Ramayana Incidents As Parables
The Tenkalai school's reading of Ramayana incidents is unique, yet their methods of structuring and interpreting these incidents have parallels in other scriptural traditions. What is immediately striking is that the Tenkalai school is not very interested in the main plot, the didactic portions of the epic, or even the literal meaning of statements made by Rama or Sita. Rather, they focus on a few relatively obscure events in the Rama story, which, when interpreted allegorically, lend support to their soteriological doctrines. It is not that the Ramayana as a whole is an allegory to the Tenkalai, at least not in the manner of a work like Pilgrim's Progress . In Bunyan's book each character is univalent, representing a single concept. But in the Tenkalai reading of the Ramayana , different characters symbolize different theological realities at different moments. For example, Sita can represent the soul waiting to be saved or Sri, the mediator. Thus the soul and the goal of salvation can be represented by almost any character and the goal he or she is seeking. Sita seeking to escape from Lanka, the raksasas seeking to bind Hanuman, Ravana seeking to vanquish Rama—all become allegories for the soul seeking salvation. The Tenkalai teachers seem to select these isolated incidents on the basis of a perceived parallel between the relation of the actors in the narrative and the relation of the theological concepts they wish to illustrate. The allegorical identification is sometimes fully spelled out, and sometimes merely hinted at, so that listeners are encouraged to extend the metaphor, to fill in the blanks and draw the theological conclusion themselves.
All this brings the Srivaisnava reading of Ramayana incidents very close to the genre of parable. Parables are also brief narratives or stories that are akin to metaphors and are often interpreted analogically or allegorically. The allegorical meaning of parables, especially those in religious scriptures, is sometimes fully explained, and sometimes only hinted at. However, the relation between parable and allegory is a bone of scholarly contention in the field of religious studies. Traditionally, the parable has been seen as closely akin to metaphor, analogy, example-story, and allegory. In this view, a parable is defined as an extended metaphor built around a narrative structure; though often interpreted analogically, parables are generally too brief and unsystematic to be considered full-fledged allegories. However, some recent scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, have tended to emphasize the distinction in both form and function between parables and allegories. Crossan and others would argue that parables are not intended to be interpreted allegor-
ically, even though theologians have often co-opted (and perhaps misused) scriptural parables by reading them allegorically in order to support their own metaphysical or ethical viewpoints. Though we cannot go into the details of this argument here, some ideas gleaned from this scholarly dispute on the structure, interpretation, and theological significance of parables can both illuminate and be illuminated by the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents.
In Crossan's view, a parable is defined by certain structural characteristics:
There is in every parabolic situation a battle of basic structures. There is the structure of expectation on the part of the hearer and there is the structure of expression on the part of the speaker. These structures are in diametrical opposition, and this opposition is the heart of the parabolic event. . . . What actually happens in the parable is the reverse of what the hearer expects.
Crossan uses this structural model to analyze biblical parables in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, he points out that in Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) the hearer expects the priest and Levite to help the victim and the Samaritan to refuse assistance, but the story shows exactly the opposite (107). In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-13) one expects God to hear and accept the prayer of the righteous Pharisee and reject the prayer of the sinful publican, but just the opposite happens (102).
This conflict between the reader's expectations and the narrative outcome seems to be the central dynamic of the Tenkalai telling of Ramayana incidents no less than of biblical parables. Indeed, in recounting the Ramayana incidents they select, the Tenkalai acaryas deliberately highlight the paradoxical nature of the outcomes. One would expect Sita, as an incarnation of the Goddess Sri, to use her power to save herself and escape Lanka. Why did she not do so? One would expect Ravana's bow to help him achieve his aim. Why did Rama let him escape only after he dropped it? One would expect the addition of a jute cord to reinforce the efficacy of the Brahmastra. Why did it fail? One would expect the merciful Rama to honor the request of his own virtuous brother, Bharata, who humbly surrendered to him with the request that he return to Ayodhya and allow Bharata to serve him. Why did Rama refuse him and yet actively seek the companionship of the lowly Guha and Hanuman, who had not even expressed a desire for this companionship, much less surrendered to him? One would expect Rama to be pleased when Sita appeared before him bathed and adorned as he had requested. Why did he get angry?
The Tenkalai versions of Ramayana incidents thus seem to have the paradoxical structure of parables. They do not, however, fully confirm Crossan's
theory about the function and meaning of parables. He claims that the intent of parable, as a genre, is diametrically opposed to that of allegory and example-story. The parable's central paradox is designed to attack the hearer's culturally conditioned standards of expectation, to subvert all theology (or "myth," as he calls it)—meaning all received views of reality and ethical standards. Allegories and example-stories, on the other hand, serve to explain and support a given worldview. He claims that the New Testament redactors turned Jesus' parables—which were genuine parables intended to confront the hearer with an authentic religious experience transcending all conceptualization—into allegories and example-stories that supported the eschatology and moral teachings of the early church. Thus in the context of the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good Samaritan becomes an example-story teaching love for one's neighbor, while the parable of the Pharisee and publican teaches that the honest humility of a sinner is better in God's eyes than the self-righteousness of the holy. Crossan suggests that the central dynamic of reversed expectations in the parable runs counter to the theological aims of example-stories and allegories; therefore, he claims, Jesus' parables often end up as rather poor examples of the latter (120). Crossan thus questions whether one "could ever succeed in making a smooth change from parable to example and allegory" (123).
Crossan has been criticized for drawing too sharp a distinction between theology ("mythical religion," as he calls it) and the parabolic religion of transcendence, which is anti-theology. Isn't it possible that parables—even with their characteristic paradoxical structure—not only seek to subvert a prevailing worldview but also to establish a new one? Can the paradoxicality at the heart of the parable actually serve the allegorical meaning and theological aims of their interpreters, rather than acting as obstacle to them?
The Tenkalai school's "parabolized" readings of Ramayana incidents suggest that the answer to both questions is yes, and that Crossan's critics are right. The Tenkalai theologians seem to use their interpretations of Ramayana incidents both to criticize the prevailing worldview and to assert their own theological claims. Furthermore, the paradoxical structure of these incidents and their allegorical interpretation do not seem to be at odds (as Crossan's analysis of New Testament parables would suggest); rather, they work together to accomplish both aims. In the Tenkalai acaryas' telling of Ramayana incidents, the paradox at the surface or narrative level of each incident serves as a hook to draw the listener toward the allegorically derived theological level of meaning. So why did Rama get angry at Sita? Why didn't Ravana's bow help him? Why did the Brahmastra slip off'? Why did Rama reject Bharata? The reader or listener, disturbed by the paradox, must "stay tuned" for its resolution. The allegorical interpretation, when disclosed as the hidden meaning of the incident, resolves the surface paradox and thereby affirms the
particular doctrinal viewpoint the author wishes to promote. But this doctrinal viewpoint nevertheless subverts some of the most cherished assumptions of the Hindu worldview (many of which are staunchly defended by the Vatakalai school): that the Lord hates sins and loves virtue, and that salvation and the favor of the Lord can be achieved by means of devotion and ritual action, as taught in scripture. Against this backdrop of expectation, the Tenkalai reading of these paradoxical Ramayana incidents boldly demonstrates why these incidents do not turn out as expected: the assumptions of the underlying worldview are wrong. The Lord does not hate sin but in fact longs to commune with the soul with all its sin; scripturally enjoined means performed by one's own efforts don't help one achieve salvation but interfere with it; even surrender itself is not a fail-safe means to win the Lord's favor, and he is not bound to honor it.
In one sense, the theological function of the Tenkalai interpretation of Ramayana incidents is not so different from the aim of the New Testament interpretation of Jesus' parables. In the gospels, Jesus' parables are used to ridicule the legalism of the Pharisees and to teach a radical morality of love which cannot be reduced to a structured code of ethical principles that state precisely what God demands of human beings. Similarly, the Srivaisnava Ramayana incidents subvert and ridicule the sastric legalism that the Vatakalai defend and yet simultaneously teach a radical soteriology that cannot be reduced to a scripturally prescribed system of devotional and ritual actions; there is no surefire recipe for salvation.
The effectiveness of metaphor, parable, and allegory in oral and written discourse has been noted at least since the time of Aristotle. Religious teachers in particular have appreciated how powerfully one can bring home a theological point to an audience through the use of these techniques. One wonders whether the average Christian would truly understand (or even remember) Jesus' commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself without the parable of the good Samaritan. Similarly, although Pancaratra texts clearly teach that when one surrenders to God, one must abandon all other upayas , most Srivaisnava devotees understand this principle through the analogy their founding teachers have made with the Brahmastra incident in the Rama story. Even though the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents does not support Crossan's radical distinction between the intentions of parable and theology, the value of his analysis, as I see it, is to suggest that the paradoxes at the heart of parables may be the secret to their theological vigor as well as their rhetorical impact. In Crossan's words, they "shatter the structural security of the hearer's world and render possible the kingdom of God" (123); or, as the Tenkalai theologians might prefer to say it, they shatter the structural security of the sastric worldview and render possible the soul's true subservience to the Lord.