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Five Words Made Flesh: The Text Enacted
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Ramlila and Devotional Practice

Even when the spectators cannot hear the lines or make out the actors clearly, they see the play, because it is being enacted in their minds. . . Some devoted spectators sit with eyes shut, "watching" the performance.[90]


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The Gautamcandrika passage quoted earlier contains an intriguing ambiguity. It is usually interpreted as a description of Tulsi's first staging, on Assi Ghat, of a tableau representing Ram's enthronement; yet read differently, the passage may not describe a lila at all—or rather, not an externally represented one, but an inner vision seen by the poet as he contemplates the Ganga on the full-moon night of Ashvin. Whether the text offers an authentic account of the poet's life, the ambiguity it presents is significant, for Ramlila is an activity with both external and internal dimensions. Thus far I have concerned myself only with the externals of these productions, but in this section I consider another dimension that I believe essential to understanding how the Ramlila developed and what the drama represents to devotees: its relationship to spiritual practices favored by Vaishnavas during the past few centuries.

In his study of the origins of Vaishnava theater, Hein suggests that the custom of using child actors is of comparatively recent origin. He notes the use of children to represent Shiva and the Goddess in Shaiva/ Shakta rituals of the tantric tradition, a custom of some antiquity in parts of Bengal and Nepal, and speculates that this form of dramatic "simplification" spread westward "in the special moral climate of the time of Muslim dominance."[91] Although he may be correct in asserting a historical link with the tantric tradition, he overlooks the positive theological and ritual motivations behind the decision to put children on the stage. Indeed, given the special training that children require in order to perform in lila plays, one may question whether their use is truly a form of "simplification" at all; may it not, instead, reflect a new iconographic and ritual agenda?

Since Hein wrote his landmark study and partly as a result of it, there has been increased scholarly interest in Vaishnava theatrical traditions and their relationship to sectarian theologies. Most research to date has focused on the Krishna cult and particularly on its theological articulation in the writings of the Gauriya Vaishnava goswamis of Vrindavan, who adapted the aesthetic theories of Sanskrit drama to the service of their Krishna-centered theology. Several recent studies have turned from texts to sectarian practices and have examined the significance of role playing and theatrical performance in the lives of devotees.[92] The shift from a text-oriented approach to Hindu tradition to one giving greater importance to praxis and performance has helped modify some common generalizations—for example, the notion that bhakti sects empha-


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size spontaneous, ecstatic practices and a similarly spontaneous experience of grace, and give little importance to psycho-spiritual and ritual techniques. Haberman's work has shown that for Gauriya Vaishnavism this is anything but the case; initiates in this sect pursue a demanding discipline of visualization and internal role playing, based on their belief in the existence of an eternal lila of which this world is only a shadow. However, no study in English (and to my knowledge, only one in Hindi) has examined similar practices among devotees of Ram,[93] perhaps because most scholars have assumed that the erotic-aesthetic themes emphasized in such practices are consonant only with the mythology of the "playful" Krishna and are inappropriate to that of the Ramayan's "exemplary man of decorum" (maryadapurusottam[*] ). In fact, the theology and mystical practices of Ram- and Krishna-oriented sects developed along congruent lines from the sixteenth century, when the aesthetic approach became an influential current in Vaishnavism; they reflect a continuous cross-pollination between the two main branches of the Vaishnava movement.

The roots of this tradition may indeed lie to the east and reflect the influence of the tantric traditions of Bengal, Assam, and the eastern Himalayan region. Buddhist tantric treatises are essentially visualization manuals, which instruct the worshiper in the summoning up of divine and demonic figures in order to integrate their characteristic powers and attributes.[94] It is also likely that historical factors contributed to the expanding influence of such techniques. Several recent studies have pointed to the shift, beginning from roughly the time of the Muslim conquest of North India, from royally patronized temple cults centered on powerful, heroic incarnations of Vishnu such as the boar, the man-lion, and Krishna of Dvarka, to an almost exclusive preoccupation with the adolescent amours of Krishna Gopal in the pastoral dreamscape of Vrindavan. It has been suggested that this development paralleled "a gradual retreat from the Muslim-dominated socio-political center as a sphere of religious meaning" and reflected a "serious need for an expression of Hindu dharma that placed the world of significant meaning far beyond that sphere controlled by the Muslims."[95] Appropriately enough, the sixteenth-century Gauriya theologians who pro-


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vided the justification for this change in outlook were men who had themselves retreated from politics, having once occupied high positions in the Muslim government of Bengal.

The devotional paradigm developed by the most influential of these teachers, Rupa Goswami (fl. c. 1500-1550), arranges the dramatis personae of the Krishna legend in a hierarchy of relationships, each exemplifying a characteristic mood (bhav ) and capable of producing a corresponding emotion (ras —literally "juice" or "flavor"). Each emotional mood reflects a role that the devotee may assume in relation to the embodied Lord—in general practice, that of servant, friend, elder, or lover. A person initiated into this system of ritual and meditative practice is known as a rasik —"one who savors ras "—a term that can also connote a connoisseur or even a bon vivant. Rasik practice has both external and internal dimensions: the daily rituals of worship, which emphasize the service of the deity with every kind of luxury and entertainment; and guided meditations in which the devotee inwardly recreates the Lord's acts and savors their emotions by imaginative participation.

Two features common to much Hindu devotional literature point in the direction of such practices. The first is the tendency of poets to place themselves in the myth and become participants in the events they describe. Already in the ninth-century poetry of the Tamil saint Nammalvar, we find the poet assuming the voice of a young maiden of Braj and angrily chiding Krishna for his naughty pranks—the scolding, of course, providing an ironic commentary on Krishna's divine nature.[96] In the later poetry of Mithila and Bengal, such poets as Jayadeva,[97] Vidyapati, and Chandidasa assumed similar roles, and in time these became conventionalized: the female friend of Radha, the male comrade of Krishna, the go-between, and so on. The achievement of the sectarian rasik teachers was the transformation of these literary conventions into a complex system not only of theology but of mystical practice, which helped individual devotees realize what inspired poets of the tradition were assumed to have achieved: personal entry into the divine drama.

A second characteristic of much bhakti poetry is its delight in systematic physical description, particularly of the sort known as nakh-sikh —"from toenails to crown of head"; numerous poems and songs reflect this convention, which is also found in longer narrative works. Such


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passages offer more than rich description; they present, as Kenneth Bryant suggests, "verbal icons" on which the listener is often explicitly admonished to meditate; such poems are, in effect, recipes for visualization.[98]

In the Manas , such icons occur in two characteristic variants. One is the nakh-sikh passage itself, which focuses on Ram and elaborates the conventions of Vaishnava iconography; a good example is the stanza in which the Lord appears before King Manu and Queen Shatrupa:

His face like the autumn moon, beauty's apogee,
graceful cheeks and chin, throat like a conch,
ruddy lips, charming teeth and nose,
smile that shames moonbeams,
eyes like newly opened lotuses,
glances to delight the heart,
brows that plunder the beauty of Love's bow,
bright mark shimmering on brow's expanse,
fish-shaped earrings and gleaming crown,
curly hair like a swarm of bees.
On his chest, jewel and forest garland,
a diamond necklace and gem-studded ornaments.
Leonine shoulders, gleaming sacred thread,
armbands of matched loveliness,
arms like elephants' trunks,
quiver at waist, bow and arrows in hand.

Yellow robe that embarrasses lightning,
stomach with three noble folds,
the beauty of his navel
as if snatched from Yamuna's eddies.

His lotus feet, on which rest
the bees of sages' hearts, beggar description.
1.147.1-148.1

To a Western reader interested primarily in the advancing narrative, such recurring conventionalized descriptions may appear as redundant halts in its flow. One wonders, for example, why the poet, having provided a detailed description of Ram and Lakshman in the garden scene (1.233.1-8), indulges in an even longer one a mere ten stanzas later (1.243.1-244.2) while describing the entry of the brothers into the royal assembly. Yet such passages, which carefully delineate an already familiar image, fulfill an expectation of the traditional audience and must be


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understood in the context of Hindu religious practice, with its great stress on the visual perception of the divine, both through external darsan and internal dhyan (meditation) and smaran[*] (recollection)—terms often used to connote visualization.[99]

The second type of descriptive passage favored by Tulsidas might be termed a verbal tableau, or jhanki —a momentary freezing of the action to dwell on an image of Ram and his companions. An example of such a tableau explicitly identified as an object of meditation occurs near the beginning of Book Six. Ram's army has reached Lanka and camped atop Mount Subel. As twilight deepens, the Lord and his companions rest from their labors.

Finding a lofty summit,
level and resplendent,
Lakshman with his own hands spread
a carpet of fresh leaves and blossoms,
and over these a soft deerskin.
On it the Compassionate One is seated,
resting his head on the monkey king's lap,
bow to his left, quiver to right.
With both hands he trues an arrow.
Vibhishan at his ear offers counsel.
The fortunate Angad and Hanuman
deftly massage his feet.
Behind, Lakshman sits in warrior stance,
quiver at his waist, bow and arrows in hand.

Thus is enthroned Lord Ram,
abode of compassion, loveliness, and virtue.
Fortunate the man who rests
ever absorbed in this vision!
6.11.2-8, 6.11a

The frequency of verbal icons and tableaux in the Manas can be better understood in the context of religious practices current in Tulsi's day, especially the role-playing exercises, which not only aimed at a visualization of the scenes verbally crafted by poets but sought to effect the practitioner's entry into them. The conventional assumption is that Tulsi's own relationship to Ram was that of a humble servant to an awesomely powerful master, epitomizing the "servile mood" (dasyabhav ) of the system of idealized devotional relationships that was al-


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ready well-articulated in his day.[100] Later rasik practitioners regarded him as one of their preceptors and reinterpreted his epic according to their own agendas, discovering esoteric meanings that they believed he had concealed in the text. I now briefly consider some of their interpretations, for they came to influence the development of Ramayan performance during the nineteenth century.

Because of the erotic content of much rasik visualization, the preceptors of this tradition advocated secrecy and restraint in its propagation. Like tantric treatises, rasik texts often contain warnings against revealing their teachings to the uninitiated or people who have not yet attained mastery over their senses.[101] Nevertheless, the influence of at least the more superficial aspects of the tradition, like that of the tantric cult in earlier times, came to pervade North Indian Vaishnavism and indeed much of North Indian culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The post-Mughal painting of Rajput courts, which emphasized the Radha-Krishna theme and delighted in erotic representations of musical modes, as well as the riti or "ornate" school of Hindi poetry, may be viewed as related manifestations of a worldview for which rasik theology provided the philosophical underpinnings and rasik practice offered the spiritual and experiential inspiration.

The Ram rasik tradition is a branch of the Ramanandi order, and the spiritual lineage of its great preceptor, Agradas, is usually traced to Ramanand (c. fourteenth century) as follows:

The tradition has historical roots in Rajasthan, for it was at Raivasa, near Galta, on the outskirts of modern Jaipur, that Agradas's guru Payhari resided, and it was there that Agradas established his own spiritual center or "throne" (gaddi ) and trained his disciples—who included Nabhadas, author of the hagiographic classic Bhaktamal . Agradas is

[102]
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thought to have lived during the latter half of the sixteenth century; he was thus contemporary with Tulsidas and also with the later Vrindavan goswamis, with whose teachings he was undoubtedly familiar.[103] Although a full evaluation of Agradas's influence must await a detailed study of the surviving works attributed to him,[104] it may be noted that of the fifty-two "gateways" to the Lord (dvar —i.e., initiatory centers) recognized by Ramanandis, eleven are held to have been established by him. His poetic signature, "Agra-ali," is considered indicative of his devotional orientation, for ali is a colloquial term for a girl's intimate female friend and the tradition holds him to have been an incarnation of Chandrakala, one of Sita's intimate circle.[105] Portraits of Agradas often show him in a garden: he is said to have chosen this setting for his visualizations of Ram and Sita's intimate pastimes, and the custom of planting formal gardens adjacent to Ram temples may have originated with him.[106]

After Agradas's time, the rasik movement divided into two main branches—the sakhi and sakha traditions—each represented by numerous preceptors. Devotees of the former persuasion inwardly assumed the personae of Sita's girlfriends and maidservants; the latter visualized themselves as male friends of Ram. Although the Manas remained a basic text for both groups, it was supplemented by the songs of sectarian poets, most of whom wrote in the voice of one of Ram's or Sita's companions. These songs, together with the oral exposition accompanying them, constituted an esoteric Ramayan commentary, revealing secret meanings that (it was believed) Tulsi had concealed from the ordinary devotees of his day. Only in the eighteenth century did some of these teachings begin to be expressed openly in written commentaries; Mahant Ramcharandas of Ayodhya, the author of the first complete Manastika[*] , was said to have been an avatar of Tulsi whose mission was to


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reveal the secrets of erotic devotionalism (srngari[*]bhakti ) hidden in the depths of the Manas Lake.[107]

Srngar[*] means "adornment," especially the adornment that excites passion. Like the term rasik it can have both worldly and spiritual connotations. The "bhakti of erotic adornment" was the devotional path trodden by spiritual "connoisseurs" who served the Lord with every beautiful object of sense and conceived of him in terms of the highest and most engaging metaphor: human sexual passion. Just as rasik devotees of Krishna selected, from the god's total legend, a certain phase of his adolescence and attributed to it not only a special charm but the profoundest theological significance, so Ram devotees selectively edited their Lord's story. And just as the earthly locale of Vrindavan was transformed by rasik theologians into the transcendent sphere of Golok, where Krishna's ultimate lila unfolded eternally, so the mundane Ayodhya became the eternal realm of Saket.[108] There the supreme godhead, known to other traditions as Parabrahma or Ishvar, resided eternally in his ultimate form as the sixteen-year-old Ramchandra and his parasakti , or feminine energy, Sita. Saket was conceived as a beautiful city, foursquare in plan, surrounding the Kanak Bhavan, or "House of Gold." In the center of this palace was a magnificent garden, and at its center, a dais in the shape of a many-petaled lotus, at the heart of which stood a gem-studded throne-couch. Here 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 clear; iconographically it is especially evident in the mystical diagrams (mandal[*] , yantra ), created as aids in rasik meditation, showing the plan of Kanak Bhavan with its four gates and maze of symbolically labeled chambers and passages, all leading to the central lotus throne.[109]

Where, the noninitiate might ask, is the Ram of the Ramayan in all this—the noble prince who relinquished his kingdom, lost his wife to a demon king, and fought a heroic battle to win her back? Adepts reply that the Lord's lila has two aspects, one earthly (laukik ) and one spiritual (alaukik ). In the former, the quality of "majesty" (aisvarya ) predominates, and Ram acts as the exemplar of worldly dharma. This is also known as the "lila to be understood" (jñney lila ), and it encompasses


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the conventional cycle of the Ramayan story. But beyond this, they say, there is a secret lila known only to certain fortunate ones, in which the quality of "erotic sweetness" (madhurya ) predominates and Ram expresses his ultimate reality. This is the "lila to be contemplated" (dhyey lila ) and it is deliberately omitted from the Ramayan, although it may be glimpsed in those portions of the story dealing with Ram's exploits at the youthful age when eros is thought to be most perfectly manifested.

The devotee's goal is to gain access to this ultimate lila in the only way possible—by becoming a participant in it. He passes through a series of five preliminary initiations[110] and a program of meditative practice designed to familiarize him with the iconography of Saket and its inhabitants. Sectarian texts abound in nakh-sikh descriptions of Ram, Sita, and their youthful companions, intended to assist in the visualization of the ideal realm. The most important step, which in theory is taken only when the guru perceives the aspirant to be inwardly prepared for it, is the "initiation of relationship" (sambandh diksa[*] ), which establishes a personal connection to the supreme lila by the creation of a "divine body" (variously termed cit deh, sadhanasarir , and divya sarir ).[111] Although this new body is, in fact, one's real identity, recognized within one by the guru, its experience depends on emotion (bhav ), which in the beginning must be carefully cultivated. The initiate receives a wealth of contextual information to aid his identification with the divine body and cultivation of its emotional mood. For example, treatises catalog seven kinds of girlfriends of Sita, ranging in age from less than six to more than sixteen years, and provide each with a list Of close relatives and teachers, and details as to their place of birth, favorite activities, and so forth. Similar catalogs exist for the male companions of Ram.[112]

Once established in the visualized body, an aspirant is ready to begin the most characteristic aspect of rasik practice: the mental service of Sita-Ram during the "eight periods of the day" (astayam[*] )—a cycle based on the pattern of daily worship in Vaishnava temples and ultimately on the protocol of royal courts. Most of the prominent rasik preceptors composed manuals detailing their own interpretations of the cycle and the type of activity to be visualized during each period. Dedi-


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cated adherence to an astayam[*] schedule involves rigorous discipline; the aspirant must rise by 3:00 A.M. , bathe and purify himself by repeating the sectarian mantra, mentally reassume the visualized body, and be ready to begin offering service to the divine pair when they are awakened at about 4:30—a service that will continue at prescribed intervals throughout the day and night. The aim of this discipline (sadhana ), which may occupy one's whole life, is clearly expressed in sectarian writings: what begins as an "imaginative conception" (bhavna ) gradually becomes real. By long practice in visualization, the devotee begins to catch "glimpses" (jhalak ) of the actual lila; these gradually intensify and lengthen until the adept acquires the ability to enter the realm of Saket at any moment—a condition regarded by this tradition as "liberation in the body" (sadeh mukti ).[113] Of course, this supreme state is not attained by all devotees, but it is an ideal to which all aspire. The intensity with which exemplary initiates have pursued these practices and the extraordinary experiences vouchsafed them are celebrated in sectarian hagiography, 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."

Despite the emphasis, especially in the sakhi branch of the tradition, on erotic themes, the personal meditations of many rasik devotees centered on other possible relationships to Ram. Some chose to visualize the Lord as a young child and cultivate tender parental emotions toward him (vatsalya bhav ).[114] In this they had as a model the immortal crow Kak Bhushundi of Tulsi's Uttar kand[*] , who asserted,

My chosen Lord is the child Ram,
who possesses the beauty of a billion Love gods
7.75.5

and who was said to return to Ayodhya in every cosmic cycle to experience the childhood sports of his Lord, thus paralleling the aspirant's own inner journeys to Saket and recreations of its lila . Common to all rasik practice was an emphasis on the techniques of role playing and visualization as well as an aesthetic delight in sensorially rich settings, rather than any specific content.


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As in the Krishna 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.

The early saint Surkishor (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 that 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. Heartbroken, he went to Mithila to find his lost daughter, and Sita, pleased by his steadfastness, caused the idol to reappear.[115]

In Katha sessions, 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 Shravan, he went tearfully to his widowed mother, who appeased him by telling him that he had a sister who had been married before he was born: "Her name is Janaki, and her husband is Ramchandra, a powerful man in Ayodhya. She never comes to visit us." The guileless child, determined to see his sister, set out for Ayodhya and after many trials reached the holy city. His requests to be directed to the residence of "that big man, Ramchandra" 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, 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.


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Undaunted by the magnificent vision, he repeated his question to the splendidly dressed man in the howdah and received the reply, "I am Ramchandra, and here beside me is your sister, Janaki." But the boy, unimpressed, told the Lord, "You are surely 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.[116]

The romantic predilections of rasik devotees led many of them to focus on the first book of the Manas . Maharaja Raghuraj Singh of Rewa wrote in his epic Ramsvayamvar[*] that his guru had instructed him to read Balkand[*] exclusively. A great devotee of the Ramnagar Ramlila , he is said to have attended only the early portions of the cycle each year. The sadhu Rampriya Sharan, who regarded himself as Sita's sister, composed a Sitayan in seven books (c. 1703), confining its narrative to Sita's childhood and marriage. A few preceptors even took the extreme position that the distressing events of the exile, the abduction of Sita, and so forth, were not lila at all, but only divine drama (natak[*] ) staged for the benefit of the world.[117] Another story told of Prayagdas has the guileless saint happen on a Katha on 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 Lakshman and their wanderings in the forest, but when he hears that the princes and his "sister" are compelled to go barefoot and 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 rope-beds and, placing these things on his head, he sets out for Chitrakut, inquiring of everyone concerning the wanderers. He eventually makes his way to Panchvati where, it is said, he is rewarded with darsan and the opportunity to bestow his gifts.[118]

The influence of the rasik tradition appears to have peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the period when the Ramlila developed into its modern form. B. P. Singh's biographical listing of prominent rasik devotees includes many Ramayanis who were active in the


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court of Udit Narayan Singh and his son Ishvariprasad and were involved in the development of the royal pageant—such as Ramgulam Dvivedi, Raguraj Singh, Shivlal Pathak, and Kashthajihva Swami. Singh's study also suggests the political implications of the theology and mystical practice of the sectarian teachers: in a period dominated by a foreign power, they offered devotees and patrons an interiorization of the old Vaishnava 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 Shri Sita-Ram, and the easy path to reach it is through the technique of visualization.[119]

But just as in the theory of rasik practice, what begins as imagination ends as a reality so concrete that the real world seems to be no more than a dream in comparison, so in the case of the Ramlila , 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 transformed into an enduring ideological statement.

For rasik devotees the Ramlila offered a foretaste of the goal of their mystical endeavor—the realization of the adored deities and their richly iconographic world—but this exteriorization of the vision necessitated certain adjustments. The use of Brahman child actors reflected both the organizers' fascination with the corresponding phases of Ram's life and their conviction that only innocent children of pure birth could fully manifest the qualities of deities. Devotees may also have been influenced by the erotic content of much of their visualization; as in the Krishna plays of Vrindavan, in which the deity's amours, graphically described in literature, were rendered charmingly innocent by their symbolic enactment by lisping children, so the little boys of Chitrakut and Ramnagar enabled rasik initiates to harmlessly exteriorize** their visions of the loveplay of the Lord and his consort. At the same time, the Ramlila afforded them an opportunity to render tangible service to the flesh-and-blood deities, to touch and be touched by them—an intimacy that would have been impossible with adult actors.


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Theological Views of Lila

Even today, when the conservatism of the Ramnagar Ramlila has become a matter of local pride, suggestions for the pageant's modernization are occasionally heard. Is it not inconvenient, some ask, for spectators to have to sit on the ground and to troop long distances each evening? Would it not be more sensible for the whole cycle to be staged in a single location, equipped with permanent stage, awnings, and chairs? There have been times when the producers' traditionalism has seemed to run counter to the best interests of the play—as in a recent year, when ritual pollution due to a death in a family that provided several key actors decimated the cast in midcycle and resulted in hasty and unsatisfactory substitutions. At that time, even some older devotees urged the maharaja to overlook the possible breach of dharma. They argued that the deceased was only a distant relation of the actors and the pollution was slight; why not let some purificatory rite be performed and the cycle proceed with cast intact? Vibhuti Narayan Singh was unyielding, and his sarcastic response is still quoted admiringly by aficionados: "What do you think this is . . . some play? "[120]

It is indeed the position of many devotees that the Ramlila is not a "play" (natak[*] ) in the usual sense; this view has been articulated by Thakur Prasad Dvivedi in an essay that illuminates some of the religious concepts underlying Vaishnava performances. Using the terminology of the classical dramatic treatise Natyasastra[*] , Dvivedi argues that lila is a unique class of performance distinct from conventional dramatic representation; indeed, it is not "representation" at all, because it is born of the Lord and is one of his essential forms (vigrah ). Through specially consecrated actors, the Lord manifests Himself and recreates His sports in every detail, regardless of theatrical considerations.[121] The use of footwear and chairs is eschewed by audiences not out of stoicism but out of their conviction that they are in the physical presence of God.

To underscore his contention that lila is fundamentally different from theater, Dvivedi describes the training regimen of the Ramnagar principals. On being selected by the maharaja, the boys who are to play the four brothers and Sita retire for two months to a secluded enclosure, where they are fed a special diet to enhance their "luster" (tejas ) and tutored daily by directors. This training is not merely to help them mem-


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Figure 29.
Adult players representing monkeys and bears at the Ramnagar
Ramlila (photo courtesy of Linda Hess)

orize dialogues and gestures—indeed, this is a secondary consideration, for a director with a promptbook will always be at their sides in performance to assist them if they forget. Rather, they are put through a process akin to the one that rasik initiates impose on themselves: they are taught to identify completely with their parts and to live them even when not in costume or in public view. From the time of their selection they are called, and are supposed to call one another, only by their lila -names, and they are taught to behave as their characters would: thus, when Ram rises from his seat, his three brothers rise respectfully as well, and whenever they address him they first bow their heads. Once the performances begin, even their nightly place of residence is determined by the narrative. Ram and Sita are kept strictly separated until the flower garden episode of their first meeting; after her capture by Ravan, Sita remains at all performance times in the compound that represents the Ashok grove in which she is imprisoned. Unlike ordinary actors, who shed their roles when they leave the theater, the Ramnagar players are never supposed to be out of character. This particular brand of painstaking verisimilitude belies the notion of Ramlila as a form of theatrical "simplification," but it has less to do with theater in the conventional sense than with sadhana .


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Ramnagar's conventions are widely admired, but few neighborhood productions can afford the special training and environments used to create the kind of identification just described, and many pay only a conventionalized lip service to it. Yet the tendency of neighborhood actors—especially adult participants who play the same roles year after year—to identify with their parts has often been remarked on; many become known by their lila names year-round in their localities and claim to be deeply affected by their participation.[122] Ramnagar devotees still cite the total identification of the elderly man who played Hanuman for nearly fifty years and, even on his retirement, continued to "play" his role, constantly shadowing the Ram actor and serving him. Nor do they find it incongruous that the boys are playful and mischievous in their lodgings, for they assume that the Lord too relaxes and sports in his private moments. But the effects of the boys' participation may manifest later in life; among the Manas expounders I interviewed, several cited childhood participation in a Ramlila as a decisive factor in their choice of career.

Citing the Krishna lila of Vrindavan, especially the van yatra tradition of pilgrimage theater, Dvivedi quotes a Vaishnava saying,

In the forest of Vrindavan occurs the manifest lila ,
in the mind's Vrindavan, the unmanifest lila .[123]

Both the van yatra and the Ramlila belong to the "manifest" (prakata[*] ) category, as does the daily ritual cycle of Vaishnava temple worship. But the verse suggests the relationship that external performance has with the internal discipline of visualizing an "unmanifest" (aprakata[*]) lila , and in discussing the various kinds of people who benefit from the Ramlila , Dvivedi concludes by noting that it offers "to initiated aspirants and especially to those who practice rasik devotion the lovely opportunity to render service."[124]

Such service may take a variety of forms. Since the feet of a svarup are never supposed to touch the ground except when he is enacting a scene, he is transported from place to place on the shoulders of devotees, and sadhus especially vie for this opportunity to enjoy physical intimacy with God. During breaks in the performance, the boys receive an endless stream of worshipers, accept offerings of garlands and return them as prasad , are fanned and offered pan , and sometimes have their feet mas-


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saged by adoring devotees. Some sadhus simply sit gazing on them, rosaries in hand, while practicing the repetition of the name (nam-jap ).

Even at smaller productions similar conventions are observed. One reason the Khojwan performances last far into the night is that frequent interruptions allow devotees to offer service. Whenever Ram and Lakshman traverse the neighborhood in the course of their wanderings, they are invited to pause at homes and shops. Each establishment is decorated with lights and flowers, and even though it may be 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. , the whole household is awake. The boys are seated on richly draped couches, their feet are washed, they are fed savories and sweets, and their arti is performed by family members. The sponsors are usually merchants, sometimes householder initiates in the Ramanandi tradition, who prize this opportunity to offer intimate service to living deities. The boy actors in the Chitrakut production are housed with a different family each night—a special, coveted honor. The desire to experience such intimacy—and to gain the status it confers—must be reckoned among the factors responsible for the proliferation of neighborhood Ramlilas . By supporting the pageant, the merchants of Khojwan and Chitrakut earn the right to do what the king does at Ramnagar: play host to Ram and Sita for the duration of the cycle.

Entering the Play

How successful is Ramlila in facilitating identification with the story and its characters? To judge its success, one must attempt to enter its world. Yet the Ramlila is a form of performance that makes considerable demands on its audience. Apart from the physical hardships viewers sometimes endure,[125] there is the prerequisite of knowledge of the text. For even though, when viewed overall, the lila may seem to be a grand and colorful pageant, most performances are actually slow-moving and uneventful. Moments of high drama and spectacle occur periodically, but they emerge out of hours of alternation between Manas recitation and dialogues, stylized and deliberately slow acting, and endless treks between sites. As one Ramnagar connoisseur exclaimed to me with wry delight, "The fact is, unless you know half the Manas by heart, our Ramlila is probably the most boring play in the world!"[126] Few outsiders, unversed (as our idiom aptly puts it) in the performance text, have


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the patience to sit through even a single complete episode—as I occasionally found when I brought a foreign acquaintance to Ramnagar with me—and casual visitors in quest of Ramlila may be better advised to see one of the edited versions adapted for modern tastes.[127] But if one has some familiarity with the text and makes the effort, by regular attendance, to penetrate the Ramlila 's world, the reward can be an insight into the religious motives that underlie this drama. In Hess's words,

To be vigorously and devotedly involved in the Ram Lila for one month is to take an excursion out of ordinary space and time. . . . The participant not only sees the drama, but finds himself acting in it. A vast world is created before and around him. Performance after performance this world is built physically and psychologically. The devotee's days are curved around the necessity of being there. . . . The tawdry samsara[*] of ordinary life pales while the Ram Lila world becomes ever more vivid, brilliant and gripping.[128]

This experience, particularly intense for devotees, may be shared even by outsiders, and in perceptively writing of the "audience experience," Hess necessarily included her own. I too find myself compelled to describe personal experiences in an effort to complete my accounting faithfully.

In 1982 I attended the Ramnagar performances daily and sat with the Manas chanters; like any regular from Banaras, I too found the pattern of my days "curved around the necessity of being there." I seldom reached home before midnight and barely had time each morning to write notes on the previous evening's events and attend to a few household chores before it was time to bathe, put on clean clothes, and set out for Ramnagar again—a routine that continued unbroken for thirty-one days. My experiences during this period ran a gamut from boredom to intense fascination and even to fear (of being trampled by elephants during nighttime treks, since the Ramayanis walk directly in front of the maharaja's mounted party); but one response became quite predictable. The arti ritual with which each performance ends is orchestrated around a hymn sung by the Ramayanis. Two are used in the course of the pageant: one whenever Sita is with Ram, and one when she is separated from him. Both are typical rasik lyrics—descriptions of the beauty of the deity enthroned in the eternal Saket—and bear no apparent relation to


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the Ramayan story. Although the "Ram" before them may be seated-on the ground in forest exile, the Ramayanis still begin,

A palace of gold, a jewel-studded throne,
servants spread out shimmering carpets

As they sing, a fireworks man attaches a magnesium flare to a long pole. Just as they reach the third line of the verse,

while on them shines the Light of the World!

he ignites and elevates it. It blazes forth like a new star exploding in the firmament, bathing the whole area in unearthly brilliance. Simultaneously an involuntary sound rises from thousands of throats: something between a jubilant cheer and an awed gasp, it sounds like the roar of the sea. Always, at this moment, my throat contracts, my eyes mist, and I am swept up in the intense emotion of the crowd. At such times, I sense a change in Ram's appearance too. All the boys strike rigid poses for arti —bodies erect, faces impassive, lotuses in hand; arranged by the directors according to iconographic prescription. Yet these are not stone images, but living beings, and the difference is important to devotees. During the tumultuous sunrise arti following enthronement night, in the midst of one of Ramnagar's biggest crowds, I look at Ram's face and get an almost physical jolt: surely this is not the same boy I have been watching daily for more than four weeks; he seems older, more powerful, almost luminous above the swaying heads of the throng. And there is something else besides; something that eludes description but sends a chill up my spine. The faith that sustains the production seems, at this moment, utterly tangible.

If the power of Ramlila is revealed in its unfolding presence, it is felt no less in its absence; as Hess has noted, the sudden dissolution of the drama's vast and encompassing world on the final night is a pralay (the term used for the periodic reabsorption of the cosmos into an unmanifest condition) that profoundly affects spectators.[129] The morning after the last performance in 1982, I awoke with a feeling of emptiness and loss. Although I had many pressing errands that had long been delayed, I felt irresistibly drawn back to Ramnagar and went to visit one of the Ramayanis, a schoolmaster in a nearby village. At sunset we cycled to the huge field where Ravan had fallen in battle six days before; it was now deserted and windswept, barely recognizable without the


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Figure 30.
A giant puppet effigy representing Kumbhakaran at the Lanka site,
Ramnagar Ramlila (photo courtesy of William Donner)

crowds, the oil lamps, the sounds. When I remarked to my companion that I already missed the Ramlila , he replied quietly, "As for us, well, we just live somehow for eleven months until it all begins again."

But the Ramlila never disappears completely. Its names and environments remain etched on the landscape, and its magic can occasionally resurface in surprising ways. I cannot agree—nor could the people I talked to—that players are unaffected by the roles they assume.[130] Their external acting, like the inner role playing of rasik initiates, is a serious business to them, and the personae they briefly assume are not quickly forgotten. It may be recalled that the great turn-of-the-century vyas Ramkumar Mishra always prostrated himself at the feet of Dharmdatt, one of his own pupils, because the latter had once played Ram at Ramnagar.

After lila ended, I continued to make periodic research visits to Ramnagar; one afternoon many months later I was walking in front of the palace with Ramji Pandey, the chief Ramayani, when we encountered a group of secondary school boys. Pandey chatted briefly with them, and


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then they requested that we join them for a cup of tea. As it happened, we had just had tea and I was in a hurry to return to Banaras, so I declined their repeated invitations. Pandey (who was constitutionally reluctant to turn down free refreshments) tried to coax me out Of my bad manners: "Certainly you must take tea; why not?" It had been a long day, and I was beginning to feel annoyed by their insistence. Then Pandey motioned toward one of the boys and asked me if I recognized him. The youngster, clad in a school uniform of Western-style shirt and khaki trousers, smiled shyly. "No," I replied firmly and started to unlock my cycle. "Yet you've seen him before," Pandey continued softly, "many, many times." I looked again; the face was oddly familiar, but my growing irritation still kept me from catching on. As I turned back to my bike, the old Ramayani suddenly became grave; taking hold of my sleeve, he almost whispered, "Don't you realize who he is? He is Ram , and he is offering you prasad of tea."

The obvious came as a complete surprise; just for an instant the sharp contours of the mundane seemed to dissolve into transparency, and another, familiar world swam back into focus, like a stone glimpsed at the bottom of a pond. I looked again at the face I had seen that morning at the sunrise ceremony. Then we all had tea.


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