It’s that time of the year again. In Kerala, as the Malayalam month of karkidakam rolls along, escorted by the ceaseless and breezy showers of the southwest monsoon, the Ramayana is being read in a large number of traditional Hindu households. The setting is often clichéd — aged grandparents, sitting on the ground in the early morning hours in front of the nilavilakku (traditional oil lamp) with the sacred text in front of them, reading the verses aloud.
In olden times, karkidakam was considered a difficult month to sail through. The onset of monsoon would force people indoors and result in a downturn in agricultural work. The rains also brought an onslaught of viral and bacterial infections. In those times of hopelessness and despair, it was said, people invariably turned to the Ramayana. The version of the Hindu epic, which Malayalis then and now turn to, is one that was penned by the father of the Malayalam language, Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan. As opposed to the original author Valmiki, who ascribed human characteristics to Lord Ram, Ezhuthachan, inspired by the Bhakti movement at the time, wrote it in the kilippattu style (where the narrator is a parrot), lending divine features to Lord Ram. Ezhuthachan’s version of Adhyathma Ramayanam Kilippattu, considered unparalleled in its volume and intellectual heft, standardised the Ramayana for Malayalis regardless of caste or religion.
This year’s reading of the Ramayana during the karkidakam month, which began on July 17, has stoked an unusual controversy. The decision of Samskrita Sangham, an organisation of Left-leaning intellectuals and Sanskrit scholars to devote seminars and public discourses on the Ramayana, has led many to speculate whether Kerala’s Left was betraying their stated position on atheism to woo their core Hindu voter base. Coming, as it does after the CPI(M) began celebrating Sree Krishna Jayanthi (the birth of Lord Krishna) in 2015 to oppose similar efforts by Sangh Parivar, the readings led to much speculation. However, CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan rejected such allegations, in a Facebook post on July 11, stressing that the party had nothing to do with the programmes conducted by the Samskrita Sangham.
At the same time, he added in the post, “The RSS has been misusing the Malayalam month of karkidakam…for furthering its communal agenda. Sanskrit teachers and experts have formed Samskrita Sangham to expose the wrong moves of RSS (by) using the epics.”
KG Paulose, a member of the Sangham and a renowned Sanskrit scholar, says it was only coincidental that the seminar series on the Ramayana came to be conducted during this month. He underlined that broad discussions and public debates on the relevance of the Ramayana was important at this juncture.
“Ramayana is very integral to the common man. It is emotional and talks about family relationships. It goes into our roots and that’s why it has percolated so deep. Ramayana was a mochana margam (path of redemption) for our people,” says Paulose.
“There are efforts being made to narrow the perspective of looking at the texts now. Public debates are shrinking. So our objective was to hold discussions on Sanskrit and Indian culture. We wanted to hold these talks on a wide canvas,” he says.
While the reading of the Ramayana, not just in karkidakam, but also during other months was mostly a household affair, it took on a public form especially after a grand Hindu sammelan under the auspices of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Ernakulam in 1982.
“Till then, it was mostly read in households. But after that event, they began to associate it with temples and Hindu institutions. It was a distinct move to politicise it. Ramayana was being institutionalised,” says a Left-aligned thinker, who chose not to identify himself. “They (RSS) also demarcated the karkidakam month as Ramayana month, further limiting it,” he adds.
Today, Kerala boasts of very few temples dedicated to Lord Ram, but every karkidakam month, there’s a flourishing pilgrimage tour connecting four temples where the deities are Lord Ram, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna. Undertaking the pilgrimage and visiting the temples in karkidakam are considered auspicious by Hindus.
“Unlike the Mahabharata, which is a history of a war, Ramayana assimilates notions of peace, justice and dharma. People of all religions must read it because it is a part of our culture. Ramayana month, in fact, should be celebrated with an open mind, keeping politics aside. It must be read keeping in mind our cultural background,” says a literary critic, on conditions of anonymity.
“During my childhood, when I grew up reading these epics, society was far less fractured and divisive. There was peace between communities. But today, you can see how fundamentalists of all religions are fighting with each other. We are living in extremely dangerous times. We need the Ramayana now more than ever,” he says.