"Need To Revive The Concept Of Taking Our Content To The Masses" — Dushyanth Sridhar Talks About His New Book 'Ramayanam'

Arjun Narayanan

Jun 30, 2024, 05:56 PM | Updated 05:56 PM IST

Dushyanth Sridhar
Dushyanth Sridhar

The first volume of Dushyanth Sridhar’s retelling of the epic Ramayana was released in Chennai last week. He shares his thoughts on losing the narrative of our texts, creative liberties while writing a book and the universal appeal of the Ramayana.

You began narrating the Ramayana on your YouTube channel in the weeks leading to the prana prathishta in Ayodhya. Were you working on this book parallelly?

This book has been in my head since the pandemic broke out in 2020. I began a series (of 15 minutes each) on Rama Navami in 2023 and it continued till Makar Sankranti in January 2024. While I did the narration, I told people about my upcoming book on the Ramayanam and asked them to register for it. By the end, around 20,000 people had registered to know about the book. I'm not a full-time author and I couldn't take out dedicated time for it. I would write now and then and I had planned to complete it by the time of the prana prathishtha in Ayodhya.

Is Ramayanam your first book?

I authored a coffee table book in 2018 for the Coimbatore-based Jagathguru Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Trust. They have been running a veda pathashala for the last three or four decades and I have delivered many lectures there. The year 2017 marked 1000 years of Ramanujacharya and the year 2018 was also special because it was the 750th year of Vedanta Desika. So they decided to bring out a coffee table book to mark these milestones, the proceeds of which went go to the pathashala. The book had illustrations by Keshav and some photographs. I provided the script for it. But in a coffee table book, the script is secondary.

Ramayanam is a big project as it has 92,000 plus words with illustrations. There are 60 illustrations by Keshav and 60 illustrations by Upasana, who is from Boston and the book has 108 chapters.

Why did you choose the Ramayana as the topic for your first full-fledged book?

In my speeches, I take up topics like Purusha Suktam, Sri Suktam, 108 Divya Desams and so on. Not all topics work for all. For instance, the topic Divya Desams will appeal to South Indians but if I take it to the rest of the country, I will have to make more efforts as these are based on Azhwar’s pasurams, which are in chaste Tamil. Topics like Vedic Suktams are intense, but it may appeal to a specific audience.

Ramayanam is one topic that can connect different parts of Bharata. In fact, I would go on to say it has a South Asian appeal. Ramayanam has associations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The epic has cultural connections with Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. It is not very new to people in Europe or America as well. Of course, when it comes to Bharata, it is etched in our temple iconography, music, dance and everything.

For me, Ramayanam is the first and most important step to even understand Hinduism. Hence, I thought I should begin my writing series with it. This is the first volume, which covers the epic till Paduka Pattabhishekam in the Ayodhya Kandam. Hopefully, in 2025, I will bring out the second volume and then I will take up Mahabharatam.

Why did you decide to keep Valmiki as the main point of reference for your work and have you drawn from other poets?

Valmiki is the foundation of the epic. It is believed that Valmiki has done his work more in the spirit of a journalist than a poet and an honest journalist at that, who recorded events as they happened. So, if Rama killed Vali, he recorded it. If Rama abandoned Sita, he wrote that too very much like a person who recorded events as they happened. He even got it ratified by Rama himself when Lava Kusa sang the epic before him. But his epic is in the format of poetry and there is immense scope for you to read the lines and in between the lines.

This is where the commentaries on Ramayana are significant. I have relied on six commentaries — Tattvadipa by Maheshwara Tirtha, Bhushana by Govindaraja, Amrita Kataka by Madhava Yogin, Tilaka by Nagoji Bhatta, Siromani by Sivasahaya and Dharmakutam by Tryambaka. They beautifully explain the nuances of the Ramayana.

The modern retellings by writers like Rajagopalachari, Kamala Subramaniam and RK Narayan are all good but they don't take these commentaries into account. I have woven these commentaries into my writing seamlessly in such a way that the reader doesn't feel it's a piece of research work.

In fact, I took inspiration from over 127 works like Raghuvamsham of Kalidasa, Pratima of Bhasa, Kamba Ramayana, Thunchath Ezhuthachan’s Malayalam Ramayanam, compositions of Thayagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Arunachalakavi and many others.

Many poets like Tulsidas and Kamban didn’t dwell upon the Uttara Kanda and many even call it a later day addition. Where do you stand on this topic and why did you feel it had to be a part of your work?

Uttara Kanda is a part of the Ramayanam because Valmiki composed it and it is well-known through the commentators as well. Till the 1970s or 80s, no doubt was raised by any acharya or any commentator about it being a part of the Ramayana. Raghavendra Tirtha, Madhwacharya and Vedanta Desika did not have any doubts about the Uttara Kanda being a part of the epic.

Probably, Kamban or Tulsidas did not write about it because they wrote it in local languages for the masses and people were very sentimentally attached to the concept of family and were apprehensive about including it. I am just following Valmiki and the previous acharyas and thought I have to be honest. This is not a work of fiction like, say, Harry Potter, where I have to end the story on a good note.

Tamil Nadu is the place where Rama bhakti was revived before anywhere else in the medieval era and yet, it is the place where Rama has been defamed in an ugly manner. How did the narrative change over time?

It is possible to build a narrative and spin your own arguments, however flawed they are, when the person who's listening to your arguments is ignorant. And ignorance is never bliss; it is the source of all problems. In the last 1000 years, roughly about the first 750 years, there was some kind of invasion or the other. When the political invasions happened, it did have religious repercussions. So, there is a possibility that people lost connection with temples because temples were razed down and manuscripts were burnt. People were away from their religious sites and religious scriptures. And in the last 250 years of British and European colonialism, scriptures were largely affected by misinterpretations. People lost connection with not just Sanskrit, but also their local languages.

In such a scenario, it is very easy for anybody to spin a narrative and convince people. They went to the extent of calling Sita a prostitute and stating that Rama was a man with no character. They said he was not born to the Dasharatha but instead to a Rishi and a horse. Slowly, people started believing them.

People had no choice because either the book was not accessible or whatever books were available were not comprehendible. We have to revive this whole concept of taking our content to the masses. I have also used some creative liberties just to stitch the loose ends in a way that is not dangerously creative.

This last point you mentioned about creativity is interesting because, in the last 10 years, mythology and mythological fiction have emerged as frontrunners in the publishing industry. How do you see this trend?

I have always detested the use of the word mythology because it has a very different connotation in the Indian context. The word myth is generally construed to be something which is not true and I can surely tell you that the Ramayana is a true event. I would place it in the genre of history, religion, philosophy or theology.

In this book, I've taken the help of research scholar Jayashree Saranathan to date the historical events as per tithi. We have mentioned the date and day based on the details given in the Ramayana. For example, for the Paduka Pattabhisheka, we have mentioned it is as January 23, 5090 BCE, based on the fact that it was Pramoda samvatsara, Vaisakha suklapaksa, dvitiya tithi and Vaisakha nakshatra.

In the chapter involving a conversation between Narada and Brahma, we have a sketch of the sculpture of Brahma from the 13th-century Hoysala Temple in Halebidu. When there is a mention of Rishyashringa, we have drawn his sculpture as seen in the Mathura museum, which belongs to the Gupta period. It is history for us.

Now coming to the books in this genre that have come out in the last 10 years, many of them have done really well. But what has happened is some of them have stretched their creativity to the point where it is damaging.

For instance, you show Shiva smoking weed but we don’t have any reference for that. What is your purpose? When you bring such elements and your book sells a million copies imagine the impact it has on those million readers. Then these people will ask why you want to worship someone who did drugs. Creativity shouldn’t damage the ethos of a religion. I believe there is a gap and that can be filled by serious people, who are seriously pursuing itihasa puranas in mainstream media.

Also, most of these people have not gone through a traditional method of learning. There is a difference between doing an MBA from a reputed B School and doing it by correspondence sitting at home. When you don't undergo traditional learning under acharyas, your learning of the Ramayanam and Mahabharatam is largely restricted to your library of books.

Reading can even lead you the wrong way. Your understanding will not be complete and you will end up writing trash. Then you will end up superimposing your personal feelings and orientations on the story. This is why you read someone transposing homosexuality onto the relationship of Krishna and Arjuna because they are seeing everybody and everything through the lens of their own life.

Secondly, all these works are largely in Sanskrit. Imagine a person who does not know a word in Samskritam and relies on the translations made by William Jones in the 18th century to write his book. Such books have sold in millions and imagine how many more millions would have read that book. Then how does one be creative and yet be true to the spirit of the story? We have various examples such as the Abhijnana Shakuntalam of Kalidasa, where he was creative yet all the scholars accepted it.

There is a timeless quality to the epic. What have you done to make it interesting for the young readers?

There are stories in the Valmiki Ramayana that refer to characters who appear in other works but it is assumed the reader will know them. For instance, when Sita has a face-off with Ravana in the Sundarakandam, she takes inspiration from women like Suvarchala, Damayanti, Savitri etc. Valmiki’s Ramayanam doesn’t provide details of those stories (some of them appear in texts like the Mahabharata) but I have narrated all of them here.

So, when there is a reference to Vamana Avataram, I have given the story as well. The incidents in the Ramayana are clear to all. Two people marry. They are not offered their share of property and are exiled. The wife gets kidnapped and the husband forms a friendship with the vanaras and then he retrieves his wife from the rakshasa.

However, philosophers have interpreted certain aspects of the Ramayanam to denote how the jivatma and paramatma are related. I have dwelt upon those philosophies so that this isn’t just about storytelling. There will be a lot of lessons to be taken from it.

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