Precedent and Innovation in E.V.R.’s Interpretation
Little in E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana is absolutely new. Rather, it is the manner in which E.V.R. assembles, packages, argues, and dramatizes his interpretation that is innovative. A truly modern social critic, he publishes with a careful eye to public reception and dramatizes his interpretations through public performances. Although his forms may be innovative,
one can find precedents for the various components of his message in many places.
In attacking the hypocrisy of Brahmins, E.V.R. places himself in a long line of Tamil writers who have bitterly criticized brahmanical tradition. Among the many examples that demonstrate E.V.R.'s continuity with this strand of Tamil polemicism, one is particularly ancient and notable. In Cittalai Cattanar's Manimekalai , a Buddhist text that most scholars believe dates from the sixth century A.D. , one finds the story of Aputtiran, a character with an E. V. Ramasami—like view of Hinduism. The illegitimate son of a renowned Varanasi Brahmin's wife, Aputtiran gets into a debate with the leaders of his Brahmin community. Because he has thoroughly studied the Vedas, he is able relentlessly to cite embarrassing facts about the ancient brahmanical sages in order to discredit his opponents' lineages. Like E.V.R., Aputtiran cites all kinds of improprieties about their births: some, for example, were conceived when their fathers ejaculated while watching dancing girls, others are the sons of animals, and so on. Next, Aputtiran confronts Indra, king of the gods, informing the deity that he is indifferent to Indra's heaven because it is full of beings who care only for their own pleasure, rather than for doing good. As we have seen, E.V.R., too, ridicules stories about Brahmins and brahmanical deities, portraying them as self-serving and unworthy of admiration.
Anti-Brahmin sentiment continues to surface periodically in South Indian literature. Surveying anti-Brahmin and egalitarian movements in South India, Irschick reminds us that this strand of rhetoric played an important role in the writings of some of the Siddhars, a group of Tamil ascetics, the majority of whom lived between the fifth and tenth centuries Ramanujan's translations of Virasaiva poems dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries reveal Lingayat contempt for traditional Hindu institutions, including the role of Brahmins. Closer to E.V.R.'s own time are the writings of the religious poet Ramalingaswami (1823-1874), a saint extremely critical of caste distinctions. Irschick points out that in 1929 E.V.R.'s own press published an anthology of Ramalingaswami's songs with an introduction by A. Citamparanar, who also wrote an influential biography of E.V.R.'s early life. E.V.R. considered Ramalingaswami important enough to the Self-Respect Movement to revive his writings and publish them in a form available and understandable to a general audience. Maraimalai Atigal, called by one scholar "the most articulate pioneer" of ideological resistance to Brahmin domination, slightly preceded E.V.R. and shared with him a sharply critical attitude toward Brahmins and brahmanical Hinduism.
If E.V.R.'s antibrahminism connects him to a continuous strand of South Indian culture, his positive assessment of Ravana has precedents in the Ramayana tradition itself. Several Jain writers contest the prevailing characterization of Ravana in their pratipuranas ("counter-puranas "), of which
Vimalasuri's Paumacariyam (c. 473 A.D. ) is an excellent example. In a notable reversal, this text begins its narrative with all account of Ravana's lineage, rather than that of Rama. Vimalasuri portrays Ravana as noble, admirable, and knowledgeable about religious texts, and as one who has learned a great deal through ascetic practices. As Ramanujan's essay in this volume demonstrates, this pratipurana gives us a totally different perspective on Ravana from that found in most Hindu versions. Dineshchandra Sen calls our attention to another Jain Ramayana , by Hemacandra (1089-1172), in which Ravana again acts in spiritually admirable ways. In one key scene Ravana sits in the forest meditating, remaining serene and single-minded despite all the attempts of yaksas (forest spirits) to distract him from his endeavor by transforming themselves first into seductive damsels and then into terrifying jackals and snakes. Dineshchandra Sen comments that Ravana's acts of meditative discipline "show his high character and a majestic command over passions, worthy of a sage, which unmistakably prove him to be the real hero of the Dravidian legend." In a similar vein, Ravana figures as a sage and a responsible ruler in the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra , where he invites the Buddha to his kingdom of Lanka and then listens intently to his religious discourse.
As Seely's analysis reveals, the Bengali author Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) also wrote a "reverse Ramayana, “ which some scholars feel may have been shaped in part by the Jain Ramayana tradition. Of at least equal importance, however, is the role of the colonial context in which Dutt was writing. Nandy sees Dutt's epic as enabling him to accept certain martial values in Indian culture and reject brahmanical ascetic ones.
Madhusudan's criteria for reversing the roles of Rama and Ravana, as expressed in their characters, was a direct response to the colonial situation. He admired Ravana for his masculine vigour, accomplished warriorhood, and his sense of realpolitik and history; he accepted Ravana's "adult" and "normal" commitments to secular, possessive this-worldliness and his consumer's lust for life. On the other hand, he despised "Rama and his rabble"—the expression was his—because they were effeminate, ineffectual pseudo-ascetics, who were austere not by choice but because they were weak.
Both Dutt and E.V.R. wrote in a colonial context. For different reasons, each came to see Ravana as the real hero of the Rama story, a choice that had deep political resonances.
E.V.R.'s attempt to discredit the assumptions of orthodox Hinduism through an exaggeratedly literal reading of its texts is consonant with a form of discourse popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. In religious debates, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians routinely disparaged the religious beliefs of their opponents, as Barbara Metcalf has shown. In so doing, they often relied on a hyperliteral reading of mythic texts. To see just
how literal such a reading can be, consider this quote from Dayananda Sarasvati, the leader of the Arya Samaj, who responded to the description of a heavenly army of horsemen found in Revelations 9:16 in this way:
Where would so many horses stay in heaven? Where would they graze? Where would they dwell and where would they throw out the dung? How awful would be the bad smell of the dung! We Aryas have washed our hands of such a heaven, such a God and such a religion.
Quoting this passage, Kenneth Jones comments: "Since the goals of these writers were to discredit Christianity and make it difficult for missionaries to defend it in public debates and in print, absolute literalism proved a useful and welcome tool." E.V.R. used the same technique of hyperliteral readings in his attempt to discredit and desacralize the Ramayana .
Even E.V.R.'s view of the Ramayana as an account of Aryan domination of Dravidian culture has roots in earlier discourse. Irschick has carefully traced how the ideas of P. Sundaram Pillai, a Tamil Vellala (1855-1897), began to focus attention on the meaning of the Ramayana in the context of discussions about Dravidian and Aryan culture. Sundaram Pillai published some of his views on the self-sufficiency and grandeur of Dravidian civilization during his lifetime, but his theories about the Ramayana were disseminated after his death by his friends. T. Ponemballem Pillai wrote an article for the Malabar Review in which he summarized Sundaram Pillai's view of the Ramayana as written to "proclaim the prowess of the Aryans and to represent their rivals and enemies the Dravidians, who had attained a high degree of civilization in that period, in the worst possible colour." A somewhat later writer, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, ended his Ravana the Great: King of Lanka by describing Ravana as "a mighty hero and monarch, a conqueror of worlds, and a fearless resister of the Aryan aggressions in South India." With these writers began a controversy about the political meaning of the Ramayana , to which E.V.R. soon added his own strident reading of the text.
Thus each of the major characteristics of E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana —his attack on brahmanical tradition, his positive assessment of Ravana, his hyperliteral reading of Hindu texts, and his North/South reading—finds a precedent in some genre of South Asian writing. E.V.R. has synthesized these different themes, transforming the disparate pieces into something new and coherent. The manner in which he brings these elements together is both innovative and powerful: his reading of the Ramayana is hostile and comprehensive, seductive and witty, rhetorically adroit and politically astute.
The single-minded and relentless virulence of E.V.R.'s interpretation is striking. Insofar as he seeks to contest the central values of Valmiki's telling of the story, his overall aim is similar to that of the Jain Ramayanas —but E.V.R. goes beyond mere contesting. In accord with his North/South princi-
pie of interpretation, he atomizes the text and reassembles its events for his own purpose. He could have presented the story chronologically, interpreting events in the order they occur. Instead, like a lawyer putting together a set of accusations, E.V.R. assembles his case by selecting and forming into a daunting list particular events or bits of dialogue that become the basis of his harsh indictment of most of the Ayodhyan characters. Both the hostility and the comprehensiveness of his attack mark E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana as singular.
Not only is his analysis thorough but his styles of argumentation are many. Certain strategies of exegesis appear again and again. He anachronizes the text, condemning customs from centuries earlier on the basis of modern norms. He literalizes the text, subjecting mythic material to scientific analysis in order to "prove" that such events could not have occurred. He conflates the dual nature of Rama, ignoring that, according to myth, Rama is both human and divine (he is the god Visnu as well as a human avatar), which allows him to criticize Rama for things he must do as part of his avatar mission while also making fun of him for showing human emotions. E.V.R. even goes so far as to condemn a character on the strength of minor character flaws, ignoring the majority of (positive) actions performed by that character. When necessary he has it both ways, in one context portraying a character as a victim and in another as an oppressor, depending on his polemical needs.
E.V.R.'s use of evidence is typical of the pamphlet style of his time, and, while seductive, the evidence itself is sparsely documented. The reader is told that E.V.R.'s analysis grew out of an exhaustive study of the Valmiki Ramayana and Tamil translations of it done by Brahmins. E.V.R. almost never, however, cites a specific edition of the text or the interpretation of one or another commentator on a particular passage or even specific verse numbers, though he sometimes cites sargas (chapters) in kandas (books). For example, in his eight-point analysis of Ravana, he provides only two citations, neither one referring to specific verses—even though one of the eight points contains a direct quote. Likewise, discussing his fourth point, E.V.R. says "Valmiki himself said" but fails to tell us where Valmiki said so (Characters in the Ramayana , 68). Such a documentation style indicates neither deliberate sloppiness nor a desire to distort evidence. Rather, it is governed by audience: E.V.R. intended his exegesis as a way of expounding Dravidian ideology to the popular reader, not to scholars.
In part, E.V.R.'s style of argumentation derives from oral presentation. His speeches were unforgettable events. Respectable women (who would not think of mingling directly with those they perceived as the "common riffraff" who frequented such events) would crowd onto nearby verandas and listen to his speeches over loudspeakers. Even Brahmins—often the subject of his attack—attended his speeches to hear his cutting yet humorous satire. Those
who attended his public lectures continue to comment even today on how wickedly funny they found them. Hence it comes as no surprise to find that his writing is also designed both to delight and to stir up his audience. His written language has much of the power of his oral art. His simple sentences, numbered points, and loosely connected structure comprise a kind of "jab rhetoric" with which he can attack the Ramayana . E.V.R. is also deliberately crude or coarse in places, incorporating into his argument innuendoes about Rama's vileness or Sita's lack of faithfulness. As an orator and a writer addressing a mass audience, he uses wit and titillation to play upon the half-guilty pleasure of seeing a familiar object of piety in a totally new, somewhat ridiculous, light.
E.V.R.'s self-presentation also plays a large role in the delivery of his message. His publications characteristically bear his picture: long white beard, glasses, white hair. Inside Characters in the Ramayana , the reader really encounters more of E.V.R. than Rama. The inside back covers of most editions contain, in addition to the titles and prices of his other publications, lists of celebratory accounts of his accomplishments, such as Periyar E. V. Ramasami (A Pen Portrait )—a phenomenon that has persisted beyond his death (in 1973). Consider the following announcement inside the front cover of the 1980 English edition of The Ramayana (A True Reading ):
The importance of this book
The English and Hindi Editions of this book were banned by the Uttar Pradesh Government. The High Court of the U. P. lifted the ban and the U. P. Government appealed to the Supreme Court against the judgment of the High Court. In the Supreme Court, the appeal preferred by the U. P. State was dismissed in 1976 as the Supreme Court did not see any reason to interfere with the judgment of the U. P. High Court.
As this statement indicates, the significance of the work now extends beyond the boundaries of Tamilnadu: through its translation into both English and Hindi, it has attracted attention in North India. The pamphlet was considered so threatening that the government of Uttar Pradesh (where Rama's royal city of Ayodhya is located and where Hindu-Muslim riots continue over a mosque at the alleged site of Rama's birth) felt compelled to ban its publication—although, as the publishers note with satisfaction, the government's attempt to suppress the text has been unsuccessful. The announcement of course gives the reader the impression that the pamphlet contains forbidden, and hence desirable, reading matter, thus adding to E.V.R.'s notoriety.
Not a man to stop at mere words, E.V.R. encouraged the enactment of his interpretation of the Ramayana in dramatic performance as well. The DK drama inspired by E.V.R.'s exegesis and known by the mocking name of
“Keemayana" (keema is a nonsense sound) toured throughout Tamilnadu. The play's portrayal of Rama as a drunkard and Sita as a wanton woman earned it the comment "hoodlums stage filth in Trichy" in one review. The high (or low, depending on the viewer's perspective) point in the performance occurred when participants beat images of Rama with their (polluting) leather sandals. Similarly, E.V.R.'s scheduled burning of images of Rama in 1956 testifies to his desire to dramatize his exegetical attack. By reversing tile North Indian ritual of Ravana-burning, he not only enacts his verbal attack on Rama but reminds Tamilians of the urgent need for them to embrace his political interpretation of the Ramayana .