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Written on the body: A review

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Date(s) - 10 Jul 2012
12:00 AM - 12:00 AM


Rafadi Hakim talks about Ramdas Lamb’s lecture held at S M Joshi Hall.

Ramdas Lamb, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Hawai’i -Manoa, delivered a talk, Written on the Body: the Ramnamis of Central India, as part of Kiski Kahani’s three-part lecture series on the Ramayana, Unraveling the Divine: Conversations on the Ramayana. The lecture took place at the S M Joshi Hall, Pune, on July 10, 2012 at 6 pm. As part of the Kiski Kahani program, which aims to promote public knowledge about the diversity of the Ramayana narrative tradition across India, the lecture explored the role of Ram-bhakti and oral traditions among the Ramnami, an Untouchable community in rural Chattisgarh. Professor Lamb has spent more than nine years among the Ramnamis as a sadhu between 1969 and 1979, and later as a scholar conducting research on their religious practice ever since.

Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, which has achieved prominence as a Ram-katha tradition, is the basis of many devotional sects to Rama, including Kabirpanthis and Satnamis in north-central India. In spite of its apparent fixity as a text, the Ramcharitmanas underwent transformations through oral transmission since the 16th century until it takes the shape of an eight-chapter book among most contemporary Hindi publishers. Many Ramnamis believe that their group originated with Parasurama, a 19th century devotee whose leprosy was cured by Rama’s name. In 1910, the Ramnami Samaj won a court case after conflicts with several caste Hindu groups on the right to write the name of Ram on their clothing and on their bodies.

Ever since this victory, annual bhajan melas, a festival of all-night chanting of the Ramcharitmanas, have been held by the Ramnamis, although chanting takes place in daily life as well. A Ramnami would chant several lines from the Manas, and another Ramnami would respond by chanting another set of lines from any other part of the Manas, all from memory. Between Tulsidas’ verses, Ramnamis freely include other devotional narratives to Rama, such as Kabir’s Bijak and the Vishram Sagar. Ramnami devotees often improvise verses according to their identity as Harijans, and, as the Ramnamis became more literate, they modify verses that, for instance, value caste and descent more than devotion to Rama. The verses, therefore, also serve as a conversation among Ramnamis among themselves. Lamb recalls an instance when, to greet him, a Ramnami modifies the verse “Ko tumha shyamala gaura sarira / chatri rupa phirahu bana bira” (“Who are you, light and dark in colour, / wandering the forest, dressed as warriors”) into “Ko tumha videshi gaura sarira / sadhu rupa phirahu bana bira” (“Who are you, light complexioned foreigner, in the forest, dressed as a sadhu wanderer”).

The Ramnamis follow a strict monastic lifestyle while wearing only plain cloths that are imprinted with thousands of the “Rama,” and having the same name tattooed to their bodies. After the 1970s, when Ramnamis began to migrate to other regions of India because of economic reasons, the Ramnami Samaj gradually acknowledged that there should be no obligation for the younger generation to become devotees, primarily because of the difficulty of following their outwardly visible symbols of devotion. While the mela in the mid-1970s gathered about 30, 000 tattooed Ramnamis, only 250 of them are present in the mela of 2011. Nonetheless, the group expresses little interest in governmental intervention for the preservation of their heritage.

During the question-and-answer session, the 25 audience members, among whom many local college students were present, were especially interested in the contrast between the Ramayana as a canonical, frequently exclusive textual tradition, and the Ramnami chanting performances, which are based on accessibility to even those on the lowest rungs of the society. In fact, Lamb’s key message is that the story of Rama gives voice to the story of each Ramnami’s life, individualized according to their experiences as devotees of Rama. Trusha Navalkar, a student from the Symbiosis Media College, asked, “Do you think that their Ramayana is in transition all the time?” Lamb replied that “they have a standardized story of Rama, but then they have Rama stories that they use in their everyday life… What is important is that they don’t see a problem there at all.” The story of the Ramayana, therefore, is still being written at this very moment among the Ramnamis and, perhaps, among many other people across the world.

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Rafadi Hakim is an undergraduate student at Carleton College, Minnesota, USA, majoring in sociology and anthropology and concentrating in South Asian Studies. He is now interning for Open Space’s Kiski Kahani Project after listening to different Ramayanas and the Mahabharatas in Indonesia, India, and the United States. In his spare time he enjoys classical music, reading the news, and more coffee.