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Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Ramayana Melas

Examining the multiple meanings of the Ramayana is essential for an intellectual politics

Written by Jaya Jaitly | Published: November 10, 2011 3:01:14 am

Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was an intensely intellectual politician. He was also multi-dimensional in his approach to politics. He gave three symbols to socialists as indicators of what it meant to be a holistic political activist. He chose the shovel for constructive work,since this was required to gain acceptance and credibility amongst the people and to demonstrate policies through concrete examples. Jail bars denoted the willingness to struggle and sacrifice one’s own freedom for the sake of another. And the ballot box symbolised the need to participate in party activities and electoral politics. Any one of these without the others made for an incomplete politician.

He could have added one more symbol,a book,to commend the idea of reading,through which one would be enlightened,and could prepare for dialogue and debate from an informed position. This is the essence of intellectualism. To short-circuit this process to blindly accept a preordained premise — whether religious or political — is to accept dictatorship and dogma. These two factors are anathema to all democratic socialists,and were to Dr Lohia in particular.

With as many versions of the Ramayana in India’s sacred literature as there are communities in India,Dr Lohia was always aware that there was room for both dissent and debate on something so intrinsic to the common man’s life. He once planned a Ramayana Mela at Chitrakoot,where he was to invite scholars,clerics,laypersons and political thinkers to participate. His intention was to have everyone discuss their own special understanding of the story of Rama — a story that inhabits the psyche of people in multiple ways not only in India,but in Thailand,Cambodia,and Indonesia as well.

Tribals in southern Gujarat have their own version of the Ramayana,which they recite in a fascinating cadence,accompanied by instruments fashioned out of mud pots and sticks. Studies have been done of stories of Sita in the tiny villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Tripurari Sharma,a feminist Hindi playwright,has done justice to Sita by finding her voice in different dialects and bringing them out to a wider public. Gender sensitisation in the 21st century allows critics to debate whether Ram was a weak husband,or a dutiful and democratic king who bowed to the voice of his subjects. Similarly,Ravana is allowed fair treatment. Many texts call him religious,pious — but,finally,a powerful creature who became a victim of his own hubris.

Essentially,different aspects of the human character are explored through the many meanings of India’s Ramayana. In this,pure literature and a mature religious debate coalesce. The beauty is in the fact that one story can be expressed in so many different forms and can touch upon universal truths — just as a raga has many forms of expression and a literary script has a palimpsest of meanings that scholars delight in uncovering,each bringing added beauty and meaning to the study of the human condition.

Dr Lohia was a man far ahead of his time in how he brought special Indian situations into a wider ideological perspective. His views on caste,women,and religion were high-minded yet imbued with a deep understanding of the nuances that anchor Indian society. He wanted change,emancipation and progress and found politics an excellent platform because he did not see it as powered by a narrow-visioned agenda,as many political leaders unfortunately do today.

Buddhist and Hindu religious texts of antiquity constantly refer to great debates. In fact,debate among gurus and shishyas in Hinduism,and monks and abbots in Buddhism,is central to the process of learning the scriptures. Christian and Islamic faiths too have multiple sects,interpretations and texts that demonstrate variegated thinking even in their more rigid and dogmatic establishments. They may oppose or reject each other’s premises,but no one can shy away from the fact that they exist. Yet some choose to close their eyes to the reality that all humans will want to express themselves differently — and unless freedom,within the limitation that it must not physically or morally harm another,is allowed,the human mind and spirit would die of stultification.

The controversy over the removal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three hundred Ramayanas’ erupted in mid-October,when Delhi University announced it was removing it from its syllabus based on recommendations of the Academic Council. In a little-noticed but interesting coincidence the capital saw at the same time the release of a magnificent seven-volume series of Valmiki’s Ramayana in French,with over 600 stunning illustrations of miniature paintings from museums and private collections all over the world. The writer,editor and researcher,Diana Selliers,worked for 10 years to collect material to illustrate what she believes to be one of the most illuminating and spiritually moving stories anywhere in the world; a text that has stirred both the creative,cultural world and spiritual discourse of the highest quality.

The coincidence highlights the tragedy of our politics and our current intellectual domain. While a section of our secularists often demonstrate an almost pathological allergy to the word “Ram” because of its association with the far right,the far right (and now,it appears,even the moderate right) have a similar allergic reaction to interpretive religious exercises. Each one pushes the other towards further unreasonableness.

No one in India objects to cultural diversity,because every Indian practices it. Yet the right-wing objectors to A.K. Ramanujan’s erudite essay claim to speak on behalf of millions of Indians whose sentiments have ostensibly been hurt. No one except the political class has even given it a thought,and Hindus everywhere would certainly not object to the essay if indeed they knew about it and could get a copy of the original publication — which,by the way,has been well nigh impossible for even this writer to access.

Like Dr Lohia,we should bring reasoned debate into political discourse,instead of blindly rejecting as communal or pseudo-secular each other’s propositions on Ram or anyone else. Both the right and the left,by adhering to rigid positions,are to blame for not just the impoverishment of the syllabus at Delhi University but of all Indians as an evolving and enlightened society.

The writer is a former president of the Samata Party

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