By Editor on July 20, 2009 4:41 pm
The Hindu nationalist insistence on a single, authoritative version of the Ramayana contravenes the central tenet of Hinduism. In this edited extract from his new book, Offence: the Hindu Case (Seagull Press: Calcutta/London/New York, 2009), Salil Tripathi argues the historical and political case for defending the plurality of Hinduism.
“The curious fact is that as we move into the 21st century, historians have become central to politics. We historians are the monopoly suppliers of the past. The only way to modify the past that does not sooner or later go through historians is by destroying the past. Mythology is taking over from knowledge.”
—Eric Hobsbawm in ‘Politics, Memory and the Revisions of History in the Twenty-first Century’, lecture delivered at Columbia University, 2003
IF HISTORY REPRESENTS collective memory, and if it is to be objective and not written by victors, it becomes important to guard its sanctity. After artists like Maqbul Fida Husain, the Hindu nationalists’ prime target is Indian history. In late February 2008, a group of Hindus stormed into the history department of the University of Delhi, breaking windows and causing general mayhem. They belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students’ Council), the student wing of the BJP. They were angry because the professors had directed students to read an essay on the Ramayana that they considered ‘blasphemous.’
The essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” by the distinguished poet A. K. Ramanujan, a Macarthur Genius Fellow who died in 1993 in the US where he taught at the University of Chicago, marvels at the sheer diversity and range of the epic Ramayana, and recounts many of the unusual and alternate renderings of the myth, pointing out the vibrant plurality in religion and literature. The head of the history department, a quiet academic called Saiyid Zaheer Hussain Jafri, is, as his name suggests, a Muslim. The professor who reportedly assigned the essay is Upinder Singh, who happens to be Sikh and the daughter of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This particular combination gave the nationalists further ammunition.
The conventional Ramayana narrative is complicated enough. Most interpretations tell a story with which many Indians, Hindu or not, are familiar. But as you travel through the length and breadth of the vast Indian nation, the stories change, sometimes subtly, sometimes quite drastically, and no one singular view prevails. Ramanujan’s essay irritated Hindu activists precisely because it showed that there is no one, unique rendering or interpretation of the Ramayana. Not surprisingly, the student activists called it “malicious, capricious, fallacious, and offensive to the beliefs of millions of Hindus.”
But to silence a voice that says that there are many versions of Ramayana is not only an act of crude censorship and an attack on Hindu intellect, it also goes against the central tenet of Hinduism. The doyen of Indian history, Romila Thapar, herself a target of vicious attacks by Hindu nationalists, has shown how the Ramayana’s many versions embed stories reflecting social aspirations and ideological concerns of each group that propounded a different version. The Hindu nationalists’ challenge to the diversity of voices is more a political proposition than a religious assertion.
And how diverse those narratives are—not only across India, but as far away as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos where they vary even more widely than in India. These multiple narratives interfere with the master version of a strong, virile, masculine and martial lord/warrior-king—like the image now reinforced by Virgin Comics in India which casts him as a muscular, Superman-like hero in Ramayana 3392 AD—that the BJP wants to project in India.
There is political purpose behind depicting Rama as a soldier, and not as maryada purushottam (the ideal man who knows his own and society’s limits, and who will sacrifice his interests for others). And that is to inject militancy into the Hindus, who, the BJP believes, have been made to feel like second-class citizens in their own country.
Feminist scholars are indeed appalled by the Ramayana’s overt masculinity. But they have also found in Sita a cliché-ridden representation of femininity, a docile woman willing to be led wherever her husband takes her and unquestioningly accepting her fate, including cruel punishments and chastity tests. Gauri Parimoo Krishnan notes: “Valmiki’s Ramayana has been wrongly ascribed canonical status, giving rise to a sort of patriarchal, literate, pan-Indian elitism which in recent times has been scorned.” In the Indian feminist magazine, Manushi, Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Madhu Kishwar have written powerful critiques of the masculine interpretation of the Ramayana.
A survey of Hindu epics may suggest that Hindu gods don’t claim to be morally perfect; they do practise subterfuge and trickery. In an uncertain universe, we often have to act in ways that seem morally impure in order to achieve a higher end. That, indeed, is the message of the Mahabharata. On the other hand, the Ramayana aims to show how it is possible to lead a morally pure life. Rama’s heroism is not simply based on his battlefield skills but also on his ability to place the interests of others—and his own sense of obligation—above his own.
Such sacrificial acts are passé; the BJP wants to project Rama as a superman. However, elevating him over other gods makes Hinduism seem monotheistic, a bit less like itself and a bit more like Islam or Christianity. The late Morarji Desai, a former prime minister, astutely noted this point in a conversation with me in the late-1980s, when the BJP was still only beginning to embark on what then seemed like a quixotic campaign—to reclaim the site of the Babri Masjid. “They are playing a dangerous game,” he told me. “They want to create a cult of Rama. They are converting Hinduism into Islam—they are making Hinduism a religion with one book (Ramayana), one place of worship (Ayodhya) and one God (Rama). That is not Hinduism. Hinduism is about plurality.”
Edited extract reproduced with permission from Seagull Books. Offence: The Hindu Case will be available in bookstores from August, 2009. It is published by Seagull Books (Calcutta/London/New York) and distributed worldwide by the University of Chicago Press. The book is available for pre-order from Amazon in the UK and US.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. He has written frequently for a range of publications, including Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Guardian, Index on Censorship, Washington Post and Salon. He is also a columnist for Mint and a writer-at-large for Tehelka. Salil serves on the board of English PEN, and has been a senior visiting fellow at the Kennedy School, Harvard University.