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Four The Art of Manas-Katha
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The Performer and the Text

The transcription of Katha performances produces, to my mind, disappointing results. Performances that I experienced and described immediately afterward in my notes as brilliant and exciting appeared flat and dull when "reduced to writing." Talks that had seemed highly cohesive, in which ingenious interpretations emerged one after another in a sparkling strand, seemed rambling and untidy in written form, lacking any principle of organization and filled with incomplete sentences and gratuitous digressions. All oral art, of course, has an inherently "emergent" quality, which results from its being the product of a unique context.[54] Although specific aspects of a performance can be documented through various media (and film or videotape obviously provide a more complete record of a Katha performance than an audio recording and its poorer relative, a written transcription), the total atmosphere of the performance is a fleeting experience that can only be approximated by documentation. Transcriptions of one-hour Katha performances typically take up fifty to seventy pages and appear to contain much redundant and fragmentary material. Rather than offer a translation of an entire such discourse, I prefer to discuss a number of the characteristic approaches to the Manas used by oral expounders, illustrating each with excerpts from performance transcriptions.[55] These are presented in a manner that adheres as faithfully as possible to the original performance (for example, the occurrence of ellipsis in an excerpt indicates that the performer broke off in midsentence, not that anything has been deleted from his remarks), with parenthetical notes on nonverbal aspects of the performance. Thus I hope to convey to readers something of the flavor of individual performances while focusing on the theme of greatest relevance to my study: the relationship of oral exposition to text.


Vyakhya And Vyakaran[*]

The term vyakhya , "full explanation or exposition," is used by many performers to refer to their handling of the text, but it can cover a range of approaches. As used in the Sanskrit commentarial tradition, the term often refers to a word-by-word gloss on a text, involving first the division of words joined by sandhi and then the substitution of synonyms for each. Vyakhya on the Manas , whether oral or written, is rarely this systematic. One reason, of course, is that the language of the epic is a form of the vernacular, and even though difficult passages exist, much of the text is straightforward narrative that can be understood by most Hindi speakers. The kind of tortuous constructions that abound in Sanskrit kavya , which require elaborate decoding, are not characteristic of Tulsi's epic. There is rarely a need for a commentator to analyze every word of a line, although certain key words may engage his attention and become the basis for extended exposition. As an extemporaneous art form, Katha is inherently digressive; one word under discussion will suggest another, and this may in turn suggest an anecdote that carries the vyas far from his original train of thought—although he will eventually return to it, usually by once more quoting the verse under discussion. In such vyakhya , the epic verse is used as a thematic anchor or frame for the speaker's verbal improvisation.

In the nineteenth century, some of the best vyakhya utilized the disciplines of grammar (vyakaran[*] ) and poetics (alankar[*] ) in analyzing the Manas . These approaches are rarely encountered in present-day Katha , probably because audiences lack the background to appreciate such analysis. Some connoisseurs mourn the decline of the older approaches. C. N. Singh told me, for example, that he is "still haunted" by a Katha he heard while visiting Ayodhya in his youth, in which the vyas began with the assertion of a "doubt" (sanka[*] ) concerning whether the opening line of Sundar kand[*] contains a grammatical error.[56] The speaker offered extensive arguments both pro and con, involving erudite excursions into Sanskrit and Prakrit grammatical theory, all buttressed by appropriate citations. The question was not a small one, Singh pointed out, since it involved the imputation of error to a divinely inspired poet; moreover, certain rationalizations of the questionable construction might necessitate the reinterpretation of other verses. He concluded, "The question


was never resolved and I have never since been able to settle it. But that was not really the point. These kinds of arguments were only devices used to create interest, to get you involved in the Manas ."[57]

One style of vyakhya is still commonly used in Manas exposition. This is the practice, already mentioned, of defining each key word in a line in terms of its use in other epic passages. An example of this—as well as a theoretical statement on the practice—may be seen in the following excerpt from one of Ramnarayan Shukla's discourses at Sankat Mochan. The expounder begins by reciting a verse in praise of Ram, which contains the word jan —devotees, subjects, dependents:

Supremely merciful and adoring of the meek,
who has great love and compassion for his devotees. . . .

The Lord loves his devotees, is compassionate toward them [repeats second line above]. "Devotees' you see, means . . . dependent ones. Because, you know, in the Ramcaritmanas , in Tulsidas's books, the definition of any word has, somewhere or other, been given by Goswami-ji himself. He's explained it himself . . . somewhere. You have to search! So, who are called "devotees"? Look in Aranya[*]kand[*] , when the Lord says to Narad,

Listen, Sage, I tell you emphatically,
those who adore me, relying on nothing else,
these I ever protect
as a mother guards a child.

In this connection, the Lord says, "I have two kinds of children: one is big and one is little—just as a mother has a big child, and that big child does everything by himself, he relies on himself, but the small child relies on the mother."

The sage is like my elder son,
the humble man like my little one.
The devotee relies on my strength, the other on his own,
when both are assailed by the enemies lust and anger.

"The devotee relies on my strength"—here's the definition of devotee !: one who relies on the Lord's strength, is dependent on the Lord, supported by him, entirely surrendered to him.[58]

In the context of Ramnarayan's ongoing daily exposition in which the entire epic is presented sequentially, such analysis establishes a funda-


mental vocabulary for the discourse and invites listeners to experience the epic as a seamless and cohesive world of meaning.

Shrinath Mishra also uses the term vyakhya to describe his approach to the text; as he is normally engaged only for brief performance-series, however, he does not attempt a systematic exposition of the complete text but chooses brief passages or themes to explore. In February 1983, when he gave seven evenings of pravacan at Banaras Hindu University, Shrinath chose as his theme a single verse from Book Seven:

Ram, whose feet are worshiped by Shiva and Brahma,
is gracious to me—such is his supreme tenderness.

In Shrinath's analysis, this half-caupai concisely reveals the two fundamental aspects of the Lord's character: his "power" or "majesty" (prabhav ) and his "inherent nature" (svabhav , i.e., his characteristic love and compassion).[59] This insight became the basis for a long chain of vignettes that extended over the seven evenings (and Shrinath probably could have continued almost indefinitely, so central is the theme to Vaishnava doctrine) and provided examples of these two aspects of the divine character.[60] Each evening's pravacan began and ended—was anchored, so to speak—in the theme-line but otherwise consisted of free improvisation, dense with quotations from literary works and oral tradition, comprising stories from the Manas , the Bhagavatapurana[*] , and the lives of famous poets and devotees, each of which expanded on the notion of either prabhav or svabhav .

Creative Retelling: Dialogue and "Domestication"

In an essay on Kannada folklore, A. K. Ramanujan points to the "domestication" of Sanskritic gods and heroes that is characteristic of folk retellings of epic and Puranic stories: "In Sanskritic mythology, the gods do not even blink or sweat, let alone weep tears, sneeze, or menstruate. Their feet do not touch the earth."[61] In folktales, however, gods and


heroes are liable not only to weep but also to blow their noses and argue with their wives in earthy village dialect. Although the Manas might be termed a "folk-influenced" retelling of the Ramayan story, and although it contains many touches of the humor, local color, and proverbial wisdom characteristic of regional folktales, it is a work that strongly asserts both its own religious authority and its fidelity to a perceived "great tradition," and its author generally maintains an august and dignified tone. His principal characters may not be quite as unearthly as the gods referred to in the above quotation, but they are still exalted and noble, and his hero and heroine have sometimes been faulted by Western readers as paragons of an unrelieved and almost inhuman virtue. Devotees, however, do not share this negative assessment. Even though Ram is perceived as less playful than Krishna, indeed as profound or serious (gambhir ) by nature, he is nonetheless, to his worshipers, entirely real, familiar, and human.

One reason that the epic characters remain vivid and alive to their audience is their domestication in the endless retellings of the Manas in Katha performances. For these are indeed folk recastings of the Ramayan, utilizing the text as a framework to be fleshed out with imaginary and highly colloquial dialogues containing touches of humor and pathos often missing from the original. For example, when Tulsi tells the story of Ram's anger at the monkey king Sugriv, he has his hero speak some harsh words and Lakshman display his usual hot temper; but he does not have Lakshman say (as Shrinath Mishra does when he retells the story), "Lord, for the first time in your life you're speaking my language! I'm going to go kill him right now. You got the big brother, now I'll take care of the little one!"—the last sentence a crudely comic reference to Ram's earlier slaying of Sugriv's brother Bali. Nor does he have Ram nervously tell himself, "Oh no, this fellow is really going to murder him!"[62] Many of the expounders' domestications prove to be "readings between the lines" of the epic—never accepting the text at face value but always probing the motives, mental processes, and emotions of characters, imagining their facial expressions and gestures, and bringing them all to life for listeners.

To demonstrate this approach, I offer a brief passage from Sundar kand[*] followed by a transcription of its retelling by Shrinath Mishra. In this episode, Ravan's brother Vibhishan, having just fled Lanka, is coming to surrender to Ram. The monkeys, led by Sugriv, fear that he comes


with an evil purpose and attempt to warn Ram against him. Ram counters that he must be true to his vow to welcome all who come to him seeking shelter. The Manas passage reads:

Sugriv said, "Listen, Lord of the Raghus,
Ten-head's brother is coming to meet you."
The Lord said, "Friend, what do you think?"
The monkey king answered, "Listen, Lord of men,
the illusory power of the demons can't be fathomed.
A form-changer—who knows why he comes?
This scoundrel comes to learn our secrets!
Bind and hold him—that seems best to me."
[Ram replied] "Friend, you've analyzed the strategy rightly,
but I've vowed to protect those who seek shelter."

In Shrinath's interpretation, this passage draws special poignancy from the fact that both Sugriv and Vibhishan have quarreled with and ultimately betrayed their elder brothers. Sugriv has already come under the Lord's protection, but now Vibhishan's fate seems to hang in the balance and, ironically, Ram allows Sugriv to present the case against him. This becomes the means for Ram to teach the proud and somewhat narrow-minded monkey king a lesson on the value of compassion. It also allows for a humorous digression in which Ram compares himself to the demon and finds that every evil quality that Sugriv has attributed to Vibhishan has a parallel in his own divine attributes. The discussion of evil qualities or "defects" (dos[*] ) reminds the vyas of a passage in Book One in which nine defects are attributed to Shiva. After this digression, he returns to the subject of Ram's reception of Vibhishan and completes the story:

You know the time when Vibhishan-ji came seeking shelter and Sugriv-ji stopped him? Sugriv-ji said,

Sugriv said, "Listen, Lord of the Raghus,
Ten-head's brother is coming to meet you."

"Ten-head's brother"—that's the point—Ravan's brother is coming! The Lord said,

The Lord said, "Friend, what do you think?"

[off-handedly, speaking as Ram] "What's the need to consult me? If he's coming, well, let him come." Sugriv-ji said, "You don't understand. I'm telling you it's Ten-head's brother. . . . So the Lord said [sighs, then slowly


and deliberately] "Well, if Bali's brother[63] can come, why can't Ravan's brother?" [loud approval from listeners: "Vah!"] "If Bali's brother can come take refuge in me, then why shouldn't Ten-head's brother come?"

Sugriv said, "Come on, Maharaj! I mean something else, you're not getting it." The Lord said, "What's your point? Speak up, explain!"

"Look here," Sugriv said [excitedly], "Ten-head's sister came, and what a big calamity that was!"

Shurpanakha, the sister of Ravan. . . .

"Janaki-ji was carried off, it was a great calamity! And now Ten-head's brother is coming. . . ."

[slowly] Then the Lord said to Sugriv-ji, "Friend, I've left Ayodhya and come all this way. I go to all the ashrams of the sages and ascetics, to all the devotees' places; I go all over. If even a single devotee wants to meet me, I go to him and then travel on. I go there and then travel on! [fervently] Now a devotee is coming to meet me, and you are holding him back, Sugriv! What is this you're doing? Let him come!"

The enemy's younger brother, Vibhishan the demon. . . .

Vinay patrika. . . . Goswami-ji has eleven other books, you know, and if one studies them, the intoxication is all the greater. My revered teacher was a great scholar of all twelve books. That's why I quote a lot from the other books in my Katha .

The enemy's younger brother, Vibhishan the demon—
what devotion was he fit to practice?
But when he sought refuge, you brought him before you
and met him with open arms.
Vinay patrika , 166.8

[tenderly] The Lord, you know. . . . [returning to the story] Then Sugriv-ji said, "Maharaj, you are a king, therefore you should think like a king. Right now, consider, as a king, whether Vibhishan should be given refuge or not."

The illusory power of the demons can't be fathomed.
A form-changer—who knows why he comes?
This scoundrel comes to learn our secrets!
Bind and hold him—that seems best to me.

Four defects! Four defects were pointed out by Sugriv at that time: "illusory power of the demons"—that's one; "form-changer"—two; "who knows why he comes?"—three; "to learn our secrets"—four.


The Lord said, "Sugriv, these four faults which you have pointed out in Vibhishan, it seems that they are in me as well. It seems they belong to me also." Sugriv-ji was stunned, "Lord, what are you saying?" The Lord said, "You said that 'the illusory power of the demons can't be fathomed.' Well., if the illusory power of the demons can't be fathomed, my illusory power also can't be fathomed:

Hari's illusory power is inscrutable,
not to be fathomed, King of Birds!

My illusory power is also incomprehensible." And "form-changer": whenever the demons wish, they can take on a form. So the Lord said, "This defect also is found in me:

Of the fish, the turtle, the boar, the man-lion,
the dwarf, and of Parashuram . . .
[he pauses, smiling; audience completes line]
. . . you took the form!

[outburst of applause, exclamations of "Vah!"] When I desire it, then I too can take on a form. So this defect also is in me.

The illusory power of the demons can't be fathomed.
A form-changer—who knows why he comes?

Well, this 'who-knows-why-he-comes' defect is in me too:

The reason that Hari becomes incarnate,
one cannot say it's this or it's that.

The reason that God comes, this no one can explain with certainty. So,

A form-changer—who knows why he comes?
The scoundrel comes to learn our secrets!

He comes to learn our secrets. And I, I too . . .

Ram sits at the palace window
receiving everyone's homage.
He divines each one's desire
and gives accordingly to each.[64]

I too, day and night, find out, you see, everyone's secrets. So it appears that all four defects are in me. Therefore, if there are four defects in Vibhishan and there are four defects in me, well then, if one defective person makes friends with another defective person, well, you know, perhaps it may turn out for


the best! [laughter] But if a defective person should make friends with a meritorious person, well, that could be very difficult." Like the time when nine defects were pointed out in Lord Shiva—you know, by the seven sages.[65] Parvati-ji was delighted. She said, "Sages, I have heard it said:

Eight defects are ever in woman's heart.[66] 6.16.2

There are eight defects in women, so I have heard. So if an eightfold-defective woman should be wed to a ninefold-defective husband, well, they'll hit it off quite well![67] [laughter] But if by chance an eightfold-defective woman should get a ninefold-auspicious husband. . . ." They had pointed out nine auspicious qualities in Lord Vishnu, you know. But I'm not going to tell that story now; my subject is different. I'll just tell you the gist: that they described nine good qualities in Lord Vishnu, nine defects in Lord Shankar. Then Parvati-ji said, "If a ninefold-auspicious man is wed to an eightfold-defective woman, it will be a mismatch. But if she should marry a ninefold-defective man, then, you know, it just might work out!"

Mahadev may be full of defects,
Vishnu, the abode of all good qualities . . .

But get the point, it comes at the end:

Mahadev may be full of defects,
Vishnu, the abode of all good qualities,
but whatever pleases one's heart,
that alone one desires.

"Hey, Seven Sages, what are you saying? Don't you know who my guru is? My guru is Shri Narad-ji."

My obstinacy will persist through millions of births:
I'll wed Shambhu or remain a virgin!

I won't abandon Narad's advice,
whether my home prospers or perishes, I won't fear.
One who lacks faith in his guru's words
finds no happiness or profit even in dreams!


At that moment the seven sages . . . ah, they fell at Mother Parvati's feet! [returning to original story] So, when the Lord said these things about Vi-bhishan-ji, and when he lifted Vibhishan up and clasped him to his heart, at that moment the Lord looked at Sugriv-ji. The Lord said to Sugriv-ji, "Sugriv, you told me,

Bind and hold him—that seems best to me.

Bind him and hold him prisoner. Well, Sugriv, I am following your advice—I am binding him. But not with rope; I'm binding him in my arms." Right? [audience: applause and "Vah!"]

Having spoken, Vibhishan fell prostrate. Seeing this,
at once the Lord lifted him up with delight.
That humble speech pleased the Lord's heart
and his great arms clasped Vibhishan to his breast.

Marvelous is the Lord's nature, marvelous! The more you dwell on it, the more delight you'll experience. . . .[68]

The penultimate sentence above is almost a refrain, repeated at the end of each anecdote or episode in the seven-day Katha . Sometimes (as here) it is the Lord's svabhav , or "nature," that is praised, and sometimes his prabhav , or "majesty." In this way, Shrinath ties his many anecdotes and explanations into his overall treatment of the theme verse. But, as must be clear, his exposition is more an evocation and celebration of the Lord's being than a theological analysis of it, just as his vyakhya of the verse is more an improvisation on its mood and implications than a systematic analysis of its language or content.

The excerpt shows how much of a performer's exposition may consist of quotations—roughly half of Shrinath's Katha comprises aptly chosen verses from the Manas . It also offers an example of how a vyas , in presenting the text in his own fashion, necessarily interprets and comments on it. In the passage under consideration, the first line spoken by Ram himself ("kaha prabhu sakha bujhie kaha"; 5.43.5) is susceptible to at least two readings, because the verb bujhna can mean either "to think, to understand" or "to ask, to consult." The translation I have offered ("The Lord said, 'Friend, what do you think?'") is based on the first sense of the verb and is the interpretation preferred, for example, by the Gita Press tika[*] and the Manaspiyus[*] . Shrinath, however, wishes to stress the disparity between Ram's and Sugriv's understanding of the


situation and so takes the verb in its other sense and glosses the line, "What's the need to consult me?" having Ram add (with a hint of irritation in his voice), "If he's coming, then let him come."[69] This contributes to a heightening of tension in the retelling, as Sugriv supposes that Ram did not understand him correctly and hastens to explain, with a certain impatient urgency, why a demon like Vibhishan is not to be trusted. Thus the vyas gradually "sets up" Sugriv for the denouement: Ram lovingly embraces Vibhishan and shoots a glance in Sugriv's direction, accompanied by an ironic comment on the monkey's advice to "bind" the new arrival. Neither the glance nor the comment, of course, is mentioned in Tulsi's text.

Just as the text may be expanded through dialogues and incidents based on distinctive interpretations of its lines, it may also be supplemented by stories or motifs taken from other works of Tulsidas. Thus, while discoursing on the supreme good fortune of Kaushalya, Ram's mother, Shrinath Mishra cites a couplet from Balkand[*] , which in turn reminds him of a Kavitavali verse that mentions the infant Ram demanding that his mother give him the moon to play with—a theme Tulsi probably borrowed from the poetry of Surdas.[70] The expounder turns this brief reference into a charming dialogue between Ram and his mother, culminating in a humorous and ironic "punchline" that reflects, as Shrinath intends, on the Lord's "majesty" (prabhav ):

The all-pervading Brahman, stainless,
qualityless, and dispassionate—
that very unborn one, mastered by love and devotion,
lies in Kaushalya's lap.

Goswami-ji says that the all-pervading Brahman, stainless, qualityless, and dispassionate. . . . One time Bhagvan was playing, you know? And,

Sometimes he stubbornly demands the moon,
or seeing his reflection, is frightened.
Sometimes he claps his hands and dances,
filling the womens' hearts with delight.
Kavitavali , 1:4


Bhagvan said, "Mommy, give me the moon. I will play with the moon." When God plays, you know, will he play with any ordinary toy? [obstinately] "Give me the moon!"

Kaushalya said [sighs patiently], "The moon, you know, cannot come down to earth." Bhagvan laughed and said, "You mean, God can come down to earth, but the moon cannot come?" [audience: "Vah!"] "You are able to bring down the Absolute, and yet you cannot bring the moon? "[71]

Sometimes the Ramayan story is enhanced in Katha by the introduction of material that has no basis in any of Tulsi's writings, or perhaps in any literature. Such anecdotes drawn from the oral tradition contribute significantly to domesticating the august epic characters and offer another kind of commentary on the story. The following example, again taken from Shrinath Mishra's performances, was woven into a retelling of the episode in which King Janak's messengers come to Ayodhya to announce Ram's impending marriage, and King Dashrath eagerly solicits news of his sons. The messengers remark on the personalities of the two princes, and this reminds the vyas of a story told by "a sant of Ayodhya." The story, which features an object (a jhar-phanus[*] , or "chandelier," presumably of glass or crystal) more suggestive of a nineteenth-century princely setting than of the ancient world of the Ramayan, allows the expounder to make a good-natured joke over the fact that Lord Ram, even as a child, was inclined to be reserved.

O King, even as Ram possesses incomparable strength,
so Lakshman is a storehouse of fiery energy.

The messengers, here, are making a distinction. "Your elder son, Your Majesty? Well, the fact is, he's very solemn; very dignified, your elder son. . . ." You know, a certain sant of Ayodhya used to tell a wonderful story: Little Lord Ramchandra was twirling a stick. The stick flew from the Lord's hand and struck Ayodhya's most precious chandelier—you know, a hanging lamp—Ayodhya's most valuable one. The chandelier broke; it was shattered! The servants came and told Maharaja Dashrath, "Your Majesty, Ayodhya's most valuable chandelier got broken today!" Then Kaushalya-ji came. Kaushalya-ji was very frightened and said to Maharaja Dashrath, "A chandelier, the costliest in all of Ayodhya, got broken." So then Maharaja Dashrath asked sternly, "Who broke it? Who did it?!"

"Uh . . . Shri Ram. [pleadingly] Your Majesty, it was a mistake, please forgive him! Ram made a mistake. . . ."

[pause] Then Maharaja Dashrath said [gaily] "Sound the trumpets! Call a


holiday! Go all out! At least my little Ramchandra should be naughty enough to break one chandelier!" [laughter and applause][72]

Similarly, the informal and open-ended structure of Katha allows the performer to "contemporize" his discourse (to borrow another term from Ramanujan) by including personal anecdotes and contemporary stories. These may be as inspiring as Ramnarayan Shukla's account of the austerities of Jugalanand Sharan, a saintly sadhu whom he knew in his youth; or as satirical as Shrinath's tale of a Calcutta businessman of his acquaintance, who aspired to earn "twenty-five lakh rupees" (Rs 2,500,000) and then retire to Vrindavan but later found—after he had earned several times the desired amount—that he was too firmly enmeshed in worldly cares to set out for Krishna's holy city. And when Shrinath has the hot-tempered Lakshman note with disappointment Ram's use of the word "tomorrow" in his threat to slay Sugriv—fearing that Ram has, as usual, left a compassionate loophole in his anger—the vyas offers a homely digression on the habits of contemporary merchants:

Our U.P. shopkeepers, you know, the clever ones, they post signs in their shops: "Cash today, credit tomorrow!" Well, whenever you go there, it's always "today," right? When is it ever "tomorrow"? [laughter][73]

Esoteric Interpretations

A common honorific appended to the names of famous expounders is Manasmarmajña —"knower of the secrets of the Manas "; for the vast reservoir of the epic is thought to conceal mysteries in its depths that only its most profound students can discern. One reason devotees flock to hear Katha is to learn some of these secrets and so gain insight into difficult or obscure passages. One such passage occurs in the dialogue with Parashuram (Parasuramsamvad ) in Book One. After Ram breaks Shiva's bow to win Sita's hand, he is confronted by the militant Brahman ascetic Parashuram, who challenges and insults him; their conversation is joined by Lakshman, whose hot temper matches Parashuram's own. The passage abounds in amusing insults and plays brilliantly on the tension inherent in the Brahman-Kshatriya relationship. The denouement of this long and heated exchange, however, is swift to the point of obscurity: after finally silencing his younger brother with a stern glance, Ram addresses the offended Brahman:

"Truly I speak, and not to flatter my family—
a son of Raghu in battle does not fear even Death.


Yet such is the greatness of the Brahman race
that even a fearless one stands in awe of you."[74] Hearing Raghupati's sweet and mysterious words,
the curtain of Parashuram's understanding was lifted.

Ram's speech, though essentially a reiteration of what he has said earlier in the dialogue, produces a dramatic effect on the Brahman, who only a moment before was heaping abuse on Ram and threatening to kill him but now breaks into a long paean of praise to him as God incarnate. The obvious query—just what precipitates this sudden change of heart?—has been sharpened by Tulsi's use of the word gurh[*] (mysterious, allusive) in the next to last line above to describe Ram's words; clearly the poet intends them to convey more than their surface meaning, although he provides no further explanation. The commentarial tradition has offered many interpretations for this puzzling passage, which seems significant in that it concerns a moment of recognition of the hero's incarnate divinity. For Shrinath Mishra, this is one of those passages in which Ram's awesome majesty (prabhav ) is triumphantly manifested:

"Such is the greatness of the Brahman race
that even a fearless one stands in awe of you."

The Lord is wearing his yellow robe [acting it out with gestures]. He pushes aside his robe and then he gives a sign to Parashuram, pointing here [gesturing to his chest]:

"Such is the greatness of the Brahman race . . . "

He says [with great emotion], "Your grandfather Bhrigu once kicked me, and I still wear that mark like an ornament! [audience: "Vah!"] Yet you address me as a 'foe of Brahmans'!"

"Such is the greatness of the Brahman race
that even a fearless one stands in awe of you."
Hearing Raghupati's sweet and mysterious words,
the curtain of Parashuram's understanding was lifted.

At that moment, Parashuram-ji . . . Look here—it's that very word. Listen carefully; you people are all learned. It's that very word! [recites slowly]

Then Parashuram knew Ram's majesty [prabhav ]
and his body trembled . . . .[75] 1.284


In Shrinath's analysis of the pivotal verse, the word "such" (asi ) is the clue to a physical gesture by means of which Parashuram's ignorance is finally removed. For according to Vaishnava doctrine, Vishnu, the Supreme Lord, bears certain physical marks, one of which is a footprint-shaped scar on his chest, a legacy of the kick of the temperamental sage Bhrigu, who once sought to test the Lord's humility.[76] Thus, by baring his chest Ram reveals to Parashuram that he is more than just "a son of Raghu"—he asserts his atemporal, divine identity.

Tulsi's account of Ram and Sita's marriage contains another enigmatic verse that has received attention from commentators. The poet notes that "all the gods" came to witness the festivities, and he describes their astonishment at the splendor of King Janak's capital and the magnificence of the arrangements. But the reaction of Brahma, the world-creator, is singled out for special comment.

But the Ordainer was particularly surprised,
for nowhere did he see his own handiwork.

This verse appears to present a problem, for although Vaishnavas believe that it is merely at the instigation of his overlord, Vishnu, that Brahma executes his periodic task of cosmic creation, they nevertheless regard him as creator of the world, and Janakpur is part of the world. Yet the poet has asserted that, at the time of the wedding, the creator could detect no trace of his own labors there. When Ramkinkar Upadhyay gave Katha in Ayodhya on the anniversary of the marriage festivities, he asked his listeners to consider whether Ram's marriage had been an ordinary temporal event. If it had been, he went on, then what would they all participate in later that evening, when wedding processions mounted by various temples would circulate through the city amid great rejoicing? Would these merely be "commemorations" of an event in the remote past? To counter this view, Ramkinkar introduced the episode containing the above verse, which he expounded as follows:

There was pride in Brahma's heart: "I have fabricated all this creation! And within this creation made by me, in this city of Janakpur, such a grand celebration is taking place. People are sure to think of me; they'll think, 'How great is Brahma's creation!'" But when Brahma entered Janakpur and looked around, then what happened? It says,


But the Ordainer was particularly surprised,
for nowhere did he see his own handiwork.

Brahma looked around. He was stunned. He said, "But there seems to be nothing at all here made by me!" Well, the god of faith, Lord Shiva, understood: "Intelligence operates according to reason, and so the god of intelligence is confused." Immediately, he came and stood before Brahma, but he didn't address him directly. Smiling, he asked all the gods, "What have you all come here to see?" They said, "Shri Ram's wedding." So Lord Shankar said, "Shri Ram's wedding is not to be seen with the eyes only. If one were to see it only with the eyes, then one would experience merely the delight of appearance." They asked, "How then are we to experience its delight?" Look here, you must have read the verse:

Shiva admonished all the gods,
"Don't become dumfounded with surprise . . . .

Why not? He said,

"Ponder in your hearts . . . .

It's not enough just to see , you must ponder in your heart!

"Ponder in your hearts—
for this is the marriage of Sita and Raghubir!"

To explain Brahma's state, I'll give you an example. How was Brahma's condition at that time? There was a little boy who was very beloved of his morn and dad. His morn and dad were always taking him on their laps, always caressing him. One day by chance that little boy happened upon the photo of his more and dad's wedding. When he examined it he saw his morn and he felt very happy; then he saw his dad and again he felt happy. He looked happily at everyone in the photo, but then he became sad. Some perceptive person asked, "First when you were looking at the photo you were happy. Why have you now become sad?" So the little boy said, "what can I say? It seems that everybody's picture is in here but mine, therefore I feel sad." [laughter] And then that wise person said, "Well then, understand from this photo that you did not always exist. It was only after this wedding that you came to be."

And so Lord Shiva said to Brahma, he said, "Brahma, don't look around here thinking 'what have I made?' Look here to find out "Who has made me'!" [laughter and applause][77]

Here a homely anecdote of a small boy's naiveté is used to present the Ramaite doctrinal view of Sita-Ram as the primordial ground of being


and to emphasize that their apparently narrative-bound "marriage" is actually an event that stands outside cosmic time. Not only in the above excerpt but throughout this Katha Ramkinkar's emphasis is on the immediacy of the events in the Manas and the importance of the devotee's direct participation in them. Describing the placement of the various guests in the marriage pavilion, he suddenly challenges his listeners, "But where, in the pavilion, are you seated? Do you see yourself there or not?" If they are not present in the pavilion, he chides them, they are denying the Vaishnava doctrine of the eternality (sasvatatva ) of the Lord's lila . They are viewing the Manas as a mere "picture" (citra ) of the past, however lovely and idealized, rather than as the "mirror" (darpan[*] ) that Tulsidas intended it to be—a mirror in which they must see their own reflections.

Indeed, it is by "pondering in their hearts" or even by quite literally "placing themselves in the picture" through visualization techniques—concerning which I have more to say in the next chapter—that traditional expounders arrive at some of their unusual interpretations of the text. For although Ramayanis might be unwilling to attribute absolute theological weight to their interpretations—they are primarily storytellers, not theologians—at the same time, they would not like their views to be dismissed as "mere imagination" (an accusation sometimes leveled against Ramkinkar). The term they prefer is bhav , which in this context might best be translated "insight" in the literal sense. It is Very much within the realm of devotional possibility to regard a brilliant vyas as one who has actually been witness to what he describes. How else could he "see" Ram's meaningful glance in Sugriv's direction at the moment of embracing Vibhishan ? How else could he "see" Ram push aside his robe to show the Brahman's foot-mark to Parashuram? How else could he repeat conversations and reveal gestures and facial expressions that the text does not record? We might say that he sees all this "in his mind's eye" and regard it as mere imaginative license; the bhakti tradition is more inclined to place the locus of these events in the heart and to consider them insights into a higher reality.

Numerology and "Structural" Analysis

A notable characteristic of traditional Indian scholarship is its penchant—some might say mania—for systematic classification and hierarchy. From the three "strands," or gunas[*] , constituting material existence, the four aims of life, five elements, six flavors, eight (or nine) aesthetic


emotions, ten states of separation, to the twenty-four avatars of the Lord, the thirty-two basic postures of hatha[*]yoga , and even the sixty-four different positions in which it is possible (in theory at least) for male and female to unite—there is hardly an aspect of life that Brahmanical thinking has not subjected to detailed, if at times rather gratuitous, classification into orderly systems, usually according to auspicious numerical values. Such systematizing reveals more, however, than a compulsive need to organize; it reflects a cultural conviction of meaningful structure underlying the apparently untidy diversity of the world of forms.

The devotee accepts the Manas as a work of the highest inspiration—Lord Shiva's own retelling of the eternal Katha of Ram—and therefore he expects its grand design to be filled with hidden meanings and relationships. One of the aims—indeed, one of the special delights—of Katha is to call listeners' attention to meaningful structures and correspondences underlying the surface narrative. The kind of intense but loving scrutiny to which traditional scholars subject the text is very successful in revealing such structures and thus serves to enhance the audience's appreciation of the epic as an inexhaustible store of meanings relevant to every aspect of life.

Whenever a Manas verse contains a series of adjectives or nouns, traditional scholarship is almost certain to remark on their number, and certain lines indeed lend themselves particularly well to sustained analysis in numerological and symbolic terms. One such verse is the couplet that describes Ram's beauty when he appears to King Manu and Queen Shatrupa as a reward for their long and arduous penance.

Blue as a blue lotus, blue as an amethyst,
blue as a rain-bearing cloud—
the sight of his beauty put to shame
millions upon millions of Love gods.

Although the casual reader might see only a cluster of conventional metaphors in the first two lines, the commentarial tradition discerns a triad immediately suggestive of the tripartite structure of the cosmos: the netherworld (conceived as a watery abyss and symbolized by the water-born lotus), earth (with its mines of precious stones), and heaven (realm of clouds and rain). Certain Ramayanis have also sought to relate these metaphors to other triadic clusters in philosophy and mythology:


for example, to the divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and to the three divine attributes of existence, sentience, and bliss (sat, cit, and anand ).[78]

Pointing out the recurrence of numerical values in the text also confirms the audience's belief that there is a deeper structure to the epic than meets the eye. In his account of the reception of the newly married Ram and Sita in Ayodhya, Shrinath Mishra notes that Tulsidas used six metaphors to describe the happiness of Queen Kaushalya on beholding her son and his wife for the first time.

Like a yogi who attains supreme insight,
an invalid given rejuvenating nectar,
a pauper who finds the philosopher's stone,
or a blind man who gains beautiful eyes,
like one dumb from whose lips Sarasvati shines forth,
or a warrior victorious on the battlefield.

The expounder invites his listeners to consider why the poet has used six metaphors—their number is not arbitrary, he insists. He reminds them that Kaushalya, in a previous incarnation, was Shatrupa, wife of the primordial lawgiver Manu, who performed austerity together with her husband and was rewarded with the promise that she would one day give birth to the Lord in human form. Shrinath then cites the verse in which Shatrupa framed her boon, pointing out that it consists of six separate requests:

That very joy, that beatitude, that devotion,
that love for your feet,
that discrimination and that way of life,
O Lord, by your grace, grant me.

"These six," he concludes solemnly, "are fulfilled today for Kaushalya-ji."[79] Of course, the more hard-nosed reader may object that the two passages, in fact, resemble each other solely in the numerical total of their components and that even a vyas would be hard put to demonstrate more specific parallels between the boons requested by Shatrupa and the metaphorical descriptions of Kaushalya's happiness. But to undertake such belabored argument is not the expounder's intent; he merely hints at a structural parallel in passing, as an aside in the course


of a longer story. In the performance context, such an insight, suggesting a unity of design linking two widely separated episodes in the text, is highly effective and earns a warm response from the devout audience.

An even more audacious example of an expounder's "structural" analysis may be drawn from one of Ramnarayan Shukla's daily talks at Sankat Mochan Temple. One day, while discoursing on the power of "speech" (vac ), he announced with great fervor that "Hanuman never utters any speech that does not contain the four holy syllables Si-taRa-ma ." This idea immediately intrigued the temple audience, but curiosity turned to astonished delight as the vyas began reeling off at great speed each of the lines spoken by Hanuman, right from his first appearance in Book Four, holding each one up in the air for a split second, as it were, and then with dazzling speed dissecting it almost visibly, syllable by syllable, like a sort of human word processor, discarding some syllables and retaining others to show that each line does indeed contain Si-taRa-ma .[80] Inherent in the spectators' warm response to this verbal tour de force, of course, is their own faith in Hanuman and their admiration for Ramnarayan's deep devotion to him, as well as their recognition that, consciously or not, the author of the Manas really did seem to have structured each of Hanuman's speeches to contain the letters of his adored master's and mistress's names.

Allegorical Interpretation

The technique of treating the Manas as an allegory and viewing' each of its characters as symbolic of an emotional or spiritual state is not new;[81] it is best exemplified at present by the work of the renowned but controversial Ramkinkar Upadhyay, whose interpretation of the epic—his characteristic bhav —is frequently termed "metaphysical" or "mystical" (adhyatmik ) by his admirers.[82] Whereas many contemporary expounders favor what might be called a "fundamentalist" approach to the


text—viewing its events and characters in an extremely literal fashion and constantly emphasizing the supposed historicity of the story—Ramkinkar, though not denying that the events of the epic happened as described, reinterprets them in order to emphasize their relevance to archetypal and hence contemporary human situations. It appears to be particularly this feature of his pravacan that has won the admiration of the urban, college-educated people who make up a large part of his audience.

At their best, Ramkinkar's discourses are so cohesive and seamlessly woven around a central theme or image that it is difficult to single out brief passages to convey their flavor effectively. In the Ayodhya performance mentioned earlier, for example, the vyas developed his remarks around the metaphorical image of a mirror, symbolic of the Manas itself, and its comparison with a picture or painting.

If, when reading the Ramcaritmanas you feel that it describes something that happened in the Treta Age, then you are looking at a picture. But if, when reading the ancient story, you feel that it is also the truth of the present age, the truth of our own lives, the truth of our difficulties, then it means that you are using it as a mirror.[83]

Rhetorical questions concerning the underlying meaning (abhipray , tatparya ) of characters and events form a recurring leitmotif in Ramkinkar's performances, and the answers he provides to these questions nearly always involve symbolic interpretations. Thus, the fact that King Dashrath, in Ayodhyakand[*] , gazes into a mirror while seated on his throne surrounded by courtiers singing his praise is interpreted by Ramkinkar as a demonstration of the need for those in authority to turn their attention from flattering voices (both internal and external) and to engage in intense self-examination. The fact that the king's crown has slipped to one side is likewise given a symbolic interpretation by the vyas :

And when he looked in the mirror, his gaze went in the direction of a defect: he saw that his crown had become crooked and he straightened it. And what is the significance of that? The crown, you know, is the symbol of authority. And, brother, it is in the nature of authority to constantly slip away. This crown of authority never resides on anyone's head for all time; in some way or other it invariably slips away.[84]

The just king, he continues, is not afraid to consult the mirror of truth,


even in public view; but, he adds, Tulsidas has deliberately refrained from mentioning even a single mirror in Lanka, Ravan's golden city of self-deception.

At times, Ramkinkar supports his allegorical designations by citing the epic. Thus, in discussing Ram's slaying of Taraka (1.209.5,6) he "proves" his interpretation of the female demon as a symbol of despair by the clever use of a line from an earlier passage in which Tulsi compares the deeds of Ram in human form with the wonders wrought by the Lord's name. Again using the image of the mirror, the expounder asks his listeners to look beneath the surface of the story to see its relevance to their own lives:

The story goes that this Taraka, you know, was a woman of the Treta Age who became a demon. But really, this Taraka is present in our own lives. Look in the mirror, and she is there. And who is Taraka?

For the sake of the sage, Ram annihilated
the daughter of Suketu, with her army and her son.[85] Together with weakness and sorrow, the devotee's despair
is voided by the name, as night by the sun.

So Goswami-ji says, Taraka is the despair in life.[86]

By a similar symbolic substitution, Shiva's bow, which Ram breaks to win Sita's hand, is interpreted as "egotism" (ahamkar[*] ), over which Shiva is said to be the presiding deity. This association, like that of "intellect" with the god Brahma, is supported by Ramkinkar's reading of a line from Lanka[*]kand[*] in which Ravan's wife Mandodari, urging her husband not to fight Ram, describes the Lord's "universal body" (visvarup ).

Shiva is his ego, Brahma his intelligence,
the Moon his mind, and Vishnu his consciousness.

It is in part for such "strained" interpretations that Ramkinkar is criticized by some religious leaders as well as by other expounders. "He is leading people astray," one elderly vyas told me, "because he does not interpret the Manas in accordance with the Veda, which is what Tulsidas intended." A prominent mahant of Banaras concurred, "His interpretations are fabricated out of his own mind; Goswami-ji never even


imagined such things!" In an interview, Ramkinkar countered such criticism by observing wryly that anyone who said anything new could expect to be similarly reviled. Hadn't the Brahmans of Banaras assailed Tulsidas himself for his supposed "innovations"?

And others will come after me, and they too will ponder in their hearts, they too will develop their ideas from the perspective of a welling up of feeling; and those same dogmatic people will oppose them too. Only then they will use my ideas in their arguments, saying "What he said, that is ancient and traditional."[87]

Certainly, it appears to an outsider that Ramkinkar is guilty of no more strained interpretation of the text than many another expounder. That he gives novel twists to certain verses in order to advance his arguments can hardly be called an innovation; by all accounts, the popular nineteenth-century Ramayani Vandan Pathak was guilty of a far more tortuous manipulation of Tulsi's words. What sets Ramkinkar apart, aside from his singular commercial success, is his tendency to move away from a literal interpretation of the story in order to make it more relevant to the concerns of his audience. The tremendous response that his effort has elicited—reflected in the designation "emperor of Katha " (Kathasamrat[*] ) popularly accorded him and in the frank admiration for him expressed by many younger performers—suggests that Ramkinkar's allegorical style of interpretation will exert a major influence over the shape of Manas-katha to come.

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Four The Art of Manas-Katha
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