The Valmiki Ramayana, being a Sanskrit text, remained in the hands of those who knew Sanskrit, mostly the Brahmin clergy, for 2,000 years or more. Meanwhile, it kept growing, like epics often do. Probably, for this reason, when one reads it today, one can almost decipher two texts embedded in one, each contradicting the other at times.
I would like to call these two versions, living like Siamese twins, as the Vedic-Brahminical version and the original metaphor. Most 20th century scholars of the Ramayana, including stalwarts like VS Srinivasa Sastri and C Rajagopalachari, deftly avoided this uncomfortable situation, but defended the original metaphor. The non-Brahmin poet-saints, through the middle ages, undertook the more difficult task, of rescuing the original metaphor. They did this in various Indian languages, leading to a social revolution.
They also led to the creation of new literary masterpieces in those languages. This trend lasted till the last century. In the middle of the 20th century, Kuvempu, the renaissance poet of Kannada, wrote Sri Ramayana Darshanam (The Vision of Ramayana), and bagged the first Jnanpith award for Kannada literature.
In the second half of the 20th century, we Indians forgot the Ramayana almost completely. Well, not entirely. The entertainment machine picked it up around that time. But, like machines often do, it made a pulp out of the Ramayana. The pulp Ramayana became a superhit television serial. Such was its popularity that streets would be deserted when the serial was telecast. No one wanted to miss it.
Meanwhile, the Hindu fundamentalist party, languishing in a dark corner after the unfortunate killing of Mahatma Gandhi, woke up. It realised an excellent political opportunity in Rama. Lal Krishna Advani, a brilliant tactician and a prominent leader of that party, came out riding on a Matador van, fitted with cutouts in order to make it look like a rath, and raced ahead. He demanded the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, as a prelude to the construction of a Ram Mandir. The Bharatiya Janata Party never looked back.
A Matador van fitted with cutouts of Rama, in itself, is an excellent metaphor for right-wing politics. It is a global capitalist system, built on free market and war-mongering, that gets cleverly hidden behind the façade of indigenous culture. While the BJP charged ahead with a thunderous battle cry, to save India from the Impure Other, the others got stuck in confusion and have remained thus ever since. Let us get back to the Ramayana.
Like all epics, it has a strong central core and a clear-cut purpose. The epic wants prakruti, nature, and purusha, the civilised being, to live in loving proximity with each other, exactly like the two krauncha birds that appear at the beginning of the epic. In this sense, the core purpose of the Ramayana is to construct a decent civilisation.
Now, what is a decent civilisation? Is it the excessively, and arrogantly civilised Lankan capital? Or, is it the moderately civilised Rama rajya, built on the ashram way of simple living? The Ramayana definitely opts for the moderate version, while it calls the excessively arrogant civilisation a monster.
But Rama rajya, the ideal civilisation constructed by Rama, is never shown. It is only surmised. Rama, however, is shown grappling with the idea and, thus, suffering its consequences. He is eulogised as Maryada Purushottama, the supremely civilised being, by the poet, for constructing the Rama rajya. Sita, his loving wife, on the other hand, personifies nature. She suffers all the indignities that nature and women, both, suffer in any society that is arrogantly civilised. It is moderation that is relevant to the Ramayana.
Now let us look at the other Ramayana that is constructed by Advani and his fellow travellers. It is an angry Rama and an angry Hanuman that they constructed. They had to be angry because they had to fight the Other on behalf of the BJP. Thus, the BJP, inadvertently, separated prakruti and purusha. It is blasphemous, to say the least. This Rama of Advaniji stands alone, and stands partially turned away, from the viewer.
The question is, why this distortion? Why are we distorting the past in order to construct a good future? Well, I think, we have lost our communal memory. When I say we, I mean the entire “we” and not merely the BJP. We are all responsible for the distorted world of today.
We have forgotten how to connect the past with the future, in a sensible way. The entire world has forgotten how to make this sensible connection. God, it’s so simple! If we only looked at the present, with a bit more awareness and a bit of perseverance, we could find solutions.
In his play Abhijnanasakuntalam, Kalidasa calls this predicament memory-lessness, or vismruti. The love that his hero Dushyanta had felt for a natural, and, thus, a beautiful woman gets lost when he sits on his mighty throne. The hapless woman standing before him with a swollen belly, looks like an outsider to him from that arrogant position of his. It happens to all of us, and happens often.
Our loss of communal memory is startling. We need not have to look in the great past to remember the community. We need to look just a few decades back. We would then find a Rama fondly reconstructed by Gandhiji, in the contemporary times itself. Gandhiji did not use either a Matador or a cutout to construct his Rama.
He found him in the hearts of the contemporary community, i.e., the rural poor. With this remarkable vision available to him, he promptly removed his western attire, which he had worn more out of habit than necessity, bared himself and said that Rama is inside him. The temple that he constructed for Rama was, thus, not in stone and mortar, but in the notion of gram swaraj. Thus, for Gandhiji, the political programme of village uplift became both a spiritual and a secular exercise in the construction of the new nation.
In the Kalidasa play, the son of Dushyanta is called Bharata. They say that that our nation got its name, Bharat, because of him. In the play, it is this child, Bharata, who revives his father’s memory. Let us hope that the child of tomorrow, a sublime symbol of love and togetherness, shall revive our communal memory as well, not as a divided entity but as a unified nation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘Don’t look back in anger’. Prasanna is a theatre director and social activist from Karnataka. His latest work is Moola Ramayana, a retelling of the epic.
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