Ramayana: An ‘epic’ controversy
“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been?” wondered the late poet and scholar AK Ramanujan of the Indian epic in a compelling essay he wrote for a University of Pittsburgh conference in 1987.
Twenty four years later, the essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas:Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, finds itself at the centre of a fresh controversy. It has been dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University after protests from hardline Hindu groups and a number of teachers. They believe the many versions recounted in the essay offend Hindu beliefs.
As Dr Ramanujan tells the story, the number of versions of the epic which have existed in India and the rest of south-east Asia for the past 2,500 years or more is simply “astonishing”. Though Valmiki’s Sanskrit poem Ramayana is the most influential among Indians, Ram’s story is available in at least 22 languages, including Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Tibetan. Many of these languages have more than one telling of the epic.
Twenty-five or more renditions of the epic in various genres – epics, poems, mythological stories – have been in Sanskrit alone, wrote Dr Ramanujan. There are sculptures, mask plays, puppet plays and shadow plays around the epic. One researcher, Camille Bulcke, counted 300 tellings of the epic.
Millions of Indians have read and “watched” the epic in a popular comic book and a hit TV series. I remember the soap nearly shutting down India on Sunday mornings in the mid-1980s – streets would be deserted, shops would be closed and people would bathe and garland their TV sets before the serial began.
Hindu groups first protested against the inclusion of Dr Ramanujan’s essay in the syllabus in 2008. At that time, the head of Delhi University’s history department was also assaulted by some hot heads. But the teachers had stuck to their guns and refused to drop the essay.
Three years later, bowing to renewed pressure, the university’s top academic body decided to take the essay out of the history syllabus, though, reportedly, a minority of teachers protested against the decision. One of them, Abha Dev Habib, described the decision as “very regressive and unfortunate”.
So why have the right-wing groups railed against Dr Ramanujan’s essay?
Journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju suggests that the groups love the “soap telling”of the epic poem which iconises Ram and “want the narrative to retain the structure and simplicity of a bedtime story so that you fall asleep in consent and total belief as you listen to it”. Literary critic Nilanjana S Ray writes in her blog that this may “have been part of the general climate of intolerance and the battle over who had the right to tell the country’s history and its myths that was part of the Indian landscape between the 1980s and the 2000s”. She talks about how self-appointed censors wilfully scan texts for “offensive” phrases.
Ms Ray is correct. Last year Mumbai University withdrew Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey – shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991 – from its curriculum after the nationalist Shiv Sena staged protests against its “derogatory” references to party members. Mr Mistry said the move was “a sorry spectacle of book-burning”.
Last year the state of Gujarat banned Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld’s incisive Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India long before it had been released in India. Gujarat’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians had been told that the book sensationalised Gandhi’s friendship with a German man, who may have been homosexual. All this was far from true, but the ban stayed.
And everybody remembers how India swiftly banned Salman Rushdie’sSatanic Verses in 1988 because some clerics said it had insulted Islam. The Indian-born Rushdie had said he was “hurt and humiliated” by the decision.
The attacks on freedom of expression by the right-wing fringe extend beyond India. This July, a screening of Sita Sings the Blues, an award-winning take on the epic by American animator Nina Paley, in New York was cancelled after a local Hindu group bombarded the organisers with hundreds of protest emails. A man attending a lecture by American IndologistWendy Doniger in London in 2003 threw an egg at her. He was apparently incensed “by the sexual thrust of her paper on one of our most sacred epics”.
Salil Tripathi, who has written a book on Hindu nationalist attacks on free expression, finds Hindu groups engaging in “competitive intolerance” after realising that other faiths are able to “attract attention by challenging text, interpretations, films, books, music and imagery”.
Many would agree with this. But the ease with which attacks on free expression can be mounted in a country which never tires of calling itself the world’s largest democracy betrays a weak and inffectual state, which often fails to respect and protect dissenters. That, many believe, means mischievous, trouble-making minorities can easily subdue and attack dissent.
When a Department let the University down
“No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time,” wrote A.K. Ramanujan in 1968. “I have heard bits and pieces of it [in Kannada and Tamil] in a tailor’s shop where a pundit used to regale us with Mahabharata stories; from an older boy who loved to keep us spellbound with it after cricket …; from a somewhat bored algebra teacher who switched from the binomial theorem to the problem of Draupadi and her five husbands.”
It was such an acclaimed linguist, folklorist and translator of all things Indian, forever opening doors to the interplay between the epic and everyday experience, who was recently shunned as an “untouchable” by the academic caste panchayat of Delhi University. This has invited a humungous uproar among academics and civil society in India and abroad. The now famous Expert D, whose minority view justified the excision of Ramanajun’s classic essay on 300 Ramayans from the University syllabus, feared that non-Hindu teachers will have difficulty putting across its excesses to believing students. By that token this article should get killed right here, for my name might end up betraying my thoughts — a sad reflection that communities in India cannot communicate!
In any case, the role played by the Oxford University Press (OUP) in the three-year long saga ending with the burial of Ramanujan’s Ramayana piece illustrates how the world out there has come to unthinkingly push artefacts of the mind out of public spaces. This is cause for grave concern, for OUP India is not only a major publisher; it is technically ‘a department of the University of Oxford’. And it is tasked with furthering from New Delhi that premier University’s “objective of excellence in scholarship” by making and selling books. A retail shop dispensing for the most part the famous Oxford English Dictionary for nearly half a century, OUP India was transformed in the 1970s and 1980s into an intellectual power house by its first desi general manager, the redoubtable Ravi Dayal. Brand OUP that Dayal built from his cubby-hole in the Walled City endured well after his retirement into the 1990s. It was thus that the Ramanujan essay landed in OUP’s lap in an edited volume in 1991.
And thereby hangs a morality tale. At the first sign of trouble, in a letter written in September 2008, OUP decided to thank those who felt aggrieved by it, “for pointing … out … that the essay has the potential of hurting religious sentiments.” It went on to add “that neither are we selling the book nor there are any plans to reissue it.” This was a corporate’s way of being economical with the truth, for the apology left unsaid that the offending article was also a part of another OUP-published volume, the Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, and whether that academic bestseller was being trashed forever as well. That was not the end of the story. The Press also served a veritable notice on DU’s History Department for infringing its copyright (and in effect profiting) by including the Ramanujan article in a book of readings! There was no such book, and no intent, only a bunch of photocopies including that essay in a campus photocopy shop, and stories planted in the press about it. The publishing house was being simultaneously both supine and assertive. And when the DU Academic Council took up the issue this month, the letter from OUP washing its hands of Ramanujan got appended as a sort of covering note to the opinion of the four experts.
Odd as it may seem, this takes us straight back to the well-known painting of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti, the legendary saint of Ajmer, from Jahangir’s Court. Emperor Akbar himself felt that the birth of his son was blessed by the power of this great Sufi of Ajmer (who died in 1230), to whose shrine elites and commoners continue to make a beeline. Jahangir in turn made large endowments to the shrine, and also asked his court painter “Bicchitar” around the year 1620 to draw the great Sufi in a suitable light. The painting shows a radiant Shaikh holding a globe — an orb with the Mughal crown — in the role of a kingmaker. The message was made doubly clear in the inscription within: “The Emperor is endowed with victory both here in this world and the world hereafter through the Shaikh’s grace.” One of the masterpieces of Mughal miniature, this painting is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
When OUP published a well-researched book on the cult and shrine of the Ajmer Sufi in 1989, those in the know naturally decided to have this iconic image of Muinuddin Chishti adorn the cover of the book, also including it as a frontispiece. Everyone, including OUP, Pakistan, thought it was a capital idea. The book was published with the painting of the renowned Sufi on the cover and on the inside page. The managers of the shrine in turn objected to a sales agent about such a pictorial depiction. OUP immediately buckled under, even though, according to insiders, no formal complaint had been preferred.
It reissued the book after replacing the dust jacket and tearing the luminous painting from its frontispiece! It thereby missed a great opportunity to maintain that Sufis (including the sage of Ajmer) are routinely depicted in Mughal paintings. It might well have noted that the depiction of these distinguished personages in Mughal paintings was not uncommon. In fact, the great Rembrandt made a copy from a miniature (c.1650) showing the founders of the four major Sufi Orders in convivial converse under a tree. Interestingly, the book that was partially vandalised by OUP itself, showed in fascinating detail that Emperor Jahangir was a great devotee of the Ajmer Shaikh, a major benefactor of the shrine, and had no doubt commissioned this particular portrait out of his profound regard for Muinuddin Chishti and his dargah at Ajmer. That was 20 years before the Ramanujan abdication. I can’t vouchsafe for the saint and the scholar, but India’s knowledge economy must certainly be turning in its grave all this while.
Is this being harsh on a reputable organisation charged by Oxford University to trade in ideas worldwide, and in India? After all, OUP has launched many an academic career, including this writer’s, and continues to publish worthwhile works. Must academics working out of their assured ivory towers cast stones at those who have to worry about litigation and unsold stocks? I am sure a case can be made: “This is India and we do things differently here.” The problem is that every time a major publishing house indulges in safe yet disingenuous marketeering, it also diminishes the scholars who entrust them with their ideas. Those making money by ‘manufacturing’ knowledge need to think twice before shortchanging the very business of enlightenment.
(Shahid Amin is a professor of history at Delhi University).