I had once written a series of articles to bring into notice, how diversified the epic tale of Ramayana is. On my teacher’s recommendation, I conducted exhaustive research on the several ways the story of Ramayana has been told. My research also included reading one of A K Ramanujan’s popular essays “Three Hundred Ramayanas”. I concluded that a different telling of Ramayana exists in every village of India, and extends internationally to Persia, south east Asia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and into the west. Over time people have drawn different inferences from the legend. And hard coding it into a singular version is not really appropriate.
Recently, a controversy erupted in the capital of India relating to the same essay by A K Ramanujan, which was a part of the undergraduate course in history at Delhi University. The university authority suddenly decided to drop the text. This decision was immediately challenged and soon followed by a huge halla amongst students. As expected, the incident was eventually exposed by the media. While some people described the move as unfortunate, others claimed that the removal of the essay was a victory for the right wing. The leftists fought hard to bring it back into the curriculum.
The popular essay had not gone down well with sections of the right wing, some of whom called it blasphemous. In fact, in 2008, a group of ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) activists went on a rampage, attacking the University’s Department of History, in protest.
Soon, a prominent Indian newspaper, The Hindu, published an interview by Romila Thapar where she shed some light on the whole issue. She supported Ramanujan’s essay, and from a historian’s perspective, she advocated that the essay be brought back into the syllabus. Naturally the leftists strongly supported her point of view.
Today the issue hangs in suspended state as a standoff between the right and left wing groups. However, my opinion differs from both groups. There is a critical point that they are missing.
Let me explain. When there is an interesting cricket match, hundreds of newspapers and media houses cover it. Next day each has a different style of reporting the match. This is what makes the discussion beautiful. We all will agree that reading only the real picture the next day will be extremely boring. How many of us will read the newspaper report that has only the scorecard to offer?
Well, the point is this - Ramayana actually happened! Every language and dialect of India has a version of it. Every village has a folklore based on it. These are living testaments of the fact that it actually happened - maybe not in the way it is depicted today, but in some form. It actually happened. This is one point the leftists are missing. Well, it is a known fact that many prominent leftists are atheists. It is high time you must acknowledge that religion is the greatest binding force of all. This is one thing civilization has taught us. Religion is important - at least from a cultural perspective.
The right wing traditionalists need to acknowledge the fact that knowledge has to be questioned. You must not claim that an event occurred in a specific way. You cannot enforce your reporting of the cricket match to be the ultimate one. A legend grows, so they say. And a legend cannot grow when bound in shackles. You must understand that the multiple interpretations of Ramayana shows the inherent strength of our religion and our all encompassing world view. How can the study of a text by Ramanujan hurt your religious sensibilities? Are our belief systems so fragile?
Ramayana has become a second language of a whole culture called India. The coexistence of the both leftists and right wingers is of utter importance in the democratic process of India. Let’s acknowledge that, and live in harmony. The events of Ramayana happened in some form or the other. It is a legend, and a legend grows. Now, we cannot question that. Can we?
The other aspect that needs to be addressed is the Indian education system. Higher education in India is still based on studying prescribed texts. A subject should ideally identify broad themes for study. A student should be tested in examinations for his understanding the subject. With prescribed texts being given to them like medicine, the student’s scope for demonstrating his intelligence and knowledge is limited. Our education system should neither prohibit, nor compel a student to read the essay. Freedom to question and choose, is as important as freedom of speech. Let’s not compromise on that!
Photo credit: Jeet Sen