When Rama changes the prevalent racist discourse around Indian history and society.
By no stretch of imagination can Jules Michelet (1798-1874), the famous French historian, can be called a racist. He was one year old when the French Revolution was slowly coming to an end. Later, he would go on to become one of the most influential historians of the event. He coined the term ‘Renaissance’ and as his Wikipedia page will tell you such was his influence that Vincent Van Gogh in his drawing ‘Sorrow’ (1882), inscribed the lines from Jules Michelet's book La Femme.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere in which Michelet grew up had internalised prejudices as fundamental truths which, when viewed from our century, would definitely be seen as racist.
He himself had them in him.
Yet, here, we are going to see how despite his unconsciously internalised prejudices, the reading of the Ramayana rejuvenated in him a sense of common humanity and even expanded the boundaries of his love to embrace all living beings. The book in question is Bible of Humanity (Bible de l'humanité, 1864), an ambitious attempt to provide a historical sketch of religions.
In his depiction of India, what we see are two forces at work: one, the vision of common humanity that is very much Hindu and in the second, the idea of races with their essences stereotyped. And through the Ramayana, the author arrives at a liberating vision. No wonder, this book was not much appreciated in the West.
Michelet begins with a romantic view of ancient India which was then very common among the European scholars and is critical of British attempts to reduce the antiquity of India. But what is more important in his approach is that while most European Indophiles tend to see India as an ancient ‘Aryan’ glory land now reduced to a sickening inferior mass of humanity, Michelet is critical of such a conception. To him the British ‘make it appear that the Indian Bible is more modern than the Jewish’. In truth, however, ‘primeval India was the original cradle, the matrix of the world, the principal and dominant source of races, of ideas, and of languages’.
He then points out that while the British wanted to limit India’s antiquity, they picturised India as being ‘buried forever in her Elephantina grottos, her Vedas and her Ramayana, like Egypt in her pyramids.’
They regarded the country, as large as all Europe, and her population of one hundred and eighty millions of souls, as insignificant, and even contemptuously declared that this numerous people were made up from the refuse of a worn-out nation.Bible of Humanity, 1864 p.8
Then in the succeeding pages he describes the economic exploitation and cultural humiliation heaped upon India in such a moving manner that one cannot but admire the way this great French historian sounds the conch declaring the start of the Indian freedom movement itself. He speaks of how 'Haughty England', considered India 'a land fit to be cultivated only for the purpose of enriching her rapacious rulers, together with the indignities heaped upon her people by both protestants and catholics'.
The English do not hesitate to boast that they have killed India. The wise and humane H. Russell thought so, said so. They have oppressed her with taxes and prohibitory tariffs, and discouraged her arts as far as it was possible. ... Oriental art is by far the most brilliant and the least costly. The cheapness of labor is excessive ; I had almost said deplorable. The workman lives on a trifle. A handful of rice satisfies him for a day. ... Here man acquires an exquisite fineness of perception and feeling. Nature makes him a colorist and endows him with special privileges as her own child. He lives with her, and all that he does is charming. He combines the most diverse strains, and commingles the dullest hues in such a manner as to produce the sweetest and most exquisite effect.
After having pointed out all the misdeeds that the British have done to India, he comes to the Ramayana. But then he makes a comparison between the Indian weaver and Valmiki. The historical insight that fills this comparison makes one shudder at its depth. The Indian weaver was competing against the British mill, which, through unfair trade policies, colonial exploitation, and equally cruel Christian prejudice was killing Indian native schools of art.
He points out, that, in the report of the Juries of Art exhibition held in Britian (1858) it was acknowledged that 'the charm and beauty of the invention, and the distinctness, variety, commingling and happy blending of colors' (of) Indian creations were incomparable to those of the British products. Yet the Indian creators were denied prizes and were given only 'barren words' of appreciation.
In the midst of this ineffable mildness the humble, feeble, half-nourished, and wretched-looking being conceives the idea of the wonderful Indian shawl. As the profound poet Valmiki beheld his great poem, the Ramayana, gathered, as it were, in the hollow of his hand, so this poetic weaver perceives the whole design that he would execute, and begins his great artistic work which sometimes is continued through a century.
And then the work thus started would be completed by his hereditary descendants and relatives. In describing the 'Aryan' religion of the Hindus, he astonishingly arrives at an important distinguishing part of Hindu religion: "In this benign religion of love without terror, the gods mingle freely in the actions of human life, elevating them and making them divine."
Now our historian succumbs to the typical racial interpretation of ancient events that European colonial historiography creates. He imagines the Aryans encountering 'a yellow race'. This encounter resulted in the yellow race admiring the white race and the latter would have got readily absorbed into it. The racial admixture thus resulted in 'the most remarkable moral events which has ever occurred on earth, and was only maintained behind the barrier of castes, which in that climate were readily formed on the very rational basis of psychology and of natural history.'
In such a climate, with such inter-commingling, the small number of the Aryans would probably have melted away as a drop of wax in a brazier. ... The effort by which the human genius withstood this was not less terrible. By an immense imaginative power and a harsh legislation, which may appear tyrannical, the Aryans created a new nature of invention and force, in order to intimidate, exorcise, and disarm the other.
So here we see that the narration is not based on the study of Hindu literature itself but is entirely based on colonial speculations. Then he makes another observation. This, based on his own reading of Indian texts. He states that in Hindu religion at least at the conceptual level woman is free and he sees in Manu 'the true formula of marriage, which no society can ever surpass, is found and established'. And yet the reality of the society and climate did not allow this high idealism to materialize.
However little energy woman may possess, if she make use of it, she, by this alone, becomes the equal of her husband and the mistress of the house, as much as she was under the Vedas. But does nature permit India, this great prophetess, to accomplish all that she teaches to mankind ? No. The tyranny of the climate does not allow the reality to equal this dream of perfection. Woman is marriageable in her eighth year. ‘A man of thirty may marry a girl of twelve, and a man of twenty-four, a girl of eight.’(Manu). This law will ultimately change everything.
So he says that 'the Brahmanic law,' which initially provided the woman safety, 'became, little by little, her scourge'.
But this was not peculiar to Indian religion, he hastens to add, 'but is the common history of all religions'. All these make Jules Michelet one of the unique social historians of his period. He was not completely blind to the social problems of India. But he did not essentialise India through her social problems. At the same time he was very well receptive to the spiritual splendour of ancient India and the continued vital presence of the same in Indian society - something wanting even today in the studies of Indian society, culture and Hindu Dharma.
Clearly, our historian has read the translation and hence uses the term ‘caste’ in the place of ‘varna’, an error that we find even today in some very learned Indians.
So such errors can be ignored and contextualised. As he moves to Ramayana, he notices the power struggle between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas as seen in both Viswamitra and Parashurama.
In Viswamitra he finds 'the most profound and intimate embodiment of the Indian soul' which 'makes and can destroy, creates and can annihilate.' He says that while the author of Ramayana shows his great respect to Brahmins, through the song he subverts the power structure. So, just by hearing Ramayana 'a slave or outcaste' could be ennobled: '... if this outcast may be ennobled and share in the benediction of the Ramayana, no one is beyond the reach of divine mercy.'
What is to be noted here is that unlike the colonial Indologists of his time, both Indo-phobes and Indophiles, and even modern scholars, Michelet goes beyond reading in Ramayana the tension between Brahmins and Kshatriyas. He can look at the eternal message which he gathers from reading it:
The salvation is extended to all. After the ancient Rama of the Brahmans (the Rama with the Hatchet) and of the severe law, came the Rama of the warriors, clement and merciful, the universal Savior, the Rama of Grace.’
Michelet always returns to the metaphor of the artistic Indian carpet woven by the common Indian weaver to explain the grandeur of Ramayana. So he says:
At first it is an exquisite sacred shawl, or scarf for Vichnou, in which the marvellous birth of Rama, his city, his marriage, and his beautiful Sita, form the warp of the poem. Around this warp all nature, mountains, forests, rivers, Indian landscapes, the seasons of the year, all the good friends of man, animals, and vegetables, are woven as if into a charming carpet. This carpet, however grand, enlarges itself and comprehends arts, trades, palaces, towns, kiosks, bazars, and harems. It then becomes like a tent, a marvellous pavilion, in which the whole world may be sheltered.
For Michelet Rama breaks all social barriers, and remember, for Michelet, the social barriers of caste emanate because of the encounter of races. And so Rama becomes naturally the demolisher of the racial barriers. Consider the following passage:
In Rama are reunited the twofold ideals of the two great Castes. On one side he attains the highest point of Brahmanic virtue, and on the other he adds to it the highest devotion of the warrior, who, for the sake of others, hazards not only himself, but sometimes those whom he loves more than himself. ... The great King Vigvamitra, one of the ancestors of Rama, and author of many sublime hymns, notwithstanding his great piety, seems to have paid but little heed to the barrier of Castes. Fifty of his hundred sons were born of Dasyas, captives, and yellow women, on whom he had bestowed his favors. Hence it would appear that this high type of Priest-King embraced in his immense heart all Castes and all conditions.
His characterisation of ‘Dasyas, captives and yellow women’ comes from typical Western notions of race. But embracing ‘in his immense heart all castes and all conditions’ is the spirit in which Rama has been seen by Hindu eyes through millennia. That this embrace of all races is seen approvingly by Michelet then comes more from the influence of Ramayana one can say.
Pointing out the 'pious beginning of Ramayana' in the 'exquisite outburst of Valmiki upon the death of a poor heron', he makes a comparison:
True benediction of genius. While in the West the most dry and sterile minds are proud in the presence of inferior nature, the Indian genius, the richest and most prolific, knows neither the little nor the great, but generously embraces the whole as a universal brotherhood, as if all possessed but one soul.
In the association of Rama with Hanuman, Michelet finds the message of Ramayana in all glory. In this concluding passage he writes:
In the presence of the two armies ; in the presence of men and gods, Rama and Hanuman embrace each other! Let no man again speak of Castes. Indeed, the poem henceforth carefully avoids their mention, but in reality the barrier is removed and will never more exist. The Caste of Beasts is suppressed. How then could any human Caste exist ? The most debased of men can now say : “ Hanuman has made me free.” Thus is exploded the narrow heaven of the Brahmanic religion. All social distinctions are at an end. The whole world embraces amid great rejoicings. In this great day of Grace, can there exist any wicked or any damned ? No. The sinner was a negative being, an absurdity, a misconception. He has made expiation ; he has been pardoned. The monster was nothing but a covering under which a poor soul was imprisoned by a fatal enchantment. This stricken soul is delivered and instantly mounts upward; is happy, and, in amazement, renders thanksgiving.
Note his mention of ‘the narrow heaven of the Brahmanic religion’. For Michelet, these words represent not a cunning Brahminical conspiracy or a power structure as has become part of Indian political discourse today through the colonial legacy. But, they mean a specific Indian version of what religious power structures devolve into.
To him, the embrace of Rama breaks even the species barriers. Notably, Michelet does not impose racial interpretations on Ramayana. Thus worshiping Hanuman is not ‘debasing humanity before a monkey god’ as Marx and missionaries alleged and nor are the great-apes Dravidians as colonial Indologists alleged. Instead, the embrace of Rama and Hanuman liberates humanity form all prejudices.
The question today before us is have we, the educated Hindus, captured the spirit of Ramayana as this French historian captured?
Whenever one goes to ancient temples accompanied by scholars, one sees an important aspect in their explanation of the divine sculpted form - particularly of Rama and other avatars of Vishnu. They invariable say that these forms somehow were sculpted to reinforce the divine right of that particular king. It never fails to amuse me how celebrating a prince who at the hour of his coronation accepts exile could have reinforced the authority of any particular king. Actually, it makes the king compelled to do sacrifices of his power.
But, such interpretations are in a way continuation of the colonial legacy that Hindu temples are more instruments of temporal power and social control, and not manifestations of the spiritual values. The approach of Michelet reverses this. It subsumes the assumed social strains of the period of composition of Ramayana to the inner spiritual strength that can be derived from it.
We see Michelet start his chapter on Ramayana with the then prevailing racial notions of European Christendom. However, as he progresses, we see that all the racial prejudices melt and he speaks in the voice that unites all humanity, nay, all living beings.
In the beginning of his chapter on Ramayana Michelet writes:
‘... He who reads the Ramayana is absolved from all his sins.’ This last expression is no delusion of the fancy. This great stream of poetry sweeps away our abiding sin ; the dregs, the bitter leaven, which time brings and leaves in us, it washes away, and thus makes us pure.
Today, this Sri Rama Navami of 2019, 155 years after Michelet wrote these words, one can only say, ‘If only humanity listens to the spirit and values of Ramayana ...’