When an epic captures public attention, bits and pieces are always added on and bits and pieces are subtracted. It’s a growing kind of rolling stone, gathering and dropping as it goes along.
So given that that is the structure of an epic, is there a danger in establishing a particular version in the minds of the mainstream as the definitive version? You once spoke of that danger regarding Doordarshan’s Ramayana serial …
Absolutely. You have to emphasise the fact that there were variants, or people tend to assume that there was only one version of the story or that that was the definitive version.
Now at the time when the Valmiki Ramayana was written, there were two other versions current, which were, in one case, entirely different, and in another case, very substantially different.
There were the Buddhist Jataka, the Dasarath Jataka as it is called, where Ram and Sita are brother and sister…and rule as consorts. Now this is very much within the Buddhist tradition of origin myths and is really making a statement about the superior status of Ram and Sita, which has been completely misinterpreted by the uneducated, who go around screaming and shouting at all of us who mention this version because it talks about Ram and Sita ruling as consorts.
The Jain variant, which Ramanujan also speaks of, is extremely interesting, because the author Vimalasuri, begins by saying that ‘The versions of the Ram Katha that you have heard so far are totally false and incorrect, written by foolish men. I will tell you the true story.’ And he goes on to locate it in the court of the historical king Srinika…and says that it is nonsense to depict the rakshas as demons, that they were perfectly normal human beings. In other words, the version of Vimalasuri is trying to rationalise the fantasy of Valmiki and, therefore, it is fascinating to see the two versions together.
So how is it that the Valmiki Ramayana has become the mainstream of Hindu culture?
It comes partly out of the tradition of giving greater precedence to Sanskrit literature, because it was, in fact, the main cultural tradition over a long period, but it’s also partly that this was reinforced by colonial scholarship mentioning these as definitive texts.
In the post-colonial era, as academia has been questioning that concept, has there been any similar move to change perceptions in the wider society?
No, there hasn’t been and for this I blame particularly the visual media, because they have fostered the notion of there being definitive versions of every single major text in our cultural heritage and they have totally underplayed the fact that there have been variants.
But you see, it starts with academia. What is very disturbing in this whole story is that you have an Academic Council in one of the leading universities in this country, which debates the issue for over two hours and the vote is 90 against Ramanujan and 10 for. And one sits there and thinks, of the 90, how many actually took the trouble to read this essay when they were condemning it. [Many] people in the Academic Council had no idea of what the contents of this book were, except that they were going on hearsay once again.
Somebody gets up and condemns it, and then a group turns around and says, “Oh well, if that is the case, then, of course, we must condemn it.” So in a sense…what we lose out in this country is the habit of reading. We don’t go back to reading texts. We either see them on television or we see them in Amar Chitra Katha.
…I don’t know what the politics of the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University may be or, for that matter, even the politics of the 90 members who voted to remove Ramanujan’s essay.
But there is obviously a political element in this. There’s a political element that a) says this is what my party doesn’t object to, and would quite like my supporting it, or b) that this is really not my concern, it’s a political issue, let the Academic Council take a decision, which is why I gather there were quite a few abstentions as well, or c) don’t take a positive role in this because tomorrow, you may be in the dock and no one will support you.