Saffron parties' campaign to rewrite Ramayana militates against India's cultural framework

What will be the fate of eighth-century scholar Bhavabhuti’s classic play Uttarramacharita in the days to come? Will it be suppressed?

This disturbing thought has been coming back to the mind again and again as the RSS-VHP-BJP campaign to revise, rewrite and redact India’s literary, religious, cultural and political history gathers momentum at a time when the trio is ruling in big states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam, besides having its own prime minister at the Centre. Soon after the Narendra Modi government assumed power at the Centre, HRD minister Smriti Irani in July 2014 chose Y Sudershan Rao to head the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Rao had earlier been the chief of the Andhra Pradesh chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), an organisation set up by the RSS to rewrite Indian history from a “Bharatiya perspective” and to remove the “distortions” introduced by western scholars and their Indian followers.

 Saffron parties campaign to rewrite Ramayana militates against Indias cultural framework

A screengrab of Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan. Image credit: YouTube

Soon after his appointment as ICHR chairman, Rao declared in a newspaper interview: "The stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata cannot be termed ahistorical just because there is not enough archaeological hard evidence. Excavations cannot be done in many places since people are living there and you cannot evict them.”

Rao had written several articles seeking to establish that stories of the Puranas and particularly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were truthful accounts of historical events. Elsewhere, he had also claimed that Indians were flying aeroplanes, carrying out stem cell research, and might even have been using cosmic weapons 5,000 years ago. In his view, the two epics were adequate to understand the ancient world rather than relying on evidence or research. His views were in conformity with those that Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed soon after coming to power. Addressing an audience of doctors, he declared that the Hindu god Ganesha's head was an evidence that ancient Indians knew how to perform plastic surgery and Karna, the famous Mahabharata warrior, was in fact a test-tube baby.

In view of the centrality of the two epics in the history project of the RSS, it’s not at all surprising that ABISY organising secretary Balmukund Pandey is busy organising a massive seminar in August in Gorakhpur, the fiefdom of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, where "nationalist historians" will discuss how to purge Ramayana of some unsavoury incidents related to Rama’s life. These include Sita’s agni pareeksha (trial by fire) and her eventual banishment on account of rumours. Pandeya argues that these episodes have been added to the Uttarkanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana to show Rama in a bad light. "How could Rama who was maryada purushottam ask Sita to sit on a pyre? How could he banish her?"

So, after the Rajasthan government decided to change school history books to tell the students that it was not Mughal emperor Akbar’s armies but Maharana Pratap’s armies that emerged victorious from the battle of Haldighati, now, it is the turn of our epics to suit the whims and fancies of the RSS that wants to propagate calendar history along with calendar art, of which the best audio-visual representation was Ramanand Sagar’s tele-serial Ramayan. If there can be fake news, there can be fake history too.

The main objective behind such exercises is to sanitise India’s history and its religious, literary and cultural heritage to craft a single, hegemonic version that would obliterate all others. Such an approach militates against the country’s age-old tradition of plurality, diversity and coexistence. These exercises are coterminous with the RSS-VHP attempt to fabricate a single, Semiticised version of Hinduism with a single religious authority — remember the so-called Dharma Sansads of the 1990s — and a single interpretation of religious texts.

If Pandeya and his associates succeed in their effort to redact the Ramayana and omit the episode of Sita’s banishment from it, what will happen to Bhavabhuti’s celebrated play Uttarramacharita, written in 7th century CE, because the entire play revolves around the episode of Sita’s banishment and Rama’s remorseful longing for her? Will it be banned, or taken out of circulation, irrespective of the fact that Rama’s most popular name Ramachandra occurs for the first time in this play? Earlier, he was referred to as either Rama Dashrathi or Rama Bhadra.

While Rao claimed to have fixed the date when the Mahabharata was written, the fact remains that both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed orally and were transmitted from one generation to the other over a period of several centuries through individual and collective recitations. In this process, many layers of text and meaning were added to it. The consensus among historians is that the writing of the two epics took place between 400 BCE and 400 CE. And there are many versions of both the epics with regional variations. So far as the Ramayana is concerned, Valmiki’s and other Ramayanas portray Rama as an ideal kshatriya king without attributing divinity to him. The cult of Rama worship began much later. It must be mentioned that the various versions of Rama Katha disagree with one another on virtually every point, be it the story of Sita’s birth or Rama having one or more than one wife, or Sita having one son or two sons or eight sons, and so on.

Most scholars agree that the Uttarkanda found in the current version of Valmiki’s Ramayana is a later interpolation as neither the Mahabharata nor does the Harivansha Purana, Vayu Purana, Vishnu Purana, Nrisingha Purana, Buddhist Anamakam Jatakam and Gunabhadra’s Uttara Purana contain any reference to Sita’s banishment. Anatakam Jatakam was translated into Chinese in 251 CE and, although it contains no mention of Sita being abandoned by Rama, it does mention that slanderous rumours were floating in Ayodhya about Sita’s purity. So, in this respect, the ABISY leader’s argument seems to be valid.

However, what is questionable is his organisation’s attempt to prepare a single, authoritative version of the epic that will not contain episodes like Rama abandoning Sita or killing a shudra called Shambooka. This attempt militates against the core of Indian culture and tradition, as it would mean de-legitimising a host of other extant versions of the epic. The fact remains that the Uttarkanda of the Valmiki Ramayana, Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa, Bhavabhuti’s Uttarramacharita, Kundamala, Vimal Suri’s Paumchariyam, Ravishen’s Padmacharita, Kathasaritsagara, Bhagawat Purana, Padma Purana, Jaimineeya Ashvamedha, Tibetan Ramayana, Updeshpad, Kahavali, Hemchandra’s Jain Ramayana, Krittivasa’s and Chandravali’s Bengali Ramayanas, Kashmiri Ramayana, folk songs, Gujarati Ramayanasara, Rama Kathas of Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Thailand, Adhyatma Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana and a host of other versions do contain direct or indirect references to Sita’s banishment.

It should be noted that different versions of the Ramayana have different beginnings and endings. And, it should also be borne in mind that the Indian tradition has differentiated between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata by calling the former as kavya (poetry) and the latter as itihas (as things happened). So, the Ramayana and its various versions are poetic tellings and retellings of a story that undergoes a kind of transmutation during this process as it involves poets writing in different times, societies, cultures and even countries. Therefore, no single version can be elevated to the status of the only authoritative version.

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2017 19:28:13 IST