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The Fathomless Lake: Tulsi's Narrative Framing

Recent studies in sociolinguistics and in the rhetorical approach to literary criticism have drawn attention to the technique of "framing"—the framing of communication in general and verbal art in particular. This concept has been developed and applied by linguists and anthropologists and most recently by folklorists interested in the study of "verbal art as performance"—to cite the title of an essay by Richard Bauman that makes a valuable contribution to performance theory. Drawing on the work of Gregory Bateson, Bauman notes,

It is characteristic of communicative interaction that it includes a range of explicit or implicit messages which carry instructions on how to interpret the other messages being communicated. This communication about communication Bateson termed metacommunication. . . . In Bateson's terms, "a frame is metacommunicative. Any message which either explicitly or implicitly defines a frame ipso facto gives the reader instructions or aids in his attempt to understand the messages included within the frame."[46]

The theme of the present study is the presentation of a literary work to its audience, and the metacommunicative strategies employed by oral performers to "frame" the Manas are discussed in due course. It is useful, however, to begin by examining the ways in which the text itself has been deliberately "framed" by its author—that is, placed within contexts that provide the listener/reader with clues for interpreting its message. Such framing, I suggest, is not simply a literary convention but a cue to the intended use of the text in cultural performances.

Two explicit frames are built into the structure of the Manas ; each has implicit dimensions that may not be readily apparent to readers of a different cultural background. The first is the title itself, which is introduced in the thirty-fifth stanza and then developed into a complex allegory comprising more than a hundred lines. I identify this frame as "first." because, in selecting this title, Tulsi knew it was likely to be the first message about the work that would reach a listener. Hill's English rendering, "The Holy Lake of the Acts of Ram," though unexceptionable, inevitably fails to convey the mythological associations that the title evokes for the North Indian listener.


The name Ram , no doubt the poet's own dearest element in the title—his mantra, or spiritually efficacious word par excellence—needs little elaboration here; not merely the name of the hero of the narrative, it was to Tulsi and his fellow devotees the personal designation of the supreme godhead.

I venerate "Ram," the name of Raghubar,
the cause of fire, sun, and moon.
Breath of the Veda, filled with Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva,
incomparable, qualityless; treasury of all qualifies.
The Great Mantra that Shiva repeats
and his instruction, giving liberation in Kashi.[47] 1.19.1-3

The Sanskrit word carita (from the verbal root car, "to move") is a perfect participle connoting "going, moving, course as of heavenly bodies," and by extension, "acts, deeds, adventures."[48] The compound Ram-carit is thus roughly synonymous with the term Ramayana[*] , if the latter is taken to mean "the goings [movements] of Ram" (Rama + ayana ). Yet carit is not random movement but expresses the inherent qualities of the mover; in Sanskrit literature the word has been used in the titles of biographies of religious figures and idealized kings (e.g., the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosa; the Harsacarita[*] of Bana). A Manas scholar in Banaras once expressed the meaning of carit with an analogy to geometry: a car is a moving point and its carit the circle it inscribes—the track or orbit that records its passage. In this interpretation, Ram is the moving point of the infinite that passes through our world, the track of his passage being delineated by his carit. For Tulsidas, this was an appropriate term to describe the earthly activities of one whom he revered as the incarnation of God.

Manas is derived from the root man —"to think, believe, imagine, perceive, comprehend."[49] This root and its derivatives—such as the Sanskrit word manas —pose a perennial problem for the translator, in that no one English term can express both its cognitive and its emotional connotations: it is frequently rendered as either "mind" or "heart." From this term is derived the word manas —"arising out of manas, "


"belonging to manas "—that is, mind/heart-born. Used as a proper noun, this is the name of a remote Himalayan lake, situated on the Tibetan plateau at the foot of Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva. References to this lake are found in numerous texts, beginning with the Mahabharata and Ramayana[*] epics.[50] In later religious poetry, the lake is often used as a metaphor for the mind itself in its highest aspect: its waters are said to be as pure and still as the consciousness of the contemplative is to become, and on their surface floats the stainless hamsa[*] bird—symbol of the Self—which feeds on the pearls it plucks from the lake's clear waters. The discriminating hamsa[*] also possesses the ability to separate milk from water, a skill that Tulsi likens to the ability of saintly people to grasp the good and discard the evil in worldly life (1.6).

The Manas , then, is the "Holy Lake" of Hill's translation: a profound reservoir gleaming at the foot of towering white peaks.[51] This, the poet identifies as the fountainhead of Ram's mysterious carit, from which the discriminating listener, hamsa -like[*] , may extract clues to Ram's reality. Tulsi attibutes the origin of the narrative and its title to Shiva himself.

Shiva formed this and placed it in his heart.[52] Finding good occasion he narrated it to Parvati.
Upon contemplation, the excellent name,
Ramcaritmanas , he joyfully gave it.

He then begins his allegory, first situating the mystical lake in the "soil of good intelligence" in the depths of the heart, and the source of its water in the boundless ocean of scripture—the revealed Vedas and the Puranic "old stories" (1.36.3). The saints are likened to clouds? which draw this water from the depths and release it in showers of "Ram's fame"—the stories of his deeds, which enter the heart through the channels of the ears and so fill the Manas reservoir.

Having established the origin of his lake, the poet describes its surroundings:


The four lovely and excellent dialogues,
shaped by lucid contemplation,
are the four charming ghats
of this holy and auspicious lake.

The word "dialogues" (samvad ) refers to the other explicit set of frames, which will be discussed shortly: the narrating of the Manas as a series of interwoven conversations; these form the banks of this lake of Ram's glory. The poem's seven books are called "stairways" or "descents" (sopan ), leading down the ghats into the water, while its meters are the lotus leaves and flowers that cover the water's surface (1.37.1,4,5). Living creatures are added to the picture—the "bees of good deeds," which sip the nectar of the lotus verses; the "swans" of wisdom and detachment, and the "fish" of various poetic devices and moods, which dart about below the water's surface (1.37.7,8). Surrounding the lake is a forest of mango trees—"the assembly of devotees"—and the faith of these good people is the spring season, which ever reigns there (1.37.12). Thus the poet introduces into his landscape the potential audience of his poem.

Those who diligently sing these acts
are the skilled guardians of this lake.
Men and women, ever listening with reverence,
are the fortunate gods, masters of this Manas .

Similarly, lustful and vindictive people are said to be like crows and storks (the former impure, the latter scheming, according to the Hindu bestiary), but the lake holds no attraction for them, as it is free of the "snails, frogs, and scum" of sensual stories (1.38.3,4). Should they ever get a glimpse of it—which is all but impossible, since access is blocked by "straying paths of bad company" and "towering peaks of domestic cares" (1.38.7,8)—they will go away disappointed, without having drunk or bathed in its waters, and will afterward abuse it to others and discourage them from setting out to find it. Yet,

All these obstacles cannot obstruct one
on whom Ram has looked with grace.
Such a one bathes reverently in the lake
and the three terrible fires cannot scorch him.
Brother, let him who yearns to bathe in this lake
diligently cultivate the company of the holy!


The poet then describes how .the "gladdening current of love" arises from the lake to become the "river of lovely song," which he identifies with the Sarayu, the sacred stream of Ayodhya. Later it joins the "Ganga of devotion to Ram" and the mighty Son, signifying "the fame of Ram and his brother in battle," until the many merged streams flow into "the ocean of Ram's inherent being" (1.40.1-4). Succeeding stanzas further expand the allegory, likening the major episodes of the narrative to various features of the river and its banks, and to the appearance of the river in each of the six seasons of the North Indian year (1.42.1-6).

The imagery of the Manas Lake and its ghats is not confined to this introductory passage but is reaffirmed periodically throughout the poem. Each of the seven books, true to the allegory, is termed a "descent" into the lake (sopan ). Balkand[*] is the "first descent," Ayodhya is the second, and so on, each stage in the narrative drawing the listener deeper into the waters. In the final book, the image of the lake is reintroduced in the dialogue between Bhushundi and Garuda, which serves as an epilogue to the narrative.[53]

The appropriateness of Tulsidas's choice of the Manas Lake as an allegorical frame for his epic is best appreciated in light of the role that the text has come to play in North Indian society—as a great reservoir of myth, folk wisdom, and devotional expression on which people constantly draw. The image also suggests a source of meaning that can never be exhausted, a story that can be continually reinterpreted and expanded on; this concept, as will be seen, is a presupposition of all Manas performance, as is the notion that there can never be a single definitive interpretation of the text.

The second explicit framing device in the Manas —the presentation of the narrative through a series of four dialogues—exemplifies a traditional pattern in Indian literature: the presentation of a text as an oral narration by a particular teller to a particular listener, within a carefully delineated context. Although hardly unique to India, this device has been used there with very striking consistency, even outside the realm of "story" literature; indeed many premodern philosophical, aesthetic, and scientific treatises were framed as contextualized dialogues. Even though it is not possible here to explore all the ramifications of the use of this kind of framing in Indian literature, a few relevant points may be raised. First and most obviously, the technique suggests an intimate and unbroken connection between oral and written literature, and a contin-


uing awareness of the former as a source and model for the latter. A second point involves the problematic but utilitarian notion of India as a "traditional" society—as contrasted to the equally problematic category "modern." A traditional society is generally held to be one in which norms of behavior established or thought to have been established in the legendary past are accepted as authoritative and frequently invoked in reference to present behavior, and in which "originality" that involves a radical departure from these norms is discouraged (although originality in the reassertion or even the reinterpretation of norms may be highly prized). In such a society, as Bauman has observed, an "appeal to tradition," often accompanied by a "disclaimer of originality" (at least as regards the content to be communicated) can serve as one of the most important "keys" to performance—a necessary cue to prepare listeners/readers to become an audience for a display of verbal art.[54]

A perhaps more useful designation for India is as a "context-sensitive" society, in which people perceive much of their behavior against a background of social, religious, and historicolegendary contexts.[55] Performances in such a society must be "keyed" by reference to traditional frames, because frames provide the contextual information necessary for the reception of a communication as a performance and thus become constitutive of the very nature of verbal art.

Like the society for which it was created, the Manas too is "context-sensitive," and one of its relevant contexts is the tradition of oral retelling of the Ram legend—a story that people invariably hear long before they ever (if ever) read it. Early in the first book, the poet tells how he came to hear it.

I too heard from my guru
that story, in Sukarkhet.
But I didn't comprehend it,
being but an ignorant child.
Teller and listener should be treasuries of wisdom;
Ram's tale is mysterious.
How could I, ignorant soul, understand,
a fool in the clutches of the Dark Age?
But then the guru told it again and again,
and I grasped a little, according to my wit.
That very tale I set in common speech,
that it may enlighten my heart.
1.30a,b; 1.31.1,2


Tulsidas's "appeal to tradition" and "disclaimer of originality" goes beyond this bit of autobiographical detail, however, for his retelling of the legend of Ram is set within the context of no less than four narratives—the "four excellent dialogues" mentioned earlier. They are introduced in a passage immediately preceding the lines just cited (which themselves identify the fourth teller/listener pair: Tulsidas himself and his audience):

Shiva formed this beautiful story
and then graciously related it to Parvati.
The same he gave to Kak Bhushundi,
recognizing him as Ram's devotee, and worthy of it.
From him then Yajnavalkya obtained it
and he recited it to Bharadvaj.

The four frames thus implied may be diagramed as in Figure 2.[56]

Such narrative genealogies are common in Hindu literature, and a large number of medieval religious texts, especially those of the tantric tradition, ultimately trace their teachings to dialogues between Shiva and Parvati. Tulsi was thus appealing to a well-established tradition in his choice of Shiva as the primal narrator; he was also buttressing one of his prime theological positions—the fundamental compatibility of Vaishnavism and Shaivism—by depicting Shiva as a model devotee of Ram. But Tulsi's sequence of narrative frames is not merely a textual genealogy, cited at the start of the work and not referred to thereafter; all four narrators remain actively present throughout, and at any given moment one of them is always speaking, addressing his respective listener. Even in straightforward narrative passages, the poet interjects frequent asides from speaker to listener, including a vocative identifying the latter (such as "O Best of Birds!"—an epithet of Garuda—or "O Uma!"—another name for Parvati) and hence, by extension, the narrator as well. The transition from story to frame and back again is often abrupt and may strike the Western reader as a gratuitous interruption of the tale. Yet the device occurs with such frequency that one must assume it to be an important element in the poet's strategy; evidently Tulsi expected his audience to remain continuously aware of all four narrative


Figure 2.
Narrative framing in the Manas

frames. A good example is the passage in Sundar kand[*] (5.41.6-8) describing Ravan's abuse of his brother Vibhishan, who has advised him to return Sita to Ram:

(narrative: Ravan kicks Vibhishan)

Thus saying, he struck him with his feet.
Still the younger brother clasped them again and again.

(aside: Shiva to Parvati)

O Uma! Such is the greatness of saints, who always return good for ill.

(back to narrative: Vibhishan speaks)

Well may you, who are like a father to me, abuse me. Yet Lord, your salvation lies in worshiping Ram![57]

It seems appropriate that the frame diagram presented earlier should resemble a telescoping box-lens, or a pool set below a series of descending steps. These metaphorical images suggest the poet's strategy in periodically shifting his focus: now placing listeners in the midst of the story, now withdrawing them to a desired distance in order to call their


attention to contextual material in light of which he desires them to. interpret it; of alternately immersing them in the depths of his lake and lifting them back to its peripheral ghats. Tulsi thus weaves a series of "commentaries" into the very fabric of his text.

Another frame is implied as well: just as Tulsi is relating the story and commenting on it to his listeners, so they in turn may become tellers of and commentators on his story through the performance genres that have developed around its recitation. It is worth noting here that the tradition of oral and written commentary on the Manas discussed in chapters 3 and 4 came to regard the four dialogues precisely as contexts or "approaches" (as a ghat is an approach to a body of water) according to which the Ram story might be interpreted. The diagram favored by most commentators disregards the chronological element of story transmission and assigns to each dialogue and ghat a cardinal direction, setting them equidistant from the lake/narrative, as shown in Figure 3.[58]

A brief account of the interrelationship between the epic's narrative frames will serve both to suggest how the poet uses them to emphasize various aspects of the story, and to acquaint the reader with some of the distinctive features of Tulsi's retelling. The opening of Book One places the listener at the outer rim of the first diagram; speaking in his own voice, Tulsidas invokes the blessings of all beings in the mighty labor he is about to undertake and presents his allegory of the mystical lake. Stanza 43 concludes this introduction and begins the account of the meeting between the sages Yajnavalkya and Bharadvaj in the latter's hermitage at Prayag. Bharadvaj presses Yajnavalkya to tell him the story of Ram, feigning confusion over the question of whether the legendary prince of Ayodhya could be the same transcendent Ram whose name "the immortal Shiva eternally repeats" (1.46.3). Here Tulsi introduces one of his major themes: the reconciliation of the nirgun[*] (quality-less) and sagun[*] (endowed with qualities) conceptions of divinity. Yajnavalkya relates how a similar confusion once arose in the mind of Shiva's wife, Parvati, in her former incarnation as Sati. This leads to a lengthy retelling of the Puranic story of Sati's suicide at King Daksha's sacrifice; her rebirth as Parvati, daughter of Himalaya; and eventual reunion and marriage with Shiva (1.47-1.103). Tulsi's exuberant retelling of this popular myth runs to nearly six hundred lines—about one-seventh of Balkand[*] .[59]


Figure 3.
The four ghats

With the conclusion of this tale, Yajnavalkya recounts a dialogue between the reunited Shiva and ' in which the god accedes to his wife's request that he relate the entire story of Ram. Shiva thus takes over as narrator from stanza 112 onward, bringing the listener to the innermost frame of the diagram. Yet he too does not begin the story at once but instead sets the stage for Ram's advent with a series of Puranicstyle tales involving curses and boons—the plot devices par excellence of traditional Indian fiction—that will precipitate the births of the principal characters.[60] It is only with the conclusion of the lengthy tale of King Pratapbhanu (some 240 lines) and at a point nearly midway through the first book that Shiva's actual narration of the Ram story begins—with the birth of the demon Ravan, his austerities and attainment of sovereignty over the world, and the gods' plea to Vishnu that he


take human form to destroy their enemy. Following the birth of Ram in stanza 191, the traditional narrative proceeds without major digression through the six succeeding books, concluding with Ram's triumphant return to Ayodhya and a glowing description of his idyllic reign.[61]

The central narrative concludes in stanza 51 of Uttar kand[*] , but the Manas continues for another eleven hundred lines. This lengthy epilogue focuses for the first time on the second narrative frame: the dialogue between the crow Kak Bhushundi and the divine eagle Garuda (Vishnu's symbolic vehicle), the special theme of which is the saving power of bhakti in the Dark Age. Like each of the earlier dialogues, it begins with a query. Garuda is confused by his master's apparent helplessness when in the human form of Ram. To enlighten him, Shiva sends him to meet one of the most unusual characters in the epic—an immortal being in lowly form (for the crow is said to be the "untouchable among birds"), who endlessly narrates the story of Ram to an audience of fowl on the summit of the mysterious Blue Mountain (nilparvat ) and reveals to Garuda the salvific power of Ram's name.[62]

The epic's concluding passages withdraw through the narrative frames to return listeners to the starting point. With the close of the Bhushundi-Garuda dialogue, Shiva delivers a final paean of praise to the story, ending with the famous dhanya (blessed, fortunate) passage, a ringing affirmation of the epic's values.

Blessed is the land where flows the Ganga,
blessed the woman faithful to her lord,
blessed the king who clings to proper conduct,
blessed the twice-born who strays not from his code,
blessed is wealth given in charity,
blessed intelligence grounded in virtue,
blessed the hour of companionship with the holy,
blessed a life of service to the twice-born.

O Uma, blessed and holy is that family,
revered in all the world,
in which is born a humble man
firmly devoted to Raghubir.
7.127.5-9, 7.127


Parvati adds her own hymn of gratitude, whereupon—as in the beginning of the epic—Tulsi assumes his own voice to conclude.

By Ram's grace and according to my intelligence
I have sung this holy and beautiful story.
In this Dark Age there is no other expedient,
neither yoga nor sacrifice, formula, austerity nor ritual,
but to remember Ram, to sing "Ram,"
and to listen constantly to Ram's noble acts!

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