Wednesday, 9 November 2011

On the Ramayanas Affair

Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 46, November 5, 2011

On the Ramayanas Affair

Mukul Dube
The Delhi University’s Academic Council decided, in the firt half of October 2011, to remove from its “concurrent course in history” for all BA (Hons) students, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”. At the direction of the Supreme Court in July 2010, four experts had been asked to give their views on the essay to the Academic Council. The opinion of only one of these experts went against the essay and led to the decision. (…) Nine members of the Council “vehemently opposed [the proposal to remove the essay] and submitted written dissents”. (…) One of the dissenting members said that the decision was an instance of “a secular institution buckling under the pressure of Right-wing organisations”. (Ibid.)
The dispute over the essay goes back to its introduction into the syllabus about five years earlier. Certain Right-wing groups had objected to the essay and had described it as “blasphemous”. (Ibid.) In 2008, activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP, had entered the History Department of the university and had “gone on the rampage”. (Ibid.) Finally, Right-wing groups moved a writ petition in the Supreme Court, claiming that the essay “hurt their religious sentiments”. (…)
It is a fact that there are hundreds of versions of the Rama-Sita-Ravana story. In some, Rama and Sita are not a married couple but are siblings. In others, Ravana is not an evil demon but a pious scholar-king. Folklorists know that stories are often modified in the course of geographical dispersion. For example, a folk tale of Delhi featuring a frog and a crocodile, might in Agra or Aligarh be the very same but with a rabbit and a wolf as its chief characters.
Are the Rama-Sita-Ravana chronicles stories spun and re-spun by human beings or do they represent historical fact? Or, are we to take it that they descended from the heavens, without human will or intervention, and must therefore be swallowed whole like the immaculate conception in Christianity or, in Islam, the timely appearance of a ram when Ibrahim was about to sacrifice his son?

THE person whom we may call the victorious expert is believed to have said: “Epic personalities are divine characters and showing them in [a] bad light is not easily tolerated.” (Ibid.) He or she is also understood to have “termed the Indian psyche incapable of handling different versions of the Ramayana”. (Ibid.) This cannot be a historian speaking: it is more a character like Chanakya capitulating to the forces of obscurantism and justifying that by reference to the need to maintain peace. Are psychologists to chart the course of the academic historian? Is this sort of abomination, also seen not so long ago in the Allahabad High Court’s verdict in the Babri Masjid matter, to be the future of India, a land which the fools among us misguidedly call secular?
It is clear that the dispute is between those who respect facts and those who are guided by the unquestioning and unreasoning phenomenon called faith. “The members who were opposed to withdrawing of the essay submitted a note of dissent on the issue. They said that the ‘Hindu understanding of Ramayana and Valmiki’s rendering of the Ramayana are in no way the singular versions of Ramayana’ and that ‘The removal of any material that incorporates Tamil versions of the Ramayana and Jaina and Buddhist versions of the Ramayana would be an act of majority fundamentalism…’” (…)
Let us listen to another of the four experts, the one saying that “the recent trend among advocates of Hindutva to consider this work as being composed of actual historical data is deplorable. It is contrary to our tradition, sanity and common sense, and an insult to our scholarly culture.” (…).

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