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.


Vasudeva said...

One key point is that the original Buddhist Ramayana that Ramanujam gloats about (part of Dasharatha Jataka) is just about two pages long. You can write the whole thing on two sides of an A-4 paper. Forget the fact that the Buddhist Ramayana holds Rama in high esteem as a dharmic ruler.
How can this four page Ramayana be compared to the Valmiki’s magnum opus which is 25000+ verses long. With strict adherence to the lyrical ‘Anushtup’ sanskrit metre, there is no way a literary comparion can be made with any of the 300
Ramayanas with Valmiki. Most of the 300 versions are hearsay oral narratives and some like the Santhal version were falsified by Ramanujam in the essay and factually incorrect. The only others which come close are the other epical Ramayanas by Kamban and Tulsi, which have come much later and clearly indicate their indebtness to Valmiki. The ploy of the ‘eminents’ have been clearly exposed, there is a clear sinster reductionist design of playing down the indic classics.
In the same vein why don’t the ‘eminents’ start a movement about inclusion of viewing ‘Qayamat se Qayamath Tak’ and ‘Ek Du Je Ke Liye’ in Shakesphere studies as they are just alternate versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Shakesphere is not the only authentic guy you know.

windwheel said...

Ramanujan was from Karnataka. It so happened that the poet of greatest merit who did a version of the Ramayana happened to be a Jain by Religion. Prof. Sheldon Pollock tells us that Ramanujan's Kannada was good enough for him to be helpful though when it came Sanskrit the arrow of obligation reversed itself.
It so happens that many people in Delhi and the neighbouring states consider the Ramayana to be a Holy Book. Few of these people know Kannada or Tamil or Santhal or Thai or Balinese or whatever.
These people have children who, for the worst possible reasons- viz. to get a Govt. job - sometimes study History at Delhi University. It is a firm and unshakeable belief, indeed a tradition as old as the institution itself, that the stuff one is supposed to cram and regurgitate serves the purposes of the State and enables candidates for clerical berths to parrot back whatever it is the State wishes to hear. Whether this is done as a means of humiliating the candidates , on the salutary principle of accustoming them to swallow a peck of dirt each day of their working lives, or whether it has something do with Astrology or Vastu shastra or the eleven dimensional interaction of the Post Christevan Chora, is irrelevant.
What is relevant, is that the other great means of getting ahead offered by University- viz. beating, raping or knifing people- can at random points intersect with the shite one is cramming.

Ramanujan himself laid great stress on the fact that Indians interpret everything contextually and have no use for universal principles or (indeed) intensional language. In other words, Indians are incapable of thought qua thought as opposed to discrimination of circumstances.
As such, this is a perfectly orthodox Mimamsa position- though it somewhat chauvinistically restricts Vedantic 'Viveka' to Indians only.
It is sad to think that the fact that the book in question is out of print, and somewhat crap (though less so than a lot else that is on the syllabus) and no longer on the reader list might prevent some apprentice gangsters from knifing some apprentice bureaucrats or vice versa.
This is scarcely a sensible way of tackling the population problem, not to speak of the credentialist crisis poisoning productivity growth in our mother country.
The only way forward is subsidiarity, more and more subsidiarity, and less and less posturing re. grand synoecist narratives which are genuinely fissiparious- and fit Ramanujan's thesis- unlike the Ramayana.

S. Paul said...

Firstly, we must appreciate that history or mythology the things we are discussing are not of this age and time. So, we cannot claim anything definitely about the text.

Secondly, it is a fact that oral transmission, which was the norm, may create unintended variations in the text.

Thirdly, it must be appreciated that the audience, even at that time, was diverse with different world views and different environmental and cultural attributes. For example, the horse was not known to the harappan people. So, in order to adapt a tale about horse to their conditions it may have to be retold as a bull, which was known to them. So, the text of Ramayana had to be changed in order to be more accessible and intelligible to a wider audience.

Fourthly, I feel Ramanujan's effort was not discuss the literary merits of the different texts. Instead it was for bringing in the knowledge of the reader the existence of variations in the text, which is a fact .

Anonymous said...

I am a Hindu and I am NOT offended by Ramanujan's essay- in fact am proud of diversity of the Ramayanas in India and Asia.
Why does ABVP get to speak on behalf of Hindus?
also in response to above- point is not to dispute superiority of Valmiki's technique over others but to note the existence of different versions of the Ramayana which have recently been appropriated by ABVP types

Akshita said...

Dear Sir/Maam,

We, students of Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia are preparing to make a documentary on the topic of rewritten history textbooks in NCERT.

The proposed idea for our documentary calls for insight into a variety of perspectives on the academic, social, political and personal front.

we are also including a section on the 300 Ramayanas. It would therefore help us in our understanding towards our own project immensely if we could get in touch with you as soon as possible.

Our topic is one that is both personal to all of us and one from which we aim to bring about the notion that the presentation of history in a certain manner always has far reaching implications and hence should be done in a very responsible manner.

Looking forward to your response,