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Brahmans and Others

The majority of contemporary Ramayanis are Brahman males, a fact that reflects the priestly caste's traditional role in mediating and authoritatively interpreting sacred text. Whereas the suta , or epic bard, was explicitly identified as a non-Brahman, the expounder of the Puranic tradition—the pauranika[*] or vyakhyatr[*] —was normally a religious specialist by birth, and the special pith[*] from which he held forth was a sacred seat that non-Brahmans could not occupy. Although it is certain that many great Ramayanis of the past were non-Brahmans, in recent years the question has again been raised as to whether such expounders are qualified to occupy the vyas seat. A Banaras informant recalled a controversy several decades ago over whether a certain Khatri (Kshatriya) who taught the boy actors in the Ramnagar Ramlila and also expounded the Manas should be allowed to occupy the vyaspith[*] at the Sankat Mochan festival.

My interviewees were of two minds on this question. Shrinath Mishra and other Brahman performers advanced the position that, properly speaking, only Brahmans should be allowed to expound from the pith[*] because the Manas itself, in their view, upholds the tradition of varna[*] (social divisions based on birth) and the religious authority of Brahmans, and one who is expounding the text should do so in a manner consonant with its teachings. According to Shrinath, even Chakkanlal, the great Kayasth expounder of the late nineteenth century, did not presume to occupy the dais but discoursed informally, sitting on the ground in the midst of the "devotional assembly" (gosthi[*] ).

One of the most venerable Ramayanis of Ayodhya, Pandit Ramkumar Das of Mani Parvat, expressed a different opinion. In his view, the right to sit on the vyas seat and narrate Katha depends not on varna[*] status but only on capacity or ability (ksamta ). In support of his argument, he cited the case of Kak Bhushundi, the crow who narrates the Manas-katha to Garuda. A crow is regarded as untouchable—as the "Chandal among birds"[7] —yet if Bhushundi can sit on one of the ghats of the Manas Lake (surely the most exalted of vyas seats) and narrate Ram's acts, then clearly any human being may be permitted to do so.[8] A


similar opinion was expressed by Sacchidanand Das, another Ayodhya Ramayani, who cited a mythological incident in support of his view.

Once a suta was expounding Katha from the vyas seat in the midst of an assembly of forest sages, when suddenly Balaram entered the group. Everyone rose out of respect for Lord Krishna's brother, but the suta remained seated and went on with the Katha . Balaram was seized with anger and beheaded the storyteller. The sages were horrified and told him that he had incurred the sin of Brahman killing, because even a suta becomes equivalent to a Brahman when seated on the vyaspith[*] narrating Katha .[9]

It is noteworthy that both Ramkumar Das and Sacchidanand Das are Ramanandi sadhus, and such men often express relative indifference to caste distinctions.[10] It is also significant that they represent the Ayodhya Katha tradition and that Ram's city is today the principal base of the older style of exposition typified by daily afternoon performances in which the entire Manas is expounded sequentially, for which, as I have noted, the financial rewards to the performer are relatively meager. This practice stands in contrast to the lucrative pravacan style of the festivals and private performances patronized by status-conscious mercantile groups, for whom the presence of Brahman teachers—conferring ritual status in return for financial support—is highly desirable. Thus, the patrons of the newer style of Katha , by their "Sanskritizing" attitudes no less than by their lavish patronage, may be encouraging the predominance of Brahmans in the field of Manas exposition.

One controversial development of recent years has been the entry of women into the field, a number of whom have gained considerable renown. Shrimati Krishna Shastri, for example, who belongs to a family of kathavacaks , now performs widely at festivals and in private engagements.[11] Another kathavacika (female kathavacak ) is Sunita Shastri, a student of Sitaram Sharan of the Lakshman Kila Temple in Ayodhya, who frequently performs during such festivals as Ram Navami. I have heard it said by Katha goers that women possess "the sakti [power] of Sarasvati," the goddess of speech, and hence make particularly good


orators. There also remains an element of novelty in hearing Katha given by a woman; hence, the sponsors of a festival are often eager to include at least one kathavacika on the performance roster. Only ever-conservative Banaras seems to lag behind in this regard. There the question of whether women possess the "authority" (adhikar ) to expound the epic remains a subject of debate, with most of the "learned men" of the city still arguing that they do not, according to a popular magazine article, which adds: "The ironic thing is this, that whether the Katha is on the Bhagavata , the Mahabharata , or on Ram, there will often be a preponderance of women among the listeners. So those who are opposed to women's Katha are clearly saying, 'Yes, of course you can listen to Katha , you can recite the Manas too; but you can never sit on the dais and give Katha !'"[12]

The same article mentions a number of Banarsi women who were trained in Katha by Sant Choteji, a Ramayani known for his liberal views, who have begun to make careers for themselves despite the continuing opposition of conservative males. One of these women, Vijayalakshmi, described her choice of profession as the result of a childhood environment that was "Manas -permeated"; her parents' encouragement led her to commit the whole epic to memory by age fourteen. She had begun giving Katha even earlier, however, at age eleven.[13]

An even more radical departure from orthodoxy is the "Muslim" vyas , Rajesh Muhammad—actually a Muslim convert to Vaishnavism, although he has provocatively retained a half-Islamicized name that clearly adds to his commercial appeal. I did not have an opportunity to hear him perform, but he is popular on the festival circuit and his name frequently came up when informants were asked to list leading contemporary expounders. In February 1984 he was the principal speaker at the prestigious eleventh annual Ramayan Mela in the pilgrimage town of Chitrakut, where he discoursed on Bharat-carit .[14] According to Shrinath Mishra, he is permitted to sit on the vyas seat in many places. His flaunting of his background obviously poses something of a dilemma to the orthodox: on the one hand, he bears the indelible stigma of his Muslim birth; on the other, his conversion and the dedication of his life to the propagation of the Manas is viewed as an affirmation of the greatness of Hindu dharma.


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