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E. V. Ramasami's Reading of the Ramayana

Paula Richman

On the first day of August in 1956, E. V. Ramasami (henceforth E.V.R.) set out for the Madras marina to lead his followers in burning pictures of Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana . This symbolic action would represent a reversal of the culmination of North Indian performances of the Ramayana , in which images of the epic's villain, Ravana, are put to the flames as spectators watch in delight.[1] Rejecting Rama as hypocritical and weak, worthy only of scorn, E.V.R. saw Ravana as the true hero of the tale. E.V.R.'s iconoclastic reading comprised more than just another exegesis of a religious text, however. It was the centerpiece of his campaign against brahmanical Hinduism, conducted in the context of his assertion of Dravidian, that is, South Indian, identity.[2]

The day before the proposed burning of Lord Rama's picture, important political leaders implored E.V.R. to cancel the event, so as not to offend orthodox Hindu Tamilians. P. Kakkan, president of the Tamilnadu Congress Committee, argued that the desecration of Rama images would constitute an "anti-social" act that would betray the strong faith in God by which Gandhi won independence for India. E.V.R. remained unmoved by such arguments, noting that "there was bound to be a difference of views regarding any measure aimed at bringing social reform."[3]

On the following day, the Deputy Commissioner of Police promptly arrested E.V.R. when he stepped out of his house to head toward the marina. E.V.R. seemed prepared for this eventuality: in addition to his picture of Rama and his box of matches, he carried a bedroll to spread on the hard prison floor. Soon afterward, his wife went down to the beach to tell the assembled crowd of the arrest. Some of the protestors, who had brought pictures of Rama and little wooden matchboxes, began to burn pictures on their own. As The Hindu reported:


Then for another half-an-hour, a number of persons . . . played hide and seek on the road and on the sands with the police and from time to time one would come forward and be arrested. One of these managed to slip onto the sands and burn a picture of Sri Rama, but he was arrested.[4]

Police reinforcements arrived at the beach, several people began to throw stones, the police made a few half-hearted charges brandishing their lathis (weighted staffs), and then most people went home. Approximately 890 people were arrested either before or during the event. E.V.R. was released after two and a half hours but declined to continue the protest, saying that the event had more than fulfilled its purpose.[5]

E.V.R.'s Rama-burning campaign was neither an isolated incident nor the stunt of some prankster. From the late 1920s through to the end of his life, he developed a serious and thorough critique of the characters and values of the Ramayana , of which the 1956 agitation was simply one manifestation. E.V.R. reads the Ramayana as a text of political domination: his interpretation of the text is intended to awaken South Indians to their oppression by North Indians and to their true identity as Dravidians. Through his exegesis of the Ramayana , E.V.R. exposes what he sees as the shoddy values of brahminism, reveals what he understands as Rama's greed for power and desire to dominate, and sets out what he takes to be Ravana's true greatness. By the end of his endeavor, conventional readings of the text lie in shreds.

In this article, I focus upon the logic of E.V.R.'s reading of the Ramayana , particularly the manner in which he politicizes the text. First, I provide. a brief biographical and historical overview of his life and milieu, concluding with a discussion of how he used print to disseminate his ideas. Second, I analyze one popular pamphlet which contains a comprehensive formulation of his ideas. Third, I consider some of the precedents for E.V.R.'s reading and then his innovations. The essay concludes with an evaluation of E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana as a contribution to public discourse in South India. Throughout, my goal is to demonstrate the pivotal role that E.V.R.'s attack on the Ramayana played in fusing religious texts and political issues in Madras during the middle third of this century.

Roots and Methods of E.V.R.’s Attack on the Ramayana

Running through E.V.R.'s life is his growing disillusionment with Hindu-ism, accompanied by an ever-increasing distrust of and activism against brahmanical privilege.[6] Accounts suggest that even as a youth E. V. Rarnasami Naicker (he later dropped the caste name) rebelled against brahmanical prescriptions for proper social behavior. Born in 1879 into a family of Baliga Naidus, a Telugu jati of traders and cultivators, he grew up in Erode, a fairly important mercantile town in the Coimbatore district of Madras.


Because E.V.R. insisted upon associating with boys of lower castes, his father removed him from school at age ten.[7] His marriage was arranged when he was thirteen, and he entered the family business, becoming prosperous thanks to his shrewd business sense.

At the age of twenty-five, however, E.V.R. grew dissatisfied with mercantile life and became a sadhu (wandering holy man). During his journeys across India, visiting cities such as Banaras and Calcutta, he gained a broader perspective on the nature of his country and its religion. But hand in hand with his widening experience came a disgust with a Hindu priesthood that he saw as exploiting the masses under the guise of "spiritual advancement." After a short time he became disillusioned, returned home, rejoined society, and entered regional politics.[8]

E.V.R.'s early political activities already indicate his concern with the rights of non-Brahmins. In 1920 he joined the Non-cooperation Movement and became active in the Indian National Congress party, following its Gandhian principles devoutly. His most famous exploit was his participation in a satyagraha campaign in Vikom, Kerala, undertaken to give Untouchables access to certain roads hitherto forbidden to them, his deeds earning him the title "Hero of Vikom."[9] All these activities were well within the reform program of Gandhi and the Congress party.

Although the Tamilnadu Congress Committee elected E.V.R. its secretary, his sensitivity to the problems of non-Brahmins (especially Untouchables) began to make him unpopular among the Brahmin elite. He antagonized them further by protesting when a Congress-run school instituted segregated eating facilities for Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Later he demanded that positions on municipal councils be reserved for non-Brahmins. In 1925 he withdrew from the Congress party, henceforth attacking it as a vehicle for Brahmin domination.

Even while still involved with Congress, E.V.R. had increasingly turned his attention to the denunciation of brahmanical Hinduism. In 1922 he advocated the burning of both the Ramayana and The Laws of Manu , a famous dharmasastra text that sets out the proper conduct for different castes and, in so doing, glorifies Brahmins. By 1924: he had founded a publication called Kuti Aracu (People's government) to advocate social reform, aimed at destroying religious privilege and constraint.[10] After abandoning the Congress in 1925, he organized the "Self-Respect Movement" for "Dravidian Uplift."

During this period E.V.R. came to view Hinduism as a web of deceit designed to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmin—whom he linked with North Indian Sanskritic (non-Tamilian) culture—and to oppress non-Brahmins.[11] He therefore set out to reveal the insidious nature of orthodox religion. First in the line of attack were Hindu myths, which he read in a strictly literal fashion, delighting in finding seeming contradictions. Treating the myths as if they were historical accounts, he denounced the actions of the


gods as obscene, stupid, and immoral, and advocated atheism instead.[12] Next E.V.R. excoriated Hindu rituals—which were, after all, the domain of Brahmin priests. In place of traditional Hindu rituals he substituted community-based "Self-Respect" ceremonies, the most famous of which was the "Self-Respect Marriage," at which Vedic rites were omitted and an elder of the community or one of the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement (rather than a priest) presided.[13] Finally, he ridiculed the entire notion of caste, rejecting social separation and purity/pollution observances as entirely unnecessary. Traditional Hindu concepts of endogamous communities were to be systematically broken down through the encouragement of intercaste marriages, widow remarriage, and other acts designed to undermine the exclusiveness of jati . He also advocated a separatist Dravida Nadu (Dravidian country) in place of a community based on the varnadharma (caste duties) of pan-Indian tradition.[14]

Political activism and opposition to brahmanical Hinduism led E.V.R. to espouse an increasingly separatist direction for Tamils. When in 1937 the Congress ministry proposed introducing Hindi—a language derived from Sanskrit and spoken chiefly in the north—as a compulsory subject in schools, E.V.R. interpreted it as an offensive attempt to impose North Indian culture upon South India. The anti-Hindi protests he organized brought him both notoriety and a jail sentence. Several years later E.V.R. aligned himself with the Justice Party, a group devoted to attacking Brahmin domination and pressuring the British for provincial autonomy. By 1944 he had taken control of the Justice Party, shaping it to his own concerns. He reorganized it and renamed it the Dravida Kazagham (Dravidian Federation), commonly known as the DK. Following Indian independence in 1947 and the ensuing social and political realignments, E.V.R.'s activities not only continued but his anti-Northern and antibrahmanical rhetoric became more strident.

In particular, E.V.R. singled out the Ramayana to censure. For E.V.R., the Ramayana story was a thinly disguised historical account of how North Indians, led by Rama, subjugated South Indians, ruled by Ravana. Although his ideas were comparatively radical—and potentially disorienting—to a population of devout Hindus, many people responded enthusiastically. Why? His "North vs. South" interpretation of the Ramayana was successful with a Tamil audience partly because of the political context in which E.V.R. was operating. To succeed, a leader must have more than personal "charisma"; that leader must articulate and legitimate a message that followers see as addressing their own situation.[15] In order to understand the enthusiastic reception Tamilians gave to E.V.R.'s ideas we must therefore examine certain features of his time and region: the rise and fervor of Dravidian sentiment in South India, the uneasy power relationships that existed between Brahmins and elite non-Brahmins, and the role of print in the intellectual life of Madras.[16] Let us explore each of these in turn.


E.V.R.'s championing of fervent Dravidian separatism must be understood in its pan-Indian context. During this period various groups—both regional and religious—were choosing to define themselves as separate and demanding some sort of official, usually political, recognition of their uniqueness.[17] E.V.R.'s assertion of Dravidian identity, which postulated a golden age of Dravidian society in the distant past (before the coming of Rama) that could be reestablished if South Indians would only throw off the yoke of North Indian domination, to some extent conformed to this trend. In much the same way that other South Asians sought, for example, the creation of a separate Islamic state (Pakistan), E.V.R. desired a separate Tamil state and identity for South Indians, linking the articulation of that identity with a critique of the Ramayana .

Moving from a pan-Indian to a regional context, one finds that Brahmins—the target of E.V.R.'s most vitriolic criticism—had become exceptionally successful in Madras toward the end of the nineteenth century. Subramaniam argues that Brahmins were in an excellent position to enter the middle class as mediators between the British and those they ruled in Madras, because, owing in part to British respect for high-status groups, they had not fared as badly under British rule as other more dominant land-owning groups ("clean" Sudras, such as Vellalas). In addition, their tradition of learning enabled them to take advantage of educational opportunities and thus to enter the British-run civil service.[18]

In contrast, members of dominant non-Brahmin jatis who moved from their villages to urban areas experienced considerable social disorientation. In pre-British society, many land-holding non-Brahmins enjoyed a relatively high and clearly defined status, articulated in their ritual interaction with those around them in the local community. But as large numbers moved to the comparative anonymity of urban areas, where land-holding dominance was not a decisive factor, they had to negotiate their place in a new urban hierarchy that tended to favor the educated Brahmins.[19] In E.V.R.'s view, these non-Brahmins were the indigenous, authentic Dravidians, now oppressed by the foreign rule of the "Aryan" Brahmins, whose conquest of the South was described mythically—and more important, legitimated—by the Ramayana .

In this situation, non-Brahmins sought not only to secure access to government positions previously dominated by Brahmins but to reform society. As Irschick argues, "Though the Government of Madras instituted quotas in job recruitment, education and other areas for those it considered backward, these quotas could have no real effect unless both egalitarian strands within Indian tradition and Western ideas could be used to claim parity for all groups in society and politics."[20] The rejection of caste hierarchy (as defined by brahmanical Hinduism and epitomized, in E.V.R.'s eyes, by Rama's rule) was one way of claiming such parity. According to E.V.R., South Indian life


before arrival of the Aryans (his term for North Indians) had been free of such societal divisions, and he demanded a return to such a society.

The fact that E.V.R. could disseminate his demands so widely reflects in part the unprecedented growth and power of print at this time.[21] Although full-length books were too expensive for most people to purchase and too time-consuming for most members of the professional class to read, inexpensive pamphlets reached a wide audience. E.V.R.'s brief articles on topics such as the Ramayana , with their simple prose style and bombastic but witty rhetoric, made his message readily accessible to anyone interested in hearing it.[22] He was in fact a prolific writer of short, aggressive journalistic pieces, designed to arouse popular passions and amplify social, political, and religious grievances. His writings on the Ramayana were just such pieces.

For E.V.R., who possessed a canny ability to make the most of the resources available to him, this mobilization of the power of print was characteristic. He founded a series of journals and fortnightly magazines, established a press in order to issue his many publications, and knew how to attract extensive newspaper coverage for his public campaigns and protests. His 1956 Rama-burning agitation, whose rationale had previously been explained in writings published by his press, brought him front-page headlines.[23]

E.V.R.'s reading of the Ramayana is most fully developed in two works: Iramayanappatirankal (Characters in the Ramayana ) and Iramayanakkurippukal (Points about the Ramayana ).[24] Although the latter is a sophisticated and thorough textual study of the Ramayana , the less scholarly Iramayanappatirankal has done the most to shape E.V.R.'s followers' perceptions of the Ramayana . Since this text is one of his earliest, most comprehensive, most popular, and most frequently reprinted works on the Ramayana , it will be the focus of the discussion below.

The extensive publication and translation history of Characters in the Ramayana indicates both its centrality in E.V.R.'s writings on the Ramayana and the enthusiastic reception it has continued to receive from readers. First published in 1930, the work was in its tenth printing in 1972. The first English translation appeared in 1959, a second edition came out in 1972, and a third in 1980.[25] With the appearance of this translation, as well as a Hindi translation, the text's audience was no longer limited to Tamil readers. While the work's Tamil title suggests that E.V.R. will consider the actions of each character, the English version's title, The Ramayana (A True Reading )—though not an exact translation of the original title—is in some ways more illuminating, for it indicates E.V.R.'s goal of revealing to the reader the "correct" interpretation of the Ramayana .

The format and price of the book ensured its availability to readers. Less a book than a long pamphlet, Characters in the Ramayana measures approximately 8½ by 5½ inches, contains a little under one hundred and twenty pages of


large type, and—thanks to its flimsy binding—falls apart after a few readings. Fortunately, it also sells for a price that most people can easily afford: the 1972 edition, for example, cost only a single rupee (at that time, about fifteen cents).

An entire business developed out of the publication of such works, a business which gave high priority to polemical texts. Characters in the Ramayana was published by the Periyar Cuyamariyatai Piracara Niruvana Veliyitu or (as it calls itself in its English publications) Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution Publications. This institution, whose headquarters are in Trichy, the city whence issued the 1956 announcement that images of Rama should be burned on the first of August, conceives of its mission in a disarmingly straightforward way: to produce propaganda, namely, material self-consciously designed to change people's opinions. The printers, Tiravitan Accakam (Dravidian Printers), are also committed to the proliferation of works extolling Dravidian culture.

E. V. Ramasami’s Interpretation of the Ramayana

The motivating force behind E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana remains the desire to see in it a struggle between North and South India. For E.V.R. "northern" means brahmanical, caste-ridden, and Sanskritic, while "southern" means nonbrahmanical, egalitarian, and Tamil—value judgements that are embedded in his interpretation. In Characters in the Ramayana E.V.R. vehemently attacks the respect with which Tamilians have traditionally viewed the Ramayana , arguing that the story is both an account of and a continuing vehicle for northern cultural domination. Reversing the conventional understandings of villain and hero, he also calls upon readers to abandon their "superstitious" beliefs and embrace a desacralized view of the world.

The structure of Characters in the Ramayana is tripartite. E.V.R. begins with a brief rationale for writing the text, pointing to the pamphlet's crucial role in enlightening Tamils about the "real" message of the Ramayana (11-16). The heart of the pamphlet is its long middle section, which enumerates and critically evaluates the deeds performed by most of the major characters in the epic (17-88). The text culminates with a short collection of quotes from arinar , "learned men," whom E.V.R. feels confirm and thus legitimate his understanding of the Ramayana (91-104).

In the opening section, E.V.R. justifies his enterprise, claiming that his study of the Ramayana should reveal to Tamilians that they have been deluded by northern propaganda into believing that Rama was exemplary as well as divine, when in fact, E.V.R. argues, he was neither. First and foremost, then, we see that E.V.R. wants to "demythologize" (my term, not his) Rama for Tamilians. But he wants to go even further, to establish that, in


addition to being an ordinary mortal, Rama was not a particularly admirable one.

E.V.R. acknowledges that Tamilians will not find it easy to accept this view of Rama, attributing this reluctance to their illiteracy and the power of "superstition" among them. He notes with disappointment how most Tamilians (aside from Muslims and Christians) have long venerated the Ramayana . But for E.V.R., insofar as the commonly held understanding of the Ramayana is essentially North Indian, it is a key part of the ideology which keeps South Indians in an inferior position, and so must be discredited. He thus argues that the Ramayana lures Dravidians into the Aryan net, destroys their self-respect, and stymies their development (11). For E.V.R., this examination of the Ramayana is no mere intellectual exercise; on the contrary, he has taken on the absolutely crucial task of liberating Tamilians from their feelings of cultural and racial inferiority.

E.V.R.'s specific textual analysis follows in the very long middle section of the pamphlet, which might be characterized as an extensive annotated list of charges. Rather than constructing an argument in a discursive manner, he piles example upon example, doubtless intending to overwhelm the reader into accepting his thesis by the sheer number of instances in which the poem's putative heroes commit acts of wrongdoing. He picks his way through the Ramayana , character by character, vilifying those who join forces with Rama and praising those who oppose him. In Table l, I summarize the major charges that E.V.R. levels against thirteen characters, to each of whom he devotes a separate chapter.

E.V.R. uses these charges to accuse those who venerate the Ramayana of ignoring or condoning myriad acts of improper behavior. As the table shows, a number of the epic's characters are censured because they depart from the norms established for marital or kinship relations. Thus E.V.R. condemns Sita for criticizing her husband and Kausalya for not respecting her spouse; he intimates that Sita was unchaste in Ravana's house; Laksmana and Satrughna earn abuse for making unfilial statements about their father and disregarding their father, respectively; Bharata insults both parents, thereby drawing E.V.R.'s scorn; both Sugriva and Vibhisana are reviled for betraying their brother. It is ironic that E.V.R. condemns these characters on the basis of prescriptions for behavior which find elaborate expression in the very dharmasastra text he considers so obnoxious: The Laws of Manu . This text, which E.V.R. deeply hates and elsewhere attacks for its praise of Brahmins, contains passages detailing the proper relationships for husband and wife, father and son, and brothers.[26] These passages have traditionally set the standards for proper Hindu behavior—the same behavior that E.V.R. demands (and finds lacking) in the deeds of Ramayana characters.

E.V.R. also censures a number of characters because they cannot bring their sensual passions and desires under control. He reads the Ramayana as


TABLE 1. E. V. Ramasami's Charges Against Ramayana Characters



Charges against the character


Rama's father, ruler of

Was enslaved by passion; broke promises;




acted stupidly


Wife of Rama

Criticized her husband; felt attraction to


Ravana; was unchaste; cared too much


for jewelry


Dasaratha's second son

Heaped abuse on his mother; insulted his


(by Kaikeyi)


father; had many wives


Third son of Dasaratha

Was attracted to Sita; tortured (demon)


(by Sumitra), loyal


females; made unfilial statements about


companion to Rama


his father; was hot-headed


Fourth son of Dasaratha

Insulted Kaikeyi; abused and disregarded


(by Sumitra), com-


his father


panion to Bharata



Senior wife of Dasaratha,

Possessed excessive concern for the success


mother of Rama


of her son; was jealous of Kaikeyi and


hostile to her; did not respect her


Youngest wife of Dasa-

Was eager for Rama to become king; was


ratha, mother of Laks-


prejudiced against Bharata


mana and Satrughna



Charioteer and advisor

Counseled the king to do improper deeds;


to Dasaratha


spoke derisively of Kaikeyi; lied


Dasaratha's family guru

Participated in the plot to crown Rama;


hurriedly fixed a day for the coronation


so that Bharata would not find out


Rama's monkey com-

Is said to have performed miraculous


panion, who set fire to


deeds which scientific reason indicates




are impossible; unjustly set fire to Lanka


and thus killed many innocent people;


used obscene language when conversing


with Sita


King of monkeys, ally of

Betrayed his brother; joined Rama only to




get rid of his brother


Son of Valin, general in

Befriended those who killed his father; did


Sugriva's army


not really love Sugriva


Brother of Ravana

Betrayed his brother and caused his death


in order to gain the kingship of Lanka;


did not feel anger when his sister was


dishonored by Laksmana


portraying Dasaratha enslaved by passion, Sita overly fond of jeweled ornaments, Laksmana desirous of Sita, Kausalya as excessively ambitious for the success of her son, and Laksmana too hot-headed to control his flaring temper. Again, E.V.R. condemns these people in a way that echoes a central ideal of brahmanical Hinduism—that one must cultivate detachment toward passions and desires. The virtue of detachment is a constant theme in the Upanisads and in Vedantic works, to say nothing of the Bhagavad Gird and yogic texts; even the dharmasastras uphold the benefits of self-restraint.

Although E.V.R. vigorously criticizes all of the above-mentioned characters, his greatest contempt is directed at Rama himself, whose actions are seen as the epitome of North Indian domination. In accordance with his enumerative style of discourse, E.V.R. cites fifty incidents of seemingly improper behavior on Rama's part. Rather than explain each one, I will summarize his major criticisms and the patterns of reasoning which stand behind these accusations.

One of E.V.R.'s most elaborately mounted attacks concerns Rama's supposed coveting of the throne of Ayodhya, which E.V.R. interprets as a sign of Rama's desire for domination. Ignoring the common understanding—that Rama merely responded to Dasaratha's request that he be crowned and had all the qualities of a responsible king—E.V.R. portrays Rama as scheming to grab the throne. He alleges that Rama craved royal power and acted in a virtuous and affectionate way towards his father, Kaikeyi, and Ayodhya's citizens only to gain such power. Then, says E.V.R., Rama improperly conspired with his father to have himself installed on the throne before his brother Bharata returned from his stay with his uncle (33-35).

Rama's alliance with Sugriva and the ensuing killing of his brother, Valin, come in for special denunciation, as one might expect, because Rama apparently unfairly murders the monarch of a southern kingdom. In focusing upon this always problematic incident, E.V.R. expresses an ambivalence found in many diverse tellings of the Ramayana about whether Rama erred in killing Valin as he did—from the back and without having announced his presence. With equal vehemence, however, E.V.R. emphasizes not only the stealthy killing but the fact that Brahmins praise such a man. That they do so is evidence of their attempt to foist an unheroic Rama upon South India as an exemplar of proper behavior (11-13).

Rama's treatment of his wife, Sita, draws particular criticism from E.V.R. because he takes it as emblematic of Rama's oppression of those less powerful than himself. After her grueling and terrifying captivity in Lanka, Rama subjects Sita to a despicable ordeal and then still refuses to accept her back. As E.V.R. comments, "Even though Valmiki proclaimed the chastity of Sita, Rama did not believe it, so she had to die" (38). For E.V.R., this hostile attitude toward women is part and parcel of the North Indian worldview.


The manner, glorified in North Indian texts, in which Rama drove his wife to submit to such ordeals helps to keep Indian women in a state of subjugation.

E.V.R. reserves his greatest outrage, however, for Rama's treatment of Sudras, the lowest group in the four-part brahmanical caste ranking and one of the major audiences of his pamphlet. He notes that Rims killed a Sudra named Sambuka because he was performing asceticism, which Vedic tradition prohibits to those not twice-born (that is, Sudras and Untouchables). Rims murdered this Sudra in order to revive a Brahmin boy who had died—that such an untimely death could strike a Brahmin family signaled that somewhere someone (in this case Sambuka) was committing an offense against dharma. After summarizing this incident, E.V.R. extrapolates from it to present-day South India. "If there were kings like Rims now, what would be the fate of those people called Sudras" he asks, implying that Sudras would never be safe from murder if such a king still ruled (41). Since over 60 percent of South Indians are regarded as Sudras, at least by Brahmins, E.V.R. stirs the rage of a good number of his readers by emphasizing this event.

Although E.V.R. surveys many other incidents in the epic, castigating Rama for everything from meat-eating to killing females (39), the trend of his critique is already clear. For E.V.R., Rama personifies "North Indian values" and is accordingly identified with North Indian dominance of lower castes and women. Equally pernicious, according to E.V.R., is the attempt by Brahmins to put forth this vicious and immoral person as virtuous—and even divine.

Just as E.V.R. regards the traditional heroes as villains, he proposes more positive evaluations of characters who have long been condemned, such as Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata. Those seeking to portray King Dasaratha in a sympathetic light have conventionally held his youngest wife, Kaikeyi, to be the real villain of the epic, holding her responsible for the king's decision to deprive Rama of the throne and exile him. In contrast, E.V.R. points out that Kaikeyi was fully within her rights when she asked the king to fulfill the two boons he had granted her when she once saved his life (61).[27]

In his analysis of the Valin episode, E.V.R. makes another revisionist interpretation, an interpretation all the more significant because of the ambivalence with which tradition has viewed Rama's killing of Valin. The words of the modern writer R. K. Narayan, who has produced his own telling of the Rama story, are instructive here:

Rams was an ideal man, all his faculties in control in any circumstances, one possessed of an unwavering sense of justice and fair play. Yet he once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed, from hiding, a creature who had done him no harm, not even seen him. This is one of the most controversial chapters in the Ramayana.[28]


E.V.R. points out that Valin could not be defeated in an open fight (implying that a desire to win lay behind Rama's devious action) and that he assumed Rama to be an honest and fair person and died as a result—although E.V.R. overstates the matter when he claims that "Valin was blameless in every way" (63).[29]

Valin figures only briefly in the analysis, however. Not surprisingly, Ravana receives more attention because for E.V.R.—who identifies Ravana as a monarch of the ancient Dravidians—he exemplifies the South Indians, whose culture was unfairly suppressed by North Indians. Although E.V.R. neglects to provide specific textual references, he begins his praise of Ravana by listing the virtues that Valmiki attributes to Ravana: Ravana has mastered the Vedas and sastras , he protects his family and kin, he acts courageously, he practices bhakti , he is the beloved son of a god, and he has received several boons (67). One wonders why E.V.R. would consider knowledge of "Aryan" texts like Vedas a recommendation, but what follows is even more revealing. Focusing on the influence of other characters on Ravana's actions, E.V.R. gives us a new construct of Ravana.

Rather than seeing Rama as effectively vanquishing Ravana, E.V.R. interprets Ravana's death as the result of his brother's betrayal. When Vibhisana, Ravana's brother, approaches Rama and asks to join him, E.V.R. harshly condemns his abandonment of his brother, viewing this action as motivated by Vibhisana's desire to possess and rule Lanka (67). The great Ravana was thus undone by his brother's villainy; his death, argues E.V.R., should not be seen as evincing any lack of courage.

Nor should Ravana's abduction of Sita be interpreted as the result of lust, according to E.V.R. He argues that Ravana takes Sita to Lanka as an honorable act of retaliation against Rama's insult and Laksmana's disfigurement of Ravana's sister, Surpanakha. Surpanakha had fallen in love with Rama, openly offering herself to him in marriage; by way of punishment, Laksmana cut off her nose and ears. As a dutiful brother, Ravana had no choice but to avenge his sister's cruel disfigurement—but: as E.V.R. points out, Ravana would never stoop to something as low as mutilating Sita in the same horrible way. In fact, notes E.V.R., Ravana never forced himself upon the captive Sita. In such matters, he practiced proper self-restraint, never touching a woman without her consent (68). At the level of metadiscourse, E.V.R. goes so far as to argue that one must not condemn Ravana for abducting Sita because she was left alone in the forest specifically so she could be abducted (69). In other words, by abducting Sita, Ravana is simply performing an action which be is destined to perform—an interpretation which assumes an inexorability about the events in the Ramayana .

Ravana's sense of propriety also manifests itself in his unwillingness to kill animals, which E.V.R. takes as evidence of his compassionate Dravidian nature. He notes that Ravana hated devas (gods), rsis (sages), and Brahmin


priests because they performed sacrificial rituals and drank intoxicating liquor (soma ). Ravana refused to participate in such rituals because they involved the torture of poor helpless animals (68). By portraying Ravana as rejecting the killing of animals, E.V.R. plays on the vegetarian inclinations of many of his followers, arousing their sympathy for Ravana.

In a cryptic but intriguing comment near the end of his characterization of Ravana (69), E.V.R. even claims that Ravana was a responsible and responsive political leader, a benign ruler. Because the Ramayana records instances where Ravana consults with his ministers and debates ensue, E.V.R. claims to see traces of an inclusive political process, which belie the conventional brahmanical claims that Ravana was a cruel despot.

Especially given that Ravana represents Dravidians, it is somewhat noteworthy that E.V.R. does not devote much attention to any of the other characters in Ravana's family, even though he dealt at length with Rama's father, mothers, brothers, and wife. Although E.V.R. says that so-called demons like Ravana are in fact admirable Dravidians, Surpanakha's actions—her open expression of sexual desire, for example—are not praised, nor even mentioned, except as they relate to Ravana's duty to revenge her honor. E.V.R. is similarly silent about Mandodari, and about Khara, Marica, Dusana, and other of Ravana's supporters. The fact that E.V.R. spends so much time castigating Rama and his family and so little time praising the actions of Ravana and his family indicates that E.V.R. aroused more ire by lambasting North Indians than by defining and defending precisely what constitutes South Indian culture and identity.

The final brief section of Characters in the Ramayana consists of an appeal to authority. Scholarly discourse in Tamil has traditionally taken note of the opinions of learned men. One main area of analytic discourse consisted of commenting on texts: those trained in grammar construed complex verses, gave parallel passages, and provided exegesis, an enterprise which generally included quotations from scholars of the past.[30] In fact, a good commentary would record what a large number of learned men had said on the subject. E.V.R.'s thirteen-page section entitled "Opinions of Learned Men [arinar ] about the Ramayana" serves the same function.

Rather than citing the opinion of traditional religious and literary scholars, however, E.V.R. quotes distinguished authorities of other types—historians, politicians, other public figures, members of the Indian Civil Service. Also cited in his "Opinions of Learned Men" section are many handbooks or histories of India with titles such as Ancient Indian History and Civilization, Dravidians and Aryans , and Civilization in Ancient India . The historians cited include both North Indians (Muslim and Bengali) and Europeans.[31] E.V.R. also quotes from the works of the North Indian Swami Vivekananda, as he does from the pan-Indian classic The Discovery of India , by the North Indian "Pandit" Jawaharlal Nehru, nationalist leader and prime minister of India


from 1947 to 1964.[32] When E.V.R. quotes members of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, he includes "I.C.S." after their names in order to indicate their status. Similarly, he includes after the names of historians all their degrees (B.S., M.A., Ph.D., L.L.D.) and precedes their names with "Taktar" (Dr.) whenever possible. Both Henry Johnson's and William Wilson Hunter's names are preceded by "Sir." Clearly, E.V.R. wants to impress upon his readers the illustriousness of those scholars and national figures who appear to confirm his interpretation.

In addition, E.V.R. cites various prominent Tamilian scholars. He quotes J. M. Nallaswami Pillai, an important figure in the Saiva Siddhanta movement and editor of its journal, Deepika , as well as Maraimalai Atigal, an eminent Tamil literary savant whose ideas form the ideological foundation of the Pure Tamil movement.[33] Along with such non-Brahmin literary and religious figures, E.V.R. also quotes respected Brahmin scholars such as S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, a historian of religious and philosophical texts, and K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, a prominent historian of South India. E.V.R. thus willingly cites the opinions of Brahmins, non-Brahmins, and Western "foreigners" to prove his thesis that Brahmins were aliens in South India who oppressed non-Brahmins.

E.V.R.'s citation method also deserves notice. The section of quotes comes at the end of his argument, rather than in the course of it, and thus serves not as documentation but as affirmation. His quotes from Nehru's Discovery of India are representative of his citation style throughout this section of Characters in the Ramayana . He notes several of Nehru's comments about the Ramayana in relation to Aryan expansion in South India and gives a page number for each quote—but he cites no edition, no facts of publication. Like other authors of the popular pamphlet literature of his time, E.V.R. cites not so his reader can go to the original text but simply to take advantage of the cited author's status. Nor does he give any context for the quotes cited: each is simply listed, along with all the others, as validation for his interpretation of the Ramayana . By stringing together forty-seven quotes from historians and politicians about the ancient move of northerners to South India, E.V.R. seeks to demonstrate that learned men support his claims—although those learned men might not agree with the use to which their words have been put.

Precedent and Innovation in E.V.R.’s Interpretation

Little in E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana is absolutely new. Rather, it is the manner in which E.V.R. assembles, packages, argues, and dramatizes his interpretation that is innovative. A truly modern social critic, he publishes with a careful eye to public reception and dramatizes his interpretations through public performances. Although his forms may be innovative,


one can find precedents for the various components of his message in many places.

In attacking the hypocrisy of Brahmins, E.V.R. places himself in a long line of Tamil writers who have bitterly criticized brahmanical tradition. Among the many examples that demonstrate E.V.R.'s continuity with this strand of Tamil polemicism, one is particularly ancient and notable. In Cittalai Cattanar's Manimekalai , a Buddhist text that most scholars believe dates from the sixth century A.D. , one finds the story of Aputtiran, a character with an E. V. Ramasami—like view of Hinduism.[34] The illegitimate son of a renowned Varanasi Brahmin's wife, Aputtiran gets into a debate with the leaders of his Brahmin community. Because he has thoroughly studied the Vedas, he is able relentlessly to cite embarrassing facts about the ancient brahmanical sages in order to discredit his opponents' lineages. Like E.V.R., Aputtiran cites all kinds of improprieties about their births: some, for example, were conceived when their fathers ejaculated while watching dancing girls, others are the sons of animals, and so on.[35] Next, Aputtiran confronts Indra, king of the gods, informing the deity that he is indifferent to Indra's heaven because it is full of beings who care only for their own pleasure, rather than for doing good. As we have seen, E.V.R., too, ridicules stories about Brahmins and brahmanical deities, portraying them as self-serving and unworthy of admiration.

Anti-Brahmin sentiment continues to surface periodically in South Indian literature. Surveying anti-Brahmin and egalitarian movements in South India, Irschick reminds us that this strand of rhetoric played an important role in the writings of some of the Siddhars, a group of Tamil ascetics, the majority of whom lived between the fifth and tenth centuries[36] Ramanujan's translations of Virasaiva poems dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries reveal Lingayat contempt for traditional Hindu institutions, including the role of Brahmins.[37] Closer to E.V.R.'s own time are the writings of the religious poet Ramalingaswami (1823-1874), a saint extremely critical of caste distinctions. Irschick points out that in 1929 E.V.R.'s own press published an anthology of Ramalingaswami's songs with an introduction by A. Citamparanar, who also wrote an influential biography of E.V.R.'s early life.[38] E.V.R. considered Ramalingaswami important enough to the Self-Respect Movement to revive his writings and publish them in a form available and understandable to a general audience. Maraimalai Atigal, called by one scholar "the most articulate pioneer" of ideological resistance to Brahmin domination, slightly preceded E.V.R. and shared with him a sharply critical attitude toward Brahmins and brahmanical Hinduism.[39]

If E.V.R.'s antibrahminism connects him to a continuous strand of South Indian culture, his positive assessment of Ravana has precedents in the Ramayana tradition itself. Several Jain writers contest the prevailing characterization of Ravana in their pratipuranas ("counter-puranas "), of which


Vimalasuri's Paumacariyam (c. 473 A.D. ) is an excellent example. In a notable reversal, this text begins its narrative with all account of Ravana's lineage, rather than that of Rama.[40] Vimalasuri portrays Ravana as noble, admirable, and knowledgeable about religious texts, and as one who has learned a great deal through ascetic practices. As Ramanujan's essay in this volume demonstrates, this pratipurana gives us a totally different perspective on Ravana from that found in most Hindu versions. Dineshchandra Sen calls our attention to another Jain Ramayana , by Hemacandra (1089-1172), in which Ravana again acts in spiritually admirable ways. In one key scene Ravana sits in the forest meditating, remaining serene and single-minded despite all the attempts of yaksas (forest spirits) to distract him from his endeavor by transforming themselves first into seductive damsels and then into terrifying jackals and snakes. Dineshchandra Sen comments that Ravana's acts of meditative discipline "show his high character and a majestic command over passions, worthy of a sage, which unmistakably prove him to be the real hero of the Dravidian legend."[41] In a similar vein, Ravana figures as a sage and a responsible ruler in the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra , where he invites the Buddha to his kingdom of Lanka and then listens intently to his religious discourse.[42]

As Seely's analysis reveals, the Bengali author Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) also wrote a "reverse Ramayana, “ which some scholars feel may have been shaped in part by the Jain Ramayana tradition.[43] Of at least equal importance, however, is the role of the colonial context in which Dutt was writing. Nandy sees Dutt's epic as enabling him to accept certain martial values in Indian culture and reject brahmanical ascetic ones.

Madhusudan's criteria for reversing the roles of Rama and Ravana, as expressed in their characters, was a direct response to the colonial situation. He admired Ravana for his masculine vigour, accomplished warriorhood, and his sense of realpolitik and history; he accepted Ravana's "adult" and "normal" commitments to secular, possessive this-worldliness and his consumer's lust for life. On the other hand, he despised "Rama and his rabble"—the expression was his—because they were effeminate, ineffectual pseudo-ascetics, who were austere not by choice but because they were weak.[44]

Both Dutt and E.V.R. wrote in a colonial context. For different reasons, each came to see Ravana as the real hero of the Rama story, a choice that had deep political resonances.

E.V.R.'s attempt to discredit the assumptions of orthodox Hinduism through an exaggeratedly literal reading of its texts is consonant with a form of discourse popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. In religious debates, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians routinely disparaged the religious beliefs of their opponents, as Barbara Metcalf has shown.[45] In so doing, they often relied on a hyperliteral reading of mythic texts. To see just


how literal such a reading can be, consider this quote from Dayananda Sarasvati, the leader of the Arya Samaj, who responded to the description of a heavenly army of horsemen found in Revelations 9:16 in this way:

Where would so many horses stay in heaven? Where would they graze? Where would they dwell and where would they throw out the dung? How awful would be the bad smell of the dung! We Aryas have washed our hands of such a heaven, such a God and such a religion.

Quoting this passage, Kenneth Jones comments: "Since the goals of these writers were to discredit Christianity and make it difficult for missionaries to defend it in public debates and in print, absolute literalism proved a useful and welcome tool."[46] E.V.R. used the same technique of hyperliteral readings in his attempt to discredit and desacralize the Ramayana .

Even E.V.R.'s view of the Ramayana as an account of Aryan domination of Dravidian culture has roots in earlier discourse. Irschick has carefully traced how the ideas of P. Sundaram Pillai, a Tamil Vellala (1855-1897), began to focus attention on the meaning of the Ramayana in the context of discussions about Dravidian and Aryan culture.[47] Sundaram Pillai published some of his views on the self-sufficiency and grandeur of Dravidian civilization during his lifetime, but his theories about the Ramayana were disseminated after his death by his friends. T. Ponemballem Pillai wrote an article for the Malabar Review in which he summarized Sundaram Pillai's view of the Ramayana as written to "proclaim the prowess of the Aryans and to represent their rivals and enemies the Dravidians, who had attained a high degree of civilization in that period, in the worst possible colour."[48] A somewhat later writer, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, ended his Ravana the Great: King of Lanka by describing Ravana as "a mighty hero and monarch, a conqueror of worlds, and a fearless resister of the Aryan aggressions in South India."[49] With these writers began a controversy about the political meaning of the Ramayana , to which E.V.R. soon added his own strident reading of the text.

Thus each of the major characteristics of E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana —his attack on brahmanical tradition, his positive assessment of Ravana, his hyperliteral reading of Hindu texts, and his North/South reading—finds a precedent in some genre of South Asian writing. E.V.R. has synthesized these different themes, transforming the disparate pieces into something new and coherent. The manner in which he brings these elements together is both innovative and powerful: his reading of the Ramayana is hostile and comprehensive, seductive and witty, rhetorically adroit and politically astute.

The single-minded and relentless virulence of E.V.R.'s interpretation is striking. Insofar as he seeks to contest the central values of Valmiki's telling of the story, his overall aim is similar to that of the Jain Ramayanas —but E.V.R. goes beyond mere contesting. In accord with his North/South princi-


pie of interpretation, he atomizes the text and reassembles its events for his own purpose. He could have presented the story chronologically, interpreting events in the order they occur. Instead, like a lawyer putting together a set of accusations, E.V.R. assembles his case by selecting and forming into a daunting list particular events or bits of dialogue that become the basis of his harsh indictment of most of the Ayodhyan characters. Both the hostility and the comprehensiveness of his attack mark E.V.R.'s interpretation of the Ramayana as singular.

Not only is his analysis thorough but his styles of argumentation are many. Certain strategies of exegesis appear again and again. He anachronizes the text, condemning customs from centuries earlier on the basis of modern norms. He literalizes the text, subjecting mythic material to scientific analysis in order to "prove" that such events could not have occurred. He conflates the dual nature of Rama, ignoring that, according to myth, Rama is both human and divine (he is the god Visnu as well as a human avatar), which allows him to criticize Rama for things he must do as part of his avatar mission while also making fun of him for showing human emotions. E.V.R. even goes so far as to condemn a character on the strength of minor character flaws, ignoring the majority of (positive) actions performed by that character. When necessary he has it both ways, in one context portraying a character as a victim and in another as an oppressor, depending on his polemical needs.

E.V.R.'s use of evidence is typical of the pamphlet style of his time, and, while seductive, the evidence itself is sparsely documented. The reader is told that E.V.R.'s analysis grew out of an exhaustive study of the Valmiki Ramayana and Tamil translations of it done by Brahmins. E.V.R. almost never, however, cites a specific edition of the text or the interpretation of one or another commentator on a particular passage or even specific verse numbers, though he sometimes cites sargas (chapters) in kandas (books). For example, in his eight-point analysis of Ravana, he provides only two citations, neither one referring to specific verses—even though one of the eight points contains a direct quote. Likewise, discussing his fourth point, E.V.R. says "Valmiki himself said" but fails to tell us where Valmiki said so (Characters in the Ramayana , 68). Such a documentation style indicates neither deliberate sloppiness nor a desire to distort evidence. Rather, it is governed by audience: E.V.R. intended his exegesis as a way of expounding Dravidian ideology to the popular reader, not to scholars.

In part, E.V.R.'s style of argumentation derives from oral presentation. His speeches were unforgettable events. Respectable women (who would not think of mingling directly with those they perceived as the "common riffraff" who frequented such events) would crowd onto nearby verandas and listen to his speeches over loudspeakers. Even Brahmins—often the subject of his attack—attended his speeches to hear his cutting yet humorous satire. Those


who attended his public lectures continue to comment even today on how wickedly funny they found them. Hence it comes as no surprise to find that his writing is also designed both to delight and to stir up his audience. His written language has much of the power of his oral art. His simple sentences, numbered points, and loosely connected structure comprise a kind of "jab rhetoric" with which he can attack the Ramayana . E.V.R. is also deliberately crude or coarse in places, incorporating into his argument innuendoes about Rama's vileness or Sita's lack of faithfulness.[50] As an orator and a writer addressing a mass audience, he uses wit and titillation to play upon the half-guilty pleasure of seeing a familiar object of piety in a totally new, somewhat ridiculous, light.

E.V.R.'s self-presentation also plays a large role in the delivery of his message. His publications characteristically bear his picture: long white beard, glasses, white hair. Inside Characters in the Ramayana , the reader really encounters more of E.V.R. than Rama. The inside back covers of most editions contain, in addition to the titles and prices of his other publications, lists of celebratory accounts of his accomplishments, such as Periyar E. V. Ramasami (A Pen Portrait )—a phenomenon that has persisted beyond his death (in 1973). Consider the following announcement inside the front cover of the 1980 English edition of The Ramayana (A True Reading ):

The importance of this book

The English and Hindi Editions of this book were banned by the Uttar Pradesh Government. The High Court of the U. P. lifted the ban and the U. P. Government appealed to the Supreme Court against the judgment of the High Court. In the Supreme Court, the appeal preferred by the U. P. State was dismissed in 1976 as the Supreme Court did not see any reason to interfere with the judgment of the U. P. High Court.[51]

As this statement indicates, the significance of the work now extends beyond the boundaries of Tamilnadu: through its translation into both English and Hindi, it has attracted attention in North India. The pamphlet was considered so threatening that the government of Uttar Pradesh (where Rama's royal city of Ayodhya is located and where Hindu-Muslim riots continue over a mosque at the alleged site of Rama's birth) felt compelled to ban its publication—although, as the publishers note with satisfaction, the government's attempt to suppress the text has been unsuccessful.[52] The announcement of course gives the reader the impression that the pamphlet contains forbidden, and hence desirable, reading matter, thus adding to E.V.R.'s notoriety.

Not a man to stop at mere words, E.V.R. encouraged the enactment of his interpretation of the Ramayana in dramatic performance as well. The DK drama inspired by E.V.R.'s exegesis and known by the mocking name of


Keemayana" (keema is a nonsense sound) toured throughout Tamilnadu. The play's portrayal of Rama as a drunkard and Sita as a wanton woman earned it the comment "hoodlums stage filth in Trichy" in one review.[53] The high (or low, depending on the viewer's perspective) point in the performance occurred when participants beat images of Rama with their (polluting) leather sandals. Similarly, E.V.R.'s scheduled burning of images of Rama in 1956 testifies to his desire to dramatize his exegetical attack. By reversing tile North Indian ritual of Ravana-burning, he not only enacts his verbal attack on Rama but reminds Tamilians of the urgent need for them to embrace his political interpretation of the Ramayana .


This account of E. V. Ramasami's interpretation of the Ramayana confirms that even in the modern period the Ramayana continues to be reread in ways that reflect and shape the concerns of both exegete and audience. As we have seen, the skeletal Rama story affords a structure around which poets build new tellings. For E.V.R., the story provides the framework for a deeply political telling. He reinterprets and re-presents the Ramayana , a sacred and traditional text, so as to undermine radically both its sacrality and the traditional understanding of its incidents.

E.V.R.'s telling of the Ramayana is consonant with many of the biographical and political features of his own life. Thus his denial of the epic's sacrality echoes his own youthful disillusionment with Hinduism, while his condemnation of Rama as an agent of North Indian oppression parallels his attack on Brahmins as dominating both the Congress Party and local positions of power. What makes his reading of the text more than an idiosyncratic response to the Ramayana , however, is the extent to which E.V.R. imbued this response with political purpose and self-consciously presented his reading for public consumption. The impressive reprint history of Characters in the Ramayana attests to the success of his interpretation in the realin of public discourse. In vilifying Rama and elevating Ravana, E.V.R. does far more than simply present a new assessment of familiar characters. By demythologizing Rama, he translates what had generally been thought of as sacred mythic truth into the political sphere, using his exegesis of the text to articulate the need to resist what he saw as oppressive North Indian cultural and political domination of South India.

E.V.R.'s exegesis of the Ramayana is accordingly presented so as to have the maximum public impact. It uses dramatic rhetoric, it attacks, it pokes fun, it shocks, and it insists. Although one might be tempted to dismiss E. V. Ramasami as an isolated eccentric, this would be unwise, for his exegesis of the Ramayana was pivotal. As the 1956 Rama-burning agitation indicates, E.V.R. not only sought but gained front page media coverage for his


opinions. Reassessing the traditional characters and incidents of the epic with polemical flamboyance, he created a rhetoric of political opposition that shaped public discourse for a group much larger than his relatively small band of followers.

Part of E.V.R.'s legacy rests with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, or Progressive Dravidian Federation), a group composed of some of his most brilliant followers, who split off from the DK to form their own organization. Men such as C. N. Annadurai, Mu. Karunanidhi, and Shivaji Ganesan, who worked in filmmaking as screen writers, producers, and actors, continued E.V.R.'s dramatic style of public rhetoric to decry brahmanical suppression of Dravidian identity. At first a mere splinter group, the DMK eventually came to equal and then vastly surpass the DK in importance. Because a number of prominent DMK members were active in the film industry, moreover, they had access to another powerful medium for publicizing their message to huge numbers of people. By 1967 DMK political power was established, the DMK continuing to dominate the political arena in Tamilnadu until the group splintered.[54] Members of the DMK learned a great deal from E.V.R., particularly in relation to public discourse and political performance. They moved readily and smoothly from the realm of myth (Ravana, Rama) to film, from public agitation to mass meetings, from political criticism to political power.

In fact, one could argue that what the DMK came to offer Tamilians outdistanced E. V. Ramasami. If E.V.R. was the great assembler of rhetoric, of interpretations, and of public performances, DMK filmmakers created even more extravagant celluloid products with clearly identified villains and heroes, moral messages, and colorful drama. If E.V.R. was the great polemicist in the public arena, the DMK went further, transforming grass-roots Dravidian sentiment into institutionalized political power. If E.V.R. was the great self-promoter, the DMK became increasingly sophisticated and daring in its strategies to gain media coverage and a popular following. If E.V.R. was the stage director of histrionic public acts, the DMK film personalities and politicians were his true successors. Far from dying out, his style was incorporated, updated, and intensified. To understand some of the roots of the highly charged conflicts in Tamilnadu public discourse during recent decades, one must take into account a largely ignored phenomenon, E.V.R.'s critique of the Ramayana .

Ramayana Exegesis in Tenkalai Srivaisnavism

Patricia Y. Mumme

In Indian religious traditions and philosophical schools (darsanas ), the fund of scriptural texts is ever expanding. There is hardly any genre of literature that has not been used as scripture by some group of religious scholars somewhere in India. Folklore, epic, drama, aesthetic theory, treatises on grammar, love poetry—all have joined ranks with the more obviously "sacred" genres of myth, hagiography, and liturgy to become the scripture of religious communities and grist for their theological mills. This phenomenon extends to both classical and popular variations of the Rama story, which continue to be plumbed by widely diverse religious communities in India for messages they can relate to their own systems of meaning, often in very creative ways.

The Srivaisnava tradition in Tamilnadu, especially the Tenkalai subsect, has made ample use of epic and puranic scripture in general, and the Ramayana in particular, in their theological discourse. A brief outline of the developmerit of Srivaisnava theology will show how the authors of the Tenkalai school came to use passages from the Ramayana to explicate some of their distinctive theological claims.

The Srivaisnava Tradition In South India

Yamuna (fl. 11th C.) and Ramanuja (fl. 12th C.), the founders of the Visistadvaita school of Vedantic philosophy and the Srivaisnava religious tradition, make no appeal to the Ramayana in their written works, and little to other epic or puranic literature. But they were faced with the task of trying to legitimate their school's qualified nondualistic interpretation of Hindu scripture for a potentially hostile audience. Thus they not only wrote in Sanskrit but appealed mostly to the more authoritative Upanisads, the BhagavadGita , and the sastras . As the Srivaisnava tradition became more popular over the


next few generations, however, many of Ramanuja's successors started writing works intended to make Srivaisnava teaching accessible to a wider audience than intellectual philosophers.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries some of Ramanuja's successors—especially those in Kanchipuram—continued the exposition of Visistadvaita Vedanta in Sanskrit. At the same time, others—notably a circle in Srirangam—developed a large body of commentatorial literature in Tamil Manipravala, a form of Sanskritized Tamil understandable to the larger Srivaisnava community, even women and non-Brahmins. In this literature, well-known stories from the epics and puranas , as well as passages from the beloved hymns of the Alvars, are frequently cited to support and illustrate Srivaisnava teaching. By the thirteenth century the different specializations of the Kanchi and Srirangam schools were evident in the kinds of literature they were producing. It is not surprising, given the different audiences and intentions of these two schools, that doctrinal differences between them also began to develop.[1]

The doctrinal rift first surfaced when Vedanta Desika (1269-1370) criticized many of the claims of the Srirangam school. About a century later, Manavalamamuni (d. 1443) reaffirmed the teachings of his Srirangam predecessors, especially Pillai Lokacarya (d. 1310?), by writing commentaries on their most important works. Thus Vedanta Desika and Manavalamamuni came to be revered as the founders and foremost teachers (acaryas ) of the two main Srivaisnava subsects: the Vatakalai (literally "northern school," referring to Kanchi) and the Tenkalai (literally "southern school," referring to Srirangam). The central issue in the Tenkalai-Vatakalai dispute is soteriological, focusing on how best to understand the path of simple surrender to the Lord (prapatti ) and its relation to the path of devotion, or bhaktiyoga , which—as expounded by Yamuna and Ramanuja—must be accompanied by Vedic ritual practice. To understand the thrust of the Tenkalai use of Ramayana incidents, one must first contrast their view of surrender to the Lord with that of their Vatakalai counterparts.

The more conservative Vatakalai school, in its understanding of surrender, is driven by its concern to preserve the validity of bhaktiyoga , Vedic ritual, and the Sanskrit scriptures which teach them. At the same time, they do not want to compromise two important principles of Visistadvaita philosophy: that the Lord is egalitarian as well as merciful, and that the soul—although dependent on the Lord—has the God-given ability to act (jivakartrtva ). Vedanta Desika's writings repeatedly affirm that the paths of surrender and devotion are enjoined in scripture as two equally effective means (upaya ) to moksa (spiritual liberation). However, these alternatives are not a matter of choice, for an individual will be qualified for only one of them. The path of devotion (bhaktiyoga ) is an arduous means to salvation that demands performance of Vedic rituals (karmayoga ) as an ancillary duty; thus it is restricted


to twice-born males (who alone are qualified to perform Vedic rites) endowed with a good education, patience, and physical stamina. Only those who lack one of the qualifications for the path of devotion are allowed to follow the easier and quicker path of surrender (prapatti ), which does not involve any Vedic rituals. Vedanta Desika emphasizes that the Lord is ever willing to save all souls but, out of respect for the soul's desire, he will not do so until he receives a sign that indicates one's acceptance of the salvation the Lord offers. The adoption of either of these two means constitutes such a sign. But salvation is not something one earns, for neither surrender to the Lord nor devotion would be effective without the Lord's grace. Nonetheless, the Vatakalai see no harm in calling them means (upaya ) to moksa and subsidiary causes of salvation: both surrender and devotion are performed with the soul's God-given ability to act, and one or the other is absolutely necessary before salvation by the Lord's grace can be effected.

The Tenkalai authors have a much more radical understanding of surrender to the Lord. To them, surrender is a passive, loving response to the Lord's active, saving grace. It is merely a mental phenomenon—a particular change of attitude in which one recognizes one's utter dependence on the Lord—rather than an act performed by the individual soul. Though the Tenkalai teachers do not deny that the Lord has given the soul the ability to act, they claim it is contrary to the soul's nature of subservience (sesatva ) to the Lord and dependence (paratantrya ) on him for one to use that ability to try to save oneself. Any active attempt to save oneself by any means (upaya )— including engaging in the devotional or ritual means taught in scripture— will thus violate the soul's inherent dependence on the Lord and obstruct the Lord's saving grace. The Tenkalai go so far as to claim that, despite what the sastras may teach, neither the path of devotion nor the path of surrender are really means to moksa. The only true means, according to the Tenkalai, is the Lord himself—the soul's rightful master and protector. True, surrender normally involves mutual acceptance: the Lord accepts the soul as an object of his grace (paragatasvikara ) and the soul accepts the Lord as savior (svagatasvikara ). However, the Lord's acceptance of the soul is the sole cause of salvation and hence the true means; the individual's acceptance of the Lord is neither sufficient nor necessary for salvation. The Tenkalai school affirms the Lord's sovereign freedom to choose whom he wants to save—or to refuse salvation to someone for no reason. (This the Vatakalai consider an affront to the Lord's egalitarian mercy.) Because of the Lord's autonomous will, the Tenkalai argue, all who seek salvation must approach the Lord through the Goddess Sri, his beloved and merciful consort, who will see to it that the Lord's compassionate desire to save is aroused.

With this overview of the central doctrinal differences between the two schools, we can proceed first to show how the Tenkalai theologians have used incidents from the Ramayana as scriptural support for their distinctive claims


regarding the nature of surrender to the Lord and then to analyze their method of selecting and interpreting these incidents.

Tenkalai Exegesis of Ramayana Incidents

The Tenkalai teachers, by their own claim, see the Ramayana as a work of utmost authority and doctrinal importance. Pillai Lokacarya begins his major theological treatise, the SrivacanaBhusana , by explaining the relationship between the Veda and the dharmasastras , itihasas , and puranas . Whereas the earlier, ritual portions of the Veda are explained by the dharmasastras , the more important Vedanta or Upanisads, which comprise the latter portion of the Veda, are explicated primarily by the itihasas and secondarily by the puranas , Of the two principal itihasas , the Mahabharata explains the greatness of the Lord Krsna, while "the more excellent itihasa , the Ramayana , proclaims the greatness of the one who was imprisoned [Sita]" (SVB 1-5).[2] Sita, who is the incarnation of the Goddess Sri, has a dual importance for the Tenkalai school. First, as the Lord's beloved wife and the mother of all souls, she is the merciful mediator (purusakara ) between the soul in need of salvation and the omnipotent Lord. As we will see, the Tenkalai theologians interpret numerous Ramayana incidents as revealing the power and salvific importance of her mediation. But according to the Tenkalai school, Sita is also a separate soul (cetana or jiva ) like us, dependent and perfectly submissive to the Lord, who is her master and protector. As such, Sita in the Ramayana exemplifies the ideal relationship between the soul and the Lord, and Rama's rescue of Sita from Lanka can be seen as an allegory for the process of salvation. Just as Rama rescued Sita from Lanka and brought her back to Ayodhya to attend him, the Lord rescues the soul from the throes of samsara and takes it after death to Vaikuntha, Visnu's heavenly abode, where the soul can fully realize its subservient nature by serving the Lord directly.[3]

The Tenkalai authors appeal to several Ramayana passages in which Sita's behavior can be held up as a model for the soul's passive dependence on the Lord for its salvation. "With regard to the upaya " or means of salvation, says Pillai Lokacarya, "one must be like Piratti [Sita]" (SVB 80), meaning that to be saved one must entirely relinquish one's own power and effort (SVB 85). Manavalamamuni explains that Sita "had the power to reduce the host of enemies to ashes and save herself" by the power of her chaste virtue; but she refused to do so, saying, "Since Rama has not so commanded, and because I must guard my ascetic restraint (tapas ), I will not reduce you to ashes by the fiery power of my chastity, O ten-necked one."[4] Rather, she said, "If Rama were to assault Lanka with his arrows, defeat it, and take me away, that would be fitting of him" (Ram . V.39.29). Why, if Sita was fully capable of saving herself at any point during her captivity, did she not do so? "Piratti refused to do anything by her own power, thinking that to save herself by her


own efforts—rather than letting Rama, her hero, protect her—would destroy her dependence (paratantrya )" (SVB 82). Manavalamamuni explains that, like Sita, we should not try to save ourselves by pursuing some particular means to salvation but should preserve our dependent nature and wait in faith for the Lord to save us.

Pillai Lokacarya and Manavalamamuni also cite other Ramayana incidents, though not involving Sita, to prove that resorting to means other than the Lord himself can actually hinder salvation. Once, in the midst of battle, Ravana was shaken by a thunderous blow from Rama's lance. Despite this, he continued to cling to his bow. But when struck by Rama's arrow, Ravana dropped his bow; only then did Rama allow him to withdraw from the battlefield (Ram . VI.59.135). Manavalamamuni explains how this incident relates to the process of salvation:

Ravana, overwhelmed by Rama's archery, became agitated and tried to escape. But as long as he held the bow, Rama did not allow him to leave. The bow, which he eventually dropped, was not an effective means (sadhana ) for conquering his enemy while he was holding it. Not only that, but the permission Rama later gave him, saying "I will let you go," was not given during the time he was holding the bow. Thus [the bow] can be said to be an impediment that kept him from leaving. In the same way, if there remains even the slightest involvement in these other means, they will not only fail to be effective means (upaya ) to the goal [of salvation], but will actually turn out to be obstructions to the ultimate attainment. (Mumu 203)

Ravana expected the bow to help him have his way with his enemy, but the bow only prevented him from saving himself by escaping. Like Ravana's bow, the apparent means to salvation, including the path of devotion and ritual works, will not help us and must actually be dropped in order for salvation to occur. Pillai Lokacarya underscores this point by citing the example of Dasaratha, Rama's father, who had to banish Rama in order to remain true to a promise he had made to one of his wives (Mumu 204). Manavalamamuni explains:

The great king [Dasaratha] lost the fortune he had—namely, living with Rama, who is said to be the dharma incarnate—by clinging to the dharma of truthfulness, which was merely a semblance [of dharma], thinking that he could not refuse to honor a boon he had previously granted. In the same way, remaining engaged in the other illusory means [such as bhaktiyoga ] will certainly make for loss of the great fortune of living with the divine being himself, [the Lord who is] the eternal dharma. (Mumu 204)

Thus, according to the Tenkalai authors, even the means to salvation enjoined as dharma in authoritative scripture (sastra ) can obstruct salvation if one clings to them rather than to the Lord himself as one's savior.

Both Tenkalai and Vatakalai authors also frequently refer to the Brah-


mastra incident in the Rama story to illustrate an important point on which both schools agree: surrender to the Lord himself must be carried out in complete faith that he alone will be one's means to salvation. In other words, surrender cannot be combined with any other means for salvation, or it will not be effective. The significance of the Brahmastra incident is fully explained in Arulala Perumal Emperumanar's Jnanasara , an early Tamil text on which Manavalamamuni commented. However, to my knowledge, no such incident appears in Valmiki's Ramayana .[5] The story has it that Ravana's demon army of raksasas used the Brahmastra, a divine weapon which binds its enemies and thus renders them helpless, against the monkey Hanuman, who was acting as Rama's emissary. But the Brahmastra only works if the user has complete faith in it. When the raksasas decided to bring in a jute cord to further secure the bound Hanuman, just to be on the safe side, the Brahmastra slipped off. Manavalamamuni explains: "The Brahmastra that had tied him slipped off by itself at the moment another cord was tied on. In the same way, if one who has resorted to this upaya [the Lord himself] engages in another upaya , [the first] will leave him" (JS 28). For the Tenkalai acaryas , the analogy between the Brahmastra and prapatti (surrender) is instructive: one might think that means such as devotion and ritual action will enhance the efficacy of one's surrender to the Lord, but in fact these will cause one to lose the Lord. The path of surrender demands complete cessation of one's own efforts and faith in the capacity of the Lord alone to bring about salvation.

If the Tenkalai and the Vatakalai concur in their interpretation of the Brahmastra incident, the Tenkalai teachers also use examples from the Ramayana to support one of their more controversial claims: that the Lord can save whomever he chooses, without waiting for that soul to surrender to him and thus request acceptance. Nor is the Lord obligated to save one who surrenders to him, even if such surrender is performed perfectly. The Tenkalai hold that, because of the Lord's unconstrained sovereignty (nirankusasvatantrya ), he need pay attention neither to the individual's desire or lack thereof nor to the soul's merits or sins when deciding whether or not to grant salvation. As Pillai Lokacarya says: "When the soul thinks to obtain the Lord, this surrender is not a means. When the Lord decides to obtain the soul, not even sins can stand in the way. Both are seen in the case of Bharata and Guha" (SVB 142-144). Manavalamamuni begins by explaining how it is the Lord's initiative which has the salvific power, not our surrender to him:

It is the owner who comes and takes possession of his property. In the same way, it is the Lord alone—the soul's master and owner—who approaches, while the dependent soul must wait to be accepted. If one thinks to attain the autonomous (svatantra ) Lord by one's own act of acceptance, this intention will fail. Any surrender so conceived will not be a means to attain the Lord. . . . But when the sovereign Lord and master himself decides by his own will to obtain


the soul who is his dependent property, even the worst sins will not be obstacles. These [first] two [sentences] show that the acceptance on the part of the soul (svagatasvikara ) is not realy the means (upaya ) for salvation; rather, the acceptance on the part of the Lord (paragatasvikara ) is the means. (SVB142-143 )

Manavalamamuni then explains how the differing fates of Bharata, Rama's devoted brother, and Guha, a lowly hunter who accompanied Rama to the forest, affirm this crucial theological point:

These [truths] are illustrated by [the examples of] Bharata and Guha. Bharata wanted to bring Rama back [to Ayodhya], crown him, and live by serving him, in accord with [Bharata's] true nature [as a soul subservient to the Lord]. With this in mind, Bharata—in the company of his ministers—approached Rama and sought refuge, surrendering at his holy feet. But for Bharata, the good deed of surrender performed in this manner—since it was not what the Lord and savior had in mind—became an evil. But for Guha, Rama himself came forward and accepted him. Indeed, Guha's very faults were accepted as an offering; thus the evilness of his offenses became merits. For isn't the very definition of merit and sin said to be "merit is whatever pleases him; sin is the opposite"? (SVB 145)

The Tenkalai authors further point out that neither Guha nor even Hanuman had any desire to be accepted as Rama's companions. "But even without any desire on their part, acceptance by the Lord (paragatasvikara ) occurred to Hanuman on the banks of the Pamba and to Guha on the banks of the Ganga"; they were accepted when the Lord himself took the initiative and approached them (Manavalamamuni on SVB 150). If surrender, signifying one's acceptance of the Lord, were a prerequisite for that acceptance, then the sincere surrender of the virtuous Bharata would have been effective and his request fulfilled. Conversely, the sinful hunter Guha and the lowly monkey Hanuman—neither of whom expressed a desire for the Lord's acceptance—would not have become Rama's close companions. But such was not the case. These examples, the Tenkalai argue, demonstrate that the soul's surrender to the Lord cannot be considered an effective means to salvation, and that the Lord's freedom to accept whomever he wants is completely unconstrained.

The Tenkalai authors go on to cite two Ramayana incidents featuring Sita as evidence for their radical claim that efforts to accumulate merit or remove sin, aimed at earning the Lord's favor, instead insult the Lord's sovereign power and run contrary to the soul's dependent nature. When Rama and Sita were dwelling in the forest, Rama declared that he would not allow Sita to be adorned with even a necklace during their lovemaking, for fear that it would interfere with their intimate union (SVB 162).[6] Manavalamamuni explains that even though one may expect merits to enhance the Lord's plea-


sure when he communes with the soul, they end up obstructing his pleasure, just like clothes and jewelry interfere with the intimacy desired by a lover.

In fact, says Pillai Lokacarya, "while ornaments are not desired, dirt is desired" (SVB 165), alluding to an incident after the victory over Lanka. Ravana vanquished, Rama ordered Vibhisana to fetch Sita. "Have Sita, the divine-limbed Vaidehi, brought here before me quickly, adorned with sacred ornaments, her hair washed," he instructed (Ram . VI.117.6-7). When Vibhisana reported this to Sita, she at first protested, claiming that she wanted to see her husband at once, before bathing. By Vibhisana insisted, so she did as she was told. When she appeared before Rama freshly bathed and adorned, however, Rama became angry and greeted her with harsh words: "Like a lamp to one with a diseased eye, you are not a welcome sight for me" (Ram . VI.118.17-18). Why was he angry? Hadn't Sita done as she was told? Manavalamamuni claims that Rama really desired to see her body with all its dirt, "unadorned, like a lotus plant without the lotus" (Ram . V.15.21). He didn't mean what he told Vibhisana, and he expected Sita to know his mind. Manavalamamuni explains that "Vibhisana did not know Rama's true intention but only relayed the words he spoke. But even so, Sita should have refused to bathe and just gone to see him in the state she was in while imprisoned in Ravana's house. But she didn't do this. She quickly bathed and came, which made him angry, for he wanted to see her in her [dirty] state" (SVB 166). The interpretation of this incident hinges on an implied analogy between scriptural commandments and Rama's command to Vibhisana. Even though the sastras declare that the Lord hates sins and even prescribe methods to expiate them, these statements do not reflect the Lord's true intention. He wants to commune with the soul in its sinful state and will be angered if one tries to win his favor by purifying oneself. His desire for the soul cannot be obstructed by sins, but it can be thwarted by attempts to remove them.

However, the Tenkalai authors do not simply leave the individual who desires salvation with no recourse but to wait patiently for the Lord to approach. This is where the Tenkalai doctrine of the necessity of Sri as mediator assumes importance. Sri, the Lord's beloved wife and consort, is ever willing to act as purusakara or mediator, to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the soul who seeks salvation. Thus one should approach her first and request her intercession, rather than risk rejection by going directly to the Lord and requesting salvation. Pillai Lokacarya views the entire Ramayana as testimony to the power and necessity of the mediation of the merciful Goddess, incarnate as Sita (SVB 5-6). He claims the Rama story shows that the Lord never saved or accepted anyone without some form of intercession on the part of Sita. On every such occasion, the Tenkalai authors find some symbolic evidence of the Goddess's mediation. When Rama accepted Hanuman and Sugriva, it was because they carried the jewels Sita


dropped as she was abducted by Ravana. Vibhisana approached Rama and surrendered to him directly, but this surrender was effective only because he had been instructed by Sita before he left Lanka. When Guha was accepted, Rama made reference to Sita (SVB 151). Thus, Pillai Lokacarya claims, salvation is gained only through the Goddess (Mumu 118-19).

According to the Tenkalai school, the efficacy of the Goddess's mediation is based on her merciful nature and her special relationship with the Lord, both of which are demonstrated in the Ramayana . She is the very embodiment of the Lord's mercy, and yet she is without his sovereign power to punish; therefore she will always be tenderhearted toward sinful souls, whom she sees as her children. Because the Lord loves her dearly and always does what she says, he will never reject one who approaches him with the recommendation of the Goddess. Doesn't the Ramayana show that the Lord always follows his wife's command, even when it brings peril? At Sita's urging, Rama left the hermitage to pursue the magic deer, which brought about Sita's capture. Surely the omniscient Lord knew what would happen, but he went after the deer anyway, out of his love and desire to please her. So, Manavalamamuni asks, is there any doubt that she can make the Lord overlook the soul's faults and accept it when she so requests? (Mumu 129). Pillai Lokacarya says, "Need we point out that the one who made Hanuman forgive can also make the one who follows her words forgive?" (Mumu 129). Manavalamamuni then explains this allusion to an incident that emphasizes the tenderhearted mercy of Sita, who could not be angry even at the demonesses (raksasis ) who had tormented her while she was imprisoned in Lanka:

Hanuman had taken full account of the sins of the raksasis who had threatened and chided Sita for ten months; he was eager to inflict severe punishment. But it was she who made the strong-willed Hanuman relent and forgive them by means of her instruction, saying such things as "Who has committed any sin?" [Ram . VI.116.38] and "No one has done anything wrong at all" [Ram . VI.116.43]. (Mumu 129)

Because Sita was there to plead with Hanuman not to destroy the demonesses, they were spared. Similarly, when the crow Kakasura attacked her breast, Rama was eager to punish it. But when the crow fell at Rama's feet, begging for mercy, Sita was moved, so for her sake Rama spared it (Ram . V.38.34-35). Pillai Lokacarya says, "Because of her presence, the crow was saved. Because of her absence, Ravana was destroyed" (Mumu 135-36). Manavalamamuni clarifies:

It was because of the presence of the lady who subdues the autonomy of the sovereign Lord and arouses his compassion that the crow who had committed a heinous crime was mercifully spared. . . . Ravana was helplessly trapped in a similar way, even though he had not committed the extreme offense of the crow [for he had not physically attacked Sita]. But she was not present, and as a result Ravana perished, the target of Rama's arrows. (Mumu 135-36)


Thus, according to the Tenkalai acaryas , the Ramayana proves that when one invokes the merciful Goddess as mediator before approaching the Lord for salvation, one need not fear rejection by the Lord on account of his unbridled autonomy or one's own sins.

Ramayana Incidents As Parables

The Tenkalai school's reading of Ramayana incidents is unique, yet their methods of structuring and interpreting these incidents have parallels in other scriptural traditions. What is immediately striking is that the Tenkalai school is not very interested in the main plot, the didactic portions of the epic, or even the literal meaning of statements made by Rama or Sita. Rather, they focus on a few relatively obscure events in the Rama story, which, when interpreted allegorically, lend support to their soteriological doctrines. It is not that the Ramayana as a whole is an allegory to the Tenkalai, at least not in the manner of a work like Pilgrim's Progress . In Bunyan's book each character is univalent, representing a single concept. But in the Tenkalai reading of the Ramayana , different characters symbolize different theological realities at different moments. For example, Sita can represent the soul waiting to be saved or Sri, the mediator. Thus the soul and the goal of salvation can be represented by almost any character and the goal he or she is seeking. Sita seeking to escape from Lanka, the raksasas seeking to bind Hanuman, Ravana seeking to vanquish Rama—all become allegories for the soul seeking salvation. The Tenkalai teachers seem to select these isolated incidents on the basis of a perceived parallel between the relation of the actors in the narrative and the relation of the theological concepts they wish to illustrate.[7] The allegorical identification is sometimes fully spelled out, and sometimes merely hinted at, so that listeners are encouraged to extend the metaphor, to fill in the blanks and draw the theological conclusion themselves.

All this brings the Srivaisnava reading of Ramayana incidents very close to the genre of parable. Parables are also brief narratives or stories that are akin to metaphors and are often interpreted analogically or allegorically. The allegorical meaning of parables, especially those in religious scriptures, is sometimes fully explained, and sometimes only hinted at. However, the relation between parable and allegory is a bone of scholarly contention in the field of religious studies. Traditionally, the parable has been seen as closely akin to metaphor, analogy, example-story, and allegory. In this view, a parable is defined as an extended metaphor built around a narrative structure; though often interpreted analogically, parables are generally too brief and unsystematic to be considered full-fledged allegories. However, some recent scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, have tended to emphasize the distinction in both form and function between parables and allegories. Crossan and others would argue that parables are not intended to be interpreted allegor-


ically, even though theologians have often co-opted (and perhaps misused) scriptural parables by reading them allegorically in order to support their own metaphysical or ethical viewpoints. Though we cannot go into the details of this argument here, some ideas gleaned from this scholarly dispute on the structure, interpretation, and theological significance of parables can both illuminate and be illuminated by the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents.

In Crossan's view, a parable is defined by certain structural characteristics:

There is in every parabolic situation a battle of basic structures. There is the structure of expectation on the part of the hearer and there is the structure of expression on the part of the speaker. These structures are in diametrical opposition, and this opposition is the heart of the parabolic event. . . . What actually happens in the parable is the reverse of what the hearer expects.[8]

Crossan uses this structural model to analyze biblical parables in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, he points out that in Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) the hearer expects the priest and Levite to help the victim and the Samaritan to refuse assistance, but the story shows exactly the opposite (107). In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-13) one expects God to hear and accept the prayer of the righteous Pharisee and reject the prayer of the sinful publican, but just the opposite happens (102).

This conflict between the reader's expectations and the narrative outcome seems to be the central dynamic of the Tenkalai telling of Ramayana incidents no less than of biblical parables. Indeed, in recounting the Ramayana incidents they select, the Tenkalai acaryas deliberately highlight the paradoxical nature of the outcomes. One would expect Sita, as an incarnation of the Goddess Sri, to use her power to save herself and escape Lanka. Why did she not do so? One would expect Ravana's bow to help him achieve his aim. Why did Rama let him escape only after he dropped it? One would expect the addition of a jute cord to reinforce the efficacy of the Brahmastra. Why did it fail? One would expect the merciful Rama to honor the request of his own virtuous brother, Bharata, who humbly surrendered to him with the request that he return to Ayodhya and allow Bharata to serve him. Why did Rama refuse him and yet actively seek the companionship of the lowly Guha and Hanuman, who had not even expressed a desire for this companionship, much less surrendered to him? One would expect Rama to be pleased when Sita appeared before him bathed and adorned as he had requested. Why did he get angry?

The Tenkalai versions of Ramayana incidents thus seem to have the paradoxical structure of parables. They do not, however, fully confirm Crossan's


theory about the function and meaning of parables. He claims that the intent of parable, as a genre, is diametrically opposed to that of allegory and example-story. The parable's central paradox is designed to attack the hearer's culturally conditioned standards of expectation, to subvert all theology (or "myth," as he calls it)—meaning all received views of reality and ethical standards. Allegories and example-stories, on the other hand, serve to explain and support a given worldview. He claims that the New Testament redactors turned Jesus' parables—which were genuine parables intended to confront the hearer with an authentic religious experience transcending all conceptualization—into allegories and example-stories that supported the eschatology and moral teachings of the early church. Thus in the context of the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good Samaritan becomes an example-story teaching love for one's neighbor, while the parable of the Pharisee and publican teaches that the honest humility of a sinner is better in God's eyes than the self-righteousness of the holy. Crossan suggests that the central dynamic of reversed expectations in the parable runs counter to the theological aims of example-stories and allegories; therefore, he claims, Jesus' parables often end up as rather poor examples of the latter (120). Crossan thus questions whether one "could ever succeed in making a smooth change from parable to example and allegory" (123).

Crossan has been criticized for drawing too sharp a distinction between theology ("mythical religion," as he calls it) and the parabolic religion of transcendence, which is anti-theology.[9] Isn't it possible that parables—even with their characteristic paradoxical structure—not only seek to subvert a prevailing worldview but also to establish a new one? Can the paradoxicality at the heart of the parable actually serve the allegorical meaning and theological aims of their interpreters, rather than acting as obstacle to them?

The Tenkalai school's "parabolized" readings of Ramayana incidents suggest that the answer to both questions is yes, and that Crossan's critics are right. The Tenkalai theologians seem to use their interpretations of Ramayana incidents both to criticize the prevailing worldview and to assert their own theological claims. Furthermore, the paradoxical structure of these incidents and their allegorical interpretation do not seem to be at odds (as Crossan's analysis of New Testament parables would suggest); rather, they work together to accomplish both aims. In the Tenkalai acaryas' telling of Ramayana incidents, the paradox at the surface or narrative level of each incident serves as a hook to draw the listener toward the allegorically derived theological level of meaning. So why did Rama get angry at Sita? Why didn't Ravana's bow help him? Why did the Brahmastra slip off'? Why did Rama reject Bharata? The reader or listener, disturbed by the paradox, must "stay tuned" for its resolution. The allegorical interpretation, when disclosed as the hidden meaning of the incident, resolves the surface paradox and thereby affirms the


particular doctrinal viewpoint the author wishes to promote.[10] But this doctrinal viewpoint nevertheless subverts some of the most cherished assumptions of the Hindu worldview (many of which are staunchly defended by the Vatakalai school): that the Lord hates sins and loves virtue, and that salvation and the favor of the Lord can be achieved by means of devotion and ritual action, as taught in scripture. Against this backdrop of expectation, the Tenkalai reading of these paradoxical Ramayana incidents boldly demonstrates why these incidents do not turn out as expected: the assumptions of the underlying worldview are wrong. The Lord does not hate sin but in fact longs to commune with the soul with all its sin; scripturally enjoined means performed by one's own efforts don't help one achieve salvation but interfere with it; even surrender itself is not a fail-safe means to win the Lord's favor, and he is not bound to honor it.

In one sense, the theological function of the Tenkalai interpretation of Ramayana incidents is not so different from the aim of the New Testament interpretation of Jesus' parables. In the gospels, Jesus' parables are used to ridicule the legalism of the Pharisees and to teach a radical morality of love which cannot be reduced to a structured code of ethical principles that state precisely what God demands of human beings. Similarly, the Srivaisnava Ramayana incidents subvert and ridicule the sastric legalism that the Vatakalai defend and yet simultaneously teach a radical soteriology that cannot be reduced to a scripturally prescribed system of devotional and ritual actions; there is no surefire recipe for salvation.

The effectiveness of metaphor, parable, and allegory in oral and written discourse has been noted at least since the time of Aristotle. Religious teachers in particular have appreciated how powerfully one can bring home a theological point to an audience through the use of these techniques. One wonders whether the average Christian would truly understand (or even remember) Jesus' commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself without the parable of the good Samaritan. Similarly, although Pancaratra texts clearly teach that when one surrenders to God, one must abandon all other upayas , most Srivaisnava devotees understand this principle through the analogy their founding teachers have made with the Brahmastra incident in the Rama story. Even though the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents does not support Crossan's radical distinction between the intentions of parable and theology, the value of his analysis, as I see it, is to suggest that the paradoxes at the heart of parables may be the secret to their theological vigor as well as their rhetorical impact. In Crossan's words, they "shatter the structural security of the hearer's world and render possible the kingdom of God" (123); or, as the Tenkalai theologians might prefer to say it, they shatter the structural security of the sastric worldview and render possible the soul's true subservience to the Lord.




Jnanasara of Arulala Perumal Emperumanar with Manavalamamuni's commentary. In Jnanasaram Prameyasaram , ed. Vidvan Venkatacharya and Tiruvenkatacharya. Kanchi: Srivaisnava Mudrapaka Sabha, 1916.


Mumuksuppati of Pillai Lokacarya with Manavalamamuni's commentary. Edited and published by S. Krishnaswami Iyengar. Trichy: n.d.

Ram .

SrimadValmikiRamayana , according to the Southern Readings, ed. T. Krishnacharya. 2 vols. Madras: T. K. Venkobacharya, 1930.


Srivacana Bhusana of Pillai Lokacarya with Manavalamamuni's commentary. Ed. P. Raghava Ramanuja Swami. Madras: R. Rajagopala Naidu, 1936.

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.

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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