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300 Ramayanas,one Rama

What our indignation about the exclusion of Ramanujan’s essay ignores

Written by Vamsee Juluri |
March 26, 2012 3:24:45 am

What our indignation about the exclusion of Ramanujan’s essay ignores

Amidst all the outrage that Delhi University’s decision about A.K. Ramanujan’s Ramayana essay has provoked,there is one question that does not appear to have figured very much. What does Rama mean to ordinary people? Not Hindu fundamentalists,not extremists,not the vandals and philistines who don’t understand art,but just ordinary people for whom Rama is a god. People like parents and grandparents who worship Rama in temples and homes. What would the issue mean to them? And do they matter in our debates at all?

As an academic,I feel that the bigger concern is not the decision of a university to steer safe of offending religious sentiments (a courtesy that in its absence would surely have been seen as a selective one),but the fact that there is very little reflection in the public discourse of how people think about god in their lives in modern India. Simply put,the way those of us of the intellectual class,academics,artists,writers and activists,who inhabit the South Asian and the transnational public sphere,talk about religion today appears to have far less purchase on the cultural mainstream of India than the alleged vandals and goons claiming to act in the defence of Hinduism. Even they seem to know how people think about god in India,even if cynically and superficially. Why is it that we don’t?

After all,in all our interventions,do we once acknowledge that people revere Rama as a god who lived on this earth once? Or the fact that such a belief has,for the most part,in the hundreds of years of its existence,and among most of the millions of people who have lived it,only promoted acceptance and peace with other faiths and not the opposite? Does the relatively recent construction of a political movement around that belief erase the fact we have believed in Rama’s existence for centuries,without denying the claims of Muslims,Christians and others to their cultures of spirituality? To ordinary Indians,the answer,I think,is evident.

Yet,we respond to virtually every debate about Rama with the stock response that Rama was a literary character,a fiction,nothing more. We mock those who believe,and their increasingly inadequate attempts to match our world-class academic discourses with their mixed-up pop Hindu and internet Hindutva responses. We pounce with a prescription for their ignorance every time they talk like they believe in a god,calling on them to recognise the plurality of tellings and diversity of voices in the literary traditions of South Asia,or else they are all monolithic fundamentalists. We never recognise the plurality,tolerance and the yearning for humanity that exists in culture as they know it,a culture built on a belief in god,and all his forms. We rarely struggle to meet them even halfway,and that is no surprise,because we have not put our intellects in that trajectory,ever. We can only face their faith in the existence and goodness of Rama with what must seem to them our bizarre,if not blasphemous (though they will learn to deploy that idea too in time),insistence on interpretations that say Rama was a villain,and worse. We have mistaken the strawman we have made from our critiques of religious politics of a specific time and place,for the entirety of the religion itself.

If we are to move beyond this,we have to learn to meet the real world at least halfway,to be able to acknowledge that all our talk about our literature,art and art-history,is also talk about somebody’s god. As I remember,even 30 years ago,when I was in school,it didn’t seem to matter to us that our history book said the Ramayana and Mahabharata were epics,long stories,that is. Our sense of Rama and Krishna came from outside our school books,and that sense was secure. We did not need the classroom to validate our religion. But now,for better or for worse,history has raised that particular mirror upon us,and it cannot be put away. In the short run,it may mean that a new political religiosity in the real world is watching us in the academy closely,and sometimes menacingly. In the long run,though,perhaps the academy and the real world can move beyond the polarities of the present.

As an academic,I know what we can offer the world in terms of an education about culture is important. I know how useful Ramanujan’s essay is at many levels. But until the academy learns to reflect a popular sensibility on religion,it is better perhaps to view our disappointments as lessons rather than catastrophes. I believe that we can and must teach that there are 300 (or more) Ramayanas in our universities. But it is best if we can do it in an intellectual atmosphere that can also somehow acknowledge that even if there are 300 (or more) Ramayanas,there is,in the popular mind,only one Rama,and he was a god.

The writer is professor of Media Studies,University of San Francisco
express@expressindia.com

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