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

While versions of the epics may come and go, the gods themselves are not going anywhere.

 |  5-minute read |   21-12-2015
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It's no surprise that a 6th century Ramayana has suddenly turned up in an obscure Sanskrit library in Kolkata. Kalidasa's 4th century Sanskrit play Shakuntala suddenly turned up, too, when Sir William Jones's munshi shyly proffered the palmleaf manusript to him - and the subject of "Indology" was born. The two 2nd century Tamil epics Silappadikaram (Jain) and Manimekhalai (Buddhist) suddenly turned up too, a 100 years ago, thanks to that determined manuscript-hunter UV Swaminatha Iyer of the Madras Presidency. We're used to that sort of sensational discovery ever since colonial rule brought stability to the subcontinent in the 18th-19th century. And we'll know exactly what the newly-discovered Ramayana says a year from now after the concerned Indian scholars have had a go at it.

Meanwhile, since the story isn't going anywhere, do we need to know or care what someone in the west thinks of the Ramayana and Mahabharata? I don't think so. When did you hear of a Jew or Protestant or Catholic in the West asking any Indian of whatever religion our opinion on "their" creeds?

In my view, that is the root of trouble: our still-thin post-colonial skin.

We forget, maybe, that at the end of the day, it is entirely our religion and culture to keep, review and reform.

If I may generalise a bit, "modern Hindus" deplore and reject caste and gender inequities and have no mental barriers against other religions.

But our faith is vibrantly our own, not even another Hindu can take it away (though the rabid ones are presently a great trial and embarrassment). Few "outsiders" can really understand the ecstasy and profundity of Hinduism because it is on such a completely different bandwidth. Quite often, we ourselves find it confusing since there's rather a lot to understand, which goes very deep, with layers and layers of meaning. Where we are vulnerable to critique is when old malpractices still hurt our people. We cannot stop addressing that, it is our duty.

The big thing is: "they", meaning the present West, don't have to understand us in depth. It is not required as long as we co-exist in peace.

An example of "they simply don't get us" is this old Western view of the Ramayana that still seems to have resonance: "Fables are in high fashion... and Aubrey Menen has produced a timely example... His new rendering of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, is as rich, well-spiced and aromatic a curry of oriental tale-telling, served with an occidental tongue-in-cheeking chutney, as anyone could wish to read."

This was apparently from a New York Times review in 1972 of Aubrey Menen's version of the Ramayana in 1954.

Bah, what a string of cliches.

First thought: A pox on Aubrey Menen for exposing my gods to mlechh ridicule. (But, oops, it was other mlechh who put "Indology" on the world map and retrieved so much of our past for us, did they not?)

Second thought: I wouldn't have banned Menen's book like orthodox Hindus did back then, barely seven years after Independence, or issued death threats like orthodox Muslims did for Salman Rushdie or cut up about "Jesus Christ Superstar" and those other edgy Christian oeuvres, like orthodox Christians did (ha, other orthodox people do it, too).

Third thought: so what would I have done as a modern, believing Hindu?

I would have tried to "watch my thoughts" as they say in Vipassana and I would have read it myself.

I did, in fact. I found the first edition of Aubrey Menen's Ramayana on my father's bookshelf years ago and when I asked him about it, he lifted an eyebrow and said "amusing fellow", and as he did every morning, proceeded to hear MS Subbulakshmi singing the "Venkatesa Suprabhatam". He didn't care. Neither did I, though we both thought Menen was a bit of a chump, had he nothing else to write about? At the same time, some of society's attitudes had to be challenged and the fate of Sita, as an important instance, was completely not acceptable even to devotees in centuries past. It has always upset every good person and because it plays out so hurtfully in real life, we have to address it.

Another point: we can be very irreverent ourselves and have no dearth of satirists including the wicked soul who made up that schoolboy verse famous across North India: "Ram naam sab karat hai, Dasrath karey na koi/Dasrath kasrath na karey toh Ram kahan se hoi?"

Our books and films too shake their fist aplenty at the gods but with good intentions. They do so to publicly share the process of sorting and choosing; to keep the "keepable" like the living faith, the philosophy, literature, music, dance, art and architecture - and to critique and discard the clearly unjust social attitudes and practices. Iravati Karve actually got the Sahitya Academy award for best work in Marathi in 1967, for "Yuganta", her blistering critique of the Mahabharata. But she said upfront that she wrote it as an insider with a deep sense of belonging.

Net-net, where we don't seem to like it is when an outsider makes fun of things we hold dear, even if we ourselves critique some aspects of those very things.

And what we really think about the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is what Tulsidas said in his 16th century Ramcharitmanas "Hari anant Hari katha ananta kahahi sunahi bahuvidhi sab santa (God is infinite and so are the stories about God, which are told and heard in different ways by spiritually evolved people.)" So while versions of the epics may come and go, and we like some views and don't like some views, the gods themselves are not going anywhere. As if we'd ever let them. We can afford to relax and take a calm look now at the blips on the radar, so many decades after we re-wrote our own story. What do you think?

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Renuka Narayanan Renuka Narayanan

The writer writes on religion and culture.

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