An epic to ex­plore and rein­ter­pret in our dis­il­lu­sioned age

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - W RLD -

Striv­ing to present a bird’s eye view of the Ra­mayana — be­yond comics, an­i­mated films, and the hip, slang-scat­tered “thrillers” of today — can be a huge chal­lenge.

We begin with the historical fact that the Ra­mayana is not the work of a sin­gle poet at a spe­cific time, the orig­i­nal San­skrit text evolv­ing from 7 BCE to around 3 CE, and grow­ing through suc­ceed­ing cen­turies. Mul­ti­ple ver­sions in San­skrit it­self, like the Ananda, Adb­huta and Ad­hy­atma Ra­mayanas be­come philo­soph­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal para­bles where Sita may turn out to be Ra­vana’s lost daugh­ter! More changes mark adap­ta­tions in the Bud­dhist, Jain and Sikh tra­di­tions. Not only does ev­ery sin­gle In­dian lan­guage have a Ra­mayana of its own, and by dif­fer­ent poets, but Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ti­bet and south Asian coun­tries have sprouted vari­ants. Ja­pan knows some­thing of the myth, Mon­go­lia has a shadow play of Rama.

While the Ra­mayanas of Valmiki (San­skrit), Kam­ban (Tamil) and Tul­si­das (Avadhi) have the cen­turies-old au­thor­ity of scrip­tures, folk takes sur­prise us with het­ero­dox ide­olo­gies. Tribal retellings can make Rama the vil­lain and Ra­vana the hero. And, of course, min­strels con­tinue to sing in­nu­mer­able bal­lads about the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters and their deeds, as part of life cy­cle cer­e­monies. Tel­ugu has a bunch of Sita songs for ev­ery stage in a girl’s life.

While the liv­ing epic is nar­rated ac­cord­ing to or­tho­dox ver­sions, it is also turned in­side out in rad­i­cal mod­ern spin-offs, as nov­els con­tem­po­rise the myth. Fem­i­nists protest against pa­tri­archy and gen­der bias, cen­tre-stag­ing iconic Sita or “vil­lain­ous” Sur­panakha. Why not? Ra­mayana women suf­fer in mul­ti­ple ways — Kausalya is hu­mil­i­ated by ar­ro­gant Kaikeyi, Su­mi­tra re­duced to nonen­tity-hood, Ur­mila aban­doned for 14 years, Ahalya cursed, Sur­panakha mu­ti­lated, Man­do­dari be­trayed, Su­griva’s wife be­comes Vaali’s con­cu­bine, Vaali’s wife com­pelled to join Su­griva’s harem, Sita is tried by fire and ban­ished to the for­est.

Since the Ra­mayana en­joys the sta­tus of a re­li­gious text, its pro­tag­o­nist a God ap­pear­ing on earth to re­deem hu­man­ity, his con­sort the ideal of In­dian wom­an­hood, west­ern schol­ars ex­am­in­ing the epic as a historical doc­u­ment are os­tracised. Ob­jec­tive stud­ies of icon­o­clas­tic ver­sions and sub­al­tern nar­ra­tives are banned. Not sur­pris­ing in a land where the first se­ri­alised Ra­mayana on tele­vi­sion turned couch po­ta­toes into pil­grims. Re­mem­ber how peo­ple across India watched with re­li­gious fer­vour, and per­formed puja on days when “aus­pi­cious” seg­ments were tele­cast?

The lit­eral read­ing of the Ra­mayana has turned it into India’s most politi­cised work of lit­er­a­ture. But look­ing at Valmiki’s epic as a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece re­veals a per­va­sive irony, chal­leng­ing read­ers to think about moral dilem­mas and free will. Even a god can­not es­cape blame when he takes a hu­man form. Self-de­cep­tion and plain de­cep­tion are con­stant themes. When Vib­his­hana seeks shel­ter with Rama, ally Su­griva says, “How can we trust some­one who has be­trayed his own brother”, quite for­get­ting how he him­self en­gi­neered a frat­ri­cide. Sur­panakha doesn’t men­tion mo­tives of per­sonal re­venge, but de­scribes Sita’s en­chant­ing beauty, to per­suade lech­er­ous brother Ra­vana to abduct Sita.

The Ra­mayana’s ori­gin myth is prophetic, po­etic, poignant. Hunter Valmiki sees a bleed­ing sarus crane, pierced by an ar­row, fall­ing from the tree, while its mate wails piteously. The im­age trig­gers vi­sion, soka turns to shloka, and the First Poet, Adi Kavi, an­nounces, “From my sor­row sprang noth­ing but po­etry.” A less known ac­count from an­other source has Brahma, the Cre­ator, ask­ing Valmiki to com­pose the Ma­hab­harata. Valmiki an­swers, “I have com­posed the Ra­mayana, free from doubt, ag­i­ta­tion and il­lu­sion. Where­fore should I take up an­other work?”

Does his text jus­tify this claim? I look at ran­dom mo­ments in the epic. Says Rama, “Sub­jects take to ways adopted by sov­er­eigns. The soul of the State is truth. I shall not break the bounds of truth in cov­etous­ness, delu­sion or ig­no­rance. I ab­jure that moral­ity, which, pre­tend­ing to be right­eous, is low, wicked, greedy, sin­ful.” Lak­sh­mana prays on the bat­tle­field, “If Rama is right­eous and true, O ar­row, slay this son of Ra­vana!” And In­dra­jit is killed not by a weapon, but by the power of Rama’s dharma and satya, in a tri­umph of mind over mat­ter. Valmiki’s Man­do­dari be­lieves that it is not Rama’s ar­row, but the blaze of Sita’s grief that killed her hus­band Ra­vana. Kam­bar’s Man­do­dari says that Rama’s ar­row pierced Ra­vana’s heart to ex­ter­mi­nate his lust for Sita therein. And that is how she writes the epi­taph of his whole clan: lust, rage and power ma­nia caus­ing their down­fall.

The Ra­mayana is not as so­phis­ti­cated or in­trigu­ing as the Ma­hab­harata. Tra­di­tion­al­ists deem this a tale of ide­al­ism, but what we see is the con­stant fall from grace. And, there­fore, a rel­e­vant site for ex­plo­rations and rein­ter­pre­ta­tions in our dis­il­lu­sioned times. After all, it has the fea­tures of a great epic: Po­lit­i­cal in­sight, philo­soph­i­cal epiphany and po­etic bril­liance.

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