as a unifier and homogeniser of a society across races.
The scholar’s mind opened up for I acknowledged the conflict among races, spoke in terms of races and the irreconcilable differences among them and spoke of how the Ramayana is an invention of the highest order, unparalleled in any civilization of the world in its imagination of the family as an institution and making that institution the very centre of our culture and social cohesion. If we are one civilization, then it is the way India imagines its family and its values; the values of India are the values of the family. The values of the individual are created in a way which upholds the social structure of this society born through a mingling of the races. The scholar had never looked at the Ramayana as a vehicle of social invention; the story of Ram as the hero seemed to recede back in importance compared to the sociology of Valmiki.
The development of the idea of individuals as social roles brought many scholars and adventurers to India and one among them was none other than Babur. Divested of his kingdom by a wicked step mother, Babur wanders in the wilderness; who does he imagine he is? Ofcourse, the exiled hero, Ram. Both Ramayana and the Mahabharata are contained in the epic of central asia, the Manas. No wonder then Babur descends to India, to Ayodhya and after conquering parts of the land, builds his mosque, the Babri Masjid at Ramjanmabhumi. I know that it is the Ramjanmabhumi, because Babur led me to it by building the mosque there for he is Ram himself. This is the power of the Ramayana, the social invention of a sane society, for it appeals to all. Babur had come in as Ram.
I know that the scholar will rethink his ideas and rework his notes which he sends to the BJP headquarters. I did not contest his knowledge; I only widened it by placing it in a context.