The recent announcement that the popular TV serial Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan will be telecast on Doordarshan amidst the lockdown has left many fuming.
The accusation is that the 1987 TV serial is responsible for ‘communalism’.
Anand Patwardhan says that the ground of the Babri demolition was “first laid by the non-stop playing of the TV serial Ramayan”.
“..BJP was not in power, but a hapless government channel Doordarshan spread pop religion in the name of ‘culture’. Did they know that there was a design behind this? That a bow-and-arrow bearing Rama would enter every household and every heart?”
In an article on the reasons behind India turning into a ‘violent, intolerant, illiberal autocracy’, Shashi Tharoor lists Ramayan and Mahabharat TV serials.
TV series made Rama popular, or Rama made the TV series popular?
The argument is that one TV show at a time when the TV itself was not as common as is today, is what made Rama enter every household and every heart.
Only those who are utterly ignorant of Indian history can put the cart before the horse like this.
Rama and Ramayan have been popular across India for centuries.
Long before the 1989 Ramayan serial, the epic has been a popular theme of depiction in painting, sculpture, puppet shows, shadow plays, dance dramas, poems, novels, folk songs etc.
Almost all the states in India have age-old and unique Ramkatha-based literary and artistic traditions.
The epic had been translated into every major Indian language. As one scholar said, as many languages as there are in India, there is many hundreds of times as many versions of Ramkatha. At the core of these traditions is the idea of dharma.
Robert P Goldman, professor of Sanskrit, South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley says:
Few works of literature produced in any place at any time have been as popular, influential, imitated and successful as the great and ancient Sanskrit epic poem, the Valmiki Ramayana.
Ramlila, a dramatic folk re-enactment of the epic is found not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also in Bali, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. Scholars also note that the tradition of Ramlila is ancient.
Norvin Hein speculates an ancient grand tradition of Vaishnava dance dramas to explain the similarity of themes, gestures and staging conventions between diverse performance traditions across the country like Kathakali, Kathak, Yakshagana etc.
John Brockington, a professor of Sanskrit, argues that not just Ramayan, but all ancient epics of India would have been recited and transmitted widely by bards and students in Ramlila-like manner, orally from one generation to another, and consistently preserved across a wide geographic region.
A look at the shadow puppetry around India shows how popular the Ramayana is along the length and breadth of the country.
Tolapavakuthu in Kerala (ninth century AD, basic text - Kamban Ramayana), Ravana Chhaya in Odisha (Bichitra Ramayana by the Oriya poet Biswanatha Khuntia) Tholu Bommalattam in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; Togalu Gombeeatta in Karnataka; Chamadyache Bahulya in Maharashtra; and Putul Nacha in West Bengal all popularly depict Ramayana.
Interestingly, these are performed using the leather puppets by the members of the lower caste, supposedly lacking in knowledge and education. Many Western scholars are amazed at the depth of their understanding of the text.
The answer lies in the unique mode of knowledge creation and dissemination in India which is decentralised, organic and dynamic, contrary to both the western paradigm of centralised and single-source dissemination, and the modern trends of commodification and museumisation.
Different tribal communities across India like Bhils, Mundas, Santhals, Gonds, Sauras, Korkus, Rabhas, Bodo-kacharis, Khasis, Mizos, Meiteis keep alive different versions of Ramayana.
Nang sbek thom in Cambodia, Nang yai in Thailand, Phra Lak Phra Ram of Laos, and Wayang purwa in Indonesia are some other examples.
In 1919, the literary historian A A Macdonell said:
Probably no work of world literature, secular in origin, has ever produced so profound an influence on the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana
One example of Ramayana as a living heritage are the Indian weddings, especially in the rural areas relatively untouched by modernisation and westernisation.
North Indian weddings follow the description of Rama-Sita wedding in Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas — with the women singing songs, clowns and drummers etc.
In weddings across India, women of the family and neighborhood gather and sing songs. These songs are like a running commentary to the rituals. Ramkatha is an inextricable part of these songs.
Humour, anger, love, devotion, all kinds of emotions are expressed using Ramayana themes.
Some songs compare the men of the groom's baraat to Rama's ancient army — praising, yet indirectly calling them monkeys. The vidaai would see a song on how Janaka was sad to send away his daughter. Others refer to the splendour of the wedding of Rama and Sita.
The illiterate village women dig deeper the meanings of Ramayana in these songs.
Through these songs, they directly and personally converse with Dasharatha, Rama, Sita or Janaka, bring out the meaning of Dharma, and as is the case in Bhakti tradition, even call them names, pretend to be upset, lay their grievances etc.
As everyone listens, in these songs, the women will also complain to Sri Rama about their men mistreating them, or the new police commissioner in the area, or the inflation.
Women also communicate their own experiences, for example, by singing about Sita's suffering during the forest exile — the pain in her feet, the hunger, and thirst.
Through the popular folk songs, people assert their right to tell their king Sri Rama their plights. These songs, therefore, incorporate themes around poverty, caste, gender, as well as the hope that Sri Rama will do justice.
One example is the song about a tiny squirrel helping to build the bridge over the sea and getting discouraged by her small size. In the song, Rama takes notice of what she's done, rewards her, and reminds us that the smallest and weakest among us can make great contributions.
Some of the songs, in the simple language and expression, are as shaking as Sankaracharya’s Moha Mudgara.
Rama and Indian rulership
From the Guptas in the north, Cholas in the south, Chalukyas of the Deccan, the Boros of northeast who call themselves Ramsa (the children of Rama) to Thai kings who include ‘Rama’ in their title down to the present day, Rama and Ramayana were invoked to signal commitment to justice and establish moral authority of the ruler.
Buddhist and Jaina traditions also include Rama and Ramkatha, as do the bottom-up movements that took place centuries later, be it Kabir, Ramananda or Ravidas.
That the imagery of Rama as a righteous ruler and Rama Rajya as the era of justice is entrenched among Indians is demonstrated by the fact that even those who conquered India and vowed to rid the country of polytheism and idol-worshippers, had to resort to Siya-Rama to legitimise their rule.
According to Hein, since the Muslim rule destroyed the bases of patronage and training required for the top down dissemination of the epics, the folk dramas adapted to the admittedly adverse conditions, wherein a simple performance could be quickly orchestrated with relatively few resources.
The legend of Rama and Sita persisted through the Mughal rule, and Rama’s image of a popular and just ruler remained intact.
In fact, as Saquib Salim points out, a trend arose in the medieval Muslim literature to regard the avatars of Vishnu – particularly Rama and Krishna – as prophets (since there is no word for avatar in Arabic/Persian), and many Muslims in India revered Rama as much as Hindus did.
Salim refers to the poetic eulogy of Rama by Allama Iqbal:
It is quite evident that he does not believe that Rama is leader of Hindus alone, otherwise he would have used the word Ahl-e-Hind (people of India) rather than Ahl-e-Nazar (people with vision). For him, the status of Lord Rama as a spiritual leader is not limited to the Vaishnavas or Hindus only. Lord Rama lives in the ethos of India and its people.
So, it would be ahistorical to say that a TV serial made Rama popular, or abetted “a greater Hindu consciousness”.
Instead, the visibly enormous response of the people to the serial only made it harder for the Left to deny the existence of a pan-India Hindu consciousness.
Rama — an inspiration to fight against injustice
Throughout India’s history, Rama and Rama Rajya have inspired Indians to speak up against against oppression.
For example, Sant Ramdas, who inspired Chhatrapati Shivaji, was a devotee of Rama and his works include strong expressions to resist the aggressive Muslim invaders.
Guru Gobind Singh, who organised the Sikhs into a warrior community called Khalsa, said in his autobiography that he is a descendant of Sri Rama’s younger son Lav, and that Guru Nanak Dev was a descendant of Sri Rama’s elder son Kush.
In fact, Sikhs played a decisive role in the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi issue, be it the liberation of the Janmabhoomi by Guru Gobind Singh as recorded in Alamgir Nama, or the storming of the mosque structure by the Nihang Sikhs in 1800s, who performed a hawan and chanted and wrote “Rama Rama” on the walls.
Rama and Ramakatha played an important role in the socio-cultural reforms. As an example, see how the Shabari episode of Ramayan is described in Bhaktmaal:
When some of the rishis disrespected Shabari and stopped her from using the same area of river that they used, the water of the river started rotting, and ultimately, became unusable.
When Sri Rama arrived at the Ashrama to meet Shabari, the rishis asked for a solution.
Then, Sri Rama explained to the rishis that it was their attitude towards Shabari, that was polluting, and not Shabari. The rishis’ touch polluted the river, and Shabari’s touch cleaned it. Therefore, when Shabari stopped from going to the river, the water rotted.
And in what is revolutionary even in today’s times, for purification, Sri Rama asks the rishis to let the river water touch the feet of Shabari, and that the rishis take her Charanodak, to purify their own minds.
Of course, Sri Rama himself consumes the half-eaten fruits given by Shabari.
With such powerful imagery, it is no surprise that Ramkatha traditions across India also reflect a quest for social justice.
Aravindan Neelkandan points out the famous Ayyavazhi movement of the 18th century in southern Travancore, initiated by Iyya Vaikundar, who used the framework of Ramayana and Mahabharata to fight against bothcaste-supremacists and colonial missionaries.
Similarly, the great Birsa Munda, who was converted to Christianity as a kid, left the foreign religion as a grown-up, learned about Hindu religious teachings and studied the old scriptures along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
He wore the sacred thread, worshipped the Tulsi plant and gave up meat. He organised the Munda rebellion against British Raj. Before the rebellion, Birsa visited a famous Sita Rama temple built by the Nagbansi Munda Raja to get the blessing of his ancestors. He also visited a Jagannath Temple six miles from Ranchi - the places connected with history of Mundas.
Rama and Ramkatha also went on to play an important role in the Indian national movement.
Leaders like Gandhi used Rama-nama and Rama Rajya not just for a political revolution, but also to end caste discrimination.
We discussed Indian weddings previously.
In the same wedding, drummers, jokers, and other performers also assemble. They perform skits on Ramayana episodes, taking up the roles of Rama, Sita etc.
While considered lower caste in social hierarchy, these performers are given a free hand to criticise during these ceremonies. This is understood as their right given to them by Sri Rama.
These performers will say things like loads of make-up won’t make you look younger and point to people in the crowd - everyone will laugh, but the very next line will be about how samsaric status doesn’t reflect one’s spiritual status.
Connected to this is the mocking of caste pollution.
A performer will tell a story about how one Panditji puts several efforts to secure the prasad to be offered in the temple from getting polluted. He jumps, falls, runs etc. People will laugh, and then at the end of the story - it will be revealed that the grain was already polluted - by a parrot who had given it a peck in the field.
On hearing the songs of the women, and seeing these performances will be inevitably reminded of the works of great Bhakti saints like Andal, Chokhamela etc.
In fact, Valmiki — the original author of the Ramayana — was himself a lower caste who attained salvation by Rama’s name. In the later part of the story, Valmiki appears and teaches Luv and Kusha - the sons of Rama-Sita.
Originally, Ramanand Sagar wanted to end the TV serial at Ram-Sita coronation, as in several versions like that of Tulsidas.
Valmiki is considered their ancestor by the Dalits who felt proud of the fact that Ramayan — a work written by a member of their group — was broadcast on television. They wanted to see more episodes of the state run Ramayan series.
Australian scholar Ian Woolford describes their reaction:
Sanitation workers, many of whom are Dalits, went on strike in several North Indian cities. And when the garbage started piling up in the streets, the government was forced to make more episodes of the TV Ramayan. I can’t think of any other examples like this in the world, an example of a group forcing the state to produce an artistic work.
Since historically, Rama and Ramakatha have inspired the common people to fight against injustice, be it caste discrimination, Mughal Raj, or the British Raj, it is no surprise that the Indian Left, which has reduced itself to being a junior partner of global imperial forces, is threatened by them.
Remember, in a post-colonial under-developed country, the bulwark against the communist fantasy of total destruction is not capitalism, but the culture.
A 25-year-old IIT alumna with deep interest in society, culture and politics, she describes herself as a humble seeker of Sanatana wisdom that has graced Bharatvarsha in different ways, forms and languages. Follow her @yaajnaseni
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