kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

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Ramnamis: Individualizing the Ram Story

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Most outsiders to the Ramnami Samaj are unaware of how it has adapted and modified the Manas, although there has been criticism from some caste Hindus familiar with the practice who claim the samaj is desecrating a holy book.  Yet, since the earliest days of the Ram story, the process of adapting and altering it relative to the community using it seems to have been more the norm than the exception.  No one knows when the story first came into form.  While Hindus traditionally consider Valmiki’s Ramayana to be the “original” telling, Buddhists look to the Dasaratha Jataka as their early source.  Both date from a similar time period and may well have been inspired by a long tradition of oral story telling in which the Ram story was a part.  In addition, scholars such as the noted Sanskritist J.L. Brockington, see the current version of Valmiki much larger and newer (by several centuries, at least) than the original penning of the tale.  Another early variant of the story is the Jain Ramayana, which is said to predate the current version of Valmiki.  It is noteworthy that both the Buddhist and Jain stories have elements not found in Valmiki’s work.  Since then, several hundred other tellings of the Ram story have appeared as well (see “300 Ramayanas” by A.K. Ramanujan).  The vast majority of these are not copies or translations of an original story but are retellings of the story from different cultural and religious perspectives.  Tulsidas’s Manas, for example, is significantly different from the Valmiki telling and more in line with the medieval Adhytma Ramayana.  Even the Manas itself has not been free of changes, both recent and obvious, as well as older and less apparent.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Maharajah of Kashi arranged for the publication of a version of the Manas based on several of the manuscripts in his family’s library that were believed to be dated near the time of Tulsidas.  Although there was no certainty that they were extact duplicates of the author’s work, a text based on them was nevertheless published.  This version came to be seen as the standard for many in North India.  In the early part of the twentieth century, various commentaries (kshepak) began to be added in verse to the text in some publications of it, often without identifying markings.  This led many to mistaken these additions as being from Tulsidas’s hand.  Later, an eighth chapter (Lavkushkanda) was added to the Manas as well.  It includes story elements found in Valmiki’s expanded version but knowingly rejected by both Tulsidas and the author of the original Adhytma Ramayana.  This added chapter functions to give a more brahmanical direction and interpretation to the text.  Needless to say, the Ramnamis reject it completely.

In conclusion, most Hindus understand and accept that there are multiple tellings of the Ram story, and that they can vary a great deal.  However, the one commonality that is essentially found in all the tellings used by devotees is that the text promotes living a life based on the concept of dharma and gives praise for devotion to the Divine using the name of Ram.  For most Hindus today, the Manas best exemplifies these, and Mahatma Gandhi called it the greatest story of devotion ever written.  For Ramnamis, as well, the Manas continues to be given great respect and devotion.  At the same time, they acknowledge that it is still a book, and for them, no book is absolute.  They find no contradiction in this dual perspective on the Manas as, on the one hand, sacred and inviolable and, on the other, open to interpretation, criticism, and modification. For them, the primary focus is on repetition of the name of Ram, along with love of God and respect for fellow beings.  The story is their vehicle to help them on the path to these goals, and if modifying it in places can aid in that process, then so be it.  In recreating the Rm story, the Ramnamis have indeed enhanced the vitality of the Manas, both for themselves and for those who listen to their chanting.  They have also broadened the ways in which it is used, and have evolved an approach to the Ram story that closely reflects the social and devotional values of their community, and have added yet another dimension to the ever-expanding literary genre that relates the eternal story of Ram.  In many ways, their tellings of the story may actually be closer to the original spirit of Tulsidas than the work presently possessing his name.

[Note: for an in depth look at the Ramnami Samaj, see the author’s Rapt in the Name: The Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in Central India, SUNY Press, 2002.]

 

[1] While many academics and journalists have come to see the politically correct term for members of the Scheduled Castes to be “Dalit,” it is not a label actually used for self-identity by most members of the caste grouping, especially those outside of Maharasthra.  Instead, they tend to use either their sub-caste (jati) name or their sectarian affiliation if they have one.  For the most part, “Dalit” is used as a term of self-identity for those who have rejected Hinduism completely and have, to one extent or another, embraced Christianity, Islam, Ambedkar Buddhism, or Marxism. For the Ramnamis, “Ramnami” is the preferred label, although many use either “Scheduled Caste” or “Harijan” when needing to expressing their caste status.

Ramdas Lamb teaches introductory religion courses as well as courses dealing with contemporary religion and society, fieldwork, and mysticism. The focus of his current research is on monastic traditions and religion among the low castes in central and northern India. He was a Hindu sadhu (monk) in north India from 1969 until 1978.

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