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Eleven The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya
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The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya

Philip Lutgendorf

Both teller and hearer should be
treasuries of wisdom,
for Ram's tale is mysterious.[1]

The hero of the Ramayana —the Sanskrit epic attributed to the sage Valmiki, but better known to Indians through later vernacular retellings such as the immensely popular Hindi Ramcaritmanas of the sixteenth-century poet Tulsidas—is often regarded as a paragon of the sort of virtues catalogued in a credo I was made to memorize as a boy: "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent"; in short, as the Eagle Scout of Hindu mythology. Such a view was furthered by Victorian scholars of the Hindu tradition, who viewed Ram as the most palatable alternative to that young reprobate, Krsna, and praised the Ramayana for, as F. S. Growse noted approvingly, its "absolute avoidance of the slightest approach to any pruriency of idea"—which was the Victorian way of saying that it didn't contain any sex.[2] The legacy of this mindset is still with us, both in the West and perhaps even more in India, where it has been promoted by English-medium education and the puritanical revision-ism of the "Hindu Renaissance," which largely internalized the colonial critique of the "sensuality" and "effeminacy" of devotional Hinduism. The contrast between Ram as "exemplar of social propriety" (maryadapurusottam ) and Krsna as "exemplar of playfulness" (lilapurusottam ) has long been recognized by Hindus, of course, but the notion of maryada —a term suggesting dignity, restraint, limits—seems in modern times to have taken on a particularly prudish if not reactionary connotation. But if our Victorian forebearers gratefully hailed Ram as the one ray of light in a "degenerate" late-bhakti Hinduism, the wheel of time and fashion has now revolved to the point that some of us may dismiss him, as one of my teachers once did, as a tiresome prig—"so good you can't bear him!" Significantly, a major portion of the research that in recent decades has sought to situate devotional texts within the context of historical and contemporary religious practice has been con-


cerned with Krsna and his devotees, and there has been a relative neglect— only now beginning to be corrected—of the parallel and no less influential traditions of Ram-bhakti .[3]

The revolving fashions of academic scholarship have little immediate impact, of course, on grass-roots devotees, and in the roughly eight centuries since Ram's cult became visible and prominent in Northern India, its mythology and theology have acquired a breadth and depth that belies any simplistic dichotomy between a Dionysian Krsna and an Apollonian Ram. If we leave the milieu of urban middle-class apologetics and the medium of English—a language in which few Indians give vent to any aspect of their inner lives—we find the boundary between maryada and lila and their respective divine representatives considerably more permeable. Apart from certain sharply drawn sectarian divisions—and to some extent even within them— the choice of Ram or Krsna as personal deity (istadev ) seems to depend as much on such factors as regional identity, family custom, and choice of guru as on a sharp distinction between the personalities of the two heroes. At the folk level, their characters, deeds, and even names bleed into one another. Watching Ram Lila plays and listening to Ramcaritmanas expounders in Uttar Pradesh, I was struck by the earthiness and humor with which Ram, Sita, and their companions—no less than Krsna, Radha, and their circle—were depicted, and also by the importance given the romantic episodes in the story: the beloved "flower garden" scene in Tulsidas's version (phulvari ), in which Ram and Sita meet for the first time, and the tumultuous and extended celebration of the couple's wedding, complete with scurrilous women's folksongs (galiyam ). Ram may be all exemplar of decorum, but he is also a prince and later a king—an enjoyer of the earth's delights. If he is self-controlled and devoted to one wife (ekpatnivrat ), he is certainly not, in the popular view, celibate; he is, for most of his saga, a happily married householder in that stage of life in which one is supposed to savor the joys of kama —the pleasure principle in classical Indian thought.

My purpose in this essay is to briefly introduce the theology and religious practices of a group of devotees who chose to focus on this very aspect of the Ram story, and who, perhaps for this reason, have been almost entirely ignored by scholars of Hindu devotional traditions. Adherents of the "connoisseur tradition" or rasiksampraday viewed Ram not only as the supreme manifestation of divinity but also as the ultimate embodiment of erotic sentiment, and focused on his passionate union with his eternal feminine energy (sakti ) in the form of Sita. Such devotees represented an important current within the Ramaite devotional tradition from at least the latter half of the sixteenth century onward, represented by scores of influential teachers and by a copious literature in the Avadhi dialect of Eastern Hindi; their influence remains significant even today. Thus the majority of important temples in Ayodhya, the pilgrimage city most closely associated with the Ramayana ,


are controlled by rasik sects, and their iconography and liturgy encodes the esoteric theology developed by sectarian teachers. Similarly, the guided meditations and visualizations favored by the rasiks remain a vital part of the spiritual practice of many contemporary Vaisnava initiates. I will return later to the subject of the origins and history of the movement but will first focus on its metaphysics and praxis as presented in the writings of influential preceptors. A primary source for this description is the signal work in Hindi that traces the development and teachings of the tradition, Bhagavati Prasad Singh's 1957 monograph, Rambhaktimemrasik sampraday (The rasik tradition of Ram bhakti ). This has been supplemented by recent research in Ayodhya by Hans Bakker and Peter van der Veer, and by my own study of Ramcaritmanas performers and devotees.

The Nature of Rasik Sadhana

The term rasik —by which the adherents of this tradition have commonly referred to themselves—means one who savors ras ("juice, essence, aesthetic sentiment") and in mundane contexts can connote a connoisseur of the arts or of any kind of refined pleasure—a bon vivant or even a playboy. Its use among Vaisnava devotees reflects the sixteenth-century Gauriya Vaisnava theologians' reinterpretation of classical Sanskrit aesthetic theory in the service of the ecstatic devotionalism promulgated by Krsna Caitanya, the renowned mystic of Bengal. In the writings of Rupa Gosvami and his successors, the classical notion of the transformation of individualized, transient emotion (bhava ) into universalized aesthetic experience (rasa ) was reformulated to express the devotee's attainment of spiritual bliss through contemplation of the deeds of Krsna. The central importance of drama for the classical aestheticians was not lessened by the new interpretation, for Vaisnavas saw their Lord as the archetypal actor, repeatedly assuming roles in his universal "play" or lila .[4] The writings of the Gosvamis and their successors, such as Rupa's own influential compendium Bhaktirasamrtasindhu (Ocean of nectar of the essence of devotion), explicitly link this theology of play to the daily practice of initiated devotees, both through a liturgical script for use in rituals and through internal role-playing and visualization. The initiated devotee, like the theatrical connoisseur of classical times, aspired to become a cultivated spectator of the cosmic drama—one equipped with the intellectual, emotional, and indeed physical training necessary to inwardly savor its ras , an experience which would culminate not merely in aesthetic rapture but in "bodily liberation" (sadeh mukti ) into the highest state of bliss. But since this drama was considered ultimately to encompass or underlie all phenomenal life, the only way to be its spectator was to become its participant. In the "theater" of the Vaisnava rasiks , to enter the audience necessarily meant to enter the play.


The play itself was in each case a selectively edited version of a well-known and much longer scenario. Just as rasik devotees of Krsna excerpted, from the god's total legend, a certain phase of his adolescence and attributed to it not only a special charm but the most profound theological significance, so Ram rasiks focused on a single phase of their Lord's story—the idyllic period when the newly married Ram and Sita, having returned from Sita's home city of Mithila, enjoyed each other's company amidst the palatial comforts of Ayodhya. Although this period is generally held to have lasted some dozen years, it receives no elaborate treatment in most of the standard versions of the Ramayana (Tulsidas, for example, discreetly shifts from the couple's joyful return to Ayodhya after the wedding, in 1.361, to the anticipation, only a single stanza later, of Ram's elevation to the status of heir apparent). This neglect did not, however, daunt Ram's rasik devotees, who in their songs and meditations delighted in endlessly elaborating on the pleasures of this idyllic interlude, which precedes the beginning of what is usually regarded as the "real" story of the Ramayana . It would be as pointless for the noninitiate to inquire, in connection with this scenario, where the Ram of that latter story had gone—the long-suffering prince who relinquished his kingdom to preserve his father's honor, lost his wife to a lustful demon king, and led an army of monkeys to eventual victory over his foe—as it would be to ask a Gauriya Vaisnava why the princely Krsna of the Mahabharata does not figure in their enchanted pastoral realm of Golok. Devotees of both sects were of course aware of the wider cycle of their Lord's adventures, and both groups devised similar explanations to account for their exclusive focus on one facet of it. The Lord, they said, has two lilas —one earthly and manifest (laukik,prakata ) and the other transcendent and hidden (alaukik,aprakata ). According to the Ramaite view, in the former the quality of "majesty" (aisvarya ) predominates, and Ram establishes dharma in the world as the maryadapurusottam . This is also termed his "lila to be known or understood" (jneylila ), and it encompasses the conventional events of the Ramayana story. But beyond this, they say, there is a secret lila known only to certain fortunate adepts, in which the quality of erotic attractiveness or madhurya predominates and in which Ram expresses his ultimate reality. This is his "lila to be contemplated" (dhyeylila ), and it is deliberately omitted from most versions of the Ramayana , although it may be glimpsed through those portions of the story dealing with Ram's exploits at the youthful age at which the quality of eroticism is most perfectly manifested.

And just as, in Krsna bhakti , the earthly locale of Vrindavan was transformed into the transcendent sphere of Golok (literally, "the world of cattle") wherein Krsna's romantic lila eternally unfolded, so the mundane city of Ayodhya (which likewise was growing in importance as a pilgrimage center during the formative period of Ram-rasik theology, the late sixteenth to mid seventeenth centuries[5] ) was re-visioned as the eternal realm of Saketlok


"the world of Saket." There the supreme godhead, known to other traditions as Parabrahma, Isvar, or Sri Krsna, resided eternally in his ultimate form or svarup as sixteen-year-old Ramcandra and his parasakti or feminine energy, Sita. Saket was conceived as a vast and beautiful city, foursquare in plan, surrounded by magnificent pleasure parks to which the divine retinue often repaired for excursions. Every part of the city was filled with pleasure: its streets were flecked with gold dust and its balconies encrusted with luminous gems, perfumed fountains played in its squares, and it was dotted with magnificent gardens in which spring always held sway. But the greatest splendor radiated from the city's center, at which lay the immense House of Gold (Kanak Bhavan)—the palace presented to Sita on her marriage to Ram. Like the city, the palace too was foursquare and many-gated, containing a labyrinth of chambers and passages oriented around a central courtyard which contained the most beautiful of all gardens. At the center of this garden stood a dais in the shape of a thousand-petaled lotus, and at the heart of the lotus a gem-studded throne-couch. Upon this couch was enacted the supreme mystery: the eternal union of the two divine principles in human form, worshiped and served by their intimate attendants who alone could gain entry to this inner sanctum. The tantric influence on this conception is apparent; iconographically it is especially evident in the intricate charts (yantra,mandala ) created as aids in rasik visualization, showing the plan of the House of Gold with its four gates and maze of allegorically labeled chambers.[6]

In calling the divine city of Saket a "visualization" I invoke a term increasingly used by Western psychotherapists and healers to describe imagined settings or scenarios intended to promote mental or physical well-being.[7] Yet in the context of rastk meditation this term may be somewhat misleading, since the process by which Saket is evoked by the devotee (usually termed dhyan —"meditation"—or smaran —"remembrance"[8] ) might better be called a "realization." Fundamental to rasik theology is the belief that the magic city is real —more real, in fact, than our conventional world.[9] And its reality is not simply to be "visualized" with an inner eye but is to be experienced with all the senses—that is, through the medium of a body appropriate to this ultimate world. Since Saket is (in current American real-estate parlance) a "limited-access community," only certain categories of bodies need apply: those which stand in one of four primary relationships—of servant, elder, companion, or lover—to the Lord around whom the life of the magic city revolves. Or to put it another way, the devotee cannot simply write himself into the divine drama; in order to get on this stage, he must fill one of the existing parts, and, as with all acting, this involves long and exacting training.

He must, first of all, be an initiated Vaisnava—either a sadhu or a householder—in one of the rasik branches of the Ramanandi sampraday . The


preliminary stages of initiation involve the five samskars common to many Vaisnava sects—the bestowal of a mantra or sacred formula, of the sectarian tilak and other bodily marks (mudra ), of a rosary (mala ), and of a new name, usually ending in the suffix -saran —"one who takes refuge,"[10] a feature which distinguishes rasik devotees from other Ramanandis, who generally favor the suffix -das , "slave." Together with these outer signs, which effect the purification of the physical body, there begins a program of inner training designed to familiarize the aspirant with the iconography of the divine city and its inhabitants. This often utilizes manuals prepared by the tradition's preceptors (acarya ), such as the Dhyanmanjari of Agradas, who resided at Galta, near modern-day Jaipur, during the second half of the sixteenth century and who was regarded by later rasiks as the modern founder of their tradition. This "Handmaiden of Meditation" consists of seventy-nine couplets devoted to an evocation of Saket and its inhabitants, culminating in a vision of the luxuriant pleasure park and of the divine dyad (yugalsvarup ) of Ram and Sita enthroned within it.[11] More than half of the text is devoted to detailed verbal portraits of the divine pair, belonging to the type known as nakh-sikh —"from the toenails to the crown of the head"—a descriptive genre so common in Indian poetry that we may risk dismissing it as a mere convention and forget that in serving to create (in Kenneth Bryant's memorable phrase) a "verbal icon" of the most literal sort, it represents, in fact, a recipe for visualization.[12] Later rasik manuals offer similarly detailed instructions for envisioning other key players in the Saket lila , particularly the principal young female companions of Siti (sakhi ) and their respective maidservants (manjari ), as well as the comparable young male companions of Ram (sakha ).

The most important rasik initiation—in theory given only when the guru perceives that the aspirant is inwardly prepared for it through preliminary training and purification—is the "initiation of relationship" (sambandh diksa ), which establishes the vital personal connection to the supreme lila . Its purpose is the fabrication of a new body, termed the body of "consciousness" or "discipline," or the "divine body" (cit deh,sadhanasarir , divya sarir ). This is held to be altogether distinct from the three bodies (gross, subtle, and mental) of Advaita metaphysics and is often said to be one's innate or ultimate form, recognized within one by the spiritual guide. Yet although this new body represents one's true identity, the awareness of it depends on emotional experience or bhav , which in the early stages of spiritual discipline must be carefully cultivated.

The training of the rasik adept involves total identification with his assigned body—a role-playing more intense than even the most dedicated method actor would undertake.[13] To assist in identification with the new body and cultivation of its bhav , the initiate is provided with a wealth of contextual information. There exist, for example, treatises that catalogue the seven kinds of female friends of Sita, ranging in age from less than six to more


than sixteen years, and provide each with a list of parents, other relatives, and teachers, along with details as to place of birth, favorite activities, and so forth. Similar catalogues exist for the youthful male comrades of Ram.[14] Each initiate is also assigned a special "inner-palace name" (mahalinam ) identifying him as one of those privileged to enter the private apartments of Kanak Bhavan. This name, which for members of the sakhi branch of the tradition usually ends in a feminine suffix such as -ali , -lata , -sakhi , or -kali , is normally kept secret, although it might be known to other adepts. It is also common to use it as a poetic signature (chap or bhanita ), especially at the end of compositions purporting to describe mysteries seen in the course of inner service. Thus there exist numerous emotional and erotic lyrics which bear such signatures as "Agra-ali" and "Yugal-priya" and which are held to be the inspired compositions of the preceptors otherwise known as Agradas and Jivaram.[15] Indeed, the rasiks ' propensity for living two lives simultaneously has sometimes resulted in confusion—as in the instances in which manuscript searchers of the Nagari Pracarini Sabha (a Hindi literary society) failed to recognize an initiatory name, resulting in texts by the same person being wrongly assigned to two different authors.[16]

Once established in the emotional mood of the visualized body, the aspirant is ready to begin the most characteristic aspect of rasik devotional practice or sadhana : the "mental service" (manasipuja ) of Sita-Ram according to the sequence of "eight periods of the day" (astayam )—a cycle mirroring the pattern of daily worship in Vaisnava temples and, ultimately, the protocol of royal courts. Most of the prominent preceptors of the tradition, beginning with Agradas, are held to have composed manuals detailing their own interpretations of the eight periods and of the type of service to be offered during each. Thus, for example, the Astayampuja vidhi (Schedule of the eight periods of worship), a Hindi work by the early nineteenth-century preceptor Ramcarandas, divides the day into five principal segments during which the scene of divine activity shifts among eight "bowers" (kunj ) within Saket. In this scenario, a sakhi's day begins with her own elaborate toilette, followed by the singing of gentle songs to awaken the divine couple, who are imagined to be languorously sleeping in an opulent "rest bower." Once awake, they are seated on low stools and ministered to in various ways: their feet are washed, their teeth cleaned, their ornaments and garlands are changed, and they are worshiped with incense and lights, before being led to the "refreshment bower" for the first of many light snacks that will be served to them during the day. This is followed by a lengthy trip to the "bathing bower" for a dip in the holy Sarayu, and then by the donning of fresh clothes, ornaments, unguents, and makeup in the "adornment bower"—all supervised by the ever-hovering sakhis . Once dressed, the divine pair are offered a proper morning meal in the "breakfast bower," where they are served, serenaded, and fanned by female attendants.


After breakfast, the couple again proceed to the Sarayu, where Ram joins his sakhas and Sita her sakhis for boating excursions or "water play" (jalkrira ). This mild exertion is followed by a midday meal in the "refreshment bower" and then by a period of rest, during which the most intimate sakhis remain in attendance on the divine couple, pressing their feet, offering betel preparations, or singing songs to enhance their erotic mood. After a brief nap, the pair is again awakened, worshiped, and escorted to the pleasure parks on the banks of the Sarayu where, suitably dressed and adorned and to the accompaniment of the singing and dancing of sakhis , Ram engages in Krsna-style raslila (dancing and lovemaking) and enjoys a late supper with Sita, before finally returning to the "sleeping bower" for the night.[17]

The climax of this meditative foreplay is said to be the experience of tatsukh (literally, "that delight")—a vicarious tasting of the pleasure shared by the divine couple in their union, as witnessed by attendant sakhis and manjaris . This dimension of the sadhana has always been controversial, however— for Ramanandis no less than for Gauriya Vaisnavas—since some adepts of the sakhi tradition have maintained the possibility of svasukh ("one's own delight"), or a personal experience of mystico-erotic union with Ram. In theory, this was viewed as impossible; however, in the internal world of dhyan , some adepts apparently found themselves, like their counterparts in the Christian and Islamic mystical traditions, experiencing things that, according to the book, weren't supposed to happen.[18]

The brief summary of an astayam schedule given above cannot do justice to the painstaking detail in which each period and activity is to be evoked: every article of clothing and jewelry, every morsel of sweetmeats and golden bowl of water, adds iconographic richness and is to be rehearsed over and over again. Moreover, as I have already noted, the adept aims for more than mere visioning: the fragrances of the unguents and incense, the taste of the betel packets (which are daintily pre-chewed for the divine pair by their solicitous attendants), the cool splash of Sarayu water—all are to be imaginatively experienced in the most vivid fashion through the appropriate internal senses.

One may also observe that, in Ramcarandas's scheme, Ram's faithful male comrades don't get to spend very much time with their Lord, who passes his days largely surrounded by females; but of course, in the astayam schedules prepared by preceptors of the sakha branch of the tradition the division of activities between male and female attendants is more equitable, and the timetable includes such wholesome masculine diversions as elephant processions down the gilded avenues of Saket, solemn durbars, and hunting excursions to nearby forests, in the course of which Ram's comrades of various ages can delight in the intimacy of teasing jokes, songs, and general locker-room camaraderie. B. P. Singh's study of a large number of astayam manuals led him to observe, however, that there appeared to be an increas-


ing emphasis, over the course of time, on erotic sports to the exclusion of all other kingly activities.[19]

To be sure, astaym manuals are poetic compositions—anthologies of verses describing each period of the day, rather like the "twelve months" (barahmas ) texts which reckon the months of the year from the perspective of a lovesick woman awaiting her lover's return—and they often contain ingenious conceits which are thought to evoke the author's meditative experiences. But they are also and primarily textbooks for a concrete mystical practice, and indeed one which involves rigorous discipline. The sadhak or practitioner of this meditation program must rise by 3:00 A.M. , bathe, and purify himself through repetition of the Ram mantra, mentally reassume the sadhana body and persona by systematically reviewing its attributes, and begin offering service to the divine pair when they are awakened at about 4:30—a service which will continue at prescribed intervals throughout the day and night. The aim of this discipline, which may occupy one's whole life, is clearly expressed in the writings of the rasikacaryas : what begins as an "imaginative conception" (bhavna ) ends as a reality so compelling that the conventional world fades into shadowy insignificance. Through long practice in visualization, it is said, the adept begins to catch "glimpses" (jhalak ) of the actual lila ; these gradually intensify and lengthen, until he gains the ability to enter Saket at any moment. He becomes a real and constant participant in this transcendent world, a condition regarded, within this tradition, as "liberation in the body" (sadeh mukti ).[20] Of course, this ultimate state is not attained by all devotees, but it is an ideal to which all may aspire. The intensity with which exemplary initiates have pursued these practices and the extraordinary experiences vouchsafed them are celebrated in sectarian hagiography (some examples of which are given below), while the notion of the heavenly Ayodhya as the soul's ultimate abode is constantly reaffirmed in the Ram devotees' preferred idiom for death: to "set forth for Saket" (Saketprasthan ).

Despite the emphasis, especially in the sakhi branch of the tradition, on erotic themes, the personal meditations of many rasik devotees centered on other personal relationships to Ram. Some chose to visualize the Lord as a young child and to cultivate tender parental emotions toward him (vatsalya bhav ).[21] In this they had as a model the character of the legendary crow Kak Bhusundi in Uttar kand , the seventh book of the Tulsidas epic, who asserted,

My chosen Lord is the child Ram,
who possesses the beauty of a billion Love gods.[22]

Kak Bhusundi was said to return to Ayodhya in every cosmic cycle to re-experience the childhood sports of his Lord, thus paralleling the aspirant's own daily inner journeys to Saket and re-creations of its lila . What was common to all rasik practice was an emphasis on the techniques of role-playing


and visualization as well as an aesthetic delight in sensorally rich settings, rather than on any specific content.

As in the Krsna tradition, so in the rasik literature of Ram we find warnings against the externalization of the meditative practices, for the content of the visualizations could easily provoke the misunderstanding and scorn of the uninitiated. Yet paradoxically, since an underlying assumption is that the events seen in meditation are real, the most exemplary devotees are often those whose lives reveal a blurring of the boundary that separates this world from Saket and a spilling over of its lila into the mundane sphere. Such legends confirm the power of the technique and suggest that the devotee's "acting" is less a mental exercise than a way of life.

For example, the early saint Surkisor (fl. c. 1600?), who like Agradas came from the Jaipur region, is said to have visualized himself as a brother of King Janak; hence he regarded Sita as his daughter and Ram as his son-in-law. So strictly did he observe traditional rules of kinship that, on pilgrimages to Ayodhya, he refrained from taking food or water within the city limits, since a girl's blood relations should not accept hospitality from her husband's family. He had an image of Sita which he carried with him everywhere and treated exactly as one would a real daughter, even buying toys and sweets for her in the bazaar. It is said that other devotees, shocked by his "disrespectful" attitude toward the Mother of the Universe, stole this image. Heart-broken, he went to Mithila to find his lost daughter, and Sita, pleased by his steadfastness, caused the image to reappear.[23]

In oral Ramayana exposition sessions (Ramayan-katha ), I twice heard the story of the child-saint Prayagdas. Taunted by other children because he had no elder sister to feed him sweets during the festive month of Sravan, he went tearfully to his widowed mother, who appeased him by telling him that he indeed had a sister who had been married before he was born; "Her name is Janaki, and her husband is Ramcandra, a powerful man in Ayodhya. She never comes to visit us." The guileless child, determined to see his sister, set out on foot for Ayodhya and after many trials reached the holy city. His requests to be directed to the residence of "that big man, Ramcandra" met with laughter; everyone assumed the ragged urchin to be insane. Exhausted from his journey, Prayagdas fell asleep under a tree. But in the dead of night, in the inner sanctuary of Kanak Bhavan temple (a modern re-creation of the legendary House of Gold and one of Ayodhya's principal shrines), the images came alive. Ram turned to Sita and said, "Dearest, today the most extraordinary saint has come to town! We must go meet him." The divine entourage proceeded in state to Prayagdas's lonely tree, where the ringing of the great bells around the necks of the elephants awakened the boy. Undaunted by the magnificent vision, he repeated his question to the splendidly dressed man in the howdah and received the reply, "I am Ramcandra, and here beside me is your sister, Janaki." But the boy, unimpressed, told the Lord, "You are sure-


ly deceiving me, because where I come from we have the custom that when a sister meets her brother again after a long separation, she falls at his feet and washes them with her tears." Devotees delight in describing how the Mother of the Universe, unable to disappoint him, got down from her jeweled palanquin and threw herself in the dust of the road.[24]

The romantic predilections of rasik devotees led many of them to focus on the first book of the Manas , the Balkand , which recounts Ram's youthful adventures culminating in his marriage to Sita. Maharaja Raghuraj Simha of Rewa wrote in his epic Ramsvayamvar that his guru had instructed him to read Balkand exclusively. A great devotee of the Ramnagar Ram Lila, he is said to have attended only the early portions of the cycle each year. The sadhu Rampriya Saran, who regarded himself as Sita's sister, composed a Sitayan in seven books (c. 1703), similarly confining its narrative to Sita's childhood and marriage. A few preceptors even took the extreme position that the distressing events of Ram's exile, the abduction of Sita, the war with Ravan, and so on, were not true lila at all (in which the Lord reveals his ultimate nature), but only divine "drama" (natak ) staged for the benefit of the world.[25] Another story told of Prayagdas has the guileless saint happen on an oral retelling (katha ) of the Ramayana's second book, Ayodhyakand , the events of which are altogether unknown to him. He listens with growing alarm as the expounder tells of the exile of Ram, Sita, and Laksman and their wanderings in the forest, but when he hears that the princes and his "sister" are compelled to go barefoot and to sleep on the ground, he becomes distracted with grief. Rushing to the bazaar, he has a cobbler fashion three pairs of sandals and an artisan make three little rope-beds, and, placing these things on his head, sets out for Chitrakut, enquiring of everyone concerning the wanderers. He eventually makes his way to the forest of Panchvati where, it is said, he is rewarded with a vision of the trio and the opportunity to bestow his gifts.[26]

The influence of the rasik tradition appears to have peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. B. P. Singh's biographical listing of prominent rasik devotees includes many Ramayanis (Ramayana specialists) who were active in the royal court at Banaras, especially under Mahraja Udit Narayan Simha and his son Isvariprasad, both of whom were connoisseurs and munificent patrons of the Ram tradition. Some of these men—such as Ramgulam Dvivedi, Raguraj Simha, Sivlal Pathak, and Kasthajihva Svami—were also involved in the development of the royal Ram Lila pageant, which became an influential model for Ram Lila troupes throughout northern India.[27] These connections serve to remind us that the theology and mystical practice of the rasik preceptors was not without political implications. In a period of economic and social transformation and ebbing princely authority, they offered devotees and patrons an interiorization of the old Vaisnava royal cult, based on a "new kingdom"


limitless in extent, and millions of times greater in splendor than any earthly kingdom. Its king is so great that the five elements and time itself stand reverently before him . . . while he himself, in the company of countless maidservants and his own beloved, remains in the Golden House immersed in dalliance. . . . This imaginary kingdom of the rasiks is the world of Saket, its sovereign is the divine couple Sri Sita-Ram, and the easy path to reach it is through the technique of visualization.[28]

But just as in the theory of rasik practice, what begins as imagination ends as a reality so concrete that the real world seems in comparison no more than a dream, so in the case of the Ramnagar Ram Lila, what began as a play was transformed, under the guidance of the Banaras rulers and their rasik advisors, into a city and kingdom not only reimagined but physically reconstructed into an enduring ideological statement.

Interpreting The Rasik Tradition

Among the few scholars who have examined Ramaite rasik texts and practices, the most common approach has been to stress the highly derivative nature of the tradition. Thus R. S. McGregor, in a short essay on the Dhyanmanjari , attempts to demonstrate that Agradas composed his text under the influence of a Krsnaite source, the Raspancadhyayi of Nanddas.[29] The Sanskrit BhusundiRamayana , an esoteric rewrite of the Ramayana in the light of rasik practices, has been termed by B. P. Singh "only a transformation of the Bhagavata [purana ] text," while Hans Bakker, in his recent study of Ayodhya, labels this Ramayana's conceptualization of the holy city "no more than a trivial replica of the sacred topography developed for Braj in the Vrajabhaktivilasa of Narayana Bhatta written in A.D. 1552."[30] The writer who has offered the only ethnographic data on Ramanandi rasiks , Dutch anthropologist Peter van der Veer, characterizes their entire tradition as "the 'Krsnaization' of Ram bhakti ."[31] Such evaluations reflect modern scholarship's preference for a historical approach—which seeks to understand religious movements by tracing them back to their presumed origins—and they indeed shed much light on the process of sectarian evolution. Thus it has been shown that from Agradas's time onward Ramanandi centers in Rajasthan were in close contact with developments in the Braj region, and that many rasik adepts received training from Krsnaite preceptors in Vrindavan.[32] An historical perspective can also offer an antidote to sectarian fallacies—such as the Ayodhya rasiks ' claim that their tradition is in fact older than that of Vrindavan, since, as every pious Hindu knows, Ram carried on his erotic pastimes in the Treta Yug, the second of the four cosmic epochs, long before Krsna was even a gleam in his father Vasudev's eye.

The perspective of social history may also shed light on the underlying causes of the rise of the rasik tradition from the sixteenth century onward,


though here the interpretation of historical data is more problematic. Joseph O'Connell suggests that the theology and mystical practice of the Vrindavan Gosvamis reflected a Hindu retreat from the Muslim-dominated sociopolitical sphere.[33] This view has been echoed by David Haberman, who sees the enchanted and extrasocial realm of Vrindavan as a response to a "serious need for an expression of Hindu dharma that placed the world of significant meaning far beyond that sphere controlled by the Muslims."[34] Similarly, Singh has suggested that the practices of the Ramanandi rasiks represented a response to an age dominated by "foreign" political powers.[35] Such theories cannot be overlooked in any comprehensive study of these traditions in their cultural context, particularly in view of the long-standing cultic emphasis on the king's identification with Visnu. Yet at the same time, scholars must be wary of judgments colored by the hindsight of twentieth-century communalism, and especially by the idealization, so often encountered in the writings of modern Hindu scholars, of an imagined pre-Muslim past—a view which often tends to compromise the complexity of Indian society at the grass-roots level, with its intricate web of interacting forces and interests. In this context, it is worth reminding ourselves that the practice of visualization and of the fabrication of inner bodies has a very old pedigree in the subcontinent, extending back long before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, and also that the "other worlds" of the rasiks came to prominence precisely during a period of generally amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims—most notably during the age of Akbar and his immediate successors—when Hindu nobles occupied powerful positions in the imperial administration and large temples were again being constructed in North India under princely patronage. Similarly, although the rise of the great rasik establishments in Ayodhya occurred only after the breakup of central Mughal authority, it was fueled by the patronage of the newly enfranchised maharajas of the eastern Ganges Valley—such as the rulers of Banaras, Rewa, Tikamgarh, and Dumrao—as well as, significantly, by that of the heterodox and religiously eclectic Shi'ite Nawabs of Oudh, who had their capital at Ayodhya until 1765.[36]

Returning to the question of the genesis of Ramaite rasik practices, we may also observe that there is a stigma attached to the label "derivative," which reflects our own culture's valuation of certain kinds of novelty and originality—concepts often viewed very differently in India—and which may lead us to a cursory dismissal of what we judge to be "unoriginal" material. Useful as it is, a historical understanding offers only one perspective on the Ram rasik tradition; it tells us nothing of the special attraction of its impressive corpus of literature or of the inventive adaptations that it made within the Ramayana framework. Singh's study of this neglected tradition documents some nine hundred texts: astayam manuals, hagiographies like the Rasikprakasbhaktamal , descriptions of the divine city of Saket, and anthologies of songs stamped with the initiatory names of prominent acaryas , as well as such


intriguingly titled works as Rampriya Saran's seven-canto epic, Sitayan (c. 1703), and the earlier Ramalingamrta of one Advait of Banaras (1608).[37] If nothing else, the realization that thousands of pious devotees saw nothing wrong in visualizing Ram and Sita's erotic sports should chasten us in our attempts w apply simplistic categories to Vaisnava traditions: the puritanical Ramaites here, the sensual Krsnaites there.

Moreover, the charge of derivativeness can be much more broadly applied, since it is clear that the whole rasik orientation in Vaisnava bhakti was heavily indebted to the Buddhist and Saiva traditions of an earlier period and indeed seems to have represented the culmination of a long historical process of the "tantricization" of Vaisnavism. This process was already reflected in the Pancaratra literature and in the Bhagavata Purana , and a circa twelfth-century Ramsite text, the AgastyaSamhita , includes instructions for an elaborate visualization of Ram and Sita, enthroned on the pericarp of an immense lotus incorporating all the powers of the cosmos.[38] Agradas's floruit is assumed to have been the second half of the sixteenth century, which would make him a contemporary of the later Vrindavan Gosvamis. His rapid adaptation of their teachings bears witness to the fact that rasik practice was, by his day, an idea whose time had come—a pan-Vaisnava phenomenon which cut across sectarian lines.

The influence of the Ram rasik tradition grew steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the movement acquired a more public profile through an influential commentary on the Ramcaritmanas composed by Mahant Ramcarandas of Ayodhya in about 1805, which was said to have openly revealed the secrets of erotic devotionalism (srngaribhakti ) which Tulsidas had deliberately concealed in his Manas Lake.[39] Van der Veer documents the steadily growing power of rasik institutions in Ayodhya from the early eighteenth century onward—in part a reflection of the patronage of wealthy rajas, zamindars, and merchants who were attracted to the movement. Some of these patrons became initiated sadhaks , like Maharaja Raghuraj Simha of Rewa, himself the author of thirty-two works.[40] Like the tantric tradition before it, the rasik movement underwent a popularization, acquiring a vogue among the elite which was reflected in the predominance of rasik themes in the poetry and painting of the period. And despite the attacks of the Victorians and the puritanical apologetics of the "Hindu Renaissance," the rasik point of view remains much in evidence, especially in Ayodhya, where the majority of important temples are controlled by rasik sects and where the most famous shrine—Kanak Bhavan temple—represents a full-scale realization of the mythical House of Gold, complete with Ram and Sita's opulent bedchamber. It is, of course, difficult to say to what extent the full and arduous rasik meditational regimen is currently put into practice.

It may appear to us ironic that celibate Hindu ascetics like Agradas, who typically led lives of great austerity, should have indulged in internal fanta-


sies in which they roamed jewel-studded pleasure houses and witnessed (or, in some cases, participated in) the untiring loveplay of a divine libertine—doubly ironic in that these scenarios were, as Singh has pointed out, dependent for their tangible details of architecture, dress, and courtly protocol on the recent imperial model of the Mughals.[41] We might recall a parallel in the Western Christian tradition, where the favorite text of the monastics of the Middle Ages was the most erotic book in the Bible, the "Song of Songs."[42] But I would like to end with the suggestion that visualization and projection are not unique to religious practitioners, but are inherent also in what scholars of religion do—the imaginative reconstruction of other people's beliefs and practices. In visualizing another world, it is impossible to avoid seeing through the lens of one's own, and we find this reflected as much in Ram's Mughal-style durbar hall as in our own readings of the rasik tradition—condemned as "licentious," because the Victorian observer is prudish, or written off as "derivative," because the late twentieth-century observer cherishes novelty. Talking about other people's myths is often only a rather arch way of talking about our own, and this being so, we might remind ourselves that the reigning fantasy world of our commercial culture—reconfirmed daily by countless visual cues in television commercials, billboards, and newspaper and magazine advertisements—bears many superficial resemblances to that of the rasiks : a fictive realm in which everyone is young, attractive, and nearly always engaged in erotic play. Yet in two significant respects this untiringly reimaged world of our culture differs strikingly from the realm of Saket: for its characters are not divine (and so not connected to the deeper values supposedly cherished by our society) and its scenarios are not chosen and generated by ourselves, but rather are created for us by the acaryas of a secular and materialist religion, who know wherein the ultimate return lies.

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