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Ramnamis: Individualizing the Ram Story

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The Ramnami Samaj is a religious movement founded by Scheduled Caste Ram devotees (bhaktas) in the late nineteenth century in what is now central and northern Chhattisgarh.[1]  The samaj has the twin goals of social upliftment for members of their caste community and the spread of the chanting of Ram.  To accomplish the latter, Ramnamis focus both on the chanting of the Name and also on recitation of verses from its “official” scripture, Tulsidas’s Ramcaritmanas.  The text is the Hindi telling of the Ram story written in the sixteenth century. Over time, the Ramnami relationship to the Manas, as the text is commonly known, has become both complex and creative.  This article takes a brief look at the evolution of this relationship and how the text and the Ram story itself currently fit into the religious life of the Ramnamis.

Central India is one of the primary geographical centers of Ram bhakti, and knowledge of the many events and tales in the Manas has long been integrated into the mythological and cultural ethos of the region.  Consequently, from the early formation of the samaj, its members were already familiar with Tulsidas’s version of the Ram story even though most were and still are illiterate. These early Ramnamis would memorize individual verses from the text by hearing them being chanted and would then integrate and intersperse these into their own chanting of Ram, often with little or no understanding of the meanings of the verses.  Gradually, however, some samaj members became literate and began to understand the actual words they were chanting.  As they did so, they eventually realized that, in addition to being infused with great wisdom and devotion to Ram, the Manas also contains verses that contradict Ramnami beliefs in the equality of all humans, irrespective of caste or gender.  This became a problem for samaj elders, who held the Manas in very high reverence but also had to acknowledge what appeared to them as “errors” in the text.  It is important to note that from the early days of the movement, members learned to attribute authority of a statement or a person not based on authorship or individual status, but instead on what samaj members considered to be alignment with their collective understanding of truth.  Thus, while clearly acknowledging it as a great source of devotional teachings, a number of Ramnamis began to see the Manas as being in need of “tweaking.”

At first, the more literate members and elders would simply advise followers to avoid chanting certain verses.  Gradually, some began to actually cross out what they considered offensive words or even whole lines from their copies of the Manas.   A few others began revising some verses both in their written versions of the text as well as in their chanting of them.  A good example of this can be seen with respect to the first line of a two-line verse from Book 1 of the text (1.192).  In its original form, the line reads: Vipra dhenu sura santa hita lnha manuja avatra (generally translated into English as, “[Lord Ram] incarnated for the sake of Brahmins, cows, devtas, and sages.”).  The way the verse was changed and is now chanted by most Ramnamis is: Ram dena sura santa hita lnha manuja avatra. The revised verse means, “[Lord Ram] incarnated to give [teach] Ram to the devtas and sages.”

As this questioning process increased, some samaj members decided to look at other works attributed to Tulsidas to see what they contain.  Realizing that none of the other texts had the kinds of comments and verses to which they objected, a few began to suggest that such verses may well have been added by brahmins after the original writing.  This gave them more justification for removing these verses from their own versions of the Manas.  Several also started including in their chanting verses from these other texts of Tulsidas that praise of Ram, bhakti, or truth.  Eventually, verses from other poet/sants, such as Kabir, came to be included as well.  When verses and couplets were found that fit into their devotional ethos and ideals but were not in the poetic metre (doh and chaup) that fit their chanting, the more creative Ramnamis would alter the metre of these verses to make them fit it.  In this way, the chanting repertoire of some members came to include a number of verses that were not only from outside the Manas but from authors other than Tulsidas and the even the Ram bhakti tradition.  The only criteria followed were that an included verse contain praise of Ram, bhakti, or truth and that it fit into the overall belief system of the samaj.

In this way, not only did the Ramnami Samaj facilitate an “editing” of the Manas by its members, but it opened the door for a rethinking of scriptures and sources as well as how the Ram story is to be understood.  It also inspired various members to develop their own unique corpus of verses to express their individualized understanding of Ram and Ram bhakti.  Since this process began, the dominant alternate sources for additional verses have been various writings of Tulsidas and the poetry of Kabir.  However, the last several decades have seen the rise in popularity of another source of Ram bhakti verses and praise, the Vishram Sagar.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, a somewhat antinomian Ram bhakti movement arose in Rajasthan known as the Ramsnehi Sampraday.  By the mid-nineteenth century, its followers had spread into central India.  There, one of the early ascetic teachers of the group named Raghunathdas wrote the Vishram Sagar.  Although the number of Ramsnehis never grew large in the region, the popularity of the text extended into others sections of the Ram bhakti community.  As literate Ramnamis looked to other sources of inspiration, the Vishram Sagar attracted their interest.

The text is written in the metre style found in the Manas and has three major sections, entitled “Itihsyan,” “Kyan,” and “Ramayan.”  The first section contains nearly fifteen pages in praise of Rmnm.  Its style and sentiment reflect that which is found in the early pages of the Manas where the exclusive focus is on praise of the name.  The “Ramayan” section is divided up into seven chapters with the same titles as those of the Mnas and following the same basic story lines, but with significant divergences in the narrative.  Here, Raghunathdas uses his creativity to present Ram and Ram bhakti primarily from the nirgu (formless) theological perspective of the Ramsnehis.  Because the Ramnamis are exclusively nirgu in their theological orientation as well, the Vishram Sagar has become an important source to provide them with an added dimension in their broadening reconceptualization and individualization of the Ram story.

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