Dangers of reading only one version of Ramayana and cultural amnesia

A good story travels, knows no borders, inspires and influences others.

 |  6-minute read |   14-09-2015
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In these last few days, the news has been full of two things. One, Union minister Mahesh Sharma's comments on cultural pollution, his desire to protect "Indian culture" and make the epics, including the Ramayana, compulsory reading in schools. But at the same time, in Kerala, the writer Basheer has been forced to discontinue his column, where he wrote about the multiple versions of the Ramayana - because, one, he is Muslim, and secondly the idea of "many Ramayanas" is a contentious one in today's India.It is not cultural pollution that I fear or see as the real crisis - it is something related but far worse, something that we ourselves are responsible for - what the academic GN Devy refers to, what the censorship of Basheer perpetuates - cultural amnesia.

One expression of cultural amnesia is forgetting our own languages and traditions. Another expression of cultural amnesia - the rigid desire to persist in maintaining only one version of the Ramayana and finding the notion of other Ramayana traditions problematic.

How I explain the idea of multiple Ramayanas to children: a good story is like a goddess, with multiple incarnations. In one she is beautiful - Gauri. Another she is terrifying - like Kali, and in a third she is a victim, a tragic martyr, Sati, while in a fourth she becomes a powerful warrior goddess, Durga. Nonetheless, they are all aspects of the same goddess, just like the various iterations of the Ramayana emphasise different aspects of the same story tradition.

A good story travels, knows no borders, inspires and influences others. The highest compliment a good story can get is when another storyteller, or another people, are so powerfully moved or provoked by a story that they choose to make it their own, map their own stories and anxieties onto it. It's by this process that a story moves from being merely a story and enters our souls - becoming our story, part of our psyche. That's what myths are, parts of our collective cultural psyche.

The process of retelling is so important - it keeps these myths alive, and by using these myths to represent our present dilemmas it allows for the evolution of our psyches and cultural consciousness.One of the reasons that the Ramayana is so important and constantly co-opted by politics, is that one of its central themes is the idea of good governance. As such the Ramayana has been invoked, not just in our time, but in previous times to promote and project the idea of a good state, and a good king/leadership. The beautiful Tamil Kamba Ramayana is where we come across one of the first instances of Ram being referred to as a God, and one in which Sita's banishment finds no mention. This veneration of king as god, and the descriptions of royal court, is influenced by the poet's own time and context; reflecting the worldview, values and what was of importance to Kamban's patrons - the Chola royalty.

There are many, many other dimensions to the Ramayana tradition. Many women today, like me, have grown up with concepts like the Lakshman-rekha and the Agnipariksha being used to define womanhood to us - and feel deeply estranged from the epic because of the rigid gender constructs and roles that it has been used to reinforce.

It has been deeply healing - and fundamental to my own relationship with tradition - to encounter the other version of the epic - some incredibly ancient, some modern - Chandrabati's sixteenth century Ramayana, the timeless oral versions of the Ramayana passed down by women, to Sreekantan Nair's 20th century Kanchana Sita - to and see many of my own anxieties and issues reflected in these iterations.

The Kamba Ramayana is also a "first" for other reasons - it is also the first time, a professor at SOAS told me, that the mutilation of Surpanakha's breasts appears in the narrative. Breasts are very significant in many Tamil epics and myths - note the story of the three-breasted goddess, Meenakshi of Madurai, as well as Kannaki in the Cilapaddikaram.

Breasts in both these stories are the storehouse of a woman's power - it is the loss of her extra breast that signifies Meenakshi's transition - from a virginal, superwoman king into a divine wife. Interestingly, it is with the power of her torn breast that the good wife Kannaki, after the unjust death of her husband, destroys Meenakshi's city, Madurai, and is also transformed into a goddess.

With this cultural metaphor in mind, it the mutilation of Surpanakha's breasts is an attempt to take away or destroy her power. A Guyanese journalist and historian, who has written on the journeys of indentured Indian women to Guyana during colonial times, told me that the story of Surpanakha's mutilation was used to justify attacks on these indentured women.

This is what cultural amnesia, to me, can result in - a metaphor, or concept, that once signified a woman's power, now becomes a means to wound her. A year back, at a literary festival, the father of a young daughter posed an interesting question to me - why must we preserve these myths and stories that are troubling in terms of gender and our values today? Why don't we get rid of them entirely?

I have been mulling over this question for a year now. It seems to me, today, that this question flips the idea of cultural pollution and maps it onto our past.

My answer, a year later: We can't, we mustn't forget. These stories are part of our psyche, and their metaphors continue to influence us in unconscious ways. To me, the real crisis is not cultural pollution. The real issue is cultural amnesia. We have forgotten the traditions and the historical processes that have shaped us. We need to know these things not so that we can go "back" to a more ideal time nor for pride - there are equal measures of pride and shame in our past.

Forgetting what we have to be ashamed about is just as corrosive as forgetting what we can take pride in. We must remember so that we can heal the wounds and schisms that still haunt us today as a result of the past - whether it be, for example, the trauma of colonialism or the metaphors that have been used to justify and perpetuate violence against women. So that we can understand ourselves better, and why we are the way we are.

And through that process we can more consciously reshape these metaphors and concepts - and thus shape our future and ourselves into what we want to be, as individuals and as a society.

Also read: 6th century Ramayana found: Stop caring what the West thinks

Writer

Samhita Arni Samhita Arni @samarni

Author of NYT bestseller 'Sita's Ramayana.' Also 'The Mahabharata A Child's View' & 'The Missing Queen'. Films: Good Morning Karachi. Interests: Af/Pak

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