Variants, Vidvans, and Individual Versions
Within the framework of group bhajan , several variant formats have evolved that have added new dimensions to the sect's oral performance of the Ram story. Of these, two have been especially influential in increasing both the Ramnamis' understanding of and their repertoire of verses from the Manas and other texts. The first of these involves the insertion of a conversation in verse form into the bhajan itself. This is a common practice among members of the sect. The second format is a special type of philosophical dialogue or interchange, engaged in by a small but growing number of Ramnamis. This stylized interchange is called takkar (literally, "collision" or "quarrel").
To the Ramnamis ramnam bhajan is both a religious practice and a form of entertainment. Insofar as it is the focus of their individual spiritual lives as well as of their shared life of devotion as a community, it is a religious practice to be taken quite seriously. At the same time, however, ramnam bhajan gatherings, especially the periodic large ones, are the only opportunity many Ramnamis have to see each other and to escape temporarily from the troubles and concerns of daily life. Thus group chanting sessions are also a time of joy and celebration. In this context bhajan is viewed as a source of entertainment, involving at times lighthearted conversation, jesting, and joking.
Besides the corpus of verses from the Manas and other texts that have been incorporated in ramnam bhajan , there is a vast array of other Manas verses
covering a broad range of subjects. Although these verses do not directly apply to bhajan topics, they are often quite useful for the purpose of conversation. Sect members will occasionally interject such verses into the chanting as a means of greeting one another, joking, complaining about the difficulties of family life, speaking irreverently about priests, politicians, or wealthy landowners, and so on.
For example, seeing a friend after a long time apart, a Ramnami may nod an acknowledgment of the other's presence while reciting the following Manas verse. The words are those of a sage greeting Ram upon his arrival at the former's hermitage.
I have watched the road day and night with deep concentration. Upon seeing [you] my Lord, my heart has been soothed.
A fitting reply to this welcoming couplet might be:
Now I have faith, O Hanuman, in the Lord's blessings upon me, for without it the company of saints cannot be gained.
If an unknown member of the sect arrives to take part in a bhajan gathering, a Ramnami may want to show hospitality and inquire about the stranger's identity. At the same time he may want to ascertain whether the stranger is aware of the conversation format and gauge his cleverness.
Are you one of the Lord's servants? My heart is filled with feelings of love.
Or maybe you are Ram, friend of the poor, who has come to grant me blessings.
With the following brief reply the newcomer could show his humility, his awareness of the conversation, and his knowledge of how to respond:
Lord, I am [Vibhisan] the brother of the ten-headed Ravan. O Protector of the gods, I was born in the family of demons.
This in turn might prompt the reply:
Vibhisan, you are triply blessed. You have become the jewel of the demon family.
In this manner the Ramnamis combine bhajan and conversation, although the process often seems more like a competition to see who can be cleverer in finding verses that apply to a variety of situations. When a verse used in conversation is replied to, a dialogue may begin, which may lead into another stylistic variant of bhajan called takkar .
Nearly all of the Ramnamis know something about the use of Manas verses in conversation, and many of them practice it. Barely half, on the other hand,
are even aware of the process of takkar , and not more than a tenth actually take an active part in it. Nevertheless, takkar and its practitioners, known in the sect as vidvans ("exponents of knowledge"), have provided perhaps the greatest formative influence in contemporary times on the beliefs and practices of the Ramnami Samaj.
As we have seen, the Ramnamis' gradual growth in literacy and ability to understand Manas verses made them aware of the need to sift through and evaluate the text, in order to avoid verses and sections that were discordant with their own beliefs. The designation vidvan , traditionally used to refer to a Sanskrit scholar, was given to those Ramnamis who dedicated themselves to deepening their comprehension of the Manas and to gaining the knowledge required to judge which verses from the Manas (and other texts) accorded with the Ramnamis' philosophy and thus might fruitfully be incorporated into the bhajans . Although the vidvans constitute only about 10 percent of the sect, they have had tremendous influence as the architects of the sect's philosophy, giving shape and direction to the Ramnamis' beliefs and practices. The vehicle the vidvans employ for the expression and dissemination of their particular philosophical perspectives is takkar .
As understood by the Ramnamis, takkar is a form of dialogue or interchange between vidvans that takes place during chanting, the language of these interchanges consisting entirely of verses from the corpus of texts collected by the vidvans . The takkar process evolved as a direct result of both the conversation style of bhajan and the freedom allowed each individual Ramnami in the selection of verses to be memorized for use in bhajan . The more literate sect members tended to seek out primarily those verses consistent with their personal philosophical viewpoint. In time, differences as well as similarities in the perspectives of the various sect members became apparent on the basis of the verses favored by each member in the bhajan sessions. For example, a Ramnami, finding himself in particular agreement with a verse chanted by another sect member, might choose to display his consensus by offering a verse consonant with the previous one in spirit. Conversely, a sect member could counter an objectionable verse by reciting an opposing couplet. This back-and-forth process of responding to recited verses gradually became formalized in takkar .
The term takkar literally means "quarrel" or "collision," and the process indeed resembles a school debate or competition more than a discussion of fundamental philosophical differences. As one vidvan put it, vidvans use takkars for the purpose of plumbing "the depths of each other's knowledge and devotion." In a gaming spirit, Ramnami vidvans like to set parameters or rules for each takkar . For example, restrictions may be placed on the subject matter of the takkar , the preferred topics being gyan , bhakti , and ramnam . Alternatively, the verses used in takkar may be limited to those drawn from a particular chapter of the Manas or to those taken from texts other than the Manas .
Takkars can take place at any time during ramnam bhajan and may last from several minutes to several hours. When a group chant involves mostly non-vidvans , which is quite common, then short takkars , generally lasting only a few minutes, will occasionally take place between the vidvans present, such dialogues often passing almost unnoticed by the rest of the group. When, on the other hand, a large number of vidvans gather together, a much greater percentage of the bhajan will take the form of takkar of one type or another. An amazingly high percentage of Ramnamis—perhaps as many as 40 percent—are oblivious to the existence of the takkar process itself, and an even greater number are generally unaware when such interchanges are actually taking place during the bhajan . Those Ramnamis who are least aware of the takkar process tend to be the women and older men, the two groups in which illiteracy is the highest. The primary reason for this is that many of the illiterate Ramnamis have simply memorized the verses they chant through listening to their frequent repetition during bhajans , without any real attempt to understand what is being chanted. Consequently, their actual comprehension of most verses is minimal and is generally limited to the more commonly repeated ones from the Manas . As was the case in the early days of the movement, such sect members simply have faith that the verses they are listening to or repeating are about gyan , bhakti , or ramnam , and that is sufficient for them.
On the other hand, many of the younger males have had at least a few years of schooling and have attained a certain degree of literacy. They tend to have a greater curiosity with respect to what is being repeated and thus have a greater capability and likelihood of gaining an understanding of recited verses. In addition, they also have a greater ability to read the Manas and other texts to search out new bhajan verses on their own. It is therefore this group of Ramnamis that yields the greatest number of vidvans .
The takkars have stimulated the vidvans to undertake an in-depth study not only of the Manas but of various other texts—including Hindi translations of some Sanskrit scriptures—in order to improve their understanding of classical and contemporary Hindu thought as well as to find verses with which to fuel and energize their debates. This study is not necessarily confined to those texts used in bhajan , but can extend to Hindi translations of such works as the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita , puranas , various stotras , and even portions of the Vedic Samhitas. If a text is found that is in doha or caupai meter, then it will be culled for verses applicable to takkar . More often than not, however, Hindi translations of classical texts are in prose rather than verse form and so cannot be used in chanting. Thus, although the initial impetus for such research might have been a desire to increase the repertoire of verses available for takkars , the purpose of study for many vidvans extends beyond collecting verses for bhajans . In the eyes of the vidvans , textual study serves to deepen their own understanding of gyan, bhakti , and ramnam , as well as
providing a storehouse of knowledge on which they can draw to continually enrich, renew, and reinvigorate the sect's oral recitations of the Ramayan .
During the early 1970s three vidvans gathered together verses from a wide variety of texts for use in bhajans as well as non-bhajan discussions and debates. The compilers also added several couplets of their own creation, publishing the collection under the title Ram Rasik Gita . They had two thousand copies printed and distributed to members of the sect. The fact that the first five pages of this fifty-two page booklet are entirely in Sanskrit, coupled with the inclusion of the compilers' own verses, raised the ire of many sect members, who viewed the booklet as a form of self-aggrandizement, and many vidvans refuse to refer to it at all. Nevertheless, the Ram Rasik Gita has become a useful source of verses for Ramnamis who cannot afford to buy books or who are unable to obtain copies of the original texts from which the booklet's contents are drawn.
The particular form a takkar takes depends to a large extent on the subject matter and the vidvans present. Vidvans who know a large repertoire of verses and possess a deep understanding of their subject matter can generate lively interchanges. In gyan takkars , vidvans may deliberately take opposing stands on various philosophical issues, such as the impersonal vs. personal understanding of God, the dualism/monism debate, and the disagreement concerning the relationship between God and maya . On the topics of bhakti and nam , however, a relative consensus exists among vidvans , and the range of viewpoints is accordingly less diversified. The object of such takkars seems to consist more in pitting one's talent and the size of one's repertoire of verses against that of the other vidvans than in serious attempts to refute another's point of view.
The following is a portion of a gyan takkar that took place during the annual Ramnami festival in 1989. Several thousand Ramnamis had gathered for the three-day festival, in which bhajan continues from sunset to sunrise. One evening a young vidvan recited the following verse, obviously directed at another vidvan seated nearby.
According to the Vedas, itihasas , and puranas , God's creation is filled with both good and evil.
Accepting the challenge, the second vidvan replied:
God created all existence as a mixture of good and evil. Swanlike saints drink the nectar of goodness, leaving behind the waters of imperfection.
Stimulated by this response, the first vidvan offered two verses consecutively, the second intended to bolster the view presented in the first.
Planets, medicinal plants, water, wind, and clothing become useful or harmful in accordance with their good or bad associations. Only a clever and thoughtful person can know the difference.
Only when the Creator gives one discriminative wisdom does the mind turn from sin to goodness.
The second vidvan's rejoinder was a verse commonly heard in chanting.
Knowing the world to be permeated by Ram's Name, I bow with joined hands.
In the above interchange the challenging Ramnami puts forth the view that the world is dualistic, containing both good and evil. As he goes on to point out, wisdom and discrimination are necessary in order for one to be able to reject the world's dark side. In his initial reply the respondent seems to accept this view, further suggesting that a holy person absorbs the good and is not bothered by the bad. Ultimately, however, he implies that in reality there is no evil, for the world is permeated by none other than Ram's Name. Such a reply is called samarthak ("conclusive") since in the eyes of the Ramnamis there can be no rebuttal, only agreement. While the last verse is one commonly repeated in bhajans , in the context of this particular takkar it was seen as a valid rejoinder and not just an uninspired retreat into platitudes, as it might have been viewed in some other takkar .
An intriguing feature of this particular interchange is that the verses are all taken from within the same three pages of the Manas . The ability to conduct a takkar with verses drawn entirely, or even predominantly, from one episode in the text is considered by the vidvans to be a sign of both intelligence and cleverness. It suggests that the participants in the takkar are sufficiently knowledgeable about the particular event and the various concepts implicit in it to be able to glean verses from a common narrative to support opposing viewpoints.
What I term lila takkars (takkars in the form of a lila —"play" or "drama") are a relatively recent variant of the takkar form and add a new dimension to the bhajan process. During chanting a vidvan may adopt the role of one of the major figures in Tulsidas's Ram story, from Ram himself to Ravan, the ten-headed demon king who is Ram's staunchest adversary. To indicate his choice, the vidvan recites several verses spoken by that character in the Manas while casting challenging glances at one or more of the other vidvans , one of whom is then expected to take on the role of an opposing character.
A takkar that took place during the 1989 Ramnami mela serves as a good illustration of the dynamic interchange between opposing characters that distinguishes this form of takkar . On the second evening of the festival, nearly seventy-five Ramnamis were assembled under one of the many open-sided tents set up for the gathering. As the chanting proceeded one vidvan recited several Manas verses attributed to Ravan, the demon king of Lanka, all the while looking quite intently at a vidvan seated nearby. The latter soon acknowledged the challenge and replied with two verses spoken by Angad, a
monkey member of Ram's army who engaged in a philosophical argument with Ravan immediately prior to the war in Lanka. Their roles firmly established, the participants in the lila takkar were now free to recite any verses they chose in order to help further their respective positions in the debate. Among the verses recited by "Ravan," himself a demon but also a Brahmin, were several spoken by Ram extolling the greatness of Brahmins. (Here the recitation of verses extolling Brahmins was in order because the speaker was playing the role of a demon.) "Angad," on the other hand, quoted from Marich, a demon friend of Ravan, celebrating Ram's power. Soon the discussion left the Manas entirely and concentrated on verses from another text. Ultimately it returned to the Manas , and "Angad" won the debate—an inevitable outcome. Figures such as Ravan, Bali, and others whose roles in Tulsidas's telling are generally negative never win such debates, but then winning is not always the purpose of the lila . It is a sport, a game, in which the vidvans display their mastery of relevant verses and their understanding of various texts and their teachings.
The number of Ramnamis has been declining rapidly during the last decade, essentially because the number of deaths of elder sect members far exceeds the number of new initiates. At the same time, however, the percentage of vidvans is increasing because many of the new, younger members are relatively more literate and are thus encouraged by the older vidvans to study various texts and take part in the takkars . As their number increases, many vidvans are gravitating toward smaller bhajan gatherings at which they make up the majority of participants—so that their takkars are not "interrupted" by the interjection of random verses from sect members unaware of the interchange taking place.
The increase in the number of vidvans and their practice of takkar has led to the creation of two levels of oral Ramayan within the sect: the Ramayan of the general membership and the individual Ramayans of the various vidvans . In some ways this is dividing the sect, yet at the same time each level performs an important function. Through group performance, the shared Ramayan of the sect unifies it and defines its beliefs. It provides the sect with an oral scripture, whose parameters and philosophy are constructed around the beliefs of the sect.
Setting the stage for future development of the shared Ramayan are the personalized versions of the vidvans . In doing individual study of various texts, both to search for new takkar material as well as to expand their own private understanding of gyan and bhakti , each vidvan creates a personalized repertoire of verses that alters his own telling and makes it a unique creation. This process inspires a great deal of experimentation and growth for many of the vidvans . It also provides a diversity of directions and an ever-changing treasury of new verse material for the future growth of the shared Ramayan of the sect. It assures the continual fluid nature of the Ramnamis' telling of the Ram story.