When Hindus express pride in Shri Rama, critics often bring up the Shambuka incident from the Uttar Ramayana under the guise of social justice. It is crucial to delve into this incident and section of the Ramayana to determine what is right and what is wrong in this context.
Did Shri Ram kill a Shudra for doing austerities, just because he was a Shudra? Yes, if we consider Uttar Ramayana as a true continuation of Valmiki's Ramayana and authored by Valmiki himself.
Recently in a TV debate with a Dravidianist, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) debater simply rejected Uttar Ramayana as a fabrication by Dravidianists. In response, the Dravidianist lawyer took the Ramayana published by Sri Ramakrishna Mission and read chapter and verse.
Clearly such denials are not the way to address the problem.
Fortunately, Dr. R. Rangan, an erudite, no-nonsense scholar has thoroughly studied both the Valmiki Ramayana (VR) and Uttar Ramayana (UR). Through a keen analysis encompassing literary style, character portrayal, and value systems, he establishes a comprehensive understanding of the Uttar Ramayana.
He takes the Sambuka question (along with a host of others) head on in his book 'Uttar Ramayana?' (Webolim, 2023).
Incidentally, he was one of the selected Ramayana Pandits for the Ayodhya Vedic yajna from all over India.
Uttara Ramayana narrates Sambuka’s execution by Rama. Rama killed him merely because he practised austerity being a Shudra – as law prohibited Shudras from performing austerity at that time.
But this runs completely counter to Valmiki Ramayana, he points out:
Vedas connect Shudra with Tapas. (Kanva Shukla Yajurveda, 34.1). VR describes how a son was born to a Vaishya father and Shudra Mother (2.63.50) practiced not only austerity (2.63.25.) but also read scriptures (2.64.33).
Today this episode is famous throughout India as the story of Shravan Kumar. Incidentally, in many (not all) popular and calendar art depictions of Yajnadutta, he is shown with the sacred thread. In the case of Sabari, the tribal woman, the Valmiki Ramayana is crystal clear – Sabari was a woman who was not debarred from (and hence had access to) the highest wisdom. Shri Ram addresses her as 'the wealthy one in austerities'. All these go against the UR version of Sambuka being killed for his tapas.
Here is the thorough historical and ideational contextualization of the Shambuka episode by the Vedic and Ramayana scholar:
In the era of the Vedic Mantras and VR, Shudra ill-treatment was absolutely absent. In the subsequent era, (of the so-called ancillary texts of Vedic Mantras) Shudra-hatred was mild. In the next era it turns intense. Then it got gradually reduced due to Bhagavata Dharma... According to UR only in Kali Yuga Shudra shall practice Tapasya while in Yuga prior to Kali Shudras did not (UR, 75.27). Though this appears to be a prediction, logically sepaking UR’s author must have seen Shudras doing Tapas in his society and talks about an earlier society in which they did not. ...
Dr. Rangan points out that despite UR asserting that Shudras could perform tapas only in Kali Yuga, Mahabharata, which according to tradition preceded Kaliyuga, also has instances of Shudras performing tapas. Based on all these he concludes:
Thus absence of Shudras’ Tapasya in pre-Kali-era is UR-author’s own concoction. UR’s author was not happy Shudra performing Tapasya which his society allowed, and narrated Shambuka story in this way being a rigid conservative.
So what should we do with the Uttar Ramayana? Should there be a rejection of UR as inauthentic?
There are many versions of Ramayana. Regional versions and sampradaya versions.
The situation is in a way commensurate (but not similar) to various versions of the Gospels existing before the advent of institutional Christianity. Certain versions were selected, their ‘theological elements’ put to vote and a religion was shaped as it fitted the imperial agenda of Rome. The other versions were suppressed.
In the case of Ramayana, there is indeed a central text – that of Valmiki. But alternate texts exist. They were not suppressed. There had been no violent persecution of those who adhered to the alternative versions. But even in a text like Uttar Ramayana, the Hindu civilisational psyche has done a natural selection of what are the attributes of Shri Ram and what are not.
For Hindus, Shri Ram bhakti (devotion to Lord Rama) and Shri Ramaanubhava (divine experience of Lord Rama) hold greater significance than the textual aspect.
Scriptures are essential, but throughout Indian civilisation, they have humbly retreated if they were projected as obstacles to bhakti and hence, Dharma. Scriptures assert themselves only as instruments of bhakti and Dharma. The uniqueness of Hindu civilisation, nay even its genius, is in the understanding and acknowledgment of these limits by the scriptures themselves. Dharma and bhakti serve as guiding forces for scriptures in this civilisation.
Devotees after devotees, mystics after mystics, poets after poets, have all sung the praise of Shri Ram. They have experienced Him as the Divine. His divinity manifests in his bowing to Ahalya which in popular rendering became the liberation of Ahalya from being a stone; in the chastisement of Parashurama, the Brahmin foe of Kshatriyas and also considered the avatar of Vishnu; in his embracing of Guha, the head of the clan of tribal boatmen.
Dr. Rangan points out that it is only in our later rendering that Ram’s friendship with Guha is seen as a prince embracing a tribal – an imposition of current notions of hierarchy onto an ancient narrative. In Valmiki Ramayana, it is a friendship of equals, he says.
While every devotee has sung of Ram’s vanquishing of Ravana—who himself was proud of his Brahmana lineage—there is hardly a Ram devotee who eulogised Ram killing Shambuka.
This should be taken as the Hindu way of rejecting the inauthentic. Not by suppressing the text ruthlessly, but in an enlightened way.
Thus, Rama killing Shambuka has been 'removed' from the narrative more effectively through bhakti – better than by any papal bull.
Ram bhakti has rejected it. No other authority is needed.
The Shambuka episode, often used by colonial and post-colonial demagogues to ascribe a 'gotcha moment' to themselves, is more a reflection of the distortions propagated by its wielders than a true representation of Shri Ram and our devotion to Him.
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