The Manas as Sruti and Smrti
Over the past four hundred years no Hindu text has generated as large and as active a following as Tulsidas's Manas . Even as a non-Sanskritic text, it has been elevated to the status of sruti in the eyes of the populace of North India. More than any other text it has been reinterpreted, recreated, and imitated in a large variety of literary, ritual, and performative genres such as commentaries, oral recitations (kathas ), dramas (lilas ), and devotional chant-
ing (bhajans ). As such the Manas is an especially suitable vehicle for examining the permeability and relativity of the categories of sruti and smrti .
It is impossible to say with certainty how early the Ram story achieved scriptural status in India. J. L. Brockington maintains that at least five stages are perceptible in the development of Valmiki's Ramayana from its original to its final form. Each stage incorporated additional brahmanical elements into the text, which served to make the story more consistent with orthodox beliefs and practices, with developing brahmanical doctrines, and with the establishment of the Brahmin priest as the mediator of devotion to Ram. Brockington refers to this process of altering the text in the direction of brahmanical values as brahmanization .
By the time the Ramcaritmanas was written the Ram story had been sufficiently appropriated and given status by the brahmanical orthodoxy in North India that a large section of the priestly community of Banaras, where the Manas was completed, became outraged by Tulsidas's rendition of the story in Hindi, rather than in the orthodox Sanskrit. According to popular tradition, this situation led to an event—said to have occurred just after the completion of the Manas and originally recorded by Benimadhavdas, a disciple of Tulsidas, in his Mul Gosain Caritra —that was extremely significant both for Tulsidas and for his poem.
According to the legend the Brahmin priests of Banaras were furious that the story of Ram had been written in a vernacular language instead of in Sanskrit, and they denounced the Manas as a debasement of the holy scriptures. Subsequently, Tulsidas took his work to the main Siva temple in the city where a test of its validity was devised by a respected Sanskrit scholar. That night the book was placed before the main image in the temple, and on top of it were placed the sastras , the eighteen puranas , the Upanisads, and, finally, the four Vedic Samhitas. The temple was then locked for the night. When it was reopened in the morning the Manas was found on top of the pile. Immediately the text and its author were hailed by all present.
This story is often heard in North India when the position of the Manas in relation to the Sanskrit scriptures is discussed. A common interpretation is that the Manas was divinely recognized as equal to the Vedas in sanctity. Many Ram bhaktas (devotees), however, say the story shows that the Manas actually supersedes the Vedas in both sanctity and authority. For them, the Manas is not equal to sruti : it is itself sruti . It is the preeminent text of the present age, the new standard by which to define sruti .
The process through which a text is elevated to the status of sruti has been termed vedacization . Unlike brahmanization this process does not involve a modification of textual content but rather of attributed status. The dual process of brahmanization and vedacization of a number of sectarian works has complicated the traditional division between sruti and smrti . Most such works
enter the scriptural hierarchy at the level of smrti , as the preferred text of a particular sect. As a given text gains adherents and ritual status, additional sanctity is ascribed to it. Eventually, the text bridges the gap between sruti and smrti attribution, taking on dimensions of both. Philip Lutgendorf refers to a text that goes through this process as an "upwardly-mobile scripture."
The Manas in North India provides an excellent example of a sacred text that has assumed characteristics of both sruti and smrti . On the one hand, the Manas has the attributes of a smrti text: it was composed by a human author, Tulsidas, and is written in Avadhi, a regional dialect related to modern Hindi, rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. Moreover, as the source of the Ram story, the content of the text is considered as important as its sound value. In the context of the Manas as sruti , modification of the text, in its written form as well as in oral presentation, forms a part of the process of continual reinterpretation and recreation of the story. At the same time the Manas clearly has attained quasi-sruti status. Its verses are viewed by its adherents as efficacious mantras, the chanting of which can bring about blessings, cure illness, remove obstacles, and even grant power. Like the Vedas the Manas has generated a sizable body of literature that imitates, interprets, and expands on the text. In addition, many Brahmin priests today, albeit some begrudgingly, grant a sruti -like position to the Manas and use it ritually as such. Lutgendorf has described the process of vedacization in Banaras and other urban centers of North India through which the Manas has come to be regarded as the "Hindi Veda" and Manas recitation rituals have been transformed into Vedic yagyas ("sacrifices") performed by Brahmin priests.