E. V. Ramasami’s Interpretation of the Ramayana
The motivating force behind E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana remains the desire to see in it a struggle between North and South India. For E.V.R. "northern" means brahmanical, caste-ridden, and Sanskritic, while "southern" means nonbrahmanical, egalitarian, and Tamil—value judgements that are embedded in his interpretation. In Characters in the Ramayana E.V.R. vehemently attacks the respect with which Tamilians have traditionally viewed the Ramayana , arguing that the story is both an account of and a continuing vehicle for northern cultural domination. Reversing the conventional understandings of villain and hero, he also calls upon readers to abandon their "superstitious" beliefs and embrace a desacralized view of the world.
The structure of Characters in the Ramayana is tripartite. E.V.R. begins with a brief rationale for writing the text, pointing to the pamphlet's crucial role in enlightening Tamils about the "real" message of the Ramayana (11-16). The heart of the pamphlet is its long middle section, which enumerates and critically evaluates the deeds performed by most of the major characters in the epic (17-88). The text culminates with a short collection of quotes from arinar , "learned men," whom E.V.R. feels confirm and thus legitimate his understanding of the Ramayana (91-104).
In the opening section, E.V.R. justifies his enterprise, claiming that his study of the Ramayana should reveal to Tamilians that they have been deluded by northern propaganda into believing that Rama was exemplary as well as divine, when in fact, E.V.R. argues, he was neither. First and foremost, then, we see that E.V.R. wants to "demythologize" (my term, not his) Rama for Tamilians. But he wants to go even further, to establish that, in
addition to being an ordinary mortal, Rama was not a particularly admirable one.
E.V.R. acknowledges that Tamilians will not find it easy to accept this view of Rama, attributing this reluctance to their illiteracy and the power of "superstition" among them. He notes with disappointment how most Tamilians (aside from Muslims and Christians) have long venerated the Ramayana . But for E.V.R., insofar as the commonly held understanding of the Ramayana is essentially North Indian, it is a key part of the ideology which keeps South Indians in an inferior position, and so must be discredited. He thus argues that the Ramayana lures Dravidians into the Aryan net, destroys their self-respect, and stymies their development (11). For E.V.R., this examination of the Ramayana is no mere intellectual exercise; on the contrary, he has taken on the absolutely crucial task of liberating Tamilians from their feelings of cultural and racial inferiority.
E.V.R.'s specific textual analysis follows in the very long middle section of the pamphlet, which might be characterized as an extensive annotated list of charges. Rather than constructing an argument in a discursive manner, he piles example upon example, doubtless intending to overwhelm the reader into accepting his thesis by the sheer number of instances in which the poem's putative heroes commit acts of wrongdoing. He picks his way through the Ramayana , character by character, vilifying those who join forces with Rama and praising those who oppose him. In Table l, I summarize the major charges that E.V.R. levels against thirteen characters, to each of whom he devotes a separate chapter.
E.V.R. uses these charges to accuse those who venerate the Ramayana of ignoring or condoning myriad acts of improper behavior. As the table shows, a number of the epic's characters are censured because they depart from the norms established for marital or kinship relations. Thus E.V.R. condemns Sita for criticizing her husband and Kausalya for not respecting her spouse; he intimates that Sita was unchaste in Ravana's house; Laksmana and Satrughna earn abuse for making unfilial statements about their father and disregarding their father, respectively; Bharata insults both parents, thereby drawing E.V.R.'s scorn; both Sugriva and Vibhisana are reviled for betraying their brother. It is ironic that E.V.R. condemns these characters on the basis of prescriptions for behavior which find elaborate expression in the very dharmasastra text he considers so obnoxious: The Laws of Manu . This text, which E.V.R. deeply hates and elsewhere attacks for its praise of Brahmins, contains passages detailing the proper relationships for husband and wife, father and son, and brothers. These passages have traditionally set the standards for proper Hindu behavior—the same behavior that E.V.R. demands (and finds lacking) in the deeds of Ramayana characters.
E.V.R. also censures a number of characters because they cannot bring their sensual passions and desires under control. He reads the Ramayana as
TABLE 1. E. V. Ramasami's Charges Against Ramayana Characters
Charges against the character
Rama's father, ruler of
Was enslaved by passion; broke promises;
Wife of Rama
Criticized her husband; felt attraction to
Ravana; was unchaste; cared too much
Dasaratha's second son
Heaped abuse on his mother; insulted his
father; had many wives
Third son of Dasaratha
Was attracted to Sita; tortured (demon)
(by Sumitra), loyal
females; made unfilial statements about
companion to Rama
his father; was hot-headed
Fourth son of Dasaratha
Insulted Kaikeyi; abused and disregarded
(by Sumitra), com-
panion to Bharata
Senior wife of Dasaratha,
Possessed excessive concern for the success
mother of Rama
of her son; was jealous of Kaikeyi and
hostile to her; did not respect her
Youngest wife of Dasa-
Was eager for Rama to become king; was
ratha, mother of Laks-
prejudiced against Bharata
mana and Satrughna
Charioteer and advisor
Counseled the king to do improper deeds;
spoke derisively of Kaikeyi; lied
Dasaratha's family guru
Participated in the plot to crown Rama;
hurriedly fixed a day for the coronation
so that Bharata would not find out
Rama's monkey com-
Is said to have performed miraculous
panion, who set fire to
deeds which scientific reason indicates
are impossible; unjustly set fire to Lanka
and thus killed many innocent people;
used obscene language when conversing
King of monkeys, ally of
Betrayed his brother; joined Rama only to
get rid of his brother
Son of Valin, general in
Befriended those who killed his father; did
not really love Sugriva
Brother of Ravana
Betrayed his brother and caused his death
in order to gain the kingship of Lanka;
did not feel anger when his sister was
dishonored by Laksmana
portraying Dasaratha enslaved by passion, Sita overly fond of jeweled ornaments, Laksmana desirous of Sita, Kausalya as excessively ambitious for the success of her son, and Laksmana too hot-headed to control his flaring temper. Again, E.V.R. condemns these people in a way that echoes a central ideal of brahmanical Hinduism—that one must cultivate detachment toward passions and desires. The virtue of detachment is a constant theme in the Upanisads and in Vedantic works, to say nothing of the Bhagavad Gird and yogic texts; even the dharmasastras uphold the benefits of self-restraint.
Although E.V.R. vigorously criticizes all of the above-mentioned characters, his greatest contempt is directed at Rama himself, whose actions are seen as the epitome of North Indian domination. In accordance with his enumerative style of discourse, E.V.R. cites fifty incidents of seemingly improper behavior on Rama's part. Rather than explain each one, I will summarize his major criticisms and the patterns of reasoning which stand behind these accusations.
One of E.V.R.'s most elaborately mounted attacks concerns Rama's supposed coveting of the throne of Ayodhya, which E.V.R. interprets as a sign of Rama's desire for domination. Ignoring the common understanding—that Rama merely responded to Dasaratha's request that he be crowned and had all the qualities of a responsible king—E.V.R. portrays Rama as scheming to grab the throne. He alleges that Rama craved royal power and acted in a virtuous and affectionate way towards his father, Kaikeyi, and Ayodhya's citizens only to gain such power. Then, says E.V.R., Rama improperly conspired with his father to have himself installed on the throne before his brother Bharata returned from his stay with his uncle (33-35).
Rama's alliance with Sugriva and the ensuing killing of his brother, Valin, come in for special denunciation, as one might expect, because Rama apparently unfairly murders the monarch of a southern kingdom. In focusing upon this always problematic incident, E.V.R. expresses an ambivalence found in many diverse tellings of the Ramayana about whether Rama erred in killing Valin as he did—from the back and without having announced his presence. With equal vehemence, however, E.V.R. emphasizes not only the stealthy killing but the fact that Brahmins praise such a man. That they do so is evidence of their attempt to foist an unheroic Rama upon South India as an exemplar of proper behavior (11-13).
Rama's treatment of his wife, Sita, draws particular criticism from E.V.R. because he takes it as emblematic of Rama's oppression of those less powerful than himself. After her grueling and terrifying captivity in Lanka, Rama subjects Sita to a despicable ordeal and then still refuses to accept her back. As E.V.R. comments, "Even though Valmiki proclaimed the chastity of Sita, Rama did not believe it, so she had to die" (38). For E.V.R., this hostile attitude toward women is part and parcel of the North Indian worldview.
The manner, glorified in North Indian texts, in which Rama drove his wife to submit to such ordeals helps to keep Indian women in a state of subjugation.
E.V.R. reserves his greatest outrage, however, for Rama's treatment of Sudras, the lowest group in the four-part brahmanical caste ranking and one of the major audiences of his pamphlet. He notes that Rims killed a Sudra named Sambuka because he was performing asceticism, which Vedic tradition prohibits to those not twice-born (that is, Sudras and Untouchables). Rims murdered this Sudra in order to revive a Brahmin boy who had died—that such an untimely death could strike a Brahmin family signaled that somewhere someone (in this case Sambuka) was committing an offense against dharma. After summarizing this incident, E.V.R. extrapolates from it to present-day South India. "If there were kings like Rims now, what would be the fate of those people called Sudras" he asks, implying that Sudras would never be safe from murder if such a king still ruled (41). Since over 60 percent of South Indians are regarded as Sudras, at least by Brahmins, E.V.R. stirs the rage of a good number of his readers by emphasizing this event.
Although E.V.R. surveys many other incidents in the epic, castigating Rama for everything from meat-eating to killing females (39), the trend of his critique is already clear. For E.V.R., Rama personifies "North Indian values" and is accordingly identified with North Indian dominance of lower castes and women. Equally pernicious, according to E.V.R., is the attempt by Brahmins to put forth this vicious and immoral person as virtuous—and even divine.
Just as E.V.R. regards the traditional heroes as villains, he proposes more positive evaluations of characters who have long been condemned, such as Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata. Those seeking to portray King Dasaratha in a sympathetic light have conventionally held his youngest wife, Kaikeyi, to be the real villain of the epic, holding her responsible for the king's decision to deprive Rama of the throne and exile him. In contrast, E.V.R. points out that Kaikeyi was fully within her rights when she asked the king to fulfill the two boons he had granted her when she once saved his life (61).
In his analysis of the Valin episode, E.V.R. makes another revisionist interpretation, an interpretation all the more significant because of the ambivalence with which tradition has viewed Rama's killing of Valin. The words of the modern writer R. K. Narayan, who has produced his own telling of the Rama story, are instructive here:
Rams was an ideal man, all his faculties in control in any circumstances, one possessed of an unwavering sense of justice and fair play. Yet he once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed, from hiding, a creature who had done him no harm, not even seen him. This is one of the most controversial chapters in the Ramayana.
E.V.R. points out that Valin could not be defeated in an open fight (implying that a desire to win lay behind Rama's devious action) and that he assumed Rama to be an honest and fair person and died as a result—although E.V.R. overstates the matter when he claims that "Valin was blameless in every way" (63).
Valin figures only briefly in the analysis, however. Not surprisingly, Ravana receives more attention because for E.V.R.—who identifies Ravana as a monarch of the ancient Dravidians—he exemplifies the South Indians, whose culture was unfairly suppressed by North Indians. Although E.V.R. neglects to provide specific textual references, he begins his praise of Ravana by listing the virtues that Valmiki attributes to Ravana: Ravana has mastered the Vedas and sastras , he protects his family and kin, he acts courageously, he practices bhakti , he is the beloved son of a god, and he has received several boons (67). One wonders why E.V.R. would consider knowledge of "Aryan" texts like Vedas a recommendation, but what follows is even more revealing. Focusing on the influence of other characters on Ravana's actions, E.V.R. gives us a new construct of Ravana.
Rather than seeing Rama as effectively vanquishing Ravana, E.V.R. interprets Ravana's death as the result of his brother's betrayal. When Vibhisana, Ravana's brother, approaches Rama and asks to join him, E.V.R. harshly condemns his abandonment of his brother, viewing this action as motivated by Vibhisana's desire to possess and rule Lanka (67). The great Ravana was thus undone by his brother's villainy; his death, argues E.V.R., should not be seen as evincing any lack of courage.
Nor should Ravana's abduction of Sita be interpreted as the result of lust, according to E.V.R. He argues that Ravana takes Sita to Lanka as an honorable act of retaliation against Rama's insult and Laksmana's disfigurement of Ravana's sister, Surpanakha. Surpanakha had fallen in love with Rama, openly offering herself to him in marriage; by way of punishment, Laksmana cut off her nose and ears. As a dutiful brother, Ravana had no choice but to avenge his sister's cruel disfigurement—but: as E.V.R. points out, Ravana would never stoop to something as low as mutilating Sita in the same horrible way. In fact, notes E.V.R., Ravana never forced himself upon the captive Sita. In such matters, he practiced proper self-restraint, never touching a woman without her consent (68). At the level of metadiscourse, E.V.R. goes so far as to argue that one must not condemn Ravana for abducting Sita because she was left alone in the forest specifically so she could be abducted (69). In other words, by abducting Sita, Ravana is simply performing an action which be is destined to perform—an interpretation which assumes an inexorability about the events in the Ramayana .
Ravana's sense of propriety also manifests itself in his unwillingness to kill animals, which E.V.R. takes as evidence of his compassionate Dravidian nature. He notes that Ravana hated devas (gods), rsis (sages), and Brahmin
priests because they performed sacrificial rituals and drank intoxicating liquor (soma ). Ravana refused to participate in such rituals because they involved the torture of poor helpless animals (68). By portraying Ravana as rejecting the killing of animals, E.V.R. plays on the vegetarian inclinations of many of his followers, arousing their sympathy for Ravana.
In a cryptic but intriguing comment near the end of his characterization of Ravana (69), E.V.R. even claims that Ravana was a responsible and responsive political leader, a benign ruler. Because the Ramayana records instances where Ravana consults with his ministers and debates ensue, E.V.R. claims to see traces of an inclusive political process, which belie the conventional brahmanical claims that Ravana was a cruel despot.
Especially given that Ravana represents Dravidians, it is somewhat noteworthy that E.V.R. does not devote much attention to any of the other characters in Ravana's family, even though he dealt at length with Rama's father, mothers, brothers, and wife. Although E.V.R. says that so-called demons like Ravana are in fact admirable Dravidians, Surpanakha's actions—her open expression of sexual desire, for example—are not praised, nor even mentioned, except as they relate to Ravana's duty to revenge her honor. E.V.R. is similarly silent about Mandodari, and about Khara, Marica, Dusana, and other of Ravana's supporters. The fact that E.V.R. spends so much time castigating Rama and his family and so little time praising the actions of Ravana and his family indicates that E.V.R. aroused more ire by lambasting North Indians than by defining and defending precisely what constitutes South Indian culture and identity.
The final brief section of Characters in the Ramayana consists of an appeal to authority. Scholarly discourse in Tamil has traditionally taken note of the opinions of learned men. One main area of analytic discourse consisted of commenting on texts: those trained in grammar construed complex verses, gave parallel passages, and provided exegesis, an enterprise which generally included quotations from scholars of the past. In fact, a good commentary would record what a large number of learned men had said on the subject. E.V.R.'s thirteen-page section entitled "Opinions of Learned Men [arinar ] about the Ramayana" serves the same function.
Rather than citing the opinion of traditional religious and literary scholars, however, E.V.R. quotes distinguished authorities of other types—historians, politicians, other public figures, members of the Indian Civil Service. Also cited in his "Opinions of Learned Men" section are many handbooks or histories of India with titles such as Ancient Indian History and Civilization, Dravidians and Aryans , and Civilization in Ancient India . The historians cited include both North Indians (Muslim and Bengali) and Europeans. E.V.R. also quotes from the works of the North Indian Swami Vivekananda, as he does from the pan-Indian classic The Discovery of India , by the North Indian "Pandit" Jawaharlal Nehru, nationalist leader and prime minister of India
from 1947 to 1964. When E.V.R. quotes members of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, he includes "I.C.S." after their names in order to indicate their status. Similarly, he includes after the names of historians all their degrees (B.S., M.A., Ph.D., L.L.D.) and precedes their names with "Taktar" (Dr.) whenever possible. Both Henry Johnson's and William Wilson Hunter's names are preceded by "Sir." Clearly, E.V.R. wants to impress upon his readers the illustriousness of those scholars and national figures who appear to confirm his interpretation.
In addition, E.V.R. cites various prominent Tamilian scholars. He quotes J. M. Nallaswami Pillai, an important figure in the Saiva Siddhanta movement and editor of its journal, Deepika , as well as Maraimalai Atigal, an eminent Tamil literary savant whose ideas form the ideological foundation of the Pure Tamil movement. Along with such non-Brahmin literary and religious figures, E.V.R. also quotes respected Brahmin scholars such as S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, a historian of religious and philosophical texts, and K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, a prominent historian of South India. E.V.R. thus willingly cites the opinions of Brahmins, non-Brahmins, and Western "foreigners" to prove his thesis that Brahmins were aliens in South India who oppressed non-Brahmins.
E.V.R.'s citation method also deserves notice. The section of quotes comes at the end of his argument, rather than in the course of it, and thus serves not as documentation but as affirmation. His quotes from Nehru's Discovery of India are representative of his citation style throughout this section of Characters in the Ramayana . He notes several of Nehru's comments about the Ramayana in relation to Aryan expansion in South India and gives a page number for each quote—but he cites no edition, no facts of publication. Like other authors of the popular pamphlet literature of his time, E.V.R. cites not so his reader can go to the original text but simply to take advantage of the cited author's status. Nor does he give any context for the quotes cited: each is simply listed, along with all the others, as validation for his interpretation of the Ramayana . By stringing together forty-seven quotes from historians and politicians about the ancient move of northerners to South India, E.V.R. seeks to demonstrate that learned men support his claims—although those learned men might not agree with the use to which their words have been put.