Tellings as Refashioning and Opposition
Despite the widespread belief that Rama acts as the embodiment of righteous action, certain deeds that he performs have troubled various authors of Ramayana texts over the centuries. Because the textual treatment of these morally ambiguous deeds often involves dealing with them in creative ways, the study of such incidents can reveal some of the sources of diversity within the Ramayana tradition. In Part Two of this volume, Kathleen Erndl and David Shulman examine how these incidents can be seen as nodes of narrative capable of generating different tellings, each pursuing its own logic.
A number of authors and commentators have puzzled over the ethically problematic way that Rama and Laksmana treat Surpanakha, Ravana's sister. In her chapter for this volume, Erndl brings structural analysis to bear on the mutilation of Surpanakha, an event which ultimately leads to Sita's abduction. The incident's ambiguities stem in various texts from the way that Laksmana contravenes the prescription that a warrior must never harm a woman; from Surpanakha's status as demoness and disguise as a beautiful woman; and from the attempts of Rama and Laksmana to tease and trick her. By examining the portrayal of this incident in a selected set of Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hindi Ramayana texts, Erndl demonstrates how its moral ambiguities have generated a whole array of renditions and commentaries. In doing so, she reveals a fascination within the Ramayana tradition for Surpanakha, a woman who moves about the forest independent of a male protector and boldly articulates her passionate feelings, as a kind of alter ego of Sita, often considered the model of the chaste and submissive wife.
Shulman's essay considers another nodal incident in the narrative, the scene in which Rama repudiates Sita and then is informed by the gods that he is divine. Shulman juxtaposes Valmiki's account of the incident with Kampan's rendition, examining the fundamental motivations of each telling by considering two foci of ambiguity and literary creativity. One dilemma concerns Rama's relationship to his wife, now returned from a sojourn in another male's house: her ambiguous status—there is no proof that she remained chaste—dismays Rama's supporters. Rama's response to her return also raises issues about his own hybrid status as a deity in human form. Valmiki's account of the incident explores the extent to which Rama has
forgotten his divine identity; in contrast, Kampan's account raises questions about the limited extent to which human beings can know the divine and attain union with him. Shulman brings to light both the differences in the two accounts and the ways in which these differences are embedded in different theological contexts.
If Erndl and Shulman focus upon diversity within the Ramayana tradition inspired by moral ambiguities, that tradition also encompasses ways of telling the story that contest the character portrayals, values, and concerns of dominant Ramayanas . Jain and Buddhist writers are not alone in this endeavor. Other tellings that oppose influential Hindu tellings (which I have labeled "oppositional tellings") exist as well. Two papers in Part Two explore the specific ways in which certain texts resist a dominant presentation of the story.
Narayana Rao's essay for this volume, an account of folksongs collected from Telugu women, focuses on a Ramayana tradition that contests the prevailing ideology of male dominance. Narayana Rao sees these songs as statements against what he calls "the public Ramayanas ," pointing out that the latter glorify "the accepted values of a male-dominated world," whereas the Telugu songs relate a story in which public events (coronation, war) are displaced by domestic ones such as Kausalya's morning sickness or Rama getting bathed by his mother. The overall emphasis in these songs differs as well. While Valmiki's Ramayana , for example, concentrates on the virtues of Rama, several of the women's folksongs question Rama's integrity and foreground the theme of the suffering that husbandly neglect causes a wife. Gloria Raheja, an anthropologist studying North Indian women's songs, has cautioned against assuming that "the identity and self-perceptions of Hindu women depend heavily on the set of male-authored mythic themes [such as wifely devotion, subservience to in-laws, and suppression of desire for marital intimacy] condensed into the figure of Sita. Narayana Rao's analysis gives us another perspective, a way to hear another set of voices singing about the relationship between Sita and Rama.
Oppositional tellings of the Ramayana also emerged from the colonial context in South Asia, as Clinton Seely's paper about Michael Madhusudan Dutt shows. Dutt's Meghanadavadha Kavya reflects the complexity of contact between Indian and British culture. Dutt adored Milton, converted to Christianity, embraced blank verse, and composed some major poems in English. Yet he loved Hindu mythology and created a whole new tradition in Bengali writing. Both the rejections and the acceptances in his telling of the Ramayana reveal much about its author and his colonial context. As Seely points out, Dutt based the plot of his epic upon that of the dominant Bengali Ramayana by Krttivasa. Yet at the same time he subtly subverted the image of Rama by carefully interweaving three additional stories that serve to identify Ravana with heroic figures. As a result, the perplexed reader, expecting a
more conventional characterization, often ends up admiring or feeling sympathy for the expected villain of the story. Dutt admitted to a friend that his character portrayal was the result of his contempt for traditional Hindu values like asceticism and his admiration for the enjoyment of possessions and power that was associated with colonial Calcutta.
Such oppositional texts demonstrate the potential plurality of characterization and plot in the Ramayana tradition; analysis of kinds of audience in performance reveals another component of the tradition's diversity. Stuart Blackburn's essay examines a shadow-puppet tradition in present-day Kerala (based on Kampan's twelfth-century Tamil Iramavataram ), focusing on the play's "internal" audience. Unlike the Ram Lila of Banaras, performed before huge crowds, the spectators at the Kerala puppet plays are few—and those few often doze off soon after the performance begins. As a result, the puppeteers perform principally for one another. Aficionados of the genre, they strive to outdo each other in voluminous commentary and witty remarks, incorporating into the telling of the Ramayana verbal treatises on grammar, local references, and satire of pious ideals. This internal audience has thus shaped the many layers and frames of the drama, giving rise to yet another kind of diversity within the Ramayana tradition.