E. V. Ramasami's Reading of the Ramayana
On the first day of August in 1956, E. V. Ramasami (henceforth E.V.R.) set out for the Madras marina to lead his followers in burning pictures of Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana . This symbolic action would represent a reversal of the culmination of North Indian performances of the Ramayana , in which images of the epic's villain, Ravana, are put to the flames as spectators watch in delight. Rejecting Rama as hypocritical and weak, worthy only of scorn, E.V.R. saw Ravana as the true hero of the tale. E.V.R.'s iconoclastic reading comprised more than just another exegesis of a religious text, however. It was the centerpiece of his campaign against brahmanical Hinduism, conducted in the context of his assertion of Dravidian, that is, South Indian, identity.
The day before the proposed burning of Lord Rama's picture, important political leaders implored E.V.R. to cancel the event, so as not to offend orthodox Hindu Tamilians. P. Kakkan, president of the Tamilnadu Congress Committee, argued that the desecration of Rama images would constitute an "anti-social" act that would betray the strong faith in God by which Gandhi won independence for India. E.V.R. remained unmoved by such arguments, noting that "there was bound to be a difference of views regarding any measure aimed at bringing social reform."
On the following day, the Deputy Commissioner of Police promptly arrested E.V.R. when he stepped out of his house to head toward the marina. E.V.R. seemed prepared for this eventuality: in addition to his picture of Rama and his box of matches, he carried a bedroll to spread on the hard prison floor. Soon afterward, his wife went down to the beach to tell the assembled crowd of the arrest. Some of the protestors, who had brought pictures of Rama and little wooden matchboxes, began to burn pictures on their own. As The Hindu reported:
Then for another half-an-hour, a number of persons . . . played hide and seek on the road and on the sands with the police and from time to time one would come forward and be arrested. One of these managed to slip onto the sands and burn a picture of Sri Rama, but he was arrested.
Police reinforcements arrived at the beach, several people began to throw stones, the police made a few half-hearted charges brandishing their lathis (weighted staffs), and then most people went home. Approximately 890 people were arrested either before or during the event. E.V.R. was released after two and a half hours but declined to continue the protest, saying that the event had more than fulfilled its purpose.
E.V.R.'s Rama-burning campaign was neither an isolated incident nor the stunt of some prankster. From the late 1920s through to the end of his life, he developed a serious and thorough critique of the characters and values of the Ramayana , of which the 1956 agitation was simply one manifestation. E.V.R. reads the Ramayana as a text of political domination: his interpretation of the text is intended to awaken South Indians to their oppression by North Indians and to their true identity as Dravidians. Through his exegesis of the Ramayana , E.V.R. exposes what he sees as the shoddy values of brahminism, reveals what he understands as Rama's greed for power and desire to dominate, and sets out what he takes to be Ravana's true greatness. By the end of his endeavor, conventional readings of the text lie in shreds.
In this article, I focus upon the logic of E.V.R.'s reading of the Ramayana , particularly the manner in which he politicizes the text. First, I provide. a brief biographical and historical overview of his life and milieu, concluding with a discussion of how he used print to disseminate his ideas. Second, I analyze one popular pamphlet which contains a comprehensive formulation of his ideas. Third, I consider some of the precedents for E.V.R.'s reading and then his innovations. The essay concludes with an evaluation of E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana as a contribution to public discourse in South India. Throughout, my goal is to demonstrate the pivotal role that E.V.R.'s attack on the Ramayana played in fusing religious texts and political issues in Madras during the middle third of this century.
Roots and Methods of E.V.R.’s Attack on the Ramayana
Running through E.V.R.'s life is his growing disillusionment with Hindu-ism, accompanied by an ever-increasing distrust of and activism against brahmanical privilege. Accounts suggest that even as a youth E. V. Rarnasami Naicker (he later dropped the caste name) rebelled against brahmanical prescriptions for proper social behavior. Born in 1879 into a family of Baliga Naidus, a Telugu jati of traders and cultivators, he grew up in Erode, a fairly important mercantile town in the Coimbatore district of Madras.
Because E.V.R. insisted upon associating with boys of lower castes, his father removed him from school at age ten. His marriage was arranged when he was thirteen, and he entered the family business, becoming prosperous thanks to his shrewd business sense.
At the age of twenty-five, however, E.V.R. grew dissatisfied with mercantile life and became a sadhu (wandering holy man). During his journeys across India, visiting cities such as Banaras and Calcutta, he gained a broader perspective on the nature of his country and its religion. But hand in hand with his widening experience came a disgust with a Hindu priesthood that he saw as exploiting the masses under the guise of "spiritual advancement." After a short time he became disillusioned, returned home, rejoined society, and entered regional politics.
E.V.R.'s early political activities already indicate his concern with the rights of non-Brahmins. In 1920 he joined the Non-cooperation Movement and became active in the Indian National Congress party, following its Gandhian principles devoutly. His most famous exploit was his participation in a satyagraha campaign in Vikom, Kerala, undertaken to give Untouchables access to certain roads hitherto forbidden to them, his deeds earning him the title "Hero of Vikom." All these activities were well within the reform program of Gandhi and the Congress party.
Although the Tamilnadu Congress Committee elected E.V.R. its secretary, his sensitivity to the problems of non-Brahmins (especially Untouchables) began to make him unpopular among the Brahmin elite. He antagonized them further by protesting when a Congress-run school instituted segregated eating facilities for Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Later he demanded that positions on municipal councils be reserved for non-Brahmins. In 1925 he withdrew from the Congress party, henceforth attacking it as a vehicle for Brahmin domination.
Even while still involved with Congress, E.V.R. had increasingly turned his attention to the denunciation of brahmanical Hinduism. In 1922 he advocated the burning of both the Ramayana and The Laws of Manu , a famous dharmasastra text that sets out the proper conduct for different castes and, in so doing, glorifies Brahmins. By 1924: he had founded a publication called Kuti Aracu (People's government) to advocate social reform, aimed at destroying religious privilege and constraint. After abandoning the Congress in 1925, he organized the "Self-Respect Movement" for "Dravidian Uplift."
During this period E.V.R. came to view Hinduism as a web of deceit designed to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmin—whom he linked with North Indian Sanskritic (non-Tamilian) culture—and to oppress non-Brahmins. He therefore set out to reveal the insidious nature of orthodox religion. First in the line of attack were Hindu myths, which he read in a strictly literal fashion, delighting in finding seeming contradictions. Treating the myths as if they were historical accounts, he denounced the actions of the
gods as obscene, stupid, and immoral, and advocated atheism instead. Next E.V.R. excoriated Hindu rituals—which were, after all, the domain of Brahmin priests. In place of traditional Hindu rituals he substituted community-based "Self-Respect" ceremonies, the most famous of which was the "Self-Respect Marriage," at which Vedic rites were omitted and an elder of the community or one of the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement (rather than a priest) presided. Finally, he ridiculed the entire notion of caste, rejecting social separation and purity/pollution observances as entirely unnecessary. Traditional Hindu concepts of endogamous communities were to be systematically broken down through the encouragement of intercaste marriages, widow remarriage, and other acts designed to undermine the exclusiveness of jati . He also advocated a separatist Dravida Nadu (Dravidian country) in place of a community based on the varnadharma (caste duties) of pan-Indian tradition.
Political activism and opposition to brahmanical Hinduism led E.V.R. to espouse an increasingly separatist direction for Tamils. When in 1937 the Congress ministry proposed introducing Hindi—a language derived from Sanskrit and spoken chiefly in the north—as a compulsory subject in schools, E.V.R. interpreted it as an offensive attempt to impose North Indian culture upon South India. The anti-Hindi protests he organized brought him both notoriety and a jail sentence. Several years later E.V.R. aligned himself with the Justice Party, a group devoted to attacking Brahmin domination and pressuring the British for provincial autonomy. By 1944 he had taken control of the Justice Party, shaping it to his own concerns. He reorganized it and renamed it the Dravida Kazagham (Dravidian Federation), commonly known as the DK. Following Indian independence in 1947 and the ensuing social and political realignments, E.V.R.'s activities not only continued but his anti-Northern and antibrahmanical rhetoric became more strident.
In particular, E.V.R. singled out the Ramayana to censure. For E.V.R., the Ramayana story was a thinly disguised historical account of how North Indians, led by Rama, subjugated South Indians, ruled by Ravana. Although his ideas were comparatively radical—and potentially disorienting—to a population of devout Hindus, many people responded enthusiastically. Why? His "North vs. South" interpretation of the Ramayana was successful with a Tamil audience partly because of the political context in which E.V.R. was operating. To succeed, a leader must have more than personal "charisma"; that leader must articulate and legitimate a message that followers see as addressing their own situation. In order to understand the enthusiastic reception Tamilians gave to E.V.R.'s ideas we must therefore examine certain features of his time and region: the rise and fervor of Dravidian sentiment in South India, the uneasy power relationships that existed between Brahmins and elite non-Brahmins, and the role of print in the intellectual life of Madras. Let us explore each of these in turn.
E.V.R.'s championing of fervent Dravidian separatism must be understood in its pan-Indian context. During this period various groups—both regional and religious—were choosing to define themselves as separate and demanding some sort of official, usually political, recognition of their uniqueness. E.V.R.'s assertion of Dravidian identity, which postulated a golden age of Dravidian society in the distant past (before the coming of Rama) that could be reestablished if South Indians would only throw off the yoke of North Indian domination, to some extent conformed to this trend. In much the same way that other South Asians sought, for example, the creation of a separate Islamic state (Pakistan), E.V.R. desired a separate Tamil state and identity for South Indians, linking the articulation of that identity with a critique of the Ramayana .
Moving from a pan-Indian to a regional context, one finds that Brahmins—the target of E.V.R.'s most vitriolic criticism—had become exceptionally successful in Madras toward the end of the nineteenth century. Subramaniam argues that Brahmins were in an excellent position to enter the middle class as mediators between the British and those they ruled in Madras, because, owing in part to British respect for high-status groups, they had not fared as badly under British rule as other more dominant land-owning groups ("clean" Sudras, such as Vellalas). In addition, their tradition of learning enabled them to take advantage of educational opportunities and thus to enter the British-run civil service.
In contrast, members of dominant non-Brahmin jatis who moved from their villages to urban areas experienced considerable social disorientation. In pre-British society, many land-holding non-Brahmins enjoyed a relatively high and clearly defined status, articulated in their ritual interaction with those around them in the local community. But as large numbers moved to the comparative anonymity of urban areas, where land-holding dominance was not a decisive factor, they had to negotiate their place in a new urban hierarchy that tended to favor the educated Brahmins. In E.V.R.'s view, these non-Brahmins were the indigenous, authentic Dravidians, now oppressed by the foreign rule of the "Aryan" Brahmins, whose conquest of the South was described mythically—and more important, legitimated—by the Ramayana .
In this situation, non-Brahmins sought not only to secure access to government positions previously dominated by Brahmins but to reform society. As Irschick argues, "Though the Government of Madras instituted quotas in job recruitment, education and other areas for those it considered backward, these quotas could have no real effect unless both egalitarian strands within Indian tradition and Western ideas could be used to claim parity for all groups in society and politics." The rejection of caste hierarchy (as defined by brahmanical Hinduism and epitomized, in E.V.R.'s eyes, by Rama's rule) was one way of claiming such parity. According to E.V.R., South Indian life
before arrival of the Aryans (his term for North Indians) had been free of such societal divisions, and he demanded a return to such a society.
The fact that E.V.R. could disseminate his demands so widely reflects in part the unprecedented growth and power of print at this time. Although full-length books were too expensive for most people to purchase and too time-consuming for most members of the professional class to read, inexpensive pamphlets reached a wide audience. E.V.R.'s brief articles on topics such as the Ramayana , with their simple prose style and bombastic but witty rhetoric, made his message readily accessible to anyone interested in hearing it. He was in fact a prolific writer of short, aggressive journalistic pieces, designed to arouse popular passions and amplify social, political, and religious grievances. His writings on the Ramayana were just such pieces.
For E.V.R., who possessed a canny ability to make the most of the resources available to him, this mobilization of the power of print was characteristic. He founded a series of journals and fortnightly magazines, established a press in order to issue his many publications, and knew how to attract extensive newspaper coverage for his public campaigns and protests. His 1956 Rama-burning agitation, whose rationale had previously been explained in writings published by his press, brought him front-page headlines.
E.V.R.'s reading of the Ramayana is most fully developed in two works: Iramayanappatirankal (Characters in the Ramayana ) and Iramayanakkurippukal (Points about the Ramayana ). Although the latter is a sophisticated and thorough textual study of the Ramayana , the less scholarly Iramayanappatirankal has done the most to shape E.V.R.'s followers' perceptions of the Ramayana . Since this text is one of his earliest, most comprehensive, most popular, and most frequently reprinted works on the Ramayana , it will be the focus of the discussion below.
The extensive publication and translation history of Characters in the Ramayana indicates both its centrality in E.V.R.'s writings on the Ramayana and the enthusiastic reception it has continued to receive from readers. First published in 1930, the work was in its tenth printing in 1972. The first English translation appeared in 1959, a second edition came out in 1972, and a third in 1980. With the appearance of this translation, as well as a Hindi translation, the text's audience was no longer limited to Tamil readers. While the work's Tamil title suggests that E.V.R. will consider the actions of each character, the English version's title, The Ramayana (A True Reading )—though not an exact translation of the original title—is in some ways more illuminating, for it indicates E.V.R.'s goal of revealing to the reader the "correct" interpretation of the Ramayana .
The format and price of the book ensured its availability to readers. Less a book than a long pamphlet, Characters in the Ramayana measures approximately 8½ by 5½ inches, contains a little under one hundred and twenty pages of
large type, and—thanks to its flimsy binding—falls apart after a few readings. Fortunately, it also sells for a price that most people can easily afford: the 1972 edition, for example, cost only a single rupee (at that time, about fifteen cents).
An entire business developed out of the publication of such works, a business which gave high priority to polemical texts. Characters in the Ramayana was published by the Periyar Cuyamariyatai Piracara Niruvana Veliyitu or (as it calls itself in its English publications) Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution Publications. This institution, whose headquarters are in Trichy, the city whence issued the 1956 announcement that images of Rama should be burned on the first of August, conceives of its mission in a disarmingly straightforward way: to produce propaganda, namely, material self-consciously designed to change people's opinions. The printers, Tiravitan Accakam (Dravidian Printers), are also committed to the proliferation of works extolling Dravidian culture.
E. V. Ramasami’s Interpretation of the Ramayana
The motivating force behind E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana remains the desire to see in it a struggle between North and South India. For E.V.R. "northern" means brahmanical, caste-ridden, and Sanskritic, while "southern" means nonbrahmanical, egalitarian, and Tamil—value judgements that are embedded in his interpretation. In Characters in the Ramayana E.V.R. vehemently attacks the respect with which Tamilians have traditionally viewed the Ramayana , arguing that the story is both an account of and a continuing vehicle for northern cultural domination. Reversing the conventional understandings of villain and hero, he also calls upon readers to abandon their "superstitious" beliefs and embrace a desacralized view of the world.
The structure of Characters in the Ramayana is tripartite. E.V.R. begins with a brief rationale for writing the text, pointing to the pamphlet's crucial role in enlightening Tamils about the "real" message of the Ramayana (11-16). The heart of the pamphlet is its long middle section, which enumerates and critically evaluates the deeds performed by most of the major characters in the epic (17-88). The text culminates with a short collection of quotes from arinar , "learned men," whom E.V.R. feels confirm and thus legitimate his understanding of the Ramayana (91-104).
In the opening section, E.V.R. justifies his enterprise, claiming that his study of the Ramayana should reveal to Tamilians that they have been deluded by northern propaganda into believing that Rama was exemplary as well as divine, when in fact, E.V.R. argues, he was neither. First and foremost, then, we see that E.V.R. wants to "demythologize" (my term, not his) Rama for Tamilians. But he wants to go even further, to establish that, in
addition to being an ordinary mortal, Rama was not a particularly admirable one.
E.V.R. acknowledges that Tamilians will not find it easy to accept this view of Rama, attributing this reluctance to their illiteracy and the power of "superstition" among them. He notes with disappointment how most Tamilians (aside from Muslims and Christians) have long venerated the Ramayana . But for E.V.R., insofar as the commonly held understanding of the Ramayana is essentially North Indian, it is a key part of the ideology which keeps South Indians in an inferior position, and so must be discredited. He thus argues that the Ramayana lures Dravidians into the Aryan net, destroys their self-respect, and stymies their development (11). For E.V.R., this examination of the Ramayana is no mere intellectual exercise; on the contrary, he has taken on the absolutely crucial task of liberating Tamilians from their feelings of cultural and racial inferiority.
E.V.R.'s specific textual analysis follows in the very long middle section of the pamphlet, which might be characterized as an extensive annotated list of charges. Rather than constructing an argument in a discursive manner, he piles example upon example, doubtless intending to overwhelm the reader into accepting his thesis by the sheer number of instances in which the poem's putative heroes commit acts of wrongdoing. He picks his way through the Ramayana , character by character, vilifying those who join forces with Rama and praising those who oppose him. In Table l, I summarize the major charges that E.V.R. levels against thirteen characters, to each of whom he devotes a separate chapter.
E.V.R. uses these charges to accuse those who venerate the Ramayana of ignoring or condoning myriad acts of improper behavior. As the table shows, a number of the epic's characters are censured because they depart from the norms established for marital or kinship relations. Thus E.V.R. condemns Sita for criticizing her husband and Kausalya for not respecting her spouse; he intimates that Sita was unchaste in Ravana's house; Laksmana and Satrughna earn abuse for making unfilial statements about their father and disregarding their father, respectively; Bharata insults both parents, thereby drawing E.V.R.'s scorn; both Sugriva and Vibhisana are reviled for betraying their brother. It is ironic that E.V.R. condemns these characters on the basis of prescriptions for behavior which find elaborate expression in the very dharmasastra text he considers so obnoxious: The Laws of Manu . This text, which E.V.R. deeply hates and elsewhere attacks for its praise of Brahmins, contains passages detailing the proper relationships for husband and wife, father and son, and brothers. These passages have traditionally set the standards for proper Hindu behavior—the same behavior that E.V.R. demands (and finds lacking) in the deeds of Ramayana characters.
E.V.R. also censures a number of characters because they cannot bring their sensual passions and desires under control. He reads the Ramayana as
TABLE 1. E. V. Ramasami's Charges Against Ramayana Characters
Charges against the character
Rama's father, ruler of
Was enslaved by passion; broke promises;
Wife of Rama
Criticized her husband; felt attraction to
Ravana; was unchaste; cared too much
Dasaratha's second son
Heaped abuse on his mother; insulted his
father; had many wives
Third son of Dasaratha
Was attracted to Sita; tortured (demon)
(by Sumitra), loyal
females; made unfilial statements about
companion to Rama
his father; was hot-headed
Fourth son of Dasaratha
Insulted Kaikeyi; abused and disregarded
(by Sumitra), com-
panion to Bharata
Senior wife of Dasaratha,
Possessed excessive concern for the success
mother of Rama
of her son; was jealous of Kaikeyi and
hostile to her; did not respect her
Youngest wife of Dasa-
Was eager for Rama to become king; was
ratha, mother of Laks-
prejudiced against Bharata
mana and Satrughna
Charioteer and advisor
Counseled the king to do improper deeds;
spoke derisively of Kaikeyi; lied
Dasaratha's family guru
Participated in the plot to crown Rama;
hurriedly fixed a day for the coronation
so that Bharata would not find out
Rama's monkey com-
Is said to have performed miraculous
panion, who set fire to
deeds which scientific reason indicates
are impossible; unjustly set fire to Lanka
and thus killed many innocent people;
used obscene language when conversing
King of monkeys, ally of
Betrayed his brother; joined Rama only to
get rid of his brother
Son of Valin, general in
Befriended those who killed his father; did
not really love Sugriva
Brother of Ravana
Betrayed his brother and caused his death
in order to gain the kingship of Lanka;
did not feel anger when his sister was
dishonored by Laksmana
portraying Dasaratha enslaved by passion, Sita overly fond of jeweled ornaments, Laksmana desirous of Sita, Kausalya as excessively ambitious for the success of her son, and Laksmana too hot-headed to control his flaring temper. Again, E.V.R. condemns these people in a way that echoes a central ideal of brahmanical Hinduism—that one must cultivate detachment toward passions and desires. The virtue of detachment is a constant theme in the Upanisads and in Vedantic works, to say nothing of the Bhagavad Gird and yogic texts; even the dharmasastras uphold the benefits of self-restraint.
Although E.V.R. vigorously criticizes all of the above-mentioned characters, his greatest contempt is directed at Rama himself, whose actions are seen as the epitome of North Indian domination. In accordance with his enumerative style of discourse, E.V.R. cites fifty incidents of seemingly improper behavior on Rama's part. Rather than explain each one, I will summarize his major criticisms and the patterns of reasoning which stand behind these accusations.
One of E.V.R.'s most elaborately mounted attacks concerns Rama's supposed coveting of the throne of Ayodhya, which E.V.R. interprets as a sign of Rama's desire for domination. Ignoring the common understanding—that Rama merely responded to Dasaratha's request that he be crowned and had all the qualities of a responsible king—E.V.R. portrays Rama as scheming to grab the throne. He alleges that Rama craved royal power and acted in a virtuous and affectionate way towards his father, Kaikeyi, and Ayodhya's citizens only to gain such power. Then, says E.V.R., Rama improperly conspired with his father to have himself installed on the throne before his brother Bharata returned from his stay with his uncle (33-35).
Rama's alliance with Sugriva and the ensuing killing of his brother, Valin, come in for special denunciation, as one might expect, because Rama apparently unfairly murders the monarch of a southern kingdom. In focusing upon this always problematic incident, E.V.R. expresses an ambivalence found in many diverse tellings of the Ramayana about whether Rama erred in killing Valin as he did—from the back and without having announced his presence. With equal vehemence, however, E.V.R. emphasizes not only the stealthy killing but the fact that Brahmins praise such a man. That they do so is evidence of their attempt to foist an unheroic Rama upon South India as an exemplar of proper behavior (11-13).
Rama's treatment of his wife, Sita, draws particular criticism from E.V.R. because he takes it as emblematic of Rama's oppression of those less powerful than himself. After her grueling and terrifying captivity in Lanka, Rama subjects Sita to a despicable ordeal and then still refuses to accept her back. As E.V.R. comments, "Even though Valmiki proclaimed the chastity of Sita, Rama did not believe it, so she had to die" (38). For E.V.R., this hostile attitude toward women is part and parcel of the North Indian worldview.
The manner, glorified in North Indian texts, in which Rama drove his wife to submit to such ordeals helps to keep Indian women in a state of subjugation.
E.V.R. reserves his greatest outrage, however, for Rama's treatment of Sudras, the lowest group in the four-part brahmanical caste ranking and one of the major audiences of his pamphlet. He notes that Rims killed a Sudra named Sambuka because he was performing asceticism, which Vedic tradition prohibits to those not twice-born (that is, Sudras and Untouchables). Rims murdered this Sudra in order to revive a Brahmin boy who had died—that such an untimely death could strike a Brahmin family signaled that somewhere someone (in this case Sambuka) was committing an offense against dharma. After summarizing this incident, E.V.R. extrapolates from it to present-day South India. "If there were kings like Rims now, what would be the fate of those people called Sudras" he asks, implying that Sudras would never be safe from murder if such a king still ruled (41). Since over 60 percent of South Indians are regarded as Sudras, at least by Brahmins, E.V.R. stirs the rage of a good number of his readers by emphasizing this event.
Although E.V.R. surveys many other incidents in the epic, castigating Rama for everything from meat-eating to killing females (39), the trend of his critique is already clear. For E.V.R., Rama personifies "North Indian values" and is accordingly identified with North Indian dominance of lower castes and women. Equally pernicious, according to E.V.R., is the attempt by Brahmins to put forth this vicious and immoral person as virtuous—and even divine.
Just as E.V.R. regards the traditional heroes as villains, he proposes more positive evaluations of characters who have long been condemned, such as Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata. Those seeking to portray King Dasaratha in a sympathetic light have conventionally held his youngest wife, Kaikeyi, to be the real villain of the epic, holding her responsible for the king's decision to deprive Rama of the throne and exile him. In contrast, E.V.R. points out that Kaikeyi was fully within her rights when she asked the king to fulfill the two boons he had granted her when she once saved his life (61).
In his analysis of the Valin episode, E.V.R. makes another revisionist interpretation, an interpretation all the more significant because of the ambivalence with which tradition has viewed Rama's killing of Valin. The words of the modern writer R. K. Narayan, who has produced his own telling of the Rama story, are instructive here:
Rams was an ideal man, all his faculties in control in any circumstances, one possessed of an unwavering sense of justice and fair play. Yet he once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed, from hiding, a creature who had done him no harm, not even seen him. This is one of the most controversial chapters in the Ramayana.
E.V.R. points out that Valin could not be defeated in an open fight (implying that a desire to win lay behind Rama's devious action) and that he assumed Rama to be an honest and fair person and died as a result—although E.V.R. overstates the matter when he claims that "Valin was blameless in every way" (63).
Valin figures only briefly in the analysis, however. Not surprisingly, Ravana receives more attention because for E.V.R.—who identifies Ravana as a monarch of the ancient Dravidians—he exemplifies the South Indians, whose culture was unfairly suppressed by North Indians. Although E.V.R. neglects to provide specific textual references, he begins his praise of Ravana by listing the virtues that Valmiki attributes to Ravana: Ravana has mastered the Vedas and sastras , he protects his family and kin, he acts courageously, he practices bhakti , he is the beloved son of a god, and he has received several boons (67). One wonders why E.V.R. would consider knowledge of "Aryan" texts like Vedas a recommendation, but what follows is even more revealing. Focusing on the influence of other characters on Ravana's actions, E.V.R. gives us a new construct of Ravana.
Rather than seeing Rama as effectively vanquishing Ravana, E.V.R. interprets Ravana's death as the result of his brother's betrayal. When Vibhisana, Ravana's brother, approaches Rama and asks to join him, E.V.R. harshly condemns his abandonment of his brother, viewing this action as motivated by Vibhisana's desire to possess and rule Lanka (67). The great Ravana was thus undone by his brother's villainy; his death, argues E.V.R., should not be seen as evincing any lack of courage.
Nor should Ravana's abduction of Sita be interpreted as the result of lust, according to E.V.R. He argues that Ravana takes Sita to Lanka as an honorable act of retaliation against Rama's insult and Laksmana's disfigurement of Ravana's sister, Surpanakha. Surpanakha had fallen in love with Rama, openly offering herself to him in marriage; by way of punishment, Laksmana cut off her nose and ears. As a dutiful brother, Ravana had no choice but to avenge his sister's cruel disfigurement—but: as E.V.R. points out, Ravana would never stoop to something as low as mutilating Sita in the same horrible way. In fact, notes E.V.R., Ravana never forced himself upon the captive Sita. In such matters, he practiced proper self-restraint, never touching a woman without her consent (68). At the level of metadiscourse, E.V.R. goes so far as to argue that one must not condemn Ravana for abducting Sita because she was left alone in the forest specifically so she could be abducted (69). In other words, by abducting Sita, Ravana is simply performing an action which be is destined to perform—an interpretation which assumes an inexorability about the events in the Ramayana .
Ravana's sense of propriety also manifests itself in his unwillingness to kill animals, which E.V.R. takes as evidence of his compassionate Dravidian nature. He notes that Ravana hated devas (gods), rsis (sages), and Brahmin
priests because they performed sacrificial rituals and drank intoxicating liquor (soma ). Ravana refused to participate in such rituals because they involved the torture of poor helpless animals (68). By portraying Ravana as rejecting the killing of animals, E.V.R. plays on the vegetarian inclinations of many of his followers, arousing their sympathy for Ravana.
In a cryptic but intriguing comment near the end of his characterization of Ravana (69), E.V.R. even claims that Ravana was a responsible and responsive political leader, a benign ruler. Because the Ramayana records instances where Ravana consults with his ministers and debates ensue, E.V.R. claims to see traces of an inclusive political process, which belie the conventional brahmanical claims that Ravana was a cruel despot.
Especially given that Ravana represents Dravidians, it is somewhat noteworthy that E.V.R. does not devote much attention to any of the other characters in Ravana's family, even though he dealt at length with Rama's father, mothers, brothers, and wife. Although E.V.R. says that so-called demons like Ravana are in fact admirable Dravidians, Surpanakha's actions—her open expression of sexual desire, for example—are not praised, nor even mentioned, except as they relate to Ravana's duty to revenge her honor. E.V.R. is similarly silent about Mandodari, and about Khara, Marica, Dusana, and other of Ravana's supporters. The fact that E.V.R. spends so much time castigating Rama and his family and so little time praising the actions of Ravana and his family indicates that E.V.R. aroused more ire by lambasting North Indians than by defining and defending precisely what constitutes South Indian culture and identity.
The final brief section of Characters in the Ramayana consists of an appeal to authority. Scholarly discourse in Tamil has traditionally taken note of the opinions of learned men. One main area of analytic discourse consisted of commenting on texts: those trained in grammar construed complex verses, gave parallel passages, and provided exegesis, an enterprise which generally included quotations from scholars of the past. In fact, a good commentary would record what a large number of learned men had said on the subject. E.V.R.'s thirteen-page section entitled "Opinions of Learned Men [arinar ] about the Ramayana" serves the same function.
Rather than citing the opinion of traditional religious and literary scholars, however, E.V.R. quotes distinguished authorities of other types—historians, politicians, other public figures, members of the Indian Civil Service. Also cited in his "Opinions of Learned Men" section are many handbooks or histories of India with titles such as Ancient Indian History and Civilization, Dravidians and Aryans , and Civilization in Ancient India . The historians cited include both North Indians (Muslim and Bengali) and Europeans. E.V.R. also quotes from the works of the North Indian Swami Vivekananda, as he does from the pan-Indian classic The Discovery of India , by the North Indian "Pandit" Jawaharlal Nehru, nationalist leader and prime minister of India
from 1947 to 1964. When E.V.R. quotes members of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, he includes "I.C.S." after their names in order to indicate their status. Similarly, he includes after the names of historians all their degrees (B.S., M.A., Ph.D., L.L.D.) and precedes their names with "Taktar" (Dr.) whenever possible. Both Henry Johnson's and William Wilson Hunter's names are preceded by "Sir." Clearly, E.V.R. wants to impress upon his readers the illustriousness of those scholars and national figures who appear to confirm his interpretation.
In addition, E.V.R. cites various prominent Tamilian scholars. He quotes J. M. Nallaswami Pillai, an important figure in the Saiva Siddhanta movement and editor of its journal, Deepika , as well as Maraimalai Atigal, an eminent Tamil literary savant whose ideas form the ideological foundation of the Pure Tamil movement. Along with such non-Brahmin literary and religious figures, E.V.R. also quotes respected Brahmin scholars such as S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, a historian of religious and philosophical texts, and K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, a prominent historian of South India. E.V.R. thus willingly cites the opinions of Brahmins, non-Brahmins, and Western "foreigners" to prove his thesis that Brahmins were aliens in South India who oppressed non-Brahmins.
E.V.R.'s citation method also deserves notice. The section of quotes comes at the end of his argument, rather than in the course of it, and thus serves not as documentation but as affirmation. His quotes from Nehru's Discovery of India are representative of his citation style throughout this section of Characters in the Ramayana . He notes several of Nehru's comments about the Ramayana in relation to Aryan expansion in South India and gives a page number for each quote—but he cites no edition, no facts of publication. Like other authors of the popular pamphlet literature of his time, E.V.R. cites not so his reader can go to the original text but simply to take advantage of the cited author's status. Nor does he give any context for the quotes cited: each is simply listed, along with all the others, as validation for his interpretation of the Ramayana . By stringing together forty-seven quotes from historians and politicians about the ancient move of northerners to South India, E.V.R. seeks to demonstrate that learned men support his claims—although those learned men might not agree with the use to which their words have been put.
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 .
This account of E. V. Ramasami's interpretation of the Ramayana confirms that even in the modern period the Ramayana continues to be reread in ways that reflect and shape the concerns of both exegete and audience. As we have seen, the skeletal Rama story affords a structure around which poets build new tellings. For E.V.R., the story provides the framework for a deeply political telling. He reinterprets and re-presents the Ramayana , a sacred and traditional text, so as to undermine radically both its sacrality and the traditional understanding of its incidents.
E.V.R.'s telling of the Ramayana is consonant with many of the biographical and political features of his own life. Thus his denial of the epic's sacrality echoes his own youthful disillusionment with Hinduism, while his condemnation of Rama as an agent of North Indian oppression parallels his attack on Brahmins as dominating both the Congress Party and local positions of power. What makes his reading of the text more than an idiosyncratic response to the Ramayana , however, is the extent to which E.V.R. imbued this response with political purpose and self-consciously presented his reading for public consumption. The impressive reprint history of Characters in the Ramayana attests to the success of his interpretation in the realin of public discourse. In vilifying Rama and elevating Ravana, E.V.R. does far more than simply present a new assessment of familiar characters. By demythologizing Rama, he translates what had generally been thought of as sacred mythic truth into the political sphere, using his exegesis of the text to articulate the need to resist what he saw as oppressive North Indian cultural and political domination of South India.
E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana is accordingly presented so as to have the maximum public impact. It uses dramatic rhetoric, it attacks, it pokes fun, it shocks, and it insists. Although one might be tempted to dismiss E. V. Ramasami as an isolated eccentric, this would be unwise, for his exegesis of the Ramayana was pivotal. As the 1956 Rama-burning agitation indicates, E.V.R. not only sought but gained front page media coverage for his
opinions. Reassessing the traditional characters and incidents of the epic with polemical flamboyance, he created a rhetoric of political opposition that shaped public discourse for a group much larger than his relatively small band of followers.
Part of E.V.R.'s legacy rests with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, or Progressive Dravidian Federation), a group composed of some of his most brilliant followers, who split off from the DK to form their own organization. Men such as C. N. Annadurai, Mu. Karunanidhi, and Shivaji Ganesan, who worked in filmmaking as screen writers, producers, and actors, continued E.V.R.'s dramatic style of public rhetoric to decry brahmanical suppression of Dravidian identity. At first a mere splinter group, the DMK eventually came to equal and then vastly surpass the DK in importance. Because a number of prominent DMK members were active in the film industry, moreover, they had access to another powerful medium for publicizing their message to huge numbers of people. By 1967 DMK political power was established, the DMK continuing to dominate the political arena in Tamilnadu until the group splintered. Members of the DMK learned a great deal from E.V.R., particularly in relation to public discourse and political performance. They moved readily and smoothly from the realm of myth (Ravana, Rama) to film, from public agitation to mass meetings, from political criticism to political power.
In fact, one could argue that what the DMK came to offer Tamilians outdistanced E. V. Ramasami. If E.V.R. was the great assembler of rhetoric, of interpretations, and of public performances, DMK filmmakers created even more extravagant celluloid products with clearly identified villains and heroes, moral messages, and colorful drama. If E.V.R. was the great polemicist in the public arena, the DMK went further, transforming grass-roots Dravidian sentiment into institutionalized political power. If E.V.R. was the great self-promoter, the DMK became increasingly sophisticated and daring in its strategies to gain media coverage and a popular following. If E.V.R. was the stage director of histrionic public acts, the DMK film personalities and politicians were his true successors. Far from dying out, his style was incorporated, updated, and intensified. To understand some of the roots of the highly charged conflicts in Tamilnadu public discourse during recent decades, one must take into account a largely ignored phenomenon, E.V.R.'s critique of the Ramayana .