Discover more from From Prathyush
On The Ramayana As A Literary Text
I have often argued that to truly enjoy the Ramayana, and to truly be in love with Rama you must consider the text as not mythological or religious, but literary.
Last week was Satyajit Ray’s centenary, and given that I poured through his movies over the pandemic with an ease similar but not the same as the vibes curation of Instagram Reels and TikTok, before it was banned, I was compelled to write about them together. Some of you replied with kind e-mails. I appreciate it, deeply. It’s perhaps the only sense I get of people reading, and reacting to this newsletter.
This week I wanted to write in greater detail about the Ramayana. MX Player just launched their show Ramyug, their take on the epic. Shot in Mauritius, with protein powdered pectorals on Rama, Lakshama and Ravana, there was something very boring, very close-to-the-text about this rendering. I reviewed the show, but it can and has been pointed out that I looked at the show from a different lens than what was intended. The show required a reverential predisposition, while I came at it with a literary scalpel. The dissonance was inevitable. But I can’t pretend a worldview. So I’ll just hold onto mine with greater clarity, limitations and everything notwithstanding.
Do subscribe, share, and write to me.
As a child I used to be a yoga demonstrator at a local studio. I loved the attention, and of course all the kids were jealous of my nimble ass. The carpet-lined studio also taught meditation — guided for adults, unguided for children — often infusing Hindu stories into the Sanskrit postures, either as explanations or distractions. Once the yoga guru noted how Lord Krishna had many lovers, a fact that he was parading as a joke. I found it amusing, and over dinner I told my dad about this, and he was incensed. Not about it being wrong, but about it being articulated so carelessly, without context. Krishna did have many lovers, but he was also a god, and so promiscuity was, according to the logic, cancelled by divinity.
The other side of the argument was, why can we not speak of Lord Rama in such situations — a man who loved once, married once, and when his wife, Sita, was kidnapped by the ten-headed Ravana, mobilized an army of monkeys, paved a bridge of stone across a roiling ocean to reach Ravana’s Lanka where Sita was held captive, defeated Ravana, and brought back Sita to his palace in Ayodhya. At that point the story in my head was this bare-bones, without any knowledge of the deeper moral issues, and so I didn’t know how to react to dad’s fury towards the comment and fondness for Rama. He later confronted the guru, I hear.
If you ask me when I first heard Valmiki’s Ramayana — that tells Rama’s story from birth to death — I won’t know. I encountered it as inscrutable Sanskrit prayers that I would have to memorize, as comics that were lying around at my uncle’s and relatives’ place where I would spend the summers, as plays we would put up in our prayer groups, (I once played Krishna, I thought because I was handsome, but it just as well could have been because I was dark; Krishna is said to be both dark and handsome) or even on television. The most memorable was the song from the movie Swades, ‘Pal Pal Hai Bhaari’. The movie was formative — one of the first I remember enjoying in the theater — and the music too, by AR Rahman, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, was all the rage. The music cassette always played in the car, and when baby cousins arrived from London for a visit, they would insist on the ‘Pal Pal song’ to be played again-and-again-and-again. I tired, but they didn’t.
An earlier generation would have seen it on the Doordarshan channel. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan aired between 1987 and 1988 created record viewership numbers. Stories were told of how villagers would galvanize around the single television in the village when it started, the television anointed with garlands and tikka. It has been argued by many that it was the success of this show that enabled the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which led to the Rath Yatra and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. When the Coronavirus lockdown began, the show was re-telecast. When the Prime Minister tweeted that he would make an urgent announcement in the evening, one man unironically replied asking if he can postpone the announcement because the Ramayana would be re-telecast at that time.
Over time as my belief frayed and gave way to a radical atheism — disbelief in god, karma, and rebirth, disenchantment with florid and logically lacking Indian philosophy — Rama’s image too frayed. A feminist narrative spun him as a misogynist. A caste-based narrative powdered him as a casteist (Interestingly, in the MX Player show, none of the main characters wear the janeyu, a sign of caste and thus caste pride). A post-colonial narrative padded his imperialism. So much of the antagonism towards Rama was actually a misplaced anger towards the years spent believing in his myth. Ravana seemed a much more interesting character to dote on, and indeed there were various version of the Ramayana that sought to do this.
It’s incorrect to assume the text was ever a monolith. Composed between the 6th and 3rd Century BCE, the first and last kanda, or chapters, to the Valmiki Ramayana were added later, as were other interpellations. With the growth of the Vaishnava sect that congealed life and order onto Lord Vishnu, Rama was seen as an avatara, or incarnation, of Vishnu. Then between the 12th and 14th Century CE when the bhakti movement, where devotion was currency, gained mainstream acceptance, Rama became indistinguishable from god. Both the Hindi Ramcharitmanas and the Tamil Iramavataram saw Rama as a god. As the story left the borders of India and took its own life across South-East Asia, the dualities of morality and immorality muddied.
“The Ramakirti [in Thailand] admires Ravana’s resourcefulness and learning; his abduction of Sita is seen as an act of love and is viewed with sympathy… the fall of Ravana here makes one sad. It is not an occasion for unambiguous rejoicing, as it is in Valmiki.” — Many Ramayanas: Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by AK Ramanujan. (This essay being taught at a Delhi University led to furore, protests and smear campaigns against the professor till it was removed.)
But even as these recensions swirled in the cultural vortex, it was the moral clarity of the Valimiki/Tulsidas Ramayana that took hold of our imagination. It was only over time, after I left the ideological cauldron of college, that my antagonism towards Rama morphed into curiosity, coinciding with me looking at the Ramayana like I would any other novel, with characters I don’t love but don’t hate, with characters whom, despite their shortcomings, I root for silently.
I began my review of Ramyug with the following, almost as a clarification for where my criticism was coming from:
I love the Ramayana as a literary tale, Rama as a literary hero — flawed, yet repentant. It is when the Ramayana becomes a manual of ethics that little makes sense, because then we elevate Rama into a moral compass and simultaneously begin to defend every mistake he has made — why did Rama kill Vali with an arrow from behind like a coward, or why did he urge his brother Lakshmana to hack off the demoness Shurpanakha’s nose, or why did he disbelieve his wife [after he won the war and retrieved Sita], giving into Treta Yuga watercooler talk, lets her to walk into fire to prove her purity, and then banish her from the kingdom anyway?
In the above paragraph are three things that often come up as a response to Rama being the perfect human, the maryada-purushottam.
The monkey-king Sugriva, Rama’s ally, tells him how his brother Vali had usurped the kingdom and threw him out based on a misunderstanding, even appropriating his wife. Rama promises Sugriva that he will get him the throne and his wife back. When Sugriva challenges Vali to a duel, Rama, from behind the thick foliage, shoots and arrow that kills Vali. This was unbecoming of a warrior — to attack someone when they are not ready. What is worse is what happens next. When Vali notes how Rama had behaved dishonourably, Rama defends his actions, “Yes, I did so. But who are you? You are only a monkey, an object of the chase. Kings like me, kingly people like me, are entitled to hunt you and the chase allows the huntsman to be hidden or to prepare traps … I am not bound to fight you as though you were a worthy combatant.” I got this translation from the lectures of V Srinivasa Sastri, a deeply devout man who sees in Rama and thus the Ramayana an emotional core of belief, yet he isn’t clouded by it entirely. He notes how Rama’s behaviour and defense is emblematic of imperialism. He notes how if Rama would have been in an open-fight with Vali, he might have lost, because Vali is said to be superior in strength. He notes that it is possible that even Rama, though he always sounds certain, was plagued by doubt. He notes that Rama, who would need the blessings and weapons of the heaven to fight Ravana, would not exhaust them in this battle. It’s the kind of shrewd yet shrouded in doubt, enterprising yet egoistic character that would make for such a fascinating human study if it weren’t elevated to a puja-pedestal.
When the demoness Shurpanakha tries to seduce Rama and his brother Lakshama, she fails, and humiliated she charges towards Sita. It is here that Rama instructs Lakshmana to go mutilate her, “this ugly pot-bellied rakshasi, immoral and lustful.” (Arshia Sattar’s translation) Though Rama himself did not perform the violence, its onus displaced onto his brother, he is still in some sense responsible for this. Sattar notes that in some Buddhist re-tellings of the Ramayana, where Rama is elevated to a bodhisatva and thus unable to perform anything remotely violent, all the violence is performed by his brother, so Rama is saved from the karmic and the moral discourse.
The worst of his infractions though is how he treats Sita after the war. He notes that he waged this war not for her but for his pride, and to keep intact the honor of his Iskshvaku lineage. He doubts her fidelity, that having spent all this time apart, she must have warmed Ravana’s bed, “Who will say that you are pure, having been under the control of that wicked, remorseless man for one whole year, who will believe it if I told it?” He doesn’t ask for proof, resigned to a separation, but Sita decides to walks through a fire, comes out unscathed, and thus proves her purity. Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya and continue their life. But the khuss-puss gossip of the lay reach Rama’s ears, and eventually wracked by doubt and jealousy, he banishes Sita from the kingdom. She is with child at that time. Sastri, in his lectures, likens this behaviour to that of Othello.
“Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood,
Burn like the mines of sulphur.”
Can A Mythological Text Be Literary? Can A Literary Text Become Mythological?
At the end of Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, she asks if Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, if Picasso’s Guernica, if TS Eliot’s The Wasteland can be considered modern myth. For her myths are about “[realizing] the importance of compassion which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world.”
I find this argument dangerous because it gives myth a purpose. It gives storytelling a purpose. It thus gives storytellers a purpose. And that purpose cannot be, “I just want to tell a story.” Loaded with meaning, crucified on the moral compass, stories lose what makes them worth reading. It inflects onto literature the impetus of self-help.
This is not to say mythology needs to eschew its fixation of morality. The thing about mythology — I might even go so far as to say the allure of mythology — is that you don’t know when you first heard it. It’s like intergenerational gossip. If it survives, it becomes myth. If it doesn’t, it becomes an archive. What is the point of reverse-engineering myth?
But just as ordinary literature can be recast as myth, what if we also try to recast myth as literature and study it as such? For me it is the only way I am able to consume these past works, because they are so thickly concocted within religion, that it began to seem, at least as a child, that to reject Rama as a god was to reject the Ramayana. That certainly doesn’t bode well.
Karma — the belief that for everything you do, the consequence will be yours too — is often tied to rebirth. This is an understandable connection, born out of the distraught human experience that sees the good go unacknowledged, and the bad be unpunished. The idea of inter-birth karmic merit is used to explain this discrepancy — that even if you did something bad now, for which you are not punished now, you will be punished later, in another life. The idea of soul, to which karmic debits and credits is stuck, becomes important, for it is this soul that moves from one lifetime to the next, as it sheds the body.
The idea of an inter-life soul, of course, isn’t logically sound. I argued with my family, during the tempestuous years when I had to “come out” as an atheist — if human population keeps multiplying, what about the human soul? The response would be the following unverified, and unverifiable claim: that souls move from plant to animal, from animal to human, and human to human. So at any given point of time in this universe, the total number of animals, plants, humans — anything that can have a soul — will remain constant. The argument often ends there, because it’s a logical dead-end.
But in light of seeing mythical texts as literary texts, I cannot but help see karma, a concept enshrined in these stories, as a literary metaphor — that human action, and by extension human thought, is a cumulative, culminative thing of our influences, experiences, and past actions and thoughts. To believe in karma is thus, as a literary character, to be more forgiving, more open to the idea that what we see in front of us today is not a character who has come out of the blue, but in whom resides the multitudes of pain and pleasure of the past. It’s a literary device of empathy.
And this also makes dharma — the right way of living — more complicated. In Arshia Sattar’s Maryada: Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana, she notes that dharma is sukshma, or subtle — “it presents the individual with more than one equal and legitimate choice… dharma is about a multiplicity of appropriate choices, that when we choose one way of being over another, we will as often be wrong as we are right.”
Since truth is established by dharma, and since dharma presents an individual with multiple, equally legitimate choices, there must be, by this logic, multiple, equally legitimate truths. There is a wonderful story in the Mahabharata, about Shantanu and Ganga, that outlines this multiplicity.
When they were getting married, Ganga makes Shantanu take a vow that at no point will he ever ask her any questions, promising her an unfettered marital life. But slowly, over the course of the marriage, as Ganga conceives seven children, she also drowns each one of them, and Shantanu is forced to remain silent due to the vow he gave her. But when it comes to the eighth child, Shantanu pushed to his wits end, breaks the vow and stops her as she is about to drown this baby.
From one perspective, you can say Shantanu is the good person here, saving the child, and Ganga is the bad one. But because Shantanu is human, his knowledge is merely limited, but Ganga, is a goddess, and thus has prior knowledge to which he isn’t privy. She knows that her children were Vasus in their previous birth, cursed to be born on earth. She was thus only attempting to liberate them. So, there is a bigger story involved. By saving the eighth child Ganga tells Shantanu. “You haven’t saved your son. He will not marry, and will raise someone else’s child. He won’t become a king, but will take care of someone else’s kingdom. And in the end, he won’t even die the death of a noble warrior at war. He will be killed by a napunsaka.” So who was right in this story?