In Defense of A.K. Ramanujan's "300 Ramayanas"

About two weeks ago, Delhi University voted to remove A.K. Ramanujan's essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas," from its curriculum.

For reference, the essay is available here. I consider it essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the complex textual history of the Ramayana. Though a right-wing Hindu organization called the ABVP has claimed that the essay is offensive to Hindus (and they led a violent protest against the essay in 2008), in fact the purpose of the essay is primarily scholarly -- it's an attempt to document the different versions of the Ramayana that have been passed down in different Indian languages. Since the Ramayana was for centuries transmitted orally rather than on paper, it's no surprise that there are variants in the story. In addition to describing the different versions, Ramanujan talks about the nature of textual transformation, and introduces terms that help us categorize different kinds of changes and shifts (some of which may be accidental, while others may be more "indexical" -- that is, intentionally inserted to make the text fit different cultural and historical contexts).

See The Hindu's interview with Romila Thapar on the issue here. Another thoughtful account of the controversy is here. Also, it's worth noting left-leaning faculty and students at DU did do a protest in defense of the essay in the curriculum this past week, an account of which can be found here. Maybe this episode isn't over yet?

For reference, I have talked about this issue on several occasions over the years. I attempted to provoke a discussion of "versions of the Ramayana" several years ago on Sepia Mutiny: here (another version of the discussion occurred here). (Admittedly, I didn't know a whole lot when I put up that post; I know a bit more about this issue now.) And more recently, I published an essay on Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues in South Asian Review, called "Animating a Postmodern Ramayana." That essay can be found here.