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300 Ramayanas Essay By Ramanujan

Note: This is a translation of a November 2011 article by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh in Kannada Prabha. Translation by Sandeep Balakrishna.

There has been widespread and intense debate over A.K. Ramanujan’s essay titled 300 Ramayanas in the media. These debates are nothing new for Ramayana scholars. The Shatakotipravistara—that is, the long, uncountable list of various Ramayanas have been subject to extensive discussions and debates in our Itihasas and Puranas over thousands of years.

Only one Ramayana

However, what was indisputably upheld was the fact that all Indian traditions traced their Ramayana retelling, studies, interpretations, and scholarship to Valmiki, and not to any other source.

There is also the argument that Bauddha and Jaina Ramayanas are different and in some cases, older. However, this argument is irrelevant. It has been established that the Tripithakas in their current form were compiled during the third Sangeeti organized by Kanishka in the 1st century C.E. Equally, scholars also agree that the Jataka tales, which are not part of the Tripithakas were composed even later than Kanishka’s period.

If one claims that the Dasharatha Jataka (which is one of the tales found in the aforementioned Jataka tales)forms the basis of Valmiki Ramayana, it is the equivalent of saying that Einstein’s research forms the basis of Newton’s research. The pioneer of the Jain Ramayana, Vimalasuri lived in the 3rd Century C.E. Therefore, if his Ramayana becomes the primary source for Valmiki, then it stands to reason that Kalidasa came much earlier than Valmiki.

all Indian traditions traced their Ramayana retelling, studies, interpretations, and scholarship to Valmiki

And now, if we examine the other claim that regional-language Ramayanas (both oral and written tellings) formed the inspiration for Valmiki, we find that none of these tellings have an antiquity prior to the 8th—9th Century C.E. What’s more, when we examine only the oral tellings of Ramayana in all regional languages, this is what we find: the linguistic and literary style does not date back beyond 500 years, and this after giving a wide berth in terms of using linguistic and literary yardsticks.

In the light of these historical facts, who do we credit for providing the inspiration to Valmiki? There’s an answer to this as well: apparently, there existed numerous folk songs both in Sanskrit and other languages prior to Valmiki’s time, and that he took inspiration from them. Let’s accept that for a moment.

Leftist chicanery

But the question arises: so what happened to all these pre-Valmiki folk traditions and stories? If we argue that these were lost due to the vicissitudes of time, then it is not absurd to argue that those evidences that proved the exact opposite of this argument were also lost due to the vicissitudes of time. This is akin to saying that the eggs that were used to make omelette became chicks, and over time contributed to the increase in the species of hen. Therefore, we need to debate using available evidence instead of speculating on something that might or not have existed.

It is common knowledge that all retellings (and/or work based on Ramayana) of Ramayana in Sanskrit and various Indian languages (including Kamban’s in Tamil)—have expressed their debt to Valmiki. We have a big list of the writers of such Ramayanas beginning with Sanskrit poets such as Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bhoja, Rajashekhara and Kaviraja, and the Kannada writer and poet Kuvempu. One can quote their dedication and reverence towards Valmiki in their own words, but constraints of space prohibit it.

If this is the case, what is the background, what is the motive force behind the claim that Ramayana has 300 faces?

In reality, what exists behind this sort of deceptive claim is not scholarship but tactics. What exists is the practiced moves of the Leftists. The first step the Leftists take while opposing something is to reject the object of their opposition completely. When they encounter factual, evidence-based counter arguments to this, they immediately indulge in the logical fallacy known in common parlance as change of grounds. One of the ways they do this is by claiming that “we reject the contention that there is only one definitive text.” And when even this claim is proved false, again by citing facts, evidence, and sound logical reasoning, they turn around and assert that “there is no such thing as definitive; there is no such thing as ancient; these things kept changing variously at various points in time.”

These Leftists who seem to have made it their mission to criticize and reject everything that deviates from or doesn’t fit with their worldview do not need serious study and evidence. However, those who oppose them must come equipped with scholarship, evidence, and sound reasoning! Indeed, their history shows that they’ve made a tradition of the ugly device of spit and run.

About a century or so ago, when research on Indo-European languages was in its infancy, some comparative linguistic scholars who couldn’t digest the fact of Sanskrit’s antiquity floated a fiction of a Proto-Indo-European language, which they held was older than Sanskrit. The story of how ridiculous and laughable this theory proved is now largely forgotten. This sort of mischief in the academia has continued in the case of the so-called 300 Ramayanas as well.

What exists behind the deceptive claim of 300 Ramayanas is not scholarship but tactics. 

Recently, Chandrashekhara Kambar, our latest Jnanapith winner commanded thus: “the original Mahabharata where Kauravas were the heroes and Pandavas the villains has been turned on its head in recent times.” Indeed, he has said nothing new. His is a variant of a sizeable lineage of such Mahabharata distortionists. And this distortion has been comprehensively, convincingly demolished long ago by scholars like V.S. Sukhthankar, whose On the Meaning of the Mahabharata is perhaps the finest rebuttal. In this case, Ramayana too shares the same distortionist fate.

If one reads the work of scholars like G.K. Bhat, who has compiled the Baroda edition of the Ramayana (with all its interpolations and various tellings), Dr. V. Raghavan, the foremost authority on Ramayana, K.R. Srinivas Iyengar, and Dr. K. Krishnamurthy, the shocking weakness of A.K. Ramanujan’s Ramayana scholarship will become evident. Indeed, in the world of scholarship, any nonsensical prattle in the name of “freedom of speech” without presenting evidence is not only ridiculous but dangerous as well.

Everybody needs Ramayana

A supremely gifted poet immortalized the story of a famous individual in the form of an epic poem.  By that, he earned the honour of becoming the Adi Kavi (the First Poet) of the entire literary tradition of this country’s oldest language. Indeed, Kalidasa has used the word “kavi” as a synonym for “Valmiki.” Until recently, this fact was recognized, accepted and honoured by all regional language writers and poets. Drawn irresistibly by this immortal epic, they have in their own ways, for their own happiness (or profit) retold it, and in many cases, have enriched it in their own unique way. It might sound like a cheap analogy, but this is akin to remaking a super-hit movie into different languages—either a frame-to-frame remake or a remake with minor changes here and there.

What’s more significant is that almost every sect born in India has adapted, adopted and used Ramayana to expound their respective teachings. From the Jainas who got Ravana killed by Lakshmana, from the Bauddhas who focused on Sita’s abduction, from the Vedantins who get Rama to listen to Advaita discourses, from the Vishishtadvaitins who discern Sharanagati in Vibhishana, from the Dwaitins who propel Hanumantha as the future Brahma, from the Shaktas who get Sita to kill a hundred-headed Ravana, from the Shaivas who reject the Vishnu-hood of Rama all the way up to the modern-day intellectuals who regard Ramayana as irrelevant—all of them had to take refuge in the Ramayana itself.

Indeed, the famed verse of Brahma, Param Kavinaam aadhaaram, has come true in an extreme form in the case of the purveyors of the 300 Ramayanas fraud.

Shatavadhani Ganesh

Dr. Ganesh is a Shatavadhani, a multi-faceted scholar, linguist, and poet and polyglot and author of numerous books on philosophy, Hinduism, art, music, dance, and culture.

There is nothing like a good culture war to excite the intellectual imagination. The decade of the 1990s was dominated by the slugfest over the shrine in Ayodhya. It became obligatory for anyone with any pretension of being a ‘public intellectual’ to take sides on this controversy. Neutrality or, worse still, supreme indifference was automatically construed by the dominant intellectual group as tantamount to an endorsement of ‘fascism’.

Then came the kerfuffle over M F Hussain’s contentious depiction of Ram and Sita that had the defenders of the faith screaming ‘blasphemy’ and reaching for their trishuls. Here too, India’s cultural community were encouraged to link arms against the vandals.

Now comes a wonderfully contrived dispute over a Delhi University decision to omit an essay on the “Ramayana” from the prescribed readings for its undergraduate History course. The decision has particularly agitated those with a penchant for progressive pamphleteering : it has been denounced as “academic fascism” —a conceptually intriguing proposition.

The essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by indologist A K Ramanujan was never intended as an iconoclastic exercise. It spelt out the interesting variations in the “Ramayana” story in India and Southeast Asia with a great measure of quiet reverence. In fact, Ramanujan concluded his essay with a tale of the mental and social elevation of a village dolt after he actually listened to a recitation of the “Ramayana”.

Yet, because some philistines had objected to the essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition -— which they otherwise debunk — while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.

That such a puerile debate has come to dominate a discussion over the curriculum in a university may seem odd, but not surprising. Over the years, the history wars have become a feature of the larger battle over national identity. A feature of this clash has been the tendency of the opposing sides to repose faith in something called the ‘correct’ view of India’s past. With their dominance in the history faculties , the ‘progressives’ have tried to fashion the curriculum in a particular way, using prescribed texts as the instrument of their ideological hegemony. Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.

A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists — not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R C Majumdar, and not A L Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths — hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.The problem, it would seem, arises from the dubious practice of listing prescribed texts. In the past, a history curriculum would identify broad themes for study, leaving teachers the independence to recommend readings for further study. A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject. With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount. They are expected to imbibe and parrot prevailing orthodoxies — a process that can hardly be said to be conducive for the training of the mind.

What we are witnessing in India is not an assault on free speech but something far worse, an attack on the spirit of free inquiry. There is something fundamentally skewed with a system of higher education that posits two stark alternatives: a compulsory reading (and, by implication, acceptance) of a scholarly work or not reading it at all. The space for critical discernment is fast disappearing and we are turning into a nation of slogan shouters.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.

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