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Twelve Personalizing the Ramayan: Ramnamis and Their Use of the Ramcaritmanas
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Personalizing the Ramayan: Ramnamis and Their Use of the Ramcaritmanas

Ramdas Lamb

In the religious life of the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh, the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas plays a fundamental role. There has been an ongoing development in the relationship between the sect and the text since the inception of the Ramnami movement in the late nineteenth century. An understanding of the changing role of the Manas[1] in the Ramnami community, however, requires a certain reevaluation of the concept of "scripture" in Hindu tradition and in particular the two traditional categories of Hindu sacred texts: sruti , "that which was heard," and smrti , "that which was remembered."

Sruti generally designates the corpus of Vedic texts—Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanisads—which are said to be eternal reverberations emanating forth from the Transcendent and directly cognized by seers at the beginning of each cycle of creation. Three characteristics are generally held to distinguish this class of texts. (1) Sruti constitutes a circumscribed, bounded category of texts—that is, the Vedic texts.[2] (2) These texts, although transmitted by sages who "saw" and "heard" them, are held to be eternal and uncreated, not composed by any human or divine agent.[3] (3) Given that study of the Vedic Samhitas has focused on meticulous preservation of the purity of the Vedic sounds, or mantras, which are held to be intrinsically powerful and efficacious, precedence has usually been given to memorization and recitation of sruti texts rather than to understanding and interpretation of their meaning.[4]

Smrti texts can be defined in direct opposition to sruti . (1) Smrti is a fluid, dynamic, open-ended category, which includes the dharmasastras , epics, and puranas as well as an array of other texts that different groups at different times have regarded as belonging to the class. (2) In contrast to sruti , these texts are believed to have been composed by personal authors, either human or divine, and hence are "that which was remembered" rather than "that


which was heard." (3) Study of smrti texts involves not only rote recitation of verses but also an understanding and interpretation of their content.

Indologists have traditionally concentrated on brahmanical Sanskritic texts when considering the concept of scripture in India. Perhaps as a result, the orthodox view of sruti and smrti , as defined by the above characteristics, has tended to neglect the modifications of these categories that have taken place over the last thousand years. Devotional movements have been largely responsible for the increasing permeability and reinterpretation of these categories. They have precipitated the greatest number of additions to the class of smrti and at the same time have inspired the elevation of multiple sectarian works to the status of sruti . Recognizing this, in recent years several scholars have suggested the need for an expanded understanding of sruti and smrti that would encompass more fully the dynamic role the sacred word has played in Hindu tradition, particularly in post-Vedic times. For example, Thomas Coburn has suggested that instead of constituting fixed categories of texts, sruti and smrti may refer rather to "two different kinds of relationship that can be had with verbal material in the Hindu tradition."[5]

As Coburn's observation implies, despite the apparently secure status of the Vedas themselves as sruti , the distinctions between the categories of sruti and smrti , as delineated above, do not represent an absolute classification of particular texts. Rather, they form part of a theoretical framework by means of which a variety of texts may be classified according to their status and function within a particular community. A text ultimately attains its sacred status as scripture—and more specifically as sruti or smrti —only in relationship to a particular religious community, for it is the community that determines whether a text is "sacred or holy, powerful or portentous, possessed of an exalted authority, and in some fashion transcendent of, and hence distinct from, all other speech and writing."[6]

Historically, several strategies have been adopted to effect a change in the position of sectarian texts with respect to the categories of sruti and smrti . Those processes which have played an important role in the evolution of the Ram story in India, from earliest times to the present, will be discussed below.

The Manas as Sruti and Smrti

Over the past four hundred years no Hindu text has generated as large and as active a following as Tulsidas's Manas . Even as a non-Sanskritic text, it has been elevated to the status of sruti in the eyes of the populace of North India. More than any other text it has been reinterpreted, recreated, and imitated in a large variety of literary, ritual, and performative genres such as commentaries, oral recitations (kathas ), dramas (lilas ), and devotional chant-


ing (bhajans ). As such the Manas is an especially suitable vehicle for examining the permeability and relativity of the categories of sruti and smrti .

It is impossible to say with certainty how early the Ram story achieved scriptural status in India. J. L. Brockington maintains that at least five stages are perceptible in the development of Valmiki's Ramayana from its original to its final form. Each stage incorporated additional brahmanical elements into the text, which served to make the story more consistent with orthodox beliefs and practices, with developing brahmanical doctrines, and with the establishment of the Brahmin priest as the mediator of devotion to Ram. Brockington refers to this process of altering the text in the direction of brahmanical values as brahmanization .[7]

By the time the Ramcaritmanas was written the Ram story had been sufficiently appropriated and given status by the brahmanical orthodoxy in North India that a large section of the priestly community of Banaras, where the Manas was completed, became outraged by Tulsidas's rendition of the story in Hindi, rather than in the orthodox Sanskrit. According to popular tradition, this situation led to an event—said to have occurred just after the completion of the Manas and originally recorded by Benimadhavdas, a disciple of Tulsidas, in his Mul Gosain Caritrathat was extremely significant both for Tulsidas and for his poem.

According to the legend the Brahmin priests of Banaras were furious that the story of Ram had been written in a vernacular language instead of in Sanskrit, and they denounced the Manas as a debasement of the holy scriptures. Subsequently, Tulsidas took his work to the main Siva temple in the city where a test of its validity was devised by a respected Sanskrit scholar. That night the book was placed before the main image in the temple, and on top of it were placed the sastras , the eighteen puranas , the Upanisads, and, finally, the four Vedic Samhitas. The temple was then locked for the night. When it was reopened in the morning the Manas was found on top of the pile. Immediately the text and its author were hailed by all present.

This story is often heard in North India when the position of the Manas in relation to the Sanskrit scriptures is discussed. A common interpretation is that the Manas was divinely recognized as equal to the Vedas in sanctity. Many Ram bhaktas (devotees), however, say the story shows that the Manas actually supersedes the Vedas in both sanctity and authority. For them, the Manas is not equal to sruti : it is itself sruti . It is the preeminent text of the present age, the new standard by which to define sruti .[8]

The process through which a text is elevated to the status of sruti has been termed vedacization .[9] Unlike brahmanization this process does not involve a modification of textual content but rather of attributed status. The dual process of brahmanization and vedacization of a number of sectarian works has complicated the traditional division between sruti and smrti . Most such works


enter the scriptural hierarchy at the level of smrti , as the preferred text of a particular sect. As a given text gains adherents and ritual status, additional sanctity is ascribed to it. Eventually, the text bridges the gap between sruti and smrti attribution, taking on dimensions of both. Philip Lutgendorf refers to a text that goes through this process as an "upwardly-mobile scripture."[10]

The Manas in North India provides an excellent example of a sacred text that has assumed characteristics of both sruti and smrti . On the one hand, the Manas has the attributes of a smrti text: it was composed by a human author, Tulsidas, and is written in Avadhi, a regional dialect related to modern Hindi, rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. Moreover, as the source of the Ram story, the content of the text is considered as important as its sound value. In the context of the Manas as sruti , modification of the text, in its written form as well as in oral presentation, forms a part of the process of continual reinterpretation and recreation of the story.[11] At the same time the Manas clearly has attained quasi-sruti status. Its verses are viewed by its adherents as efficacious mantras, the chanting of which can bring about blessings, cure illness, remove obstacles, and even grant power. Like the Vedas the Manas has generated a sizable body of literature that imitates, interprets, and expands on the text. In addition, many Brahmin priests today, albeit some begrudgingly, grant a sruti -like position to the Manas and use it ritually as such. Lutgendorf has described the process of vedacization in Banaras and other urban centers of North India through which the Manas has come to be regarded as the "Hindi Veda" and Manas recitation rituals have been transformed into Vedic yagyas ("sacrifices") performed by Brahmin priests.[12]

Ramnamis and the Manas

The Ramnami Samaj is a sect of harijan (Untouchable) Ram bhaktas from the Chhattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh. Formed in the 1890s, the sect has become a dominant force in the religious life of the harijans of the area. While the "official" text of the sect is Tulsidas's Ramcaritmanas , an examination of the movement's history and practices reveals the presence and growing importance of oral variants of the Manas , based on Tulsidas's telling of the Ram story yet distinct from it. In actuality it is these oral variants that circumscribe the Ram story for the Ramnamis.

The founder of the Ramnami sect was an illiterate Chhattisgarhi Camar (member of an Untouchable leather-worker caste) named Parasuram. His father, like many North Indian Ram devotees, had been an avid Manas devotee who would listen to recitations of the text whenever possible and commit verses to memory. Parasuram followed his father's example and from early childhood began memorizing verses from the text. According to the sect's oral hagiography, when Parasuram was in his mid twenties he contracted leprosy but was miraculously cured by a Ramanandi ascetic.[13] The


ascetic then exhorted Parasuram, m to devote himself entirely to the Manas , viewing the text as his chosen deity, and to ceaselessly practice ramnam , repetition of the name of Ram. As word of the miracle spread, countless villagers came to see Parasuram, who would tell them of the ascetic's teachings, recite stories from the Manas , and speak of the greatness of ramnam . Parasuram's popularity grew, and in less than a year the Ramnami Samaj was born. Those most attracted to Parasuram and his teachings were illiterate harijan villagers like himself.

The Manas became the central symbol of the sect on three different levels. On the material level, the physical text was revered as the sect's chosen deity, as is evident in the Ramnami practice of positioning a copy of the text in the center of the group during bhajan , treating it as an image of a deity to which they are offering hymns. On the level of sound, the Manas was celebrated as a repository of ramnam , and its verses viewed as mantras possessing transformative power. On the level of meaning, the Manas was cherished by the Ramnamis as their primary source of the Ram story—though actual recitation of the narrative has never been stressed—and a repository of great spiritual wisdom.

In the early years of the movement the Ramnamis focused primarily on the first two levels, paying relatively less attention to the text's meaning, possibly because nearly all of the members of the sect were illiterate.[14] Parasuram could not actually read the Manas well but had memorized large portions of the text, which he would recite in the presence of the other sect members. At this stage in the sect's development the Manas enjoyed a quasi-sruti status in that it was revered primarily as a recited text containing potent mantras that did not need to be understood in order to be spiritually efficacious. The text had already attained this status among many North Indian Ram devotees, so the Ramnamis were not assigning a new distinction to it. They merely adopted a prevalent sentiment.

Since most of the group could neither recite from memory nor understand the text of the Manas , group bhajans originally centered almost exclusively on the chanting of ramnam rather than on recitation of the Manas itself.[15] As a result, the Name gradually came to supersede the Manas as the central symbol of the sect. Not only did ramnam become the quintessential mantra on which Ramnami devotional chanting focused but its written form was used as a ritual diagram, or yantra , and inscribed on their homes, their clothing, and their bodies.[16]

In time, however, members of the sect other than Parasuram began to memorize verses from the Manas and integrate them into their ramnam chanting. Group members would occasionally learn the meaning of the verses they had memorized, although in the early days of the sect the verses were still viewed above all as mantras, the power of which was automatically activated through recitation.


The desire to memorize verses nonetheless led eventually to an increase both in literacy and in understanding of the chanted portions of the text. Because the Ramnamis initially were unfamiliar with the full contents of the Manas , they believed that its teachings were based solely on gyan ("religious knowledge"), bhakti ("devotion"), and ramnam . However, as understanding of the memorized verses increased, sect members began to realize that the text also contained many verses that support orthodox Hindu beliefs regarding Brahmin social and religious superiority and the inferior status of low castes and women. The Ramnamis were thus confronted with a difficult situation. The text they had been taught to revere as scripture turned out to contain certain teachings that were diametrically opposed to their own beliefs and apparently supportive of the existing social and religious hierarchy that had placed them at its bottom, declaring them unworthy to possess a developed religious life.

This situation inspired a move by many of the younger Ramnamis to learn to read so that they could understand the meaning of the growing number of verses that had been integrated into group bhajans . The purpose of this effort was twofold. First, it would allow them to sift through the existing collection of verses and eliminate those that were contrary to the sect's developing belief system. Second, it would aid in the establishment of selection criteria to be employed in the building of a corpus of verses to be chanted, which would in turn help give definition to the sect's philosophy and values. In tiffs way the corpus of memorized verses and the sect's beliefs came to exist in a dynamic interchange, each affecting the development of the other.

As the focus shifted from rote recitation of Manas verses to an understanding of the recited text, from an emphasis on sound to an emphasis on meaning, the status of the Manas began to shift from sruti to smrti . No longer viewed as a bounded, inviolable scripture, the text came to be seen as open-ended, capable of being interpreted, elaborated, and when necessary modified. The Ramnamis began both to reinterpret and to expand on the text, emphasizing verses that were in accordance with their values while ignoring others that violated their belief system. The Manas thus became the basis for the sect's own tellings of the Ramayan , which draw not only on the Manas but on a variety of additional texts.

Beyond the Manas: Retelling the Ram Story

In the early days of the Ramnami movement, the Manas clearly enjoyed a sacrosanct and authoritative status in the sect's devotional practices, and until the 1920s the Tulsi Ramayan was the only text from which verses were extracted for use in Ramnami bhajans . With the realization that the Manas also contained teachings antithetical to their philosophy, however, the Ramnamis were forced to reevaluate the role of the text in their religious life.


Their increased awareness of the contents of the Manas subsequently opened the door for the inclusion in their chanting sessions of verses from other texts and alternate tellings of the Ram story.

Another pivotal factor influencing the inclusion of supplemental textual material seems to have been the presence in Chhattisgarh of Kabirpanthis, followers of Kabir. The sect had been in the area for over two hundred years, spreading Kabir's teachings. Praise of ramnam is a recurring theme in much of Kabir's poetry, and so the Ramnamis, as devotees of the Name, eventually incorporated several of Kabir's couplets into their bhajans . Once verses from Kabir became a part of the sect's chanting, it was not long before the Ramnamis began to incorporate verses from a variety of other texts as well.

Thus the Manas gradually lost its position as the sole repository of verses used in bhajan , although it is still the major source for most Ramnamis. A corpus of approximately five to six hundred Manas verses makes up the bulk of the sect's chanted Ramayan , to which more than one hundred verses from other texts have been added, becoming an integral part of the group bhajan .[17] Author and antiquity play little if any role in the selection of alternative texts or verses, and many of the Ramnamis are entirely unaware of the origin of numerous verses they commonly use in chanting.[18]

There are, however, two major criteria for determining whether a verse may be included in a Ramnami bhajan . Its metrical form must be either doha or caupai , the meters in which the majority of the Manas is written,[19] and its content must pertain to Ram, wisdom, devotion, or ramnam , although in certain situations this rule can be dispensed with. (See the section below on takkar .) Among the secondary texts that meet these criteria and are consequently drawn on for use in chanting are well-known writings like Tulsidas's Dohavali and Kabir's Bijak , as well as lesser-known texts like the Visram Sagar , Sukh Sagar , Vraj Vilas , Brahmanand Bhakta , and Sabal Singh Chauhan's Hindi version of the Mahabharata .[20] The most popular of these auxiliary texts is the Visram Sagar , written in the nineteenth century by Raghunathdas, a member of the Ramsnehi sect found primarily in Madhya Pradesh and in some areas of Uttar Pradesh. Ramsnehis adhere to a nirgun ("formless") Ram bhakti philosophy similar to that of Kabir.[21] Over the years the Visram Sagar has earned such a position of respect among Ramnamis that it is second only to the Manas in terms of the number of its verses that are included in Ramnami bhajan .

The Ramnamis' compilation of dohas and caupais from the Manas and other texts represents the sect's own, ever evolving and maturing telling of the Ram story, one which emphasizes those aspects of the story that harmonize with their beliefs and values while ignoring aspects that run counter to them. Those sections of the Manas most consonant with the Ramnamis' philosophy accordingly receive the greatest attention. Conspicuous by their almost complete absence are verses containing references to Brahmins, adherence to


caste distinctions, ritual observances, image worship, and devotion to deities other than Ram, as well as those that criticize low castes and women. Most sect members simply ignore such verses, although some have gone to the point of actually deleting offensive couplets from their personal copies of the text. The Ramnamis' telling of the Ram story is instead crafted around teachings concerning gyan , various dimensions of bhakti , and ramnam . Not very surprisingly, then, the only narrative material from the life of Ram that figures in the sect's chanting centers on events that emphasize his impartial love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Other than Ram the characters that appear most frequently in the Ramnamis' Ramayan are Sita (Ram's wife), Bharat and Laksman (his brothers), Hanuman (the monkey god), Nisadraj (a chieftain of the Untouchable boatman caste), and Vibhisan (a demon devotee of Ram). All of these characters have close devotional relationships with Ram and thus assume important roles in the sect's rendering of the Ram story. Many of the verses used in bhajan consist either of words spoken by these characters or words addressed by Ram to one of them. The Ramnamis view the ways in which these figures relate to Ram as ideal manifestations of devotion to him. The last three, Hanuman, Nisadraj, and Vibhisan, are of special significance to the sect because in their respective roles as monkey, harijan , and demon they testify to the fact that any being can take refuge in, have an intimate relationship with, and ultimately attain union with Ram.[22]

In summary, among the early Ramnamis the Manas enjoyed a status approaching that of sruti , but as its meaning gradually came to be understood the status of the text itself began to shift. Although the sect still tends to assign the Manas scriptural status, make it the centerpiece of their group bhajans , and use its verses as mantras, at the same time they add to and subtract from it as they please, praising some sections while denouncing others. The implications of this change in attitude toward the text will be explored more fully below.

Ramnam Bhajan

Members of the Ramnami Samaj are spread throughout the eastern districts of Chhattisgarh. This is one of the least developed areas of the North Indian plains: poverty is the norm and travel is arduous. Because group bhajans afford the only opportunities many of the sect's members have to get together, such bhajans have become the most important unifying activity for the Ramnamis. The style of group bhajan has gone through a variety of modifications, however, since the formation of the group nearly one hundred years ago.

The introduction of random verses into their chanting of ramnam has resulted in the sect's unique style of bhajan : a chorus of ramnam interspersed


with verses in the doha and caupai meters taken primarily from the Manas . Although this is the dominant form of bhajan , several variant styles have also evolved that have inspired the development of individualized Ramayans and reveal the direction in which the sect and its philosophy have matured. These will be discussed below.

The Ramnamis' ritual dress for bhajan includes a cotton shawl covered with "Ram" written in devanagari script, a peacock-feather hat worn primarily by male members of the sect, and a set of bells worn on the ankles by sect members who dance and tapped on the ground by seated bhajan participants. The Ramnamis' attire not only identifies them as members of a sect but also serves to attract spectators. This is important to the Ramnamis because they believe that anyone who participates in or even hears ramnam benefits by it. Thus, the larger the crowd that is lured, the greater the advantage of the bhajan .

Whenever they sit to chant, the Ramnamis place a copy of the Manas before them, usually elevated on a small wooden bookstand. If no bookstand is available, the text will be placed instead on a piece of cloth or, in some cases, directly on the ground in front of the area where the Ramnamis have gathered. As long as the chanting continues the text will remain open in its place, although it may never be actually read from or even looked at. Rather, the physical text exists in their midst as a symbol, venerated as the source of ramnam and as a repository of teachings concerning gyan , bhakti , and the glories of the Name. Once the chanting ends, however, so does any reverence shown the physical text. The book is then handled and stored by the Ramnamis as any other book would be.

The refrain of ramnam is approximately forty-eight beats in length and contains twenty-eight repetitions of the name of Ram. A chanter wishing to contribute a doha or caupai from the Manas or another text will notify the other chanters of his intention by vocalizing an extra "RamRam" more loudly at a fixed point in the latter part of the refrain. The person introducing the couplet recites all but the last line solo, at which time all those familiar with the verse join in its conclusion. The inserted couplet is then followed by the ramnam refrain. During the last few decades the number of inserted verses has increased to the point that nearly every refrain is followed by one. Moreover, the Ramnami repertoire of verses has grown so large that during any particular bhajan sitting—unless it is an all-night event—very few are ever chanted twice.

In addition to selecting only verses they deem ideologically and metrically appropriate for their chanting, Ramnamis further individualize their oral Ramayan by modifying Manas verses themselves. The most common form of modification is the insertion of "RamRam" or "Ramnam" into verses, either on their own or as substitutes for alternate names of Ram. Thus "Ramcandra" becomes "RamRam" or "RamRamnam," "Raghuvir" becomes "Ram-


Ramvir," "Ramu" and "Ramahi" become "RamRam" or "Ramnam," and so on. "Sita Ram" is often replaced with "RamRamnam," and, where the meter allows, even "Ram" may be replaced by "RamRam." Such substitutions are the Ramnamis' way of demonstrating where their devotion actually lies: not with the person of Ram, a human incarnation of the divine, but with ramnam , their link to the formless Ram, the Absolute.

Another form of verse modification of Manas couplets involves replacing the words "brahman " or "vipra " with "ramnam " in verses that originally contained praise of Brahmins, redirecting that praise to the practice instead. Consider the following verse from the Manas , commonly recited by North Indian Ram devotees:

The Lord took human form to help Brahmins, cows, gods, and holy men.

A small change by the Ramnamis gives the verse a meaning much more consistent with their particular beliefs.

The Lord took human form to help gods and holy men by giving them [the practice of] ramnam .[23]

Variants, Vidvans, and Individual Versions

Within the framework of group bhajan , several variant formats have evolved that have added new dimensions to the sect's oral performance of the Ram story. Of these, two have been especially influential in increasing both the Ramnamis' understanding of and their repertoire of verses from the Manas and other texts. The first of these involves the insertion of a conversation in verse form into the bhajan itself. This is a common practice among members of the sect. The second format is a special type of philosophical dialogue or interchange, engaged in by a small but growing number of Ramnamis. This stylized interchange is called takkar (literally, "collision" or "quarrel").


To the Ramnamis ramnam bhajan is both a religious practice and a form of entertainment. Insofar as it is the focus of their individual spiritual lives as well as of their shared life of devotion as a community, it is a religious practice to be taken quite seriously. At the same time, however, ramnam bhajan gatherings, especially the periodic large ones, are the only opportunity many Ramnamis have to see each other and to escape temporarily from the troubles and concerns of daily life. Thus group chanting sessions are also a time of joy and celebration. In this context bhajan is viewed as a source of entertainment, involving at times lighthearted conversation, jesting, and joking.

Besides the corpus of verses from the Manas and other texts that have been incorporated in ramnam bhajan , there is a vast array of other Manas verses


covering a broad range of subjects. Although these verses do not directly apply to bhajan topics, they are often quite useful for the purpose of conversation. Sect members will occasionally interject such verses into the chanting as a means of greeting one another, joking, complaining about the difficulties of family life, speaking irreverently about priests, politicians, or wealthy landowners, and so on.

For example, seeing a friend after a long time apart, a Ramnami may nod an acknowledgment of the other's presence while reciting the following Manas verse. The words are those of a sage greeting Ram upon his arrival at the former's hermitage.

I have watched the road day and night with deep concentration. Upon seeing [you] my Lord, my heart has been soothed.[24]

A fitting reply to this welcoming couplet might be:

Now I have faith, O Hanuman, in the Lord's blessings upon me, for without it the company of saints cannot be gained.[25]

If an unknown member of the sect arrives to take part in a bhajan gathering, a Ramnami may want to show hospitality and inquire about the stranger's identity. At the same time he may want to ascertain whether the stranger is aware of the conversation format and gauge his cleverness.

Are you one of the Lord's servants? My heart is filled with feelings of love.
Or maybe you are Ram, friend of the poor, who has come to grant me blessings.[26]

With the following brief reply the newcomer could show his humility, his awareness of the conversation, and his knowledge of how to respond:

Lord, I am [Vibhisan] the brother of the ten-headed Ravan. O Protector of the gods, I was born in the family of demons.[27]

This in turn might prompt the reply:

Vibhisan, you are triply blessed. You have become the jewel of the demon family.[28]

In this manner the Ramnamis combine bhajan and conversation, although the process often seems more like a competition to see who can be cleverer in finding verses that apply to a variety of situations. When a verse used in conversation is replied to, a dialogue may begin, which may lead into another stylistic variant of bhajan called takkar .


Nearly all of the Ramnamis know something about the use of Manas verses in conversation, and many of them practice it. Barely half, on the other hand,


are even aware of the process of takkar , and not more than a tenth actually take an active part in it. Nevertheless, takkar and its practitioners, known in the sect as vidvans ("exponents of knowledge"), have provided perhaps the greatest formative influence in contemporary times on the beliefs and practices of the Ramnami Samaj.

As we have seen, the Ramnamis' gradual growth in literacy and ability to understand Manas verses made them aware of the need to sift through and evaluate the text, in order to avoid verses and sections that were discordant with their own beliefs. The designation vidvan , traditionally used to refer to a Sanskrit scholar, was given to those Ramnamis who dedicated themselves to deepening their comprehension of the Manas and to gaining the knowledge required to judge which verses from the Manas (and other texts) accorded with the Ramnamis' philosophy and thus might fruitfully be incorporated into the bhajans .[29] Although the vidvans constitute only about 10 percent of the sect, they have had tremendous influence as the architects of the sect's philosophy, giving shape and direction to the Ramnamis' beliefs and practices. The vehicle the vidvans employ for the expression and dissemination of their particular philosophical perspectives is takkar .

As understood by the Ramnamis, takkar is a form of dialogue or interchange between vidvans that takes place during chanting, the language of these interchanges consisting entirely of verses from the corpus of texts collected by the vidvans . The takkar process evolved as a direct result of both the conversation style of bhajan and the freedom allowed each individual Ramnami in the selection of verses to be memorized for use in bhajan . The more literate sect members tended to seek out primarily those verses consistent with their personal philosophical viewpoint.[30] In time, differences as well as similarities in the perspectives of the various sect members became apparent on the basis of the verses favored by each member in the bhajan sessions. For example, a Ramnami, finding himself in particular agreement with a verse chanted by another sect member, might choose to display his consensus by offering a verse consonant with the previous one in spirit. Conversely, a sect member could counter an objectionable verse by reciting an opposing couplet. This back-and-forth process of responding to recited verses gradually became formalized in takkar .

The term takkar literally means "quarrel" or "collision," and the process indeed resembles a school debate or competition more than a discussion of fundamental philosophical differences. As one vidvan put it, vidvans use takkars for the purpose of plumbing "the depths of each other's knowledge and devotion." In a gaming spirit, Ramnami vidvans like to set parameters or rules for each takkar . For example, restrictions may be placed on the subject matter of the takkar , the preferred topics being gyan , bhakti , and ramnam . Alternatively, the verses used in takkar may be limited to those drawn from a particular chapter of the Manas or to those taken from texts other than the Manas .[31]


Takkars can take place at any time during ramnam bhajan and may last from several minutes to several hours. When a group chant involves mostly non-vidvans , which is quite common, then short takkars , generally lasting only a few minutes, will occasionally take place between the vidvans present, such dialogues often passing almost unnoticed by the rest of the group. When, on the other hand, a large number of vidvans gather together, a much greater percentage of the bhajan will take the form of takkar of one type or another. An amazingly high percentage of Ramnamis—perhaps as many as 40 percent—are oblivious to the existence of the takkar process itself, and an even greater number are generally unaware when such interchanges are actually taking place during the bhajan . Those Ramnamis who are least aware of the takkar process tend to be the women and older men, the two groups in which illiteracy is the highest. The primary reason for this is that many of the illiterate Ramnamis have simply memorized the verses they chant through listening to their frequent repetition during bhajans , without any real attempt to understand what is being chanted. Consequently, their actual comprehension of most verses is minimal and is generally limited to the more commonly repeated ones from the Manas . As was the case in the early days of the movement, such sect members simply have faith that the verses they are listening to or repeating are about gyan , bhakti , or ramnam , and that is sufficient for them.

On the other hand, many of the younger males have had at least a few years of schooling and have attained a certain degree of literacy. They tend to have a greater curiosity with respect to what is being repeated and thus have a greater capability and likelihood of gaining an understanding of recited verses. In addition, they also have a greater ability to read the Manas and other texts to search out new bhajan verses on their own. It is therefore this group of Ramnamis that yields the greatest number of vidvans .

The takkars have stimulated the vidvans to undertake an in-depth study not only of the Manas but of various other texts—including Hindi translations of some Sanskrit scriptures—in order to improve their understanding of classical and contemporary Hindu thought as well as to find verses with which to fuel and energize their debates. This study is not necessarily confined to those texts used in bhajan , but can extend to Hindi translations of such works as the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita , puranas , various stotras , and even portions of the Vedic Samhitas. If a text is found that is in doha or caupai meter, then it will be culled for verses applicable to takkar . More often than not, however, Hindi translations of classical texts are in prose rather than verse form and so cannot be used in chanting. Thus, although the initial impetus for such research might have been a desire to increase the repertoire of verses available for takkars , the purpose of study for many vidvans extends beyond collecting verses for bhajans . In the eyes of the vidvans , textual study serves to deepen their own understanding of gyan, bhakti , and ramnam , as well as


providing a storehouse of knowledge on which they can draw to continually enrich, renew, and reinvigorate the sect's oral recitations of the Ramayan .

During the early 1970s three vidvans gathered together verses from a wide variety of texts for use in bhajans as well as non-bhajan discussions and debates. The compilers also added several couplets of their own creation, publishing the collection under the title Ram Rasik Gita .[32] They had two thousand copies printed and distributed to members of the sect. The fact that the first five pages of this fifty-two page booklet are entirely in Sanskrit, coupled with the inclusion of the compilers' own verses, raised the ire of many sect members, who viewed the booklet as a form of self-aggrandizement, and many vidvans refuse to refer to it at all. Nevertheless, the Ram Rasik Gita has become a useful source of verses for Ramnamis who cannot afford to buy books or who are unable to obtain copies of the original texts from which the booklet's contents are drawn.

The particular form a takkar takes depends to a large extent on the subject matter and the vidvans present. Vidvans who know a large repertoire of verses and possess a deep understanding of their subject matter can generate lively interchanges. In gyan takkars , vidvans may deliberately take opposing stands on various philosophical issues, such as the impersonal vs. personal understanding of God, the dualism/monism debate, and the disagreement concerning the relationship between God and maya . On the topics of bhakti and nam , however, a relative consensus exists among vidvans , and the range of viewpoints is accordingly less diversified. The object of such takkars seems to consist more in pitting one's talent and the size of one's repertoire of verses against that of the other vidvans than in serious attempts to refute another's point of view.

The following is a portion of a gyan takkar that took place during the annual Ramnami festival in 1989.[33] Several thousand Ramnamis had gathered for the three-day festival, in which bhajan continues from sunset to sunrise. One evening a young vidvan recited the following verse, obviously directed at another vidvan seated nearby.

According to the Vedas, itihasas , and puranas , God's creation is filled with both good and evil.[34]

Accepting the challenge, the second vidvan replied:

God created all existence as a mixture of good and evil. Swanlike saints drink the nectar of goodness, leaving behind the waters of imperfection.[35]

Stimulated by this response, the first vidvan offered two verses consecutively, the second intended to bolster the view presented in the first.

Planets, medicinal plants, water, wind, and clothing become useful or harmful in accordance with their good or bad associations. Only a clever and thoughtful person can know the difference.


Only when the Creator gives one discriminative wisdom does the mind turn from sin to goodness.[36]

The second vidvan's rejoinder was a verse commonly heard in chanting.

Knowing the world to be permeated by Ram's Name, I bow with joined hands.[37]

In the above interchange the challenging Ramnami puts forth the view that the world is dualistic, containing both good and evil. As he goes on to point out, wisdom and discrimination are necessary in order for one to be able to reject the world's dark side. In his initial reply the respondent seems to accept this view, further suggesting that a holy person absorbs the good and is not bothered by the bad. Ultimately, however, he implies that in reality there is no evil, for the world is permeated by none other than Ram's Name. Such a reply is called samarthak ("conclusive") since in the eyes of the Ramnamis there can be no rebuttal, only agreement. While the last verse is one commonly repeated in bhajans , in the context of this particular takkar it was seen as a valid rejoinder and not just an uninspired retreat into platitudes, as it might have been viewed in some other takkar .

An intriguing feature of this particular interchange is that the verses are all taken from within the same three pages of the Manas . The ability to conduct a takkar with verses drawn entirely, or even predominantly, from one episode in the text is considered by the vidvans to be a sign of both intelligence and cleverness. It suggests that the participants in the takkar are sufficiently knowledgeable about the particular event and the various concepts implicit in it to be able to glean verses from a common narrative to support opposing viewpoints.

What I term lila takkars (takkars in the form of a lila —"play" or "drama") are a relatively recent variant of the takkar form and add a new dimension to the bhajan process. During chanting a vidvan may adopt the role of one of the major figures in Tulsidas's Ram story, from Ram himself to Ravan, the ten-headed demon king who is Ram's staunchest adversary. To indicate his choice, the vidvan recites several verses spoken by that character in the Manas while casting challenging glances at one or more of the other vidvans , one of whom is then expected to take on the role of an opposing character.

A takkar that took place during the 1989 Ramnami mela serves as a good illustration of the dynamic interchange between opposing characters that distinguishes this form of takkar . On the second evening of the festival, nearly seventy-five Ramnamis were assembled under one of the many open-sided tents set up for the gathering. As the chanting proceeded one vidvan recited several Manas verses attributed to Ravan, the demon king of Lanka, all the while looking quite intently at a vidvan seated nearby. The latter soon acknowledged the challenge and replied with two verses spoken by Angad, a


monkey member of Ram's army who engaged in a philosophical argument with Ravan immediately prior to the war in Lanka. Their roles firmly established, the participants in the lila takkar were now free to recite any verses they chose in order to help further their respective positions in the debate. Among the verses recited by "Ravan," himself a demon but also a Brahmin, were several spoken by Ram extolling the greatness of Brahmins. (Here the recitation of verses extolling Brahmins was in order because the speaker was playing the role of a demon.) "Angad," on the other hand, quoted from Marich, a demon friend of Ravan, celebrating Ram's power. Soon the discussion left the Manas entirely and concentrated on verses from another text. Ultimately it returned to the Manas , and "Angad" won the debate—an inevitable outcome. Figures such as Ravan, Bali, and others whose roles in Tulsidas's telling are generally negative never win such debates, but then winning is not always the purpose of the lila . It is a sport, a game, in which the vidvans display their mastery of relevant verses and their understanding of various texts and their teachings.

The number of Ramnamis has been declining rapidly during the last decade, essentially because the number of deaths of elder sect members far exceeds the number of new initiates. At the same time, however, the percentage of vidvans is increasing because many of the new, younger members are relatively more literate and are thus encouraged by the older vidvans to study various texts and take part in the takkars . As their number increases, many vidvans are gravitating toward smaller bhajan gatherings at which they make up the majority of participants—so that their takkars are not "interrupted" by the interjection of random verses from sect members unaware of the interchange taking place.

The increase in the number of vidvans and their practice of takkar has led to the creation of two levels of oral Ramayan within the sect: the Ramayan of the general membership and the individual Ramayans of the various vidvans . In some ways this is dividing the sect, yet at the same time each level performs an important function. Through group performance, the shared Ramayan of the sect unifies it and defines its beliefs. It provides the sect with an oral scripture, whose parameters and philosophy are constructed around the beliefs of the sect.

Setting the stage for future development of the shared Ramayan are the personalized versions of the vidvans . In doing individual study of various texts, both to search for new takkar material as well as to expand their own private understanding of gyan and bhakti , each vidvan creates a personalized repertoire of verses that alters his own telling and makes it a unique creation. This process inspires a great deal of experimentation and growth for many of the vidvans . It also provides a diversity of directions and an ever-changing treasury of new verse material for the future growth of the shared Ramayan of the sect. It assures the continual fluid nature of the Ramnamis' telling of the Ram story.



The concepts of sruti and smrti have long been used to classify the multiple forms that sacred word has assumed in India. As we have seen, the boundaries of these categories have grown more permeable over the centuries, particularly with the rise of devotional movements and their sectarian texts. Originally used in reference to specific works, both sruti and smrti have gradually evolved into more fluid, relational categories capable of subsuming a variety of texts, depending on the status attributed to each text within a particular community. As a result, both categories have become open-ended. While the status of sruti was once reserved exclusively for Vedic texts, the category has expanded to include sectarian works that have been vedacized by devotional movements seeking to equate their own scriptures with the Veda.

In the Manas we have an example of a sectarian text that is not only considered equal to the Vedas but has actually challenged their position, superseding them in the eyes of its adherents. The Ramnamis have in turn evolved their own distinctive conception of the Manas and its status in relation to the traditional classifications of sacred word. They celebrate the text as sruti insofar as, for the most part, its verses are held to be potent mantras, the meaning of which need not be understood. Just as Om is considered the consummate mantra, representing the essence of the Vedas, so ramnam is viewed by the Ramnamis as the consummate mantra of the Manas . It is uncreated, eternal, and intrinsically powerful, and it is the quintessential expression of sruti for the present age. Ultimately, it is ramnam that infuses the Manas verses with mantric power and thus gives the Manas its sacred status as sruti in the Ramnami community. Ramnam is, moreover, the only irreducible, unalterable element in the Manas . The narrative content of the text is significant in that it conveys the Ram story, but on the level of narrative the text is smrti , not sruti . Therefore it can be selectively cited, reinterpreted, elaborated, and even at times altered. The Ramnamis find no contradiction in this dual perspective on the Manas as, on the one hand, sacred and inviolable and, on the other, open to interpretation, criticism, and modification. Defending the community's relationship with the text, an elder Ramnami exclaimed, "The Ramayan is so great we cannot possibly damage it; we can only make it better!" In the process of recreating the Ram story the Ramnamis have indeed enhanced the vitality of the Manas , broadening the ways in which it is used, and have added but one more dimension to the ever-expanding literary genre that is the Ramayan .

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