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Six The Text in a Changing Society
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The Text in a Changing Society

Only that fame, poetry, or power is good which, like the holy Ganga, is good for all.


The Paradoxical Paradigm

An implicit theme of this study has been the inseparability, for the North Indian audience, of the Manas text from its realization in performance—a relationship anticipated in the structure of the text and endlessly celebrated in the dialectic of its performance traditions. The focus in preceding chapters has been on the stage of epic performance, but we must now turn to the surrounding arena—what was earlier termed the outermost frame of the performance system. Having observed how the text instructs, entertains, and inspires its audiences, we must now grapple with the more difficult question of what it means to them and how its meanings are reflected in their lives and institutions.

Two levels of meaning come to mind: one that pertains to society and may be termed "moral" or "ethical," and one that pertains to the individual and is best termed "spiritual." These can be related to the two dimensions of performance, termed "formal" and "affective," discussed in Chapter 1. In its self-presentation to an audience, a text, like a living performer, may be said to "assume accountability" for an act of communication, and this assumption necessarily situates it within a social context. At the same time, it offers its audience the possibility of enhanced experience—a gratification that, especially in the context of religious performance, points beyond this world to that other, transcendent realm wherein ultimate meaning is felt to reside.

I suggest that the relationship between the social world and the tran-


scendent other is the fundamental theme of the Manas but that the Hindi epic's formulation of this relationship contains a significant element of paradox. This paradox is not experienced as confusing but rather as productive of peace (santi ), understood as a state of equilibrium within the framework of a dilemma that is ultimately irresolvable, at least in this world. Tulsidas's treatment of this dilemma, I argue, has been vital to his poem's enduring appeal.

The problematic relationship between social ethics and spiritual transcendence is explored in a variety of contexts. The remainder of this section considers some implications of the poet's choice of the Ramayan story, and of his idealization of familial and social relationships. The second and third sections focus on the historical context of the epic's rise to prominence, with an emphasis on the use of the story in recent times by religiopolitical movements. The fourth section examines a continuing controversy over the social and religious teachings of the epic, and the last two sections reconsider the current vitality and speculate on the future viability of the performance genres treated in this study.

This chapter does not, however, attempt an ethical study of the epic's contents or seek to identify what Tulsidas may have believed or intended to teach on such now-controversial subjects as the hierarchical ordering of society, the position of women, and the role of the state. Studies exist that undertake such an agenda, and the assumption of their authors usually seems to be that Tulsidas held a consistent position on every such topic—a position that, once identified, they proceed to attack or defend.[1] In fact, the words of the Manas can be used to support diverse and indeed contradictory positions, and even were it possible for us to question its author as to what he meant by certain passages, we might still reserve the right to favor other readings, since texts have a way of growing beyond the limitations of their authors.[2] The contradictions and inconsistencies in the Manas are not simply a reflection of our faulty perception of its message, but rather signifiers of a dimension of paradox that is as close to the heart of the epic as it was to the heart of the society for which Tulsi so artfully and successfully crafted it. Some questions, as Levi-Strauss pointed out, are too important, culturally speak-


ing, to have definitive answers. They must get themselves enacted as myths, which are performances of paradox.[3]

In India the authoritative, systematizing sastra literature has never enjoyed mass appeal; it largely appears as a sterile imposition from above on the disordered activity of the world. The mythical narrative of itihasa and purana[*] , on the other hand, reflects that activity and remains immensely popular, for its stories harbor paradoxes that point (as all paradoxes do) to the possibility of transcendence. Sastra was characteristically the product of Brahman authors, whereas the epics arose within a Kshatriya milieu. Priestly culture had as its early patron deity Brahma, also known as the "orderer" (vidhatr[*] ), who sat at the head of the cosmos, gazing down and putting things in their places. The epics became identified with the Kshatriya preserver of the cosmos, Vishnu, a once-minor deity who, in both myth and history, was to dramatically expand in importance; a god who might be termed "upwardly mobile."

It is often held that the Ramayan story, apart from being shorter and more cohesive than the Mahabharata , is less morally ambiguous in tone: a Treta Yuga fairy tale of black and white as against the longer epic's Kali Yuga gray. Although I would not dismiss this generalization entirely, I find that contradiction and paradox remain powerfully present within the Ramayan tradition. Valmiki's story contains a number of inconsistencies, some so glaring that their survival in any single recension is quite remarkable.[4] These may reflect the unwillingness of compilers to delete variant but popular accounts of key episodes or may even suggest the kind of narrative liberties we have seen taken by contemporary Manas expounders, who sometimes present conflicting versions of stories and invite listeners to savor the "feeling" of each. But there are also fundamental problems inherent in the story, such as Ram's betrayal by his foster mother, his slaying of Bali from a place of concealment, and his ultimate mistreatment of the virtuous Sita. Variant recensions and later commentaries make clear that such incidents did indeed present dilemmas to the audience, which elicited numerous solutions over the course of centuries. Yet these were never definitive, for in an oral culture no single text could encompass the whole of the tradition—the story was too well known to everyone. A millennium and a half after Valmiki, Tulsidas was still dealing with many of the same problems. He


smoothed out some of them in his own fashion (often by ignoring or merely alluding to them)[5] and created a few new ones of his own.[6] We have observed that the Katha audience's verbalized "doubts" about the story become occasions for the performer's artful explanations, but even though such procedures may be satisfying, they do not really offer definitive solutions to the narrative's vexing but fertile problems.

The relationship between the tradition's problems and its vitality was brought home to me by one man's reminiscence of his childhood in Banaras. In the evenings, he recalled, the male members of the family would sit on their rooftop and sing the Manas to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals ("Even today," he added, "if I hear a single line of Tulsidas, that same mood comes over me"). Then they would go downstairs for the evening meal, during which a favorite pastime was to debate some incident from the story. "My elder brother might say that Ram was wrong to slay Bali; it was against dharma and he shouldn't have done it. I would take the other position and defend Ram's action as best I could."[7] The debate was clearly enjoyable; it was just as clearly never definitively resolved.

Paradoxically, the Ramayan has often been eulogized as a "treatise on dharma" (dharmasastra ), presenting ideal models of social relationships. In the words of one modern enthusiast, the Manas "teaches us how to conduct ourselves in the world with fellow human beings. It tells us how a brother should behave towards brother, son to a father, wife to husband, and friend to a friend. . .. Through the ages men have turned to the Ramcaritmanas when they wished to know how they should conduct themselves in life."[8] Tulsi's idealization of the relationship of Brahmans to Kshatriyas, men to women, and twice-born Hindus to the lower orders of society is taken up later in this chapter; primacy in any discussion of the text's paradigms, however, must be given to the relationship that is first not only in the listing above but undoubtedly also in the hearts of many of the epic's devotees.


Brothers and Others

Although the Ramayan has shown itself to be fairly exportable as entertainment, Western readers who approach the story expecting a romantic fairy tale of a handsome prince and beautiful princess are likely to be disappointed. The prince and the princess are present, of course, as is the wicked demon who kidnaps the heroine, setting the hero on a perilous quest to rescue her, aided by supernatural beings and talking animals. Yet within this archetypic scenario, the Western reader senses elements that are psychologically alien, most notably in the treatment of the hero and the heroine who, even in the relatively rare moments when they are enjoying each other's company, seldom seem to be alone at center stage. Like much else in Indian culture, the Ramayan is (as one of my teachers in Delhi used to say) a "group experience"—the group in this case being that microcosm of Indo-Aryan society, the patrilineal extended family.

Dharma, to paraphrase the old adage, begins at home, and Ram is the most gregariously familial of deities. Enter any of his temples in northern India and you encounter not an image but a tableau. The precise number of dramatis personae varies from shrine to shrine: Bharat and Shatrughna, Hanuman and Vibhishan are common extras; other attendants, sages, and suppliant deities may be added if space and budget allow. But the minimal and essential element in the tableau is not a representation of a heiros gamos, as in temples to Lakshmi-Narayan and Radha-Krishna, but rather of a divine triad: Sita-Ram-Lakshman— God and his wife and his junior brother. What message is encoded in this particular trinity?

Let us begin with the figure usually placed to Ram's left. Despite her legendary beauty, virtue, and accomplishments, Sita is already idealized in Valmiki's version of the epic to the point of appearing "regular and flat, with almost emblematic features."[9] By the sixteenth century, as a result of a variety of factors—sociopolitical, theological, and (in Tulsi's case) possibly personal as well—her characterization has moved so far from flesh and blood that during much of the narrative she becomes quite literally a "shadow" (pratibimb ) of her former self, created for the purpose of being abducted by Ravan, while the real, inviolable Sita remains concealed in the element of fire. Of course, this is essentially a theological sleight-of-hand, deftly executed and instantly forgotten in


Figure 32.
A tableau of Ram, Sita, and Lakshman, with attendant deities,
enshrined in a Banaras temple


the tumultuous press of events, throughout which the shadow behaves just as the real Sita would. But even in Book One, in the romantic scene where we first meet her, Sita's personality and physical attributes are treated with exaggerated understatement; the long nakh-sikh passages devoted to Ram have no parallel in descriptions of Sita, whose idealized beauty is sketched in a line or two. The problem may not be so much Tulsi's puritanism as his metaphysical position; he can never forget that Sita is "the primal energy, ocean of splendor, source of the universe" (1.148.2)—she is less Ram's consort than his almost undifferentiated feminine half, although this theological imperative finds an antidote in the popular performance tradition, in which Sita acquires a more vivid personality. In any case, she is indispensable to the triad, as a point of reference to throw into focus the crucial relationship between the other two figures.

In the introduction to his translation of Valmiki's Ayodhyakanda[*] , Sheldon Pollock views the Sanskrit epic in the perspective of social and political conditions in northern India in the latter half of the first millennium B.C.E. , the period that saw the coalescence of a hereditary system of hierarchical social organization, and powerful monarchies governed, in theory, by the law of primogeniture. Pollock finds the central conflict in the early epic texts to be the struggle among "brothers" (often, in our kinship terms, cousins or half-brothers; the patrilineal extended family allows for the same intimacy among all of these) and suggests that the violent and ultimately catastrophic succession dispute of the Mahabharata found its ideological antithesis in Valmiki's narrative. For in every situation in which the ancient audience would have expected tension, opposition, or open rebellion, it instead found itself presented with a new ethical imperative: "For civilized society the poet inculcates, by positive precept and negative example, and with a sometimes numbing insistence, a powerful new code of conduct: hierarchically ordered, unqualified submission."[10] However, the story's enduring popularity is not simply a remnant of the historical context of its composition, for problems of authority and power, dominance and submission, were not confined to dynastic lineages of the distant past. Tulsidas did not write for royal patrons or even in a milieu of dynastic Hindu rule, and many of the ideological tensions highlighted in the older text—the potential problems posed by the institution of heir-apparent (yuvaraja ), for example, and by the custom of sovereignty-as-brideprice (rajyasulka )—were


of little interest to him;[11] they are of even less concern to the modern-day, but no less fervent, worshiper of the Ramayan triad. I take up the subject of the tradition's impact on political ideology later in this chapter; for the moment I wish to consider the family dynamics with which the Hindi epic is implicitly concerned.

In Lanka[*]kand[*] , during Ram's lamentation over the mortally wounded Lakshman, Tulsi allows his hero to speak "as an ordinary man" (6.61.1). Here, apparently, is what an ordinary man would feel in such circumstances:

Sons, wealth, wife, home, and family,
constantly come and go in the world.
Arise, dear one, reflecting on this:
Irreplaceable, on earth, is a blood brother![12]

How will I face them in Ayodhya,
having lost, for a woman's sake, a dear brother?
Better to suffer public disgrace,
for the loss of a wife is no great thing!
6.61.7,8; 11,12

That this is an outburst in a moment of intense emotion makes it all the more significant. I have already noted in my discussion of Ramlila cycles that Bharat Milap—the reunion of the separated brothers—is an emotional high point far surpassing the intensity of the rather subdued episode of Ram's reunion with Sita. Significantly too, we note that in Ramchandra Shukla's identification of the "five most touching incidents" in the Manas , not a single one concerns Sita, whereas three (Ram's meeting with Bharat in Chitrakut; his lament over the wounded Lakshman; and Bharat's anguished wait for Ram's return) underscore the all-powerful fraternal bonds.[13] Such evaluations remind us that the cornerstone of the Hindu extended family is the relationship not between husband and wife but between adult brothers, who represent the focus of authority in the family. The epic's self-regulating family hierarchy, based on the willing submission of junior siblings, is the idealized reverse-image of a real world in which brothers often quarrel and their


animosities split large families into hostile camps. The psychological as well as the material costs of such microcosmic Mahabharatas are best understood only by insiders, for in the often-constricted physical environment of the joint household, which necessitates constant interaction and sharing of resources, fraternal disputes can become sources of intense pain, guilt, and tension.

I once observed such a battlefield in the home of a wealthy family in Banaras, some thirty members of which shared a large duplex bungalow. A dispute between the two senior brothers (each of whom had several married sons) over the control of family businesses had been simmering for years, and relations between the two branches, housed in opposite halves of the duplex but sharing common front and rear courtyards, became increasingly strained. One day the quiet warfare took a new turn when a party of masons appeared in the front yard and, in a matter of hours, erected a brick and concrete wall down its center, creating a house quite literally divided. The elderly paterfamilias of one side, now retired from active combat, was a devoted daily reader of the Manas ; he could only shake his head and sigh, "That's how this world is—no love between brothers. Would Ram and Bharat have done such a thing?" The escalation of hostility occasioned much gossip in the neighborhood, for the sophisticated defenses of this nouveau-riche Kurukshetra added a new twist to an old, familiar story. The less privileged, who could not afford duplexes and masons, made do with conventional weapons.

The nineteenth-century Bengali saint Ramakrishna Paramhamsa's disparaging formula describing the affairs of this world—"women and gold"—has a special resonance in the Indian domestic context, for the disputes that erode fraternal love most often concern the division of inherited property and relations with sisters-in-law. The two forms of submission ideally required of a junior sibling are, in the Ramayan, neatly parceled out between two characters: Bharat, who renounces "gold"—the patrimony of the kingdom, temptingly offered to him— and Lakshman, who renounces "women" by rejecting his own wife to live as a celibate servant of Ram and Sita and maintaining a careful distance from his sister-in-law and reverence for her as his "mother."

The latter half of Tulsi's weighty Ayodhyakand[*] is dominated by Bharat's tormented personality: his self-flagellation for being Kaikeyi's son and his tearful and reiterated denials of involvement in the events that led to Ram's exile. The portrayal is apt to strike the Western reader as excessive, yet this section has traditionally been among the most


admired in the poem. The conventional explanation is that Bharat is a model for the devotee, yet his aptness in filling this role hinges on his being, first of all, a model brother. He also resembles Ram both in physical appearance and in character, and the harshness of his voluntary exile at Nandigram parallels or even surpasses Ram's own travails.

Among the stereotypes of the extended family are those of fraternal personality types.[14] Although male children in North India are typically pampered, the socialization of the elder brother is liable to begin earlier and be more rigidly enforced than that of his younger siblings. The result, ideally, is a personality of dignity and reserve, a patriarch-in-the-making, aware from an early age of the responsibilities that will fall on him as future head of the family; his archetypes are Ram and Yudhishthira. Younger brothers typically have more emotional leeway, and the youngest often enjoys a prolonged and idyllic childhood. He is permitted or even expected to be impulsive and restless, often artistic, and he may "take a long time to find himself"—a luxury denied his elder sibling, whose adult personality is more a foregone conclusion. His archetype is Krishna—Devaki's eighth and last son, whose adventurous adolescence generated an entire theology.

Within the Ramayan two cohesive fraternal dyads (Ram/Lakshman and Bharat/Shatrughna) conform to the stereotype. Ram and Bharat both play the role of dignified elder (although Bharat is ultimately subsumed to Ram), whereas their junior partners display impulsiveness and quick temper.[15] I suggest that this fraternal pattern has wider social resonances: the elder brother is, so to speak, the Brahman in the relationship—the austere, dispassionate exemplar of sattva ; the younger brother is the temperamental, rajasik Kshatriya. Together they epitomize an elemental polarity in Indo-Aryan society: that of authority (which is ultimately spiritual and based on a transcendent principle) and power (which manifests itself in the conflict-based order of this world).[16]


Within the joint family there tends to be a natural affinity between younger brother and elder sister-in-law. Since marriages of brothers are usually arranged in order of age and brides are typically younger than their husbands, the new wife may be closer in age to her brother-in-law; in addition, both are in relatively weak positions within the family hierarchy—hers of course is initially far more vulnerable than his. In traditional and especially in rural joint households, family life-style and household environment often restrict the development of emotional intimacy between newly married partners. The new wife of an elder brother often finds herself caught between the demanding, testing, and generally unsympathetic women of the household and a husband whom social etiquette as well as his position as elder requires to be remote and unresponsive. As already noted, the younger brother is stereotypically less emotionally restrained than his elder; he is also, if still unmarried, at an age when his contact with women (apart from mother, sisters, and aunts) is restricted and his curiosity about them intense. The culture recognizes the empathy that may develop between younger brother and elder sister-in-law as potentially both beneficial and threatening. Ideally they form what is sometimes termed a "joking relationship"—it being understood that family "jokes" are often sexually suggestive galiyam[*] that provide an escape valve for the release of tensions—in which the elder sister-in-law (bhabhi ) becomes a friend and confidante to her younger brother-in-law (devar ); each thus gains a natural ally within the family as well as a relationship that can provide emotional relaxation.[17] On the other hand, it is an uncomfortable fact of social life that "joking" relationships occasionally turn serious. Although actual liaisons are undoubtedly rare, the potential for even a "correct" bhabhi-devar relationship to generate emotional upheaval and jealousy among the principal protagonists can represent an ongoing source of tension in the household.

It is only against the background of joint family dynamics that the exemplary value of Lakshman's total sublimation of his sexual identity becomes fully comprehensible: his abandonment of his own wife, Urmila (a figure barely mentioned in the Manas but of importance in folk tradition), who, like Sita, desires to follow her husband to the forest; his obsessive, self-imposed wakefulness (it is said that he never sleeps during the fourteen years of exile) and reverential service to the couple. The


modern pilgrim to Chitrakut is shown, adjacent to the hill on which Lakshman constructed a house for the pair, a smaller summit a respectful distance away, atop which he maintained his lonely vigil of guarding their idyllic romance.[18] Especially poignant is the well-known tradition that Lakshman was unable to identify any of Sita's ornaments—thrown off during her abduction and recovered by the monkeys—apart from her anklets, which he had seen during his daily prostrations at his sister-in-law's feet.[19]

Epic models become memorable by being extreme, and the behavior of Ram's younger brothers conveys definite lessons in hierarchical subordination. But it is also true, as Pollock notes, that "you do not legislate against things nobody does,"[20] and so the epic, in its encompassing breadth, also dramatizes the consequences of breaches of the rule. Thus, it implicitly contrasts the human fraternal pairs with two others in which the paradigmatic senior-junior relationship is violated. Both Ravan and Bali are violent and lustful "Kshatriya" elder brothers, whereas their juniors are more judicious and religious-minded—the "Brahmans" of these adharmic duos. The wages of their social sin, of course, is death.

The Limited Ideal

A recent study by Edmour Babineau views the Manas as a response both to the narrow social outlook and obsessive ritualism of Brahmanical orthodoxy and to the excesses of antinomian theism exemplified by Kabir and other poets of the sant tradition. It identifies the epic's underlying message as the ultimate compatibility of "social duty" and "love of God." I agree that the tension between worldly order and transcendent ideal is an implicit theme of the Manas and that the epic offers—or more precisely, enacts—a kind of resolution, but it is not the tidy ethical compromise ("loving submission to the will of Ram") that Babineau's study proposes.[21]


The theme is already implicit in the Sanskrit Ramayana[*] , and Valmiki's handling of it highlights a basic contrast between the two early Indian epics; for whereas the Mahabharata's realpolitik presents a world in which brothers quarrel and reconciliation is finally possible only in heaven, the Ramayana 's[*] depiction of fraternal harmony proposes instead to bring heaven to earth, demonstrating perfection within this world rather than beyond it. The Sanskrit epic opens with Valmiki questioning Narad as to whether a perfect man can be found in this world. The response is a name, and a story told first in brief and then in · expanded form. But seven books and fifty thousand lines later, each listener must still decide whether the question has really been answered.

The relationship between this-worldly order and transcendent ideal has been explored in the context of South Indian Hinduism in an essay by David Shulman. Viewing the tradition as "a religion radically divided against itself," Shulman compares the paradigms of orthodox ritualism and devotional ecstasy and, within the social order, the roles of Brahman and Kshatriya; he detects, "an enduring dialectical tension between an intensely idealistic vision and a consciously pragmatic urge to come to terms with the created world. . .. The order which seeks to encompass these forces rests on the principle of limitation."[22] The vitality that Shulman sees in the radical poetry of the Tamil cittars , which is epitomized in North Indian bhakti in the iconoclastic vision of Kabir, is an eruption of "divine chaos" into an orthodox order of forms that "in all their purity can become dead, empty, shells, while life rages outside their petrified boundaries."[23]

At the intersection of worldly order and divine chaos stands the notion of dharma—"that most elusive of ideal orders."[24] Dharma is also, for translators of South Asian texts, among the more elusive of terms— it is both what Babineau renders as "social duty" and Pollock as, among other things, "righteousness." The range of meanings that the term encompasses suggests an abiding cultural tension; as O'Flaherty observes, "dharma is a problem rather than a concept."[25] For dharma is both earthly and transcendent: the justification for what we do in this world, it has its roots in that other realm to which we aspire. A principle to which even the gods must bow, dharma points toward ultimate things


and, by imposing order on chaos, permits the creation of a meaningful world. Yet paradoxically, within that world dharma becomes another kind of limiting order, which legislates against the eruption of the other kind of chaos that Shulman describes: the unmediated vision of transcendence. Like samsara[*] , dharma has often been visualized as a wheel: complete and harmonious but also closed and potentially stifling, a system against which the heterodox liberation theologies rebel—although not by denying dharma but by positing a transcendent dharma outside it. The attempt to express ideal order in this world is necessarily imperfect; in due course the paradigm of cosmic organization—"that which upholds"—becomes the legitimation of social oppression—that which "holds down." Within the Hindu social system, the tension between real and ideal is expressed at many levels, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the relationship between the reigning elites of Brahmans and Kshatriyas.

At the spiritual apex of the system, the Brahman stands in two worlds as both seer and ritualist; the problematic quality of this dual role is reflected in an ongoing debate over his essential nature. Is he the "knower of the Absolute" and the exemplar of a transcendent order based on wisdom and inner experience, or the knower of the mechanics of ritual and the minutiae of systematizing stricture, a hereditary specialist in worldly order? Ideally, he is both, but the Upanishads already recognize that in practice this may not be the case. The rigid theoretical division between spiritual authority and worldly power is implicitly questioned in these texts, where priests sometimes go to kings in order to gain esoteric knowledge. We know from history that the Kshatriya order, though in theory no less a function of birth than that of the Brahman, was in fact always more permeable—witness the numerous royal lineages that rose from humble or "obscure" (gupta ) beginnings. This permeability offered aspiring individuals and communities the possibility of worldly dominion—but not, in theory, of spiritual transcendence, which was reserved for the Brahman alone. Within the system the Brahman, by serving the king as minister or purohit, bestowed legitimation on the regime but sacrificed his own purity. The king, accepting the Brahman's legitimation, acquired worldly merit (and otherworldly dividends) but acknowledged his spiritual subservience.[26] A delicate balance was maintained, yet mythology preserves murmurs of discontent,


notably in the saga of king-become-seer, Vishvamitra, which—interestingly enough—was elaborately highlighted in the Sanskrit Ramayana[*] .[27]

Pollock has noted the tendency of early Indian monarchs to aspire to what he terms "self-legitimation." Thus, a spiritualized king like Ashoka inevitably begins to usurp the Brahman's exclusive status.[28] However, he does so by transcending the system: adopting a heterodox creed and positing a new universal dharma that negates the old order of tension and compromise.[29] The Valmiki epic, which seems to have historical roots in roughly the same epoch, counters with a vision of a universal monarch who remains within the system; hence his usurpation of transcendent authority is more subtle. In analyzing the character of Valmiki's hero, Pollock suggests the paradox that while Ram, as exemplary Kshatriya, embraces and upholds the worldly hierarchy, he also, by his obstinate refusal to accept the pattern of killing and conflict that had come to be recognized as Kshatriya-dharma, appropriates some of the perquisites of the Brahman renunciant, thus offering "a comprehensive model of behavior, enacting . . . two roles that encompass communal life in its totality."[30] This dual characterization of the epic's hero has profound implications: "If, in his course of action, Rama explicitly affirms hierarchical subordination, the spiritual commitment that allows for his utopian rule seems explicitly to oppose it. . .. Hierarchical life and the separation of 'powers' that underpins it, which the poem elsewhere unambiguously attempts to validate, appears at the highest and critical level to be questioned, and a reformulation is offered in its place."[31] This reformulation has as its symbol the concept of Ramraj: transcendence brought to earth through the medium of a spiritualized king, whose role has expanded to fill both earth and heaven. This understanding of Ram suggests the inevitability of his association with Vishnu, the "expanding" deity whose self-limitation in incarnate forms is the touchstone of his transcendence, the "Kshatriya" guardian of this world who ultimately usurps the status of the Upanishadic Absolute. The "upward mobility" implicit in the Ramayan story also helps to explain the historical fact of the epic's having been enjoyed and patronized by those who are oppressed by the social system it explicitly promotes. Yet the epic's resolution of the paradox of dharma—in Heesterman's terms, its attempt to heal the "axial rift" between "un-


compromising transcendence and mundane reality"[32] —could not be explicitly formulated on the level of the didactic (for that would have challenged the system), but only, as Pollock suggests, implicitly enacted as narrative.

To Pollock's formulation of the essential question framed by the Valmiki epic—"What is it that makes life possible?"[33] —I would add an equivalent question posed by Tulsidas: "Is transcendence possible in human life?" In the very act of choosing as his embodiment of the Absolute a figure who had acquired the title "ideal man of propriety" (maryadapurusottam[*] ), Tulsi began his confrontation with this problem. Although maryada connotes rule, order, and propriety, it also carries the more archaic meanings of frontier, limit, and boundary. The "ideal man" of maryada is thus a man who, as we would say, "knows his limits." But does this not make him, then, necessarily limited? This indeed is the problem that generates the Manas narrative, and it is raised again and again by each of the principal hearers of the tale: Yajnavalkya, Sati, Parvati, and Garuda.

The Absolute that is all-encompassing, undefiled, unborn,
undivided, impassive, undifferentiated,
which even the Veda does not know—
Can it take form and become man?[34] 1.50

Since the archetypal hearers, situated on the ghats of the encompassing frame story, are surrogates for every potential listener, we must suppose that their oft-repeated question was one that Tulsi expected his own audience to pose concerning his Ram-katha . Its hero might be exemplary and his adventures instructive, but could the man who wept with grief for his lost wife in the Dandak forest be accepted as the ultimate expression of divinity?

Ram's "limitations" were well known to Tulsi's contemporaries. The verses that Kabir had sung perhaps half a century earlier,

The creator didn't marry Sita,
didn't tie up the sea with stones.
Those who pray to Raghunath as the one
are praying in the dark.[35]


were undoubtedly still heard in the religious assemblies of Banaras. In proclaiming his devotion to the name Ram, the unorthodox poet had been careful to dissociate it from the limited hero of the Ramayan narrative. An even more serious challenge (since it came from within the orthodox Vaishnava fold) was the assertion by the leading theologians of Krishna bhakti —Vallabhacharya and the Bengali goswamis of Vrindavan—of the limited nature of the Ram incarnation. Despite the reverence that these pious Vaishnavas paid to the son of Dashrath as a "descent" (avatar ) of the Lord, it was inconceivable to them that the role of maryadapurusottarn[*] could represent the fullest expression of divinity. Ram, they said, was a partial incarnation (ams[*]avatar ), who manifested only twelve "degrees" of godhood (kala ; units of a circle), whereas the sixteen degrees necessary for a total manifestation were present only in the life of Krishna, the lilapurusottam[*] whose playful pastimes overstepped the bounds of propriety.[36] Ram's acquiescence in the established order of the world seems to have taken precedence in the minds of Tulsi's contemporaries over the liberating possibilities implicit in the myth of the spiritualized king. The sant poets could adore him only by denying his earthly acts, other Vaishnavas only by demoting him to the second rank of godhead. Yet Tulsi's istadev[*] , through the medium of the poet's irresistible narrative, would in true Vaishnava fashion expand beyond these limitations to become the most pervasive symbol of divinity in northern India.

An important factor in Tulsi's success was his rearticulation of the tension between order and transcendence, now set in an explicitly Vaishnava theological context in which the Lord's acceptance of limitation became not only the key to his accessibility but also, paradoxically, the proof of his divinity. The sants ' solution—the rejection of order in favor of transcendence—was both heroic and extreme; its idealism was widely admired, but in practice it became formalized (as antistructure movements in India usually do) as a counter-structure, pressing its own claims to ritual purity and power.[37] The risks of chaos—divine or other-


wise—and the attractions of order-based status proved more compelling to some than the vision of uncompromising freedom. The solution offered by the poets and theologians of the Krishna tradition had as its quintessential expression the raslila , in which the human urge for transcendence was fulfilled by the Lord's multiplying himself to satisfy every devotee. This theophany was visualized, however, as a divine drama enacted on a circular platform deep in a nocturnal forest—an arena (as Hawley points out) decisively separated from the mundane world.[38] Earthly order was not rejected but was left behind at the time of entering Krishna's realm; as in the Mahabharata , transcendence was possible only beyond the boundaries of worldly life.

In contrast, Tulsi's play came to be enacted in the most public of arenas—city streets and squares—and its visual parable of simultaneous limitation and transcendence was destined to spill over formal theatrical boundaries. The paradoxical manner in which it "resolves" the tension between order and transcendence may be glimpsed in an individual episode, considered as both text and performance. The problematic relationship between Brahman (the paradigmatic elder brother and representative of transcendent order) and Kshatriya (the junior brother and the surrogate in this dyadic schema for all the lower orders) is dramatized in the encounter between Ram and his elder Brahman "double," Parashuram. The fact that this episode is one of the few passages in which Tulsi departs from Valmiki's narrative sequence suggests that it occupied an important place in the poet's personal agenda.

If Ram is a Kshatriya acting as a Brahman—a warrior in hermit's guise, who upholds his father's word by self-imposed suffering—his adversary is just the opposite: a Brahman acting as a Kshatriya, who upholds his father's word by matricide and universal "sacrificial" destruction.[39] The referee of this reverse-image confrontation is Vishvamitra—mythology's one example of a Kshatriya literally become a Brahman, and Ram's own initiatory preceptor. The senior "Ram" storms into Janak's assembly (note that Tulsi prefers the public arena of the bow sacrifice, with all the kings and citizens of Videha present, to Valmiki's forest setting) to punish the breaker of Shiva's bow—the sym-


bol of the god who, for Tulsi, was the special patron of Brahmans—an upstart Kshatriya who threatens to have it all: marry the princess, rule the world, and even encompass the Absolute.

The pungent satire of this scene is best appreciated by witnessing its performance at Ramnagar, where it ranks among the most popular episodes in the Ramlila . For this occasion the maharaja dismounts from his elephant and sits enthroned on a columned verandah, for once in close proximity to both Ramayanis and actors—clearly he doesn't want to miss a word. Himself of ambiguous status—king and Kshatriya by role, Bhumihar Brahman by claim[40] —he listens with evident amusement as his Brahman chanters and actors recreate the saucy insults hurled by Ram's alter ego, the fiery Lakshman, at the overweening Parashuram, a Brahman who does not "know his limits."[41] Ram, like the maharaja, listens with apparent relish, intervening only when actual violence threatens to erupt, and then only to utter ironically deferential homilies. Characteristically, however, the denouement is effected by a gesture that both affirms and supersedes the conventional social hierarchy. When Ram parts his robe to reveal on his chest the footprint of the sage Bhrigu (another angry and overweening Brahman), it is, of course, a deferential gesture—the meek, Brahman-loving Vishnu displaying the scars of his devotion to dharma. Yet paradoxically, it is also the ultimate theophany: the self-revelation of a cosmic Clark Kent who tears open his shirt to display the symbol of unchallengeable transcendence. Parashuram is instantly subdued and, turned once more into a docile Brahman, intones a hymn of praise before departing for the forest to practice austerities, leaving godhood to the upstart generation.

How is the viewer to interpret this scene? Brahmans are to be respected, evidently, although some Brahmans—even powerful ones—are clearly fools whose arrogance blinds them to greater realities. The display of deference to such people may itself indicate a kind of superiority to them. By scrupulously keeping within his limits, Ram puts Parashuram back within his. On a didactic level, the text affirms varna[*] structure and the conventional rule that deference must be shown to Brahmans regardless of their character or behavior, as Tulsi has Ram himself affirm unambiguously elsewhere:


Though he curses, beats and berates you,
a Brahman should be adored—thus sing the holy.[42] 3.34.1

Yet on a narrative level, the Manas enacts an ironic commentary on this doctrine. The result is a paradoxical "resolution."

I shall soon have occasion to note some of the tortuous efforts of Tulsi's modern apologists to explain away verses such as the above and to attribute to the poet a logical and consistent—or more incongruous yet, a twentieth-century liberal-democratic—view of the relationship between wordly order and transcendent ideal. In fact, the statement just quoted is followed, a mere fifteen lines later, by Ram's solemn declaration,

I recognize only one relationship: devotion.
Caste and lineage, virtue and status,
wealth, power, family, merit, and intellect—
a man possessing these, yet without devotion,
resembles a cloud without water.

The occurrence of such jarring juxtapositions is an indication that the poet, unlike his apologists, posited no definitive solution to the dilemma of order and transcendence.

Babineau labels Tulsi's approach "orthodox theism" and cites the poet's "special aptitude for acclaiming renovation without destroying tradition, for promoting change without sacrificing continuity."[43] Many modern Hindu writers similarly describe the poet's path as "devotion based on the sastras " (sastriyabhakti ).[44] Yet we may recall that, for Hindus, "orthodoxy" is generally less important than "orthopraxy" and the sastras are often mutually contradictory and subject to diverse interpretations. Shulman's analysis of the negotiated nature of Hindu orthodoxy more effectively expresses the Hindi poet's position as well as the paradoxical role of his hero: "To the complete freedom of disorder gained by the rejection of compromise, orthodoxy prefers the tension of living within borders while always looking beyond them."[45]

Although the utopian vision of Ramraj is elaborately developed in the final book of the Manas (and its implications are considered further


below), Tulsi's preferred symbol of transcendence is the divine name and his vehicle of order is a new "Veda"—the epic itself—which is accessible to all. Yet the very recognition of a Veda reiterates the need for authority, structure, and limitation. The borders remain; instead of the fundamental problem being resolved, it is endlessly reenacted. The poet's inspired irresolution allowed for this performative elaboration, and in time for the use of his epic by political groups to the right and the left, as well as—like the text itself—at the paradox-ridden center.

The Rise of the Eternal Religion

In examining genres of contemporary Manas performance, I observed that many of them developed significantly during the nineteenth century, acquiring wider audiences and benefiting from the proliferation of printed versions of the epic. To gain a better understanding of the enhanced role that the text acquired during this period, it is desirable to view Manas patronage and performance against the background of broader socioreligious developments—a task complicated by the fact that the relevant individuals and institutions have as yet received little scholarly study. The causes of this neglect of popular Hindu movements are themselves worth noting. The widely current notion of a "Hindu Renaissance" with its familiar sequence of reformers and movements— Rammohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, Dayanand Sarasvati and the Arya Samaj, Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission, and so on— reflects a model of religious change first formulated by John N. Far-quhar in his 1915 work, Modern Religious Movements in India . Though scholarly and informative, this study reveals its author's concern to justify the colonial and missionary presence on the Subcontinent. It divides the nineteenth century into an initial period of awakening, during which enlightened leaders like Roy, under the benign influence of the Christian message, campaigned against the decadent customs of popular Hindu-ism, and a subsequent period of counterreformation (1870-1913) characterized by an increasingly reactionary defense of the faith. Most of Farquhar's work is devoted to movements prevalent among the English-educated elite, which had imbibed the influences of Christian morality and Western rationalism. When, toward the end of his study, he at last turns to the movements championed by such "uneducated" leaders as Pandit Din Dayal Sharma—the dregs, in his view, of the counterreformation—Farquhar paints a grimly negative picture of their activities.[46]


Subsequent studies of Hinduism, if they discuss modern movements at all, seem implicitly to accept Farquhar's model, and so it is not surprising that scholars who take a more positive view of the tradition tend to avoid discussing the groups Farquhar branded "reactionary." In consequence, it is now possible to find whole volumes with such titles as Religious Ferment in Modern India that contain no reference to influential mainstream groups like Sharma's Sanatan Dharm Rakshini Sabha and its innumerable offshoots.[47] The notion of a Hindu Renaissance championed by a progressive elite, eschewing centuries of superstition and selectively rediscovering the best in its own heritage, has by now filtered back through the writings of academicians to become pervasively constitutive of the concept (though not the practice) of Hinduism held by large numbers of Indians. This trend of thought, as Agehananda Bharati points out, tends to blur the particulars and diversities of the tradition and replace them with a vague and generalized set of principles couched in "the neo-Vedantic diction of Renaissance thought."[48] It also contributes to the disparagement of traditional sadhus and teachers and to a disproportionate emphasis (again, more in theory than practice) on certain Sanskrit "great tradition" texts: "Indians and sympathetic occidentals alike have come to regard the Bhagavadgita as the Hindu Bible. No challenge against this notion has ever emerged from the spokesmen of the Renaissance, yet this claim is not part of an informed view about Hindu lore. The people who might challenge it are the ones that won't: the grass-roots scholars, the orthodox pandits, cannot participate in the give-and-take of the Indian Renaissance with its English language premises."[49] The conventional view of the Hindu Renaissance needs to be reexamined, particularly by scholars who have access to Indian-language materials. Even the supposed innovations of its leaders often revealed continuities with older traditions: Dayanand Sarasvati's reformist fervor coexisted with a deeper orthopraxy, and the allegedly Christian-influenced practices of the Arya Samaj reflected techniques of religious proselytization that had long bhakti pedigrees;[50] similarly, the neo-Vedantic homilies of Swami Vivekananda, which created such a


sensation at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, coexisted back home with a millenarian belief in the divinity of Ramakrishna and the fervor of a characteristically Bengali devotion to the goddess Durga. Moreover, the actual impact of such leaders on. popular practice is debatable. Their apparently high profile, especially in English-language publications, may be deceiving, like their visible canonization in "secular" India. Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Swami Dayanand—together with the Rani of Jhansi, Subhash Chandra Bose, and even Annie Besant—have become national heroes, but to most Hindus they are simply the newest faces in the teeming pantheon of religious poster art, joining Buddha, Shankaracharya, Tulsidas, Mirabai, and countless other divine and semidivine beings on the iconostasis of the tea stall and dry goods shop. They have been reabsorbed by the mainstream, if indeed they ever left it.

But the scholarly focus on the activities of a handful of reformers, based mainly in the Punjab and Bengal where foreign influence was strongest, has tended to overshadow the complex pattern of mainstream Hindu activity both in the same regions and in the vast, largely Hindi-speaking Gangetic plain. This pattern, exemplified by the activities of such traditionally educated publicists as Din Dayal Sharma, was characterized by attempts to formulate an orthodox Hindu identity, most often subsumed under the label Sanatan Dharm. As a subject for study, this tradition has suffered not only from Farquhar's criticisms but also, as C. A. Bayly has pointed out, from its very ubiquity and multiformity—it has been easier to write about the trees than about the forest: "However faction-ridden at times, the Arya Samaj was at least a definable organization with a common creed. . .. But Sanatan Dharmis professed no distinctive set of beliefs beyond a general concern for the propagation of 'orthodox religion,' and their organizations present a bewildering variety of formulations and reformulations."[51] In the continuing absence of a major study of the Sanatan Dharm movement—one that would utilize, for example, the voluminous tract literature produced during the latter half of the nineteenth century[52] 52—I must nevertheless try to identify some of its characteristic features and concerns, particularly as they relate to its enthusiastic endorsement and propagation of the Manas .

In theory, this was not a new movement at all. Its name implies an


adherence to patterns of behavior held to be eternal or immemorial (sanatan ) and believed to have their source in the revealed Veda, which is itself beginningless. The expression is of undoubted antiquity. The formulaic phrase "for that is the eternal dharma" (sa hi dharmah[*]sanatanah ) occurs several times in the Mahabharata and the Valmiki Ramayana[*] with reference to exemplary behavior such as the protection of a kingdom, obedience to elders, and hospitality to guests.[53] Nineteenth-century Hindus would no doubt have agreed that such acts reflected dharma, yet their use of the expression was essentially different. Indeed, given the contexts in which they used it, I am sometimes tempted to translate Sanatan Dharm as "old-time religion"; like the American Protestant expression, it was a self-conscious affirmation of religious conservatism in a perceivedly pluralistic context.[54] It was necessarily a vague label, as it had to be applied to vast numbers of people whose beliefs and practices displayed great variation; what was important about it was that it excluded others.

Like the Upanishadic Absolute, the adherent of Sanatan Dharm might best be described in negative terms—as one who was not an Arya or Brahmo Samajist, not a Christian or Westernizer and who did not advocate widow remarriage, the initiation of untouchables, or the abandonment of image worship. A designation of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, the term could encompass pan-Indian rites such as puja , arti , and pilgrimage as well as purely localized caste and kinship customs. For a sense of what a late nineteenth-century pandit meant by it, we might turn to Shraddha Ram of Ludhiana's condemnation (c. 1873) of a prominent fellow citizen who had established a Brahmo-type "Society for Moral Enlightenment":

Mr. Alakhdhari who is against sruti and smrti[*] and does not keep a knot on his head and does not wear the sacred thread which is essential for the Vaishya and who hates to have cow dung paint in the kitchen and uses a dining table and calls bhojan as khana and thinks all the caste system is useless, then how is it possible that Hinduism can spread and prosper through his efforts? He also has some ideas that to worship Krishnachandra,


Ramchandra and Brahma and Vishnu and to go on pilgrimage to the Ganges and other rivers is foolishness . . .. Then he wears shoes and he wants to listen to the preaching of the Vedas and sastras in front of Christians anti Muslims and he cannot tolerate a mark on the forehead of another person.[55]

Most of the elements of enduring concern to Sanatanis are invoked here: respect for a body of authoritative texts, a preference for traditional dress and adornment, reverence for the cow and its products, and (by the final decades of the nineteenth century) insistence on a Sanskritized Hindi vocabulary rather than an Urdu one.

A range of factors contributed to the articulation of the Sanatani identity. Christian missionaries were active in northern India throughout the nineteenth century and especially after 1857, when Crown Rule replaced that of the East India Company and evangelicals stepped up their campaign for intervention in Indian affairs.[56] The Brahmo Samaj, founded in Calcutta in 1828, and the Arya Samaj, organized in Bombay and Lahore in the mid-1870s, responded to the missionary challenge and at the same time launched their own critique of traditional practices. Even though reformist and orthodox positions diverged sharply on certain issues (especially image worship, widow remarriage, and the interpretation of caste status), other highly volatile issues (such as cow protection, suddhi or the "purification"/reconversion of Christians and Muslims, and the agitation for the Hindi language and Devanagari script) tended to unite orthodoxy and dissenters under a common banner of "Hindu" identity.

The economic and social trends underlying these developments can be traced to the period immediately preceding the consolidation of British power—notably, to a growing competition between rising Hindu mercantile groups based in new cities and the older, rural-based landed aristocracy and service gentry, both Hindu and Muslim,[57] Other factors more directly related to the British presence were the introduction of print technology and the steady improvement of transport and communication, which facilitated the work of religious publicists. The tours and debates of Brahmo leader Keshab Chandra Sen in the late 1860s and Swami Dayanand in the 1870s are well documented, but other peripa-


tetic religious orators stepped up their activities during the same period; information on the identities of these wandering orators has rarely been preserved, but their ranks must have included many Vaishnava expounders who aired their views through the established channels of satsang[*] and Katha .[58]

Perhaps the most significant impact of the Arya Samaj, the most influential of the reformist societies, came from the organizational model it presented, which increasingly came to be emulated by orthodox groups. As a result, "personal campaigns in defense of tradition of the 1860s and 1870s gave way to new organizations with all the techniques of modernity."[59] Among the earliest were the Sanatan Dharm Rakshini Sabha (Association for Defense of the Eternal Religion), formed in Calcutta in 1873, and the Hindu Dharm Prakashik Sabha (Society for the Promulgation of the Hindu Faith), formed in Ludhiana, Punjab, at roughly the same time. Organized Sanatani activity in the Gangetic plain did not begin until the late 1880s, culminating in the founding of Sanatan Dharm societies in Hardwar and Delhi in 1895, the Bharat Dharm Mahamandal in Mathura in 1902, the politically activist All-India Hindu Mahasabha at Allahabad in 1913, and numerous smaller organizations with similar names and objectives—according to Far-quhar, some six hundred local societies by the first decade of the twentieth century.[60]

The instigation for the founding of these organizations often came from specific and sometimes localized issues; thus, the agitation in eastern U.P. and Bihar in the 1880s for a ban on cattle slaughter, which resulted in the founding of numerous local Gaurakshini Sabhas (cow protection societies), reflected not merely the traditional veneration of cattle but also the declining economic circumstances of local landlords and their Brahman clients and the rising aspirations of the Ahir, or milkman, caste.[61] Similarly, the founding of organizations for the promotion of Hindi and Devanagari script, such as the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (Banaras, 1893) and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (Banaras and Allahabad, 1910 and 1911), reflected a growing association of script with religious affiliation, which in turn was related to intensified competition between upper-class Uttar Pradesh Hindus and Muslims for gov-


ernment jobs.[62] Although concern over cow protection and linguistic identity was shared by Arya Samajis, the most prominent spokesmen of the cow and Hindi movements in U.P. at this time were generally the leaders of local Sanatani organizations.

They were also the men who were liable to be active in Manas-pracar (the promulgation of the epic)—themselves dedicated readers, expounders, and promoters of what was increasingly hailed as the "Hindi Veda." Thus, the "chief religious adviser" to the Bharat Dharm Mahamandal in 1910 was Pandit Jvalaprasad Mishra of Moradabad, a Ramayani who compiled one of the most influential Manas editions of the period.[63] During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hindu revivalism developed into "Hindu populism," the most prominent spokesman of which was Madanmohan Malviya, whose public statements on the epic will be cited shortly. The son of a leading Brahman family of Allahabad with close ties to the city's conservative mercantile community, Malviya became the Sanatan Dharm publicist par excellence, the founder of three newspapers, and the champion of a campaign to create a "Hindu University" in the sacred city of Banaras. To Western observers, Malviya appeared simultaneously "reactionary" and "progressive" and thus epitomized the inherent tension within orthodoxy.[64] Also prominent in Sanatani causes beginning in the 1920s was the redoubtable Swami Karpatri, whom we have already met as the inspiration behind the Gyan Vapi Manas Festival and will soon encounter again as the founder of a political party that aimed to usher in "the rule of Ram."

A persistent problem for would-be Hindu reformers was their lack of accessible texts. The Arya Samaj rejected much of Hindu devotional literature, branding the Bhagavatapurana[*] , for example, an "immoral" fabrication. Yet Swami Dayanand's calls for the public preaching and exposition of the Veda never met with more than a lukewarm response, and his planned Hindi commentary on the Rg[*]veda remained incomplete after his death.[65] In theory, the text problem was to be remedied by universal Sanskrit education, yet later Samaj administrators had to accept that the clientele of their successful Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Col-


leges was more interested in the "Anglo" than in the "Vedic" component of the curriculum. Vivekananda and his successor swamis in the Ramakrishna Mission took a more catholic view of sacred literature but likewise tended to look to ancient Sanskrit texts, frequently citing the Upanishads and Bhagavadgita in support of their neo-Vedantic views. These texts had prestige but little popularity.

Sanatanis too invoked the "Veda" as their ultimate authority, but they tended to use this term loosely to refer to all revered scriptures. For practical purposes, however, they had a text that was both authoritative and accessible—in Malviya's words, "the living essence of the teachings of the Puranas, smrti[*] , and Veda."[66] Swami Karpatri gave this claim a more detailed theological articulation: "When that Parabrahma who is known to the Veda became manifest in the form of Ram, son of Dashrath, then the Veda too became manifest through the great sage Valmiki in the form of the Ramayana[*] . That same Ramayana[*] has been made manifest by Goswami Tulsidas-ji in the form of the Ramcaritmanas . In practical terms, the meaning of the Veda is the meaning of the Manas ."[67] As the most accessible Veda, the Manas was the Sanatani scripture par excellence—a devotional work that preached reverence for cows and Brahmans; offered a veritable catalogue of sacred rivers, pilgrimage sites, and popular rituals; presented a harmonious synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism; and in the minds of devotees managed at one and the same time to stand for religious egalitarianism, the maintenance of the social status quo, and (later on) even nationalism and swadeshi (the boycott of British products, especially textiles), since it offered an inspiring vision of a powerful and self-sufficient Hindu state. Moreover, unlike the Veda, which Sanatanis continued to insist could be taught only to twice-born males, the Manas was suitable for everyone. Statements to that effect, tirelessly reiterated, by (usually Brahman) spokesmen like Pandit Shivkumar Shastri of Banaras, sometimes bordered on paternalistic condescension; the Manas was morally unobjectionable, true, but also unlikely to make waves: "There isn't one religious book, Purana, epic, etc., which can be narrated from beginning to end before every sort of person. But this is one book you don't have to hesitate to expound to young and old, men and women, boys and girls, high and low, householder and ascetic, orthodox Vaishnava, Shaiva or Shakta—anyone at all." One must add, however, that the venerable


Shastri, who was much admired for his Sanskrit learning and his impressive library of classical texts, devotedly carried his own little gutka[*] edition because "after all, in this alone do I find peace."[68]

Malviya himself issued a stirring call for Manas-pracar : "Blessed are they who read or listen to Goswami Tulsidas-ji's Manas Ramayan. . . . But still more blessed are those who print beautiful and inexpensive editions of the Manas and place them in the hands of the very poorest people, thus doing them priceless service. At present, Manas-katha is going on in many towns and villages. But wherever it is not, it should begin, and its holy teachings should be ever more widely promulgated."[69] It was answered by, among others, Malviya's friend Hanumanprasad Poddar, the son of a Marwari business family, whose Gorakhpur-based Gita Press began churning out low-priced Manas editions of every size and description. Another friend of Malviya's, Mahant Bankeram Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Temple, organized the first annual Manas-katha festival in the mid-1920s, setting a precedent that others would follow.

A further aspect of the Sanatani self-definition remains to be noted: the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of opposition to both Islam and Western culture. In the communally tense Punjab (where Hindus were outnumbered by Muslims in many-districts), Dayanand had provided fuel for this campaign with his strident denunciations of Christianity and Islam—their doctrines, scriptures, and prophets.[70] His antidote to the "degradation" imposed on Hindus by foreign rule was a hearkening back to the remote golden age of Vedic civilization, when Aryan seers had crafted the perfect scientific civilization, complete with railways and airships. The vision was persuasive and remains influential to this day, but Sanatanis have generally preferred to find their locus classicus, airships and all, in the Treta Yuga days of Ramraj , when all the world was united under a divine Hindu monarch.

The articulation of Hindu communalism under the slogan of Ramraj is discussed shortly; here I note the modern tendency to communalize the Manas —to present its author less as a humble ascetic singer than as a crusading militant, heroically responding to a Kali Yuga characterized by the "foreign" domination of India. Whereas Gandhi and other advocates of Hindu-Muslim unity cited the age of Akbar as a period of communal harmony and pointed to the essential compatibility of Hinduism


and Islam, Sanatanis saw syncretism only as a more subtle form of subversion and viewed the composition of the vernacular epic as the vanguard of a militant Hindu resurgence:

The Manas was composed at a time when Bharat was being struck by the thunderbolt of cruel and intense Muslim oppression. Hindus were utterly frightened and distressed, yet they clung to their traditions. . .. The evil-hearted Akbar displayed a clever policy of tolerance, and in order to deceive the Hindus, released them from the jaziya tax. And mixing up the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi religions, he promulgated a new faith called Din-i-Ilahi and started treating all with equality and friendliness. As a result, simple-hearted Hindus, forgetting their own natural Indian social system, customs, and rules, began to unwittingly embrace the Muslim creed and eat and intermarry with Muslims. In this way the Hindu religion began to be absorbed into Islam. No Hindu could grasp this dark conspiracy of Akbar's and their religion was about to go under, when Goswami Tulsidas-ji looked at the situation and recognized Akbar's wicked stratagem. . .. He took refuge in Lord Ram and at his inspiration composed the divine Manas epic, thus rescuing the drowning Vedic religion.[71]

This reading of the past remains influential among Manas devotees and finds frequent articulation in the communally tense atmosphere of contemporary North India. In 1984 at a huge Katha program in Ayodhya— a city that has become a cause cèlébre of Hindu communalism—an elderly devotee seized the microphone during a break between speakers and, in a quavering voice, worked the crowd into wild cheering with a poem that opened with a mocking litany of Muslim dynasties (and incidentally, presumed a knowledge of history and geography that would have been unthinkable among the devotees of Tulsi's day):

The trickery of Ghuri, Ghazni, Slave, Khilji,
mixed with the spirit of Tughlak, Lodi, and Sayyid,
and the evil plot of the Mughal Akbar—
by the power of his pen, he bested them!
Blessed the wisdom and power,
blessed the poetry of Tulsi,
that even in a vile age toppled the unbeliever!
The Ramcaritmanas nourished people's hearts
and gave life back to Hindus.

Iran, Arabia, Russia, China, even up to Indochina,
the victory of Islam was everywhere proclaimed.


India's holy soil was imbued with Muslim ways
and customs were corrupted in city and village.
Tulsi Goswami perceived the anguish
and played such a tune,
comforting the hearts of great and small,
that there remained no taste for Koran,
sermon, and salaam,
and in every home arose the song
of the name of Ram![72]

If the activites and rhetoric of both would-be reformers and their orthodox antagonists reflected a single underlying mood, it was one of anxiety. The theme of "protection"—of cattle, of women, and of dharma itself—permeates their activities and suggests a worldview increasingly on the defensive. Even programs of social welfare seemed to be motivated by a kind of fear; funds for orphan relief during the terrible famines of 1896 and 1899 were solicited by Arya Samajis with the plea that if Hindus did not help the orphans, they would fall into the clutches of Christian missionaries and be lost to the faith.[73] Similarly, caste Hindu's solicitude for untouchables and willingness to consider admitting them to (usually low) varna[*] status seemed to reflect the fear "that there will not remain any 'low castes' at a not very distant date and the 'higher castes' will have to exert all their energies in protecting themselves from being pushed to the wall."[74] Social programs not underwritten by major fears—such as work for the uplift of women—took low priority in the agendas of religious activists.[75]

To be sure, there were valid reasons for some of this anxiety: the political and economic upheavals of the recent past, the smug cultural chauvinism of the colonial regime, the growing militancy of Muslims and the strident critique of Hinduism by missionaries all must have contributed to it. Yet the fact that tens of millions of Hindus rapidly became convinced that their way of life was in imminent danger of vanishing gives one pause to wonder if the root of their anxiety did not lie in something more fundamental. The Kali Yuga is, after all, more


than a chronological designation; although in theory it has temporal limits, they are effectively beyond the range of human experience.[76] Instead, like the Old Testament story of the Fall, the "Dark Age" is best regarded as a metaphor for the human condition, an expression of the inevitability of vitiation and decline and of the unending battle to retain purity and potency. As Shulman suggests (and Tulsidas realized), the enemy is within, even though he can readily be externalized to suit the circumstances of the day.

The Politics of Ramraj

Two powerful and contrasting visions dominate the final book of the Manas . The first is of the world as it might be: a harmonious and abundant realm in which virtue and happiness prevail—a world presided over by God, incarnate as a just and loving human being. The second vision stands in dark contrast, and no listener can escape the impression that it is Tulsi's intended description of his own world and of ours. Taken together, these two visions reflect further the poet's meditation on the paradoxical relationship between order and transcendence.

Ramraj , in Tulsi's view, was characterized by an ideal social order. It was a world in which everyone "knew his limits" as prescribed by authoritative scripture and diligently kept to them.

Everyone was devoted to his own duty
according to class and stage of life,
and ever following the Vedic path
was happy and free from fear, sorrow and disease.

All men displayed mutual affection
and intent on scriptural precept,
followed their proper duty.
7.20, 7.21.2

Yet under Ram's benevolent direction, this earthly order, far from oppressing human beings, produced a freedom hardly earthly at all—a world in which even the most elemental limits were transcended.

No one was ever pained by untimely death,
everyone had beautiful and healthy bodies.


Forest trees constantly blossomed and bore fruit,
elephants and tigers dwelt in harmony.
Trees and creepers dripped honey on request,
cows yielded milk at a mere wish,
the earth was always filled with crops,
the Krita Age reappeared in the Treta.

The moon flooded the earth with nectar,
the sun offered just enough heat,
you asked the cloud and it released rain—
in the realm of Ramchandra!
7.21.5; 7.23.1,5,6; 7.23

This vision of a peaceable kingdom in which time itself is reversed and the Golden Age recreated suggests a harmonious balance between order and transcendence. By perfect adherence to divinely sanctioned order, heaven is brought to earth, and so, apparently, the fundamental tension of the epic is resolved.

Yet the epic is not over. After some seventy stanzas of devotional instruction, Tulsi offers another, more troubling vision of a dark age in which scriptural order is overturned, resulting in a chaos of heresies and utter social corruption.

Religion is tainted by the Kali Age's filth,
the holy books become concealed
while hypocrites spin their own fancies
and promulgate numberless sects.

There's no rule of caste or of life-stages
and all men and women live opposed to the law.

Brahmans sell scriptures, kings prey on their subjects
and no one obeys Vedic injunction.

Brahmans are illiterate, greedy, lustful,
reprehensible fools keeping low-caste concubines.

Shudras mutter prayers, do austerities and fasts,
and sitting on high seats expound the Puranas.

Mendicants are rich and householders poor—
Brother, the perversities of the Kali Age cannot be told!
7.97a; 7.98.1,2; 7.100.8,9; 7.101.2

Even as the willing adherence of Ram's subjects to the rule of order produced heaven on earth, so the refusal of the people of the Kali Age to adhere to scriptural precept results in the sufferings of an earthly hell.


Racked by disease, men find no pleasure anywhere,
yet wallow in vain pride and enmity.
Their lifespan barely a dozen years,
they fancy themselves outliving an aeon!
The Dark Age makes all mankind desperate,
no one respects even sisters or daughters.
Without contentment, discrimination, detachment,
high and low are reduced to beggary.

This jeremiad goes on for some seventy lines, and sensitive listeners of any era will readily discern in it an indictment of their own times. When, inevitably, they contrast it with the glowing vision of Ramraj , they may at first conclude that Tulsi is issuing a strident call for reform by stressing how far society has fallen from its ideal. Such an interpretation falls short of encompassing the full implications of this passage, however. For paradoxically, the long diatribe against the Dark Age ends not with condemnation but with praise and the promise of a new kind of transcendent, personal "Ramraj ," now accessible to all by the power of the divine name:

Listen, Garuda, the Kali Age
is the treasury of sins and vices,
yet it has one great virtue:
salvation may be had without effort!

The state attained in the first three ages
by worship, sacrifice, and austerity—
truly it is gained by Kali Age people
by the name of the Lord.

The Dark Age has no compeer
for one possessing faith,
for by singing the spotless fame of Ram
liberation comes without exertion.
7.102a,b; 7.103

When a traditional order is threatened or destroyed, several responses are possible. One is to preserve or recreate it—the former might be termed "conservative," the latter "reactionary."[77] Another is to mold a new order and, depending on the degree of change between old and


new, such an effort might be termed "reformist" or "revolutionary." To be sure, Tulsi's idealization of tradition is so powerful that it inevitably elicits nostalgia for the past. Yet his insistence on carrying his narrative forward into the troubled present suggests a recognition that the past is irretrievable, and his prescription for the ills of the Kali Yuga is not a reconstruction of the shattered order but rather a new, egalitarian expedient. Thus, it is possible to read his poem as either a glowing affirmation of traditional order or a dramatic cancellation of it.

In his discussion of the social impact of Ramlila , Hein cites the enduring influence of the notion of Ramraj : "It was one of the few vital indigenous political ideas remaining in the vastly unpolitical mind of the old-time Indian peasant. Through centuries of foreign rule the Ramlila helped preserve a basis for civic resurrection. It must be considered in the history of Indian nationalism."[78] The point is an important one, although we should refrain from drawing a sharp distinction between politics and religion in this context. Bayly has shown the importance of Hindu revivalism to the development of the Indian National Congress and has noted that political ideas in nineteenth-century India "were almost unavoidably expressed in terms of religious tradition, because this was the language of social comment."[79] Yet if the Manas became part of the language of social comment for Hindus, it did so with its paradoxes intact, as the use of the concept of Ramraj in twentieth-century political movements demonstrates. For Ramraj may be viewed primarily as a harmonious but hierarchical order, in which the privileged confidently enjoy their status and the dispossessed know their limits, or conversely as a kingdom of universal righteousness, in which the possibilities of freedom are accessible to all.

Liberation Theology in Avadh

During the latter part of 1920, a peasant revolt erupted in three districts of what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh—the area that had constituted the pre-1857 kingdom of Avadh (Oudh).[80] Mass demonstrations led to police firings and a state of near-anarchy as peasants abused their landlords and refused to pay rent. Law and order deteriorated to such a


degree that the British governor of the United Provinces speculated that he was witnessing "the beginnings of something like revolution."[81] Prominent leaders of the Indian National Congress were equally concerned and rushed to the affected districts. Yet the rhetoric of the peasant leaders was not of revolution but of Ramraj , and their aim was not the overthrow of the state or even of the state-supported system of revenue farming. Instead, they sought a return to an order that had been disturbed by changes in the rural economy and by the depredations of a new class of absentee landlords.

Within the Kisan Sabhas (cultivators' societies) that formed the organizational basis of the agitation, the influence of the Manas and its themes was pervasive. The most influential spokesmen for these groups were two Vaishnava sadhus, Baba Ramchandra and Baba Janaki Das; the former had been an indentured laborer in Fiji before returning to his homeland and assuming sadhu's garb to become a wandering kathavacak and peasant organizer. He was, in short, one of the "millenarian stump orators" noted by Bayly, who flourished in the region during the latter part of the First World War amid a catastrophic influenza epidemic and wild rumors of the imminent collapse of the British Empire.[82] It is clear from a description of their activities that, even in the context of the Kisan Sabhas, Ramchandra and his cohorts remained kathavacaks : "At the early peasant meetings Ramchandra and others commonly recited excerpts from Tulsidas' Ramcaritmanas , the favorite religious epic of the Hindus in northern India, and especially beloved of people in this region: their own language, Avadhi, was after all the language of Tulsidas' composition, and places like Ayodhya (a few miles from Faizabad), the seat of Ram's kingdom, very much part of their world."[83] So important was Ramayan symbolism to the movement that the establishment of the first Kisan Sabha, in the village of Rure, was explained by citing a half-line from the epic that could be interpreted to contain the name of that village.[84] For the first large-scale meeting of the


movement in December 1920, the organizers selected the pilgrimage city of Ayodhya, the mythical capital of Ramraj , and mustered eighty thousand supporters.

The peasants had evident faith in the liberating power of Ram's name and made it the rallying cry of their movement. One of the early objectives of Baba Ramchandra (who seems hardly to have been distinguished from Ram himself in the minds of some supporters) was to change the customary local form of greeting: "When he first came to Avadh, the greeting salaam (usually addressed by one in an inferior station to one in a superior) was widely used. He promoted the use of the alternative, 'Sita-Ram,' which did away with such discrimination on grounds of status, and thus earned the displeasure of 'many of the praiseworthy (sic.) and respectable folk of the upper castes.'"[85] Once the cultivators' movement got under way, the new greeting became one of its most potent organizing tools; "it was enough for Ramchandra to raise the slogan 'Sita-Ram': the cry was promptly taken up in one village after another, and thus in a remarkably short space of time thousands would assemble." To worried British officials, "Sita-Ram ki jay!" (Victory to Sita-Ram!) was a "war-cry . . . the cry of discontent." Yet Ramchandra's use of the name was hardly the maneuver of a sophisticated politician—his memoirs bear witness to his ingenuous faith in its power both to turn back club-wielding policemen and to cause sickly mango trees to yield fruit. Rather it was a natural invocation of an established symbol that had both social and religious resonance. "In the most difficult of situations, the peasants turned to the slogan 'Sita-Ram,'" recalled Ramchandra, "and the slogan fulfilled their many different desires. As a result the organization grew ever stronger."[86]

The objectives of the Kisan Sabha movement must be understood in the context of the region's political and economic history. After the revolt of 1857, nearly three-fifths of the cultivated land in Avadh was assigned to some 280 landlord families who had proved their loyalty to the British and were designated "natural leaders." The assignment of such unprecedented privileges, now protected by the strong arm of the colonial regime, led to their widespread abuse of "inferior right holders" (various categories of tenants intermediary between the landlords and the peasants) and the actual—and generally landless—cultivators.


These abuses were worsened by economic changes, especially by the rise of an urban mercantile and banking class that, under British law, acquired the control of large estates in repayment of debts. These new landlords lived away from their estates and accepted none of the reciprocal responsibilities of the old aristocracy; instead, they made rapacious demands on the tenantry through abusive estate agents and their armed guards. It was against the oppression of these (in Nehru's words) "spoilt children of the British Government" that the peasants of Avadh arose.[87]

To the peasants Ramraj did not mean the overthrow of the landholding system, but it did mean lower rents and fairer treatment. In Gyan Pandey's analysis of the peasants' views, "exploitation as such was not unjust. It was inevitable that some ruled and some conducted prayers and some owned the land and some laboured, and all lived off the fruits of that labour. But it was important that everyone in the society made a living out of the resources that were available."[88] Yet even such modest objectives were too threatening for the colonial regime. While official reports coldly detailed the wretchedness of the peasants on the estates and the unwillingness of the landlords to contemplate any loosening of their hold and even while the government publicized its promise to investigate and press for reforms, the full weight of its most autocratic powers of police and judiciary was pressed into action to crush the revolt and imprison its leaders. By April 1922, the agitation was successfully suppressed.

But it was not the government alone that felt threatened. Nationalist leaders, including Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, after showing initial sympathy for the peasants' demands, withdrew their support and abandoned the movement to its unsung demise. Their ostensible motive was fear that the revolt would turn violent and wreck their peaceful Noncooperation Movement. They stressed instead the need for peasants and landlords to forget their differences and present a "united front" against imperialism. Pandey has incisively analyzed the implicit logic of this strategy as well as its portent for the future of Congress government:


The Congress' insistence in 1921-2 on a united front of landlords as well as peasants and others, was a statement in favour of the status quo and against any radical change in the social set-up when the British finally handed over the reins of power. The advice to peasants to give up organizing "meetings" and "disturbances" and to leave politics to the professionals, was a statement against mass participatory democracy and in favour of the idea of "trustee-ship"—the landlords and princes acting as trustees in the economic sphere, Gandhi and company in the political.[89]

It was also the reflection of an economic reality, for many of the absentee landlords against whom the Avadh peasants directed their protests were the same "new men" who provided the financial backing for the Congress.

Pandey's analysis of the Congress position suggests one of the possible readings of Ramraj : a paternalistic autocracy of natural leaders and cooperative subjects. The peasants' actions suggested the possibility of another view: a Ramraj of mass participatory democracy insuring a fairer distribution of wealth. It was ironic, as we shall see, that Mohandas Gandhi should have been drawn, in this instance, to favor the former interpretation; it is less surprising that it has remained dominant in post-Independence Indian politics.

Gandhi's Katha

Like the peasants of Avadh, the man who was to become known as the "Father of Indian Independence" articulated a vision of Ramraj that was rooted in a fervent devotion to the Manas . His own account of his childhood exposure to the text reflects a style and milieu of performance that should by now be familiar to readers:

What, however, left a deep impression on me was the reading of the Ramayan before my father. During part of his illness my father was in Porbandar. There every evening he used to listen to the Ramayan. The reader was a great devotee of Ram—Ladha Maharaj of Bileshvar. . . . He had a melodious voice. He would sing the dohas (couplets) and caupais[*] (quatrains), and explain them, losing himself in the discourse and carrying his listeners along with him. I must have been thirteen at that time, but I quite remember being enraptured by his reading. That laid the foundation of my deep devotion to the Ramayan. Today I regard the Ramayan of Tulasidas as the greatest book in all devotional literature.[90]


A perusal of the entries under "Ramayan" and "Tulsidas" in the indexes to Gandhi's voluminous collected works suggests the extent of what Gandhi termed "the fascination that Tulsidas has wrought on me." To the well-known personae of Gandhi the lawyer, political organizer, and · wandering holy man should perhaps be added that of Gandhi the kathavacak , who used Manas verses as proof texts (praman[*] ) to buttress political arguments. These citations sometimes helped him in difficult ideological situations, such as when (only seven days before his assassination) he addressed the faithful at his evening prayer meeting in New Delhi on the subject of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose birthday it was:

Today is Subhas Babu's birthday. . . . Subhas Babu was a votary of violence while I am a devotee of ahimsa[*] [non-injury]. But what does it matter? I know that the most important thing is that we should learn from other people's virtues. As Tulsidas says,

The Lord has created this world full of lifeless
and living things and virtues and vices.
The wise, like the swan, take the milk of virtue
and leave out the waste of water.[91]

We should be like the swan and take the milk of virtue. Man has virtues as well as vices. We should emulate him in his virtues and forget his deficiencies. Subhas was a great patriot. He laid down his life for the country.[92]

Gandhi often explained his own political activities by referring to the Ramayan narrative; thus, when he was queried about the inspiration for the Noncooperation Movement, he cited the Sundar kand[*] passage in which Sita, though a helpless prisoner of Ravan, boldly refused to submit to his wishes[93] Addressing a meeting of untouchables in 1925, he reminded them of Ram's compassion for the lowly: "You might be acquainted, if you have known Tulsidas' Ramayan, with the fact that Ramchandra, Sita and Lakshman had very affectionately embraced the untouchable Guha and I want to see the same repeated once again in India. . . . I would therefore appeal to Hindus of the higher castes present here that, if they call themselves Sanatan Dharmi, if they love the cow, they should not hate members of the untouchable classes."[94]


Although Gandhi-the-devotee's personal faith in the Manas is beyond doubt, it is also apparent that Gandhi-the-politician knew how to use homely adaptations of its imagery to solicit mass support. Campaigning for the Swadeshi movement in 1925, Gandhi told a rural crowd, "You should bear in mind that, in the days of Shri Ramchandra, neither rich nor poor used any foreign cloth and the khadi [homespun] produced in the country was in the general use of all."[95] Later that year while urging the use of his beloved home spinning-wheel (carkha ), he regaled a women's gathering with a bit of domestication worthy of any kathavacak : "Gandhiji said that . . . they must try to become like Sita of yore who was the soul of Ramraj . In the days of Sita every household had its carkha just as they find a hearth in every home. Sita also spun on her own carkha which might have been bedecked with jewels and probably ornamented with gold, but all the same it was still a carkha ."[96]

The notion of Ramraj forms a recurring theme in Gandhi's discourse. He used the term to articulate his dream of an independent India, often equating it with or preferring it to the term svaraj (self-rule) used by other Congress leaders.[97] It was here that Gandhi-the-politician and Gandhi-the-devotee came together, for Ramraj was "not only the political Home Rule but also dharmaraj . . . which was something higher than ordinary political emancipation."[98] Something higher perhaps, but also something more thoroughly Indian. Westerners who read translations of Gandhi's Hindi speeches and writings, wherein the word "dharma" is rendered "righteousness," "truth," or "justice," are understandably liable to interpret these ideas according to the Judaeo-Christian notion of a universal ethic that admits no exceptions. Resonances of this worldview are of course present in Gandhi's thought and language, as they are in those of many other English-educated Indian leaders. Yet it is important to recognize that, for the vast majority of Gandhi's listeners, the word "dharma" referred to an infinitely particularized and situational code of behavior, fundamental to which was the notion of the inherent inequality of human beings. Dharma was not a monolithic law that every one of these unequal individuals obeyed, but rather a cosmic framework within which they pursued their respective courses. The tra-


ditional view has always been that authority and punishment (danda[*] , or "the rod") were necessary to keep individuals on course and so to insure harmony; thus, a kingdom governed according to dharma was necessarily an authoritarian one. Gandhi tried to circumvent this problem by interpreting Tulsi's epic as a metaphor for spirtual experience rather than an account of historical realities: "Tulsidas had nothing to do with the Ram of history. Judged by historical test, his Ramayan would be fit for the scrap heap. As a spiritual experience his book is almost unrivalled, at least for me. . . . It is the spirit running through the book that holds me spell-bound."[99] It was Gandhi's insistence on reading the "spirit" rather than the letter of the Manas that made possible his original interpretations of its basic themes and his successful use of them as slogans to unify—even if only temporarily—diverse groups within his society. Thus, he could offer such startling interpetations of Ramraj as the following, in which Tulsi's vision of a divine authoritarianism is transformed into a divinely democratic populism by appealing to the moral principle of self-abnegation: "Ramraj means rule of the people. A person like Ram would never wish to rule."[100]

The contrast between spirit and letter returns us to the problem of transcendence and order. It was the spirit of Gandhi that caught the imagination of the masses: the charismatic sadhu who traveled the countryside quoting their beloved Ramayan, preaching homely virtues and causing distant thrones to tremble. During the peasant uprisings in Avadh, his name figured in the wildest rumors; at times he was thought to have already overthrown the government at Delhi.[101] The "letter" of Gandhi sometimes proved harder to pin down, harder still to follow. To the long-suffering peasants of Avadh, it proved to consist, in February 1921, of a set of seventeen printed orders under the heading "Attainment of Swaraj or redress of grievances is impossible unless the following rules are strictly observed." The detailed directives displayed a characteristic Gandhian concern for nonviolence yet, as Pandey has shown, they also served to undercut every one of the achievements and strengths of the peasant movement. They forbade the withholding of taxes and rent, however unjust, and required the abandonment of all acts of even


nonviolent resistance, such as Gandhi himself would lead elsewhere. In Pandey's interpretation, "for tactical reasons as much, it appears, as out of any concern for non-violence," the apostle of Ramraj spearheaded the Congress's desertion of the peasants and thus indirectly served the interests of a class of petty aristocrats whom the lieutenant governor of the United Provinces had cynically hailed as "the only friends we have" and Jawarharlal Nehru later described as "complete parasites."[102] But then we have already seen that the spirit of Tulsi's Ramraj was inherently paradoxical and reflected, together with a longing for transcendent freedom, a fear of worldly disorder.

Ramraj and the Right

Now, what of those who would impose the letter of Ramraj ? The Sanatani organizations that proliferated during the closing decades of the nineteenth century expressed political as well as religious aims. The Madhya Hindu Samaj of Central India, for example, founded on Dashahra day in 1884, held its annual meetings until 1891 concurrently with those of the Indian National Congress, to which many of its members belonged. Its objectives included the propagation of Hindi, the protection of cattle, and (in 1891) the defeat of proposed legislation banning infant marriage, which many Hindus viewed as government meddling in family affairs.[103] The most broad-based Sanatani organization of the early twentieth century was the All-India Hindu Mahasabha, founded at Allahabad in 1913, which likewise held its annual sessions concurrently with those of Congress; Malviya was president of this organization several times, as was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the militant Maharashtrian leader who was among the first to propound the doctrine of India as a Hindu state. Although initially intended as a religious organization that would complement the Congress, the Mahasabha gradually became politicized, adopting an increasingly anti-Muslim stance. This position understandably angered Muslim leaders, whom Gandhi was endeavoring to keep within the Congress, as did the fact that large numbers of Congress delegates attended the Mahasabha sessions. In 1925 the Mahasabha accepted a thirteen-point program that advocated reconverting Muslims, organizating "gymnasiums" for paramilitary training, and founding "service committees" to promote Hindu interests. When widespread communal riots broke out during


1924-26, these committees were suspected not merely of having provided relief to Hindu victims but of having helped to perpetrate the violence. Mahasabha leaders, in turn, blamed Congress moderates and especially Gandhi for advocating the "appeasement" of Muslims. The views of more moderate leaders like Malviya were gradually overshadowed by the jingoistic rhetoric of younger spokesmen like the Punjabi Arya Samaj leader Paramanand, who declared at the 1933 session, "Hindustan is the land of the Hindus alone, and Musalmans and Christians and other nations living in India are only our guests. They can live here as long as they wish to remain as guests."[104] By the late 1930s the Congress-Mahasabha split was complete; the former organization adopted a policy forbidding its members to belong to communal groups, and the latter began to function in effect as an anti-Congress opposition party.

The attainment of independence in 1947 did nothing to heal the rift between the two groups; the holocaust of religious violence that accompanied partition was fueled in part by the rhetoric of the communalists, who accused Congress of having betrayed the "Hindu nation" and called for the annexation and forcible reconversion of Pakistan. The Mahasabha continued its political activities, joined on the scene by several parties that shared many of its objectives and have been variously characterized as "communal," "conservative," "rightist," and "reactionary." Parties such as the Jana Sangh (founded in 1951), the Swatantra party (1959), and the older but officially nonpolitical Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S., 1925) have generally represented a small, fragmented minority within the government. Yet as Howard Erdman has observed, the relatively poor showing of rightist parties in parliamentary elections has never been a definitive barometer of the strength of conservatism in India; for the dominant Congress party itself, far from being ideologically monolithic, included conservative elements that could assert themselves over specific issues.[l05]

The rhetoric and objectives of the major rightist parties have had much in common; behind their various platforms may be detected the specter of a religiopolitical ideal that most would not hesitate to equate with Ramraj . This ideal was given its most explicit articulation by one of the first parties to emerge after the achievement of Independence: the


Ram Rajya Parishad ("Ramraj party," hereafter abbreviated R.R.P.), founded in 1948. Although this party enjoyed only brief and limited success, its platform and rhetoric reflected attitudes that have proven more enduring.

The guiding genius of the R.R.P. was the energetic Swami Karpatri (1907-82), a Brahman-turned-ascetic who became one of the most prominent religious activists of the post-Independence era.[106] Born Nar Narayan Ojha in a village in Pratapgarh District, U.P., the future Karpatri reputedly left home at the age of seventeen to embark on a spiritual quest that took him to the Himalayas and later back to Prayag (Allahabad), where he was initiated into the Shankaracharya order of dandi[*] (staff-bearing) ascetics under the name Hariharanand Sarasvati.[107] Karpatri belonged to an elite subbranch that admitted only Brahmans, the members of which prided themselves on their learning and scrupulous adherence to "Vedic" customs. Karpatri's impeccable orthodoxy and widely publicized activities earned him high regard; as the acknowledged leader of the dandis[*] , he came to be recognized as "the visible manifestation of Shiva."[108] His reputation proved useful in his organizational activities, for merchant groups were eager to acquire prestige by associating with the most orthodox teachers.

Karpatri's early activities included the founding of a journal, Sanmarg (1936), backed by the merchant Mulchand Chopra and edited by Vijayanand Tripathi; later (1941) this became a daily newspaper published from Banaras and Calcutta. Karpatri also championed the revival of large-scale Vedic sacrifices, for which he solicited funds from merchants and industrialists.[109] His rigid conservatism was perhaps most evident in his attitude toward the socially oppressed, for while some liberal Sanatanis paid lip service to the notion of a varna -based[*] social order of only four grades and advocated (in principle) the "purification" of untouchables, Karpatri unashamedly argued for the mainte-


nance of the status quo, including the continued ostracism of people at the bottom of the system. Thus, he opposed the opening of temples to untouchables, in accordance with the provisions of the new constitution: "When some Harijans entered the premises of Vishvanath Temple in Varanasi, he declared that the idol of Vishvanath-ji had become devoid of all Divine Virtues and was nothing more than a piece of stone. After this incident, he constructed another Vishvanath Temple in Varanasi."[110]

The R.R.P. faced its first test at the polls in the parliamentary elections of 1952. For the occasion, the party produced a forty-page manifesto detailing its principles and aims. This unusual document, "replete with Sanskrit quotations, moral exhortations, metaphysical subtleties, and even arguments for the existence of God,"[111] read more like the transcription of a Katha performance than a statement of political policy. Its evocation of Ram's glorious reign—the model it wished India to emulate—resembled Tulsi's panegyric: "Every citizen of Ramraj was contented, happy, gifted with learning, and religious-minded. . . . All were truthful. None was close-fisted, none was rude; none lacked prudence; and above all, none was atheist. All followed the path of dharma."[112] The manifesto advocated a return to this blessed state but gave little indication of how the party intended to bring it about. Among the document's few concessions to the mundane were calls for a ban on cow slaughter and the sale of alcoholic beverages, for government encouragement of the system of village barter (jajmani ) rather than a cash economy, and for the replacement of Western medicine with Ayurveda. Society was to function smoothly according to the immemorial varnasram[*] system, but lest it be supposed that this did not offer something for everyone, the manifesto recommended that sweepers, Chamars, and other Untouchables be assigned "high posts" in sanitation departments and the leather and hides industry.

Though largely ignored by the English-language press and the urban intelligentsia, the R.R.P. did not fare altogether badly at the polls. Its most successful candidates were a handful of ex-aristocrats in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, seeking political office in their former domains,


who found success by linking their local prestige with the image of the party and its leader.[113] In all, the R.R.P. mustered some two million votes, including 14.2 percent of the vote in Madhya Pradesh and 9.4 percent in Rajasthan.[114] If it was clear that the party had found a constituency, it was just as clear that Ramraj was not imminently to be ushered in.

Although the R.R.P. continued to contest seats in later elections, it gradually lost popular support even in its early strongholds.[115] Some observers attributed its poor performance to the unbending personality of its leader. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the R.R.P. contemplated merging with one or more of the other rightist parties—a move that might have strengthened its overall position. But the bottom line for Karpatri usually proved to be varna[*] , and so merger talks with the Jana Sangh broke down in 1956 over his insistence that the other party exclude Harijans from membership.[116] When B. D. Tripathi conducted research among sadhus in the mid-1960s, he was surprised to find that even they evinced little support for the R.R.P.[117] Karpatri himself managed to remain in the limelight by periodically unpacking the old reliables of Sanatani sentiment; thus, in 1966 he led 125,000 protestors in a march on Parliament protesting cow slaughter—a demonstration that ended with the torching of vehicles and police firing.

Any judgment of the failure of Karpatri's party must be tempered by an awareness of the relatively greater success of several other rightist parties. It is easy enough to laugh at Karpatri's posturing and to dismiss the R.R.P. manifesto as a "handbook for Indian reactionaries and obscurantists,"[118] but one should not overlook the fact that more moderate and successful conservative leaders advocated programs that were in substantial agreement with those of the R.R.P. Also participating in the 1952 elections were the Hindu Mahasabha and the newly formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The former secured roughly a million votes and four seats in the Lok Sabha with a manifesto that advocated an "undivided" India (i.e., the nullification of Pakistan), cow protection, and Ayurvedic medicine and opposed Nehru's Hindu Code Bill. On social issues the Mahasabha adopted a more reformist stance than the R.R.P.,


advocating "Harijan uplift" and women's rights but, as Erdman has noted, the rhetoric can be misleading since many Mahasabha supporters no more believed in the literal implementation of such ideas than their R.R.P. counterparts did in those of Swami Karpatri.

The Jana Sangh was founded in 1951 by Shyam Prasad Mookerjee, a former Mahasabha leader, but much of its support came from the older "service" organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Maharashtrian Brahmans who established this paramilitary group in Nagpur in 1925 chose Vijaydashami day for its founding and wallowed in the rhetoric of a "glorious Hindu past" combined with a healthy dose of hatred toward other communities.[119] The R.S.S. quickly extended its influence into Hindi-speaking regions; a cadre was established in Banaras in 1931, and by 1940 the organization claimed a nationwide membership of one hundred thousand. Each local group was supposed to meet daily for exercise, marching drills, patriotic songs, and Sanskrit prayers. This training was intended to foster absolute devotion to what was vaguely termed "national religion and culture." A similar ideology later dominated the policy statements of the political offshoot of the R.S.S., the Jana Sangh. Its 1951 manifesto contained—in addition to the predictable calls for a ban on cow slaughter and for the promotion of Ayurvedic medicine—criticism of the "materialism" of Western culture and praise of Sanskrit as "the repository of national culture"; a decade later its platform continued to extol "the age-old scientific principles of social organization."[120] Although we should not overlook the ideological differences among the rightist parties—in 1954 the Jana Sangh supported the abolition of untouchability and the opening of temples to Harijans—we may recognize that many of these differences were literally "ideological" and had little bearing on practical approaches to real-world problems. Rejection of the concept of untouchability had become, by 1954, almost as politically acceptable as motherhood and Ramraj , as improved transportation and growing urbanization made it increasingly difficult to limit physical contact with the socially oppressed, and the anachronistic views of Karpatri became a liability for conservatives. But


rhetoric is one thing and action another; even the efforts made by radical Arya Samajis earlier in the century to "purify" untouchables had proven to be largely self-limiting, and most latter-day conservatives contemplated no such herculean efforts.[121]

Perhaps Karpatri's biggest failing as a politician was that he never mastered the language of euphemism favored by English-educated intellectuals.[122] In his ingenuous fanaticism, he proclaimed the letter of Ramraj as he read it, complete with Chamars heading shoe companies. Sad to say, such ideas, apart from their absurd unenforceability, were rather on the idealistic side. In U.P. when "high posts" were handed out—whether in sanitary engineering, the leather industry, or any other field—they tended to go to people with the right credentials and connections, the majority of whom proved to be twice-born Hindus.

The power of euphemism was exemplified by the most successful of the early conservative parties, the Swatantra party, established in 1959. Its founding father, the widely revered C. Rajagopalachari (a former freedom fighter, chief minister of Madras, and something of a kathavacak in his own right as the author of popular adaptations of the Ramayana[*] and the Mahabharata ) tried to steer a more centrist course and avoided blatantly communal rhetoric. Yet he defined "culture" (samskrti[*] ) as "essentially the prevailing pattern of joyous restraint accepted by the people," called for the maintenance of dharma ("an organic growth which it is our duty to respect and which we should not treat as mere Indian superstition"), and bemoaned the undermining of the caste system by "the impact of Western individualism and perverted movements of social reform."[123] Once again there is a risk of the English reader's misunderstanding what is intended here; or perhaps it is a case of Rajaji's intending two different things—the one ideological and abstract, the other euphemistic but practical. Erdman astutely noted this dual meaning: "In his analysis Rajaji uses the term dharma in a rather


abstract fashion, but more relevant in popular Hinduism is the more 'earthly' notion of varnasram[*] dharma. . . . The former usage may be flexible, the latter is not, and in this sense, too, there is an element of 'disguised conservatism' which intrudes into Rajaji's approach."[124] The concept of varnasram[*] dharma is central to Sanatanis' understanding of their "eternal religion." It is often invoked in Katha performances and I have even heard the claim that it is the "real essence" of the Manas . A wealthy Banarsi Brahman, prominent in the patronage of Manas performances, once explained to me rather confidentially, "God, Ram, bhakti —the truth is, you can leave all that aside. The essence of Goswami-ji's teachings is a certain 'social genius.'" The speaker was university-educated and clearly had learned the art of euphemism. Not surprisingly, for him the essence of the Hindi epic was a concept that upheld the prestige, power, and wealth of his own family and class.

Today varnasram[*] dharma is virtually a euphemism itself. The asram portion, to begin with, has little practical meaning. A reference to the widely held ideal of life-stages, it is a voluntary rather than a prescriptive concept, and not even Karpatri, fond as he was of quoting the lawbooks of Manu, would have been inclined to introduce legislation forcing, say, a middle-aged male to pack up and leave for the forest "when he sees . . . the sons of his sons."[125] It is the varna[*] portion of the term that carries the sting, for despite sensory evidence and anthropological arguments to the contrary, large numbers of Hindus continue to believe that their social system is founded on a division of four degrees of "color"; that this term, even in an obviously racially mixed population, is not merely symbolic will be clear to anyone who examines a page of marriage advertisments, with their characteristic sensitivity to gradations of skin tone.

The essentially repressive contemporary meaning of varnasram[*] becomes clear from the circumstances in which it is invoked. The fact that a Brahman's son chooses to enter politics, industry, or for that matter, sanitary engineering, does not elicit it; but the potential upward mobility of the sweeper, cobbler, or washerman provokes angry cries. One suspects that it is the "holding down" aspect of dharma that is foremost in Rajaji's theme of "joyous restraint"; restraint, joyous or otherwise, is ever urged on the oppressed by their oppressors. That there is an undercurrent of anxiety in such usage is scarcely surprising, for keeping those


beneath one within their limits becomes all the more essential in a society of growing scarcity and competition, in which oppressed classes, agitated by "perverted movements of social reform," attempt to assert rights whose full exercise inevitably erodes others' privileges.

Today, long after the demise of the Ram Rajya Parishad, the cry that greeted Swami Karpatri wherever he went still echoes in Sanatani assemblies throughout northern India and is often given by Banaras orators when they travel about to expound the Manas . It is a militant cry of "victory" (jay ) and "annihilation" (nas ), begun by the speaker and completed by the crowd:

May dharma be victorious!
May adharma be annihilated!
May there be good feeling among beings!
May the world prosper!
Har Har Mahadev !

Although it is only a slogan, I suggest that it is not so vague in meaning as it may appear at first. "Dharma" in this context now largely means the Sanatani religion and social hierarchy; adharma (anti-dharma), any effort to promote social change. The pattern of social crises and economic stagnation giving rise to jingoistic and authoritarian movements is hardly unique to India. In the face of complex social and economic challenges, rightist leaders continue to brandish their familiar battery of reliable symbols. Writing on the early Jana Sangh and Mahasabha, Weiner astutely observed, "Their emphasis was on cultural questions—Sanskritized Hindi as the national language, a ban on cow slaughter, their opposition to the Hindu Code Bill, and their charge of favoritism toward Muslims by the government—these were the key issues for both parties, not land reform and other economic questions."[126] The essential elements of one interpretation of Ramraj were present in the rhetoric of all the rightist parties, regardless of whether the slogan used was Ramrajya (R.R.P.), Dharma raj (Jana Sangh), Hindurastra[*] (Hindu Mahasabha), or Bharatiyamaryada (Swatantra party): an authoritarian government with a militaristic stance, strict adherence to a "dharma" defined by the ruling elite, and the denial of religious and cultural pluralism.

An upsurge of militant Hindu nationalism in the 1980s was hailed by its leaders as a new "Hindu Renaissance." The familiar rhetoric of Ramraj , the cow, Sanskrit education, and maryada was again unpacked,


this time against the darkening background of the nation's spiraling population growth, chronic scarcity of resources, and enhanced capacity for communal violence. Once again, amid strident calls for "a consolidated society, based on our national heroes," Hindu leaders voiced a pervasive fear of impotence and decline, and "were convinced—how-ever ludicrous it might sound—that a conspiracy of sociology and de-mography would soon render the Hindus a minority within their own country."[127] Once again, lower-class Hindus were asked to forget their troubles, to move "beyond caste" and unite in the face of an enemy who, as always, was without: Muslims, Christians, the government, the West. Even though the movement was said to engage the sympathy. of a cross-section of the Hindu population, it exploited the special frustration and capacity for violence of "loosely-formed militias of unemployed youths and small shopkeepers."[128]

A special symbol of the new militancy was an image of Lord Ram imprisoned in a padlocked cage. This was transported throughout the country by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (a successor organization to the Mahasabha) to dramatize its claim that the government gave preferential treatment to religious minorities. The symbol of the "caged Ram" conveyed meaning on several levels. It was a reference to the long-standing "incarceration" of an image of Ram behind an iron fence in his reputed birthplace, the Babari Mosque in Ayodhya, which was for many years closed to pilgrims while the government considered Hindu and Muslim claims to the site.[129] But it was also a reference to the alleged restriction of Hindu culture by the legislation and policies of a secular government. Perhaps it was only another irony of the Kali Yuga that Tulsi's ideal man, self-limited and yet powerfully ascendent, was incongruously seen by groups whose rising economic aspirations were thwarted by recession and overpopulation to be the victim of a new set of repugnant "limits": the need to respect the rights of others in a democratic, pluralistic society.

Hindu nationalists claim to speak for an immemorial tradition, yet their authoritarian program in fact "represents a considerable departure from traditional Indian norms and institutions,"[130] for these always


implicitly recognized the gulf between real and ideal and settled for a negotiated and imperfect order of compromise and parceled authority. The specific dangers of the new coalescence of religion and politics stem from the radically transformed political milieu within which the campaign is waged. Heesterman has incisively analyzed what he terms the new "tradition of modernity," exemplified by the modern state:

Its distinctive feature is . . . the total identification of the mundane with the transcendent order. As the sovereignty ascribed to it makes dear, the modem state cannot be transcended. It is itself transcendent and so is its universalist order. Hence the similarity of the Brahmanical and the modern tradition. However, the difference is equally obvious. There is no more room for a countervailing order. Modernity, then, means the integration of the mundane and the transcendent orders into one explosive reality.[131]

For Tulsidas the heavenly state of Ramraj could be brought to earth in only two ways: by Ram himself or by his name. The vision of transcendence realized in concrete terms was set in a remote epoch and made dependent on the catalyzing presence of a divine king; transcendence in mundane time, however, was immanent and personal, dependent only on an accessible and salvific name. The idealist in Tulsi looked longingly to Ramraj ; the realist embraced nam-raj as the "order" of the Kali Age. The secular theology of the twentieth-century state, implicit in the discourse of both liberals and conservatives, has inverted this model, secularizing and homogenizing the individual even as it transcendentalizes the state. As Heesterman suggests, this bold new attempt to resolve the tension between real and ideal is fraught with hazard.

Cracks in the Mirror

The Ramayan tradition has always had "problems." Some of them, as I suggested earlier, are inherent in the story and have been discussed and debated through numerous retellings. The irreducible nature of the narrative is sometimes playfully acknowledged by the tradition, as when Sita, in the Adhyatmaramayana[*] , offers as her final, unanswerable argument for accompanying Ram to the forest the fact that she has heard "diverse Ramayans from Brahmans; where and when did Ram go to the forest without Sita, do thou tell me?"[132] Similarly, can one conceive of


a Ramayan in which Ram and Lakshman do not befriend Sugriv and Vibhishan (thus helping younger brothers overthrow their elders), or in which Ram (a Kshatriya) does not slay Ravan (a Brahman)? Using an analogy to crystallography, A. K. Ramanujan likens such incidents to flaws in the surface of a crystal, which become the points at which new crystals grow; the epic expands through the audience's response to its inherent stress-points.[133]

Within the Vaishnava exegetical tradition, the articulation of "doubt" (sanka[*] ) concerning sacred narrative and its "setting to right" (samadhan ) by an authoritative spokesman represents virtually a performance art in itself—a special variation on the dialectic of Katha . The occurrence of such "doubt" need not indicate a lapse of faith in the narrative or a serious questioning of it; rather it invites a creative, even playful, exercise in textual mediation. Manas enthusiasts delight in dreaming up difficult questions for their favorite expounders, since these provide occasions for the latter to display their ingenuity, rhetorical skill, and knowledge of the text. Nor is there any doubt in the questioner's mind that the resolution of his doubt exists somewhere, for in the realm of Manas exegesis there are no unanswerable questions; it is simply a matter of finding the right vyas . A perusal of one of the written collections of epic-related problems, such as the Gita Press's popular Manassanka[*]samadhan by Jayram Das Din ("Resolution of Doubts Concerning the Manas ," published in 1942 and in its twenty-seventh printing in 1981) suggests the gamelike nature of the interpretive enterprise. Many of its thirty-nine questions concern highly scholastic points, hinging on extremely literal interpretations of specific lines.[134] Typically the expounder's endeavor is to show that in some other passage the epic offers the information necessary to resolve the matter—reminding us again that, for this tradition, the Manas itself is its own commentary.

But there are some problems that even the visionary author of the Manas did not anticipate—indeed, could not have anticipated, because they concern a worldview that he took for granted and raise issues scarcely regarded as such in his time. People troubled by such issues do not raise devotional "doubts" in order to enjoy the process of their artful "setting to right," but question the relevance to their society of some of the poet's implicit assumptions—specifically, his attitude to-


Figure 33.
Women reciting the Manas during a public festival, Banaras, 1982

ward women and people of low caste. Clearly these issues are relevant to the present and future vitality of the text. For the power of an epic, as Pollock has observed, lies in its encompassing vision and its ability to mirror our ideals and realities.[135] The narrative flaws referred to earlier need not interfere with this mirroring ability; on the contrary, they dramatize paradoxes and dilemmas that are part of our reality and point to solutions that become part of our ideal. But we must consider what happens when, as a result of social or historical change, the image that an epic shows us begins to appear intolerably distorted: a reflection of oppressive realities or discredited ideals.

The question (to paraphrase the title of a recent Hindi tract) "Was there enmity in Goswami Tulsidas's heart toward women and Shudras?"[136] apparently troubles large numbers of regular Manas reciters, for there is scarcely a modern work on the epic, be it commentary or devotional tract, that does not attempt to answer it. Powerful and contradictory arguments on the subject have been advanced by various


scholars, and anyone who approaches the Manas with an awareness of these issues—present writer not excepted—can hardly help forming an opinion on the matter. However, my aim here is not to answer the question but to consider the questioning process itself as another aspect of the interaction between the text and its audience.

There have been few who have straightforwardly attacked the Manas ; to do so would be like attacking motherhood or the COW.[137] Many devotees, as Linda Hess found, readily articulate only a placid acceptance of the epic's suppositions—"If Tulsidas-ji says it, it must be true."[138] A researcher focusing on the social impact of the epic's teachings may even begin to wonder, as Hess did in her fieldwork, whether the "problem" is not largely in her own mind. At the popular level, the questioning of Tulsi's treatment of women and Shudras must be inferred from the frequency with which the topic is addressed by traditional scholars—rather in the manner that we surmise the vanished theories of the ancient lokayata school of materialist philosophers from their reflection in the polemics of their opponents. Tulsi's defenders are quick to locate the source of such questioning in the influence of the modern educational system, which has been infiltrated by secular and foreign ideas. Thus, Pandit Ramkumar Das of Ayodhya, in his pamphlet "Consecration and Censure of Women in the Manas ," attributes the "wrongheaded notion" that the epic insults women to "people who are decked out with a foreign education."[139] A similar charge is leveled by another apologist, Narayan Singh, the author of a book entitled "Tulsi the Revolutionary." In characteristic Renaissance style, he paints an idealized picture of Hinduism's golden age and then blames the spread of Western values for subsequent disharmony:

After some time capitalism began to spread in Europe. Then democracy raised its head there and gradually various laws were developed for giving women political power and equality with men in social life. . . . This sort of trend spread from Europe to India along with the Western nations that gained a foothold in the country at the time of the Mughals. . . . The result was that Indian men and women turned away from their innate spiritual nature and practice and began to lose themselves in external appearances that seemed to hold out the promise of freedom. Turning from our own tradition of conjugal oneness, of mutual service, of wife as Lakshmi of the


house and other noble ideals, we began to take pleasure in tales of an "equality" rooted in lustful cravings. When Western contact, literature, and ideology had begun to dim our subtle and spiritualized point of view, then only, aided by Western critical methods, did we begin to see Tulsi's criticisms concerning women as insults to women.[140]

As the author implies, most of the writing critical of Tulsidas has issued from university-educated scholars influenced by European literature, although the specific complaints of these scholars do not echo Western observations. Early Western writing on Tulsidas—largely by Victorian scholars—was the product of a society hardly less male chauvinist and socially stratified than the one in which the Hindi poet wrote, and it was largely preoccupied with religious and historical issues. Insofar as writers like Growse and Grierson concerned themselves with the ethical content of the Manas , they were generally unstinting in their praise.

Among the early signs of an indigenous questioning of Tulsi's views were the influential writings of the Mishra brothers, whose Hindinavratna (Nine gems of Hindi) included a study of Tulsidas that tempered its praise with criticism of some of the poet's attitudes. In a striking departure from the traditional view of Tulsi as a divinely inspired poet-saint, they offered a psychological explanation of his negative judgments on women's character: "Goswami-ji's mother had died in his infancy, and later he became unhappy with his wife. Because he was a renunciant he didn't meet women of noble station, and he must only have encountered, here and there, women of a low type; therefore, he did not have any experience with women. It is for this reason that he insulted them; nevertheless, it was not proper for such a great teacher and poet to have given vent to such strong abuse."[141] Qualified though it was, the Mishras' criticism implied a serious defect in the Manas , which might compromise its much-vaunted suitability to all groups and classes of people. Other literary scholars rallied to the defense of the text. Some sought to place Tulsi in a historical context and to argue that his worldview was shared by others of his age, both in India and the West—thus, Ramchandra Dube pointed to some of the negative stereotypes of women in Shakespeare's plays.[142] Others noted that even Tulsi's most oft-cited rankling utterance on the subject, an apparent folk saying put into the mouth of the god of the Ocean,


Drum, rustic, Shudra, beast, and woman—
all these are fit for beating.

had a counterpart in an English proverb still current in the nineteenth century:

A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree—
the more you beat them, the better they be.[143]

The weakness of such arguments was, of course, that although English plays and proverbs might reveal attitudes similar to those reflected in Manas passages, they could no longer be said to carry the normative weight in their culture that Tulsi's epic had come to have in North India.

In any case, attempts to explain Tulsi's views by placing them in a historical or psychological context offer little satisfaction to the numerous devotees who view the Manas as a transtemporal revelation—Shiva's account of Ram's acts—which the poet merely transmitted in his own language. Like certain fundamentalist Christians who hold that every word of the King James Bible is the actual utterance of God, devout Manas enthusiasts are unwilling to concede that some passages in their beloved epic may be less "inspired" than others; hence, in dealing with problem passages they prefer ingeniously contrived explanations that eliminate the need to impute any blemish to the epic or its visionary author.

Thus, exegesis of the verse quoted above (widely regarded as the text's single most objectionable line) tends to focus on the verb tarna[*] (to punish, beat, chide, admonish), seeking to demonstrate that in this context it does not imply physical abuse. Writes Jayram Das Din,

Here the meaning of tarna[*] is simply to give instruction to the five mentioned individuals for the sake of their wellbeing. . . . Thus, a drum is calculatedly stretched and sounded so that it may give out a pleasant sound; it is not stretched or struck so forcefully that it will become useless. . . . In the same manner it can only mean here to make a rustic or lowborn person virtuous and wise by threatening and reprimanding him, not to beat or insult him without cause. People scold animals too and keep them from running away, only insofar as is necessary to insure their safety. . . . In the same way, what is intended here is to not let women be wayward, so that they may remain of calm and sober disposition and virtuous behavior.[144]


Even more tortuous explanations are encountered: one commentator attempts to construe two of the words in the first half-line as adjective.,; rather than nouns, and so reduces to three the number of individuals said to merit chastisement: "A drum, a rustic Shudra, a female animal."[145]

Fanciful etymologies—long a mainstay of Hindu exegetes—are also invoked to explain away bothersome lines. Given the perceived potency of Sanskritized language, these arguments continue to carry rhetorical weight, especially in the context of oral exposition. In attempting to argue that Tulsidas showed no preference toward Brahmans, Narayan Singh first points out that the word "Brahman" seldom occurs in the Manas ; he then proceeds to tackle a word that does occur frequently: vipra. This hoary term (literally "one who trembles"—an apparent reference to the poet-shamans of the Vedic hymns) has been used since at least the time of the epics to mean simply "a priest," but Singh, undaunted and original, breaks it up into its syllabic characters and, determining that vi - stands for visva (the world) and -pra for pragati (progress), triumphantly construes vipra as "one who promotes world progress"—then modestly adds that, although .this prodigious interpretation is purely his own, he has discussed it with a number of Sanskrit pandits and "they did not disagree with it."[146]

Another common and more plausible defense of Tulsidas is that each statement in the Manas must be interpreted in its context of place, time, character, and situation (des, kal, patra, avastha ). This approach reflects the characteristically situational Hindu ethics found in the epic itself, which contains nearly formulaic references to the context of speeches—thus, Ram addresses the assembly at Chitrakut, "having considered the place and circumstances, the time and assembly" (2.304.6).[147] The "drum" statement, it is pointed out, is made by a foolish character, the Ocean personified, in the course of an obsequious apology in which he thanks Ram for having chastized him; consequently it should not be taken as an exemplary instruction (upades ). Several other strong criticisms of women are likewise uttered by ignoble characters-for example, Ravan's enumeration of woman's "eight defects" (6.16.1-3). Even the fact that one of the harshest such passages is spoken by Ram himself (3.43-3.44) is liable to be explained in terms of its narrative context: "You see, at that time the Lord was feeling the intense


agony of separation from Sita-ji, and he was behaving like a madman. Then too, he was speaking to Narad-ji, who had taken a vow of lifelong continence. For people like sadhus and so on, women are very dangerous and they have to be warned against them. For them, it is good advice, but it isn't meant for householders."[148]

Other apologists place the blame for the harshness of some of Tulsi's judgments on the supposed atrocities of his age. The long tradition of anti-Muslim historical polemic, exemplified by both the writings of colonial historians and those of Hindu nationalists, provides fuel for this argument.[149] Thus, Narayan Singh excuses Tulsi's call for absolute wifely obedience even to an unfaithful or cruel husband (best exemplified in Anasuya's speech to Sita—3.5.5-3.5b) by invoking a vision of Hindu womanhood at the mercy of leering Turks:

Women had become the playthings of the Muslims' sex-lusts. Harems were like thriving bazaars for libertines. The honor and dignity of Hindu sisters and daughters, wives and widows, was perpetually imperiled by sinful leering, brute strength, and hypocritical strategems. . . . Therefore, teaching the lesson of restraint and fearlessness, in order to save people from sex-lust, Tulsi made statements appropriate to the context that were favorable or unfavorable to both men and women, feeling this to be his indispensable duty as a servant of society.[150]

Gandhi took another approach to the text's troubling passages. As we have seen, his emphasis on social reform and his opposition to untouchability did not keep him from enjoying and constantly quoting the Manas . But he reserved the right to interpret the spirit of the text in his own fashion and (in the metaphor of the couplet he was so fond of citing) to strain out the "milk" and discard the "water." Discussing the infamous drum verse, he recommended that "one should not stick to its letter, but try to understand its spirit, its meaning in its total context. . . . An evil fate awaits one who beats his wife because Tulsidas has said in his work that a Shudra, a dull-witted person, a beast and a woman merit chastisement. Ram not only never raised his hand against Sita, he did not even displease her at any time. Tulsidas merely stated a common belief. . . . The support which the work seems to lend to evil customs should be ignored."[151]


Perhaps the most common response to problem verses in the Manas is simply to ignore them and focus instead on the abundance of inspiring and inoffensive passages that the epic offers—one is reminded of a popular American evangelist's avowed preference for "positive" Bible quotations, carefully selected to avoid unpleasantness or controversy.[152] At several recitation programs I attended, festival enclosures were decorated with banners displaying Manas verses; needless to say, the organizers' choice hardly fell on controversial lines. Instead one found equally famous—and important—verses like Ram's admonition to Bharat,

Brother, there's no dharma like the welfare of others,
no baseness like causing others pain.

And just as few contemporary Christian clerics, however fundamentalist in their approach to the Bible, would consider basing a sermon on, say, the passage in Exodus that neatly details the circumstances permitting a father to sell his daughter into slavery,[153] so one finds few expounders who are inclined to dwell publicly on controversial Manas passages. Instead, as we have seen, they often select episodes that challenge society's implicit hierarchy: Ram's partaking of the fruits offered by the untouchable Shabari; his family priest Vasishtha's fervent embracing of the boatman Kevat in the love-filled atmosphere of Chitrakut. Such symbolic, even ritualized acts of voluntary pollution—part of Hindu society's ongoing flirtation with boundaries—have always coexisted fairly comfortably with the status quo of caste.

The problem with the Manas , of course, is that it is so much with us; it is easier to ignore the unpleasant features of a text if one isn't exposed to it very often. All-India Radio in Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Banaras, Patna, and numerous other broadcast centers in North India presents fifteen minutes of Manas singing each morning, but there is a firm policy of deleting all controversial lines. Such governmental "meddling" in the religiocultural field irritates some listeners; one man told me that in the days of the British Raj, it was forbidden to publicly recite the verse

In whose domain dear subjects are sorrowful,
that king, surely, is fit for hell.


and complained that, even after Independence, the Manas was still being "censored" by the authorities. In spite of all efforts to "set them to rights," the vexing lines in the Manas clearly continue to vex.

Shastri's Sastra

The criticisms of the Mishras and other scholars, though controversial, were mild compared to those of astrologer-pandit Rajnikant Shastri, whose 1949 book, Manasmimamsa[*] (An inquiry into the Manas ) brought debate over the epic to a new level of passion. Although subtitled "a nonpartisan critical study" and dutifully sweetened with a chapter entitled "The Merits of the Manas ," Shastri's book consists for the most part of a no-holds-barred attack on poem and author, delivered with the zeal of a public-spirited crusader.

I grant that the Hindi-speaking Hindu populace views this book with an extremely reverent gaze. They are ever intoxicated with its sweetness and consider its reading and recitation to effect their temporal and spiritual well-being, and foreign scholars too, noting its virtues, openly sing its praises. But in deference to truth I must declare that people's attention has till now never been drawn toward this book's defects, from which people have suffered greatly and continue to suffer.[154]

Shastri's catalog of defects is long; it is also idiosyncratic and his method of attacking them no less so. His complaints against the Manas are weighty: that it promotes the oppression of women and Shudras and, by encouraging blind faith and fanaticism, saps the vitality of Hindu society. Yet the arguments put forward in support of these views often involve the same kinds of tortuous and fanciful interpretations favored by the epic's defenders. Thus, he devotes a long chapter to a testy attempt to prove, largely using astrological calculations based on Puranic passages, that Sita was born nine hundred years earlier than Ram and therefore the entire Ramayan story is only an airy fiction. Chameleonlike, the venerable Shastri appears at one moment as a radical atheist, debunking all myths and championing social egalitarianism, and at the next as a pious Hindu, quoting a wide range of texts (including the Valmiki Ramayana[*] , which he has dismissed as a hoax) in order to prove various assertions.

Despite such inconsistencies, Shastri's scholarly tone and modernist idiom have added a powerful statement to the debate over the epic's


social teachings. A single passage on Tulsi's treatment of Shudras will give a sense of the author's angry eloquence:

If he had the impertinence to call Brahmans hypocrites in such verses as "Brahmans were illiterate, greedy, and lustful," etc. [7.100.8.], at least he atoned for it by writing "A Brahman should be worshiped even if without virtue," etc. [3.34.2]. But what had he to fear from weak and helpless Shudras? He gave them a thorough thrashing. Beholding their prayers, austerities, and fasts his hateful heart burned with rage. Seeing them seated on a dais expounding religious stories was like a needle in his eye. Perhaps you are not aware that Vasishtha, Parashar, Bharadvaj, and other sages were the sons of, respectively, a prostitute, an untouchable, and a Shudra mother; but by prayer, austerity, fasting, and so forth they made themselves not merely Brahmans but sages who founded great lineages and whose descendants even today are puffed up with pride. . .. In a country whose revered leader wishes to uplift the nation by extending education to women, sweepers, and scavengers, this Ramcaritmanas of Tulsi's, "in accordance with numerous scriptures," pummels and ridicules him with its "virtuous" teachings. . .. But now there have appeared people who will calculate the true cost of this intoxicating spell of his; those whose keenly critical pens, like the sharp lancets of dedicated surgeons, heedless of the abuses he poured out in anticipation of criticism, will slice open his overripe boils and extract and discard all their filthy, rotted pus![155]

Shastri, who clearly considers himself foremost among the surgeons, goes on in this fashion for more than two hundred pages, tempering lofty social criticism with the cranky literalness of a Ramayani.[156] He reiterates many of the common problems raised by believers,[157] but his diatribe occasionally includes striking insights of the sort that rarely intrude into the polite game of sanka[*] and samadhan . In discussing Tulsi's attitude toward women, he notes the common defense that the poet's criticisms are directed only against "wayward women" and that the epic provides many positive female models (Sita, Kaushalya, Anasuya, Shabari, etc.) as well as many reprehensible male characters. Shastri points out that whereas the condemnation of men is particularized, that of women is universal and based on a constantly repeated theme of inherent feminine impurity. If Ram's misogynistic lecture to Narad is intended only for ascetics, Shastri wonders, then why is there no comparable passage for householders, extolling women's virtues?


And why are exemplary female ascetics like Shabari not similarly warned by Ram against the allurements of young men?[158]

Such insights, albeit nearly buried beneath Shastri's invective and quaint preoccupations, suggest a degree of questioning of the traditional worldview that is rarely encountered in any of the polemics, pro or con, concerning the epic. As Hess observed after noting the ingenious interpretations of the verb tarna[*] —to "instruct," "correct," "tune," "get the best out of," and so forth—with which most of her interviewees sought to explain the drum verse,

in their very defense of this line, the speakers reveal attitudes which to us may seem just as incriminating as the obvious problem about beating. . .. The very juxtaposition of these five terms—drum, peasant, Shudra, animal, woman—implies the degradation of the human items on the list. The comparison of the five, and the explanations commonly offered, continually reinforce the idea that women and Shudras, like animals and drums, are there for certain other people to "get something out of." Those people are twice-born males . . . or husbands of any caste or class.[159]

But if, like the legendary hamsa[*] bird, we choose to selectively relish the milk of Shastri's insights, we must first strain out a great deal of water. The pandit's motives for his unprecedented attack, visible here and there beneath the surface of his argument, merit closer examination; I return to this subject shortly.

No Apologies from Kanpur

The bluntness, if not the tone, of Shastri's attack is matched by a tract from a self-styled Acharya Dev (divine preceptor) of Kanpur, the first of a projected series known as Manas tarang[*] (Waves of the Manas ) and devoted to clearing up the "much-discussed, controversial topic" of Tulsi's attitude toward Shudras. The dilemma of order and transcendence is neatly resolved by this author by the assertion that there are really two Tulsis: "Tulsi the devotee and Tulsi the social preceptor." For Tulsi the devotee, caste does not exist and "there is no question of Brahman or Chandal." But most people do not function on this level and so must be guided by the teachings of preceptor-Tulsi, which, the author explains, are not simply different from those of devotee-Tulsi but actually contradict them.[160] And so after a brief eulogy of the casteless society envisioned by devotee-Tulsi (symbolized by the love-drenched


atmosphere of Chitrakut), the Acharya devotes the better part of his tract to what for him is obviously the real message of the Manas : the immutability of birth.

Insisting that varna[*] really refers to "color," he offers an ingenious explanation for the fact that caste divisions no longer seem to follow pure color-coded lines. Alas, the original physical purity of the four orders has been lost due to "mixing," but lest one suppose that this undermines the whole system, Acharya Dev reveals that, though no longer visible to gross eyes, the original colors are still present in the individual's aura or halo of light—invisible to most people who are not Acharyas from Kanpur. The aura of a Brahman, he intones, is pure gold, whereas that of a Shudra is black. A citation or two from an American parapsychologist triumphantly confirms that this particularly devious variety of racism is upheld by "Western scientists."[161] No one need despair, however, for black though his aura may be, the Shudra too has his place in the great scheme of things: he is descended from the feet of the cosmic giant (purusa[*] ), and "if the feet rebel, then the whole body will be crippled; if the feet are listless then the whole body is incapacitated. The whole body is indebted to the feet."[162]

Acharya Dev's views are typical of one kind of Brahmanical elaboration on the Manas occasionally encountered at Katha festivals and in tract literature. One can scarcely call it exegesis, since it rarely refers to the epic itself; Acharya Dev draws most of his citations from the Bhagavadgita , the Manusmrti[*] , and other prestigious Sanskrit texts. But his pamphlet reminds us that the fanciful ideas of epic exegetes have cultural resonances that we ought not overlook. Hess has eloquently described the genesis of her own inquiry into the social impact of the Ramlila :

I began to think about the India through which I moved each day: the girls who were uneducated and otherwise neglected; the women with their faces covered, often married by the time they were twelve . . . the sweepers who were born to the vocation of scooping up filth from the streets with their bare hands and who rarely broke out of the status that was supposedly ordained for them by God. There were forces in India working against the oppression of women, Shudras, untouchables, and so on. And there were powerful forces working to maintain the status quo.

Was Tulsidas one of the forces at work to prevent social change? Did the grand cultural performance and the beloved epic poem I was studying function to perpetuate people's suffering?[163]


Hess did not find simple answers to these questions, nor do I. It is clear enough that words on a page do not oppress people—people oppress people—but it should be as clear by now that no scripture, least of all the Manas , is simply "words on a page." If we have admired the variety, ingenuity, and beauty of some of the tangible ways in which people perform this text, should we not consider as well some of the more subtle ways in which they enact its implicit values? Should we not consider the high levels of female illiteracy and female infant mortality in the regions where the epic is most popular? Should we not consider the harsh repression of low-caste and untouchable villagers in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in recent years—acts of violence by the twice-born against whole communities of the landless and oppressed because the latter, emboldened by their government's own words on a page, had begun to overstep their traditional limits? Should we not consider the corrupt local hierarchies of political and police power in these regions, dominated by members of the Brahman and Rajput castes, who more often than not turn their backs on such crimes and let the perpetrators (usually their own caste fellows) escape unpunished? Must we not admit that the epic offers, among other things, a vindication for this state of affairs, both in its resigned assumption of an infinitely corrupt Kali Yuga and in its implicit defense of the privileges of birth?

Yet I would not wish to join Rajnikant Shastri in making the Manas a scapegoat for the ills that afflict North Indian society or to overlook the many positive values that the text imparts. The tension between order and aspiration is not a discovery of the twentieth century, and Tulsi has clearly provided fuel both for orderers and aspirers. Moreover, when one turns from cultural generalization to the relationships of individual devotees to their epic, the picture becomes more complicated. When I interviewed the independent-minded young woman who had surprised me with her devotion to the Manas , I brought up the subject of the text's treatment of women; did she find any of the controversial passages troubling? She replied emphatically that she was "not at all bothered by anything in the Manas " and continued, "The things Goswami-ji says about women pertain to natural life [prakrtik[*] jivan ] only and are valid as far as that goes. But they don't concern individuals. Our Hindu dharma is that woman's position must always be a little lower, and man's a little higher. That was true in Tulsidas's time and it is also true today. It is only natural and I don't have any objection to that."[164] Should such a statement be taken at face value? Explained as


the repetition of an official line absorbed since childhood? Or dismissed as a formally "correct" answer to an outsider and not indicative of the speaker's real feelings? Any field researcher, even while proceeding with caution over cross-cultural terrain, must unavoidably make judgments about the motives and sincerity of interviewees. In this case I recognized that the Manas , in spite of its explicit message that "woman's position must always be a little lower," paradoxically provided this woman with a justification for her own independent course within her family and also gave her (in ritualized recitation) a perceived power over the course of events. Notable too was the fact that she and a close friend spent a good deal of time attending recitation programs in distant parts of the city—a piously unobjectionable activity that nevertheless carried them far from the constricting environment of the joint household. Indeed, Katha programs and Ramlilas appear to provide, especially for lower-middle-class urban women, a socially sanctioned break from the routine of household chores. Such women turn out in large numbers to sit knitting under gaudy canopies and flickering lights, listening to orators addressing them as "sisters" and "goddesses," and hearing again the old familiar stories, and yes, the old familiar ideology with its balance of limits and possibilities.

A foreign observer with preconceived notions of what constitutes conservative tradition and liberal reform—Hess's "hypothetical Modern Egalitarian Democrat"[165] —may also overlook the fact that, vexing as some lines in the Manas may be, the controversy over them is largely a paper war conducted at a lofty remove not only from the epic's real audience but also perhaps from the real issues. A closer reading of some of Tulsi's stronger critics suggests that their objections are more to the poet's style than to his content. It is the "harshness" and "vulgarity" of Tulsi's expression of traditional views that is objected to rather than the views themselves, and this "liberal" attitude, which indeed reflects the impact of modern higher education, can easily coexist with a social arrogance and an elitism more insidious than anything in the Manas . In his discussion of the epic's views on varna[*] , Shastri attacks Tulsi's supposed motives rather than the inherent injustice of his views, and he tellingly devotes fully a fourth of his book to an elaborate but unconvincing attempt to prove that Tulsidas himself could not have been a Brahman but rather was of low birth and probably illegitimate—a real Brahman, it appears, would never have been so blatant about his superi-


ority.[166] Despite his eloquent insights, Shastri's overall tone is squarely elitist and anti-Vaishnava—he does not hesitate, for example, to repeatedly quote the Manusmrti[*] (a text hardly known for its feminist or egalitarian stance) in support of his views—and one suspects that this astrologer-pandit's attack on the "audacity" of the Brahman-pretender Tulsi would in an earlier century have been phrased in quite different terms but has now found its way into a fashionable social-reformist idiom.

Especially revealing is Shastri's contemptuous observation that he has seen, "never mind illiterates and rustics, but the distinguished holders of B.A. and M.A. degrees, including many lawyers and high government officers, before a stone image of Ramchandra, dancing, clapping their hands, and singing the verses of the Manas ."[167] The attitude suggested here is characteristic of a university-educated elite of what might be termed "neo-Brahmans," who hold themselves aloof not from social prejudice, which they continue to express, but from a certain bhakti -permeated folk ethos that they perceive as beneath their dignity. The Manas offered an affirmation of traditional social structure balanced with an ecstatic devotional message presented in a mass idiom. It did not challenge social stratification per se but created a context in which M.A. holders and lawyers, putting aside their august dignity, might mingle with illiterates and rustics in a performance context that temporarily relaxed social restraints and gave equal pleasure to all. The new elite, however, shrinks from such recreational contact with the lower classes.

The difficult task of interpreting motives returns me to the image of the mirror, cracked or otherwise. For it seems that much of what is beheld in the Manas depends, after all, on the beholder. A Gandhi will look into the mirror and see devotion to God and compassion for the oppressed; a Baba Ramchandra will see the hope of a just society; a Rajnikant Shastri will see intolerable impudence; an Acharya Dev will see his own golden aura.

Dona Nobis Pacem

If in spite of nagging doubts about the contemporary relevance of certain of its teachings, people go on reading the Manas —which clearly they do—it must be because the text offers them something. The most common articulation of that "something" which I heard from devotees was that their involvement with the epic brought them santi .


From this alone I get a feeling of santi .

I get mental santi from reciting this.

Such santi as you obtain here cannot be had from any other book.

Santi is normally translated "peace," but what sort of peace? Its Sanskrit root, sam , means "to finish, stop, come to an end, rest, be quiet or calm or satisfied or contented" and also "to appease, allay, alleviate, pacify, calm, soothe, settle."[168]Santi was the state of the Vedic priests after they had finished their sacrificial labors, the peace of extinguished fires and subdued passions, the equilibrium of opposing forces resolving into quiescence. To many Westerners, there may be something disturbingly passive about this kind of equipoise—a relinquishing of the striving and assertiveness necessary for individuation; a denial of what psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar terms the "historically determined, culturally specific Weltanschauung of the ideal 'healthy' personality cast in the Faustian mould."[169] This view of the perils of "peace" accords well with the judgment, shared by many modern Western and Indian social scientists, of such social institutions as caste and the extended family as "oppressive, in the sense of hindering the growth of such personality traits as 'independence,' 'persistence,' and 'achievement motivation' in the individual."[170] In his study of Hindu personality formation, Kakar does not deny the "oppressive inconsistencies" that Hindu culture shares with other complex societies but chooses to focus on "adaptation rather than on conflict." This necessitates placing the individual in the context of the social group (the extended family or subcaste), for "in India . . . the ideal of psychological wholeness or 'maturity' . . . is quite compatible with an ego which is relatively passive and less differentiated."[171]

"Peace" within such a framework may be of two kinds: the peace that comes from the harmonious balance of social forces—in which the autonomy of the individual is subsumed to the group's need for order; and the peace of final liberation (moksa[*] ), which opts out of the system and breaks away from the wheel of worldly activity to attain a transcendent condition. The "peace of mind" that devotees say they obtain from the Manas resonates with both kinds: the peace of acceptance of the fundamental rightness of things as they imperfectly are, it is also the


peace of recognition of a vital if remote ideal. It is the peace of what we might term "tradition"—a negotiated cease-fire in the eternal battle between real and ideal.

People of the Book

I would like to begin this section with a series of vignettes that reflect the present-day popularity of the Manas and the cult of Ram in Hindi-speaking northern India.

Rush-Hour Revival

In the spring of 1983, during Pandit Ramkinkar's annual Katha program at New Delhi's Birla Temple, I made the acquaintance of a man from a village in Haryana State who commuted daily to a teaching job in the capital. As we discussed Ramkinkar's program, it became clear that my acquaintance was both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the Manas . When I asked him how he had come to know the epic so well, he replied that he studied it on the train during his daily one-and-a-half-hour commute to work. Thereby, as it turned out, hung a tale—one that brought to my attention the most unusual Katha "program" of which I was to hear.

In 1944, the story went, four Brahman office workers were playing cards in a third-class coach of one of the morning commuter trains that converge on Delhi from smaller cities in adjacent areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Someone jokingly asked them why they were wasting their time playing cards; "You are Brahmans; you should be expounding the scriptures!" The four took the suggestion seriously, and a "Railway Ramayan Mandali" (Ramayan "group" or "circle") was formed. The men carried copies of the Manas and read them systematically, discussing each verse. Other riders became interested and asked to join in. The group soon became too large to be accommodated in a single compartment and expanded to other compartments and coaches and, in time, to other trains.

Forty years later, the initial study group had grown into a loosely organized network of moving Katha programs, converging on Delhi each morning from four directions: from Sonepat to the north, Rohtak to the west, Palwal to the south, and Ghaziabad to the east. On each of these lines, according to my acquaintance, one could find commuter trains with special coaches (marked by an ocher-colored flag displayed from one window) in which Manas exposition was being conducted.


Portable megaphones were used so that everyone in the designated coach could hear; the actual reading and exposition was handled by a core group of enthusiasts who took turns preparing passages for exposition; my acquaintance belonged to one such group and had to be prepared to speak on an assigned passage once each week or so. He said that he devoted much time to these preparations in order to do as creditable a job as possible and often came to professional Katha programs in search of new ideas. He proceeded to give me the then-current schedule of groups and topics for trains to and from his own local station of Sonepat:

To Delhi

6:10 A.M.

Wedding of Ram and Sita

7:00 A.M.

Name of Ram

7:25 A.M.

Forest Exile

8:10 A.M.

Forest Exile

To Sonepat

5:17 P.M.

Forest Exile

6:10 P.M.

Forest Exile

7:25 P.M.

Name of Ram

This literally "running" commentary may well be unique; certainly I never heard of anything like it. But its scale and organization is impressive, as is the fact that it is largely an activity of white-collar workers in India's capital. It is a reminder of the continued appeal of traditional religious exposition in one of the nation's most cosmopolitan and rapidly modernizing regions.

You've Read the Book . . . Now Buy the Cassette

The hottest-selling recording in the thriving cassette stalls of Banaras in 1984 was not, as I would have supposed, the soundtrack to any of the then-current crop of Hindi film musicals or a local hit by any of the city's popular biraha or qawwali groups. Instead, according to Scott Marcus, an ethnomusicologist conducting research on popular music in the city,[172] it was a boxed set of eight cassettes comprising an abridged version of the Manas sung by the popular film singer "Mukesh," accompanied by other soloists, chorus, and orchestra. These recordings were


made between 1972 and 1976 in celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the composition of Tulsi's epic (1974) and were initially released as records by the Gramophone Company of India. They represented, it was said, a nostalgic labor of love by the aging Punjabi singer, who had made a fortune as the offscreen "playback" voice of numerous Bombay film stars and had set out late in life to rediscover the styles and melodies of Manas recitation he had heard in his childhood. The resulting recordings, although presented in modernized "filmi" idiom, faithfully preserved a number of traditional melodies of Manas chanting and offered a sequential (though heavily abridged) musical version of the epic.

The records enjoyed modest success but were too expensive to reach a mass audience. However, the advent of inexpensive cassette recorders during the late 1970s revolutionized the music industry in India, creating for the first time a mass market for recordings. The Mukesh series was rereleased on cassette by the original distributor and then quickly pirated by smaller companies working outside the limits of the poorly enforced copyright laws. Given the shadowy nature of major pirate distributors such as "T Series,"[173] it is impossible to say how many of the sets were sold, but by 1984 their impact was both visible and audible. One could scarcely attend a public or private religious function in Banaras that year without hearing, over the obligatory loudspeaker system, the familiar strains of Murli Manohar Svarup's orchestration and Mukesh's mellifluous chanting. And when a consortium of artists and recording companies decided to take out a series of full-page newspaper advertisements to protest the unlawful duplication and sale of recordings, their choice of a symbolic and readily recognizable release was obvious: beneath the banner heading, "Save Music—Kill Piracy," was a large photograph of the ubiquitous "T-Series" Tulsi-Ramayan.[174]

. . . And Watch the Video

On January 25, 1987, a new program premiered on India's government-run television network, Doordarshan. Broadcast on Sunday mornings at 9:30 A.M. , it represented an experiment for the national network, for it was the first time that television (popular in India only since the early


1980s) was used to present a serialized adaption of a religious epic. The chosen work was the Ramayan and the major source for the screenplay was the Manas . Produced and directed by Bombay filmmaker Ram-anand Sagar, the serial itself was an epic undertaking: featuring some three hundred actors, it was originally slated to run for fifty-two episodes of forty-five minutes each but had to be extended three times due to popular demand and eventually grew into a main story in seventy-eight episodes, followed after an interval of several months by a sequel incorporating the events detailed in the seventh book (the Uttarakanda[*] , or epilogue) of the Valmiki epic. Long before the airing of the main story concluded on July 31, 1988, the Ramayan had become the most popular program ever shown on Indian television, drawing an estimated one hundred million viewers and generating unprecedented advertising revenues. Throughout much of the country, activities came to a halt on Sunday mornings and streets and bazaars took on a deserted look, as people gathered before their own and neighbors' TV sets. The epidemic of "Ramayan fever" (as the magazine India Today termed it) generated lively debate in the press, with urban intellectuals and policymakers struggling to understand why a production dismissed by critics as a second-rate and technically flawed melodrama had elicited such a staggering response. Did its success point once again to the enduring power of sacred narrative to galvanize the masses, or was it rather a cue to the advent of a new force in Indian culture: the mesmerizing power of the television screen? Yet few critics noted the show's continuities with older genres of Manas performance: the serialized format, the presence of a storyteller/commentator (usually Ramanand Sagar himself, who, like Tulsidas, inserted himself into his "text"), the alternation between actors' dialogues and sung narration (chiefly Manas verses set to music), and the imaginative and extended elaboration on individual incidents and characters—all these elements suggested the conventions and interpretive styles of Katha and lila performances. The audience too responded appropriately: purifying and garlanding the TV set (as a seat for the video vyas ), performing the arti of beloved characters, and distributing prasad at the close of broadcasts. The phenomenal impact of the Ramayan serial merits closer examination than it can be given here, but it is clear that the production and the response it engendered once again dramatized the role of the epic as a principal medium not only for individual and collective religious experience but also for public discourse and social and cultural reflection.[175]


Banking on the Name

The use of the name "Ram" as the most common nonsectarian designation for the supreme being was already widespread in northern India before Tulsidas's time and was reflected in the use of the name by nathpanth yogis and sant poets such as Kabir.[176] But Tulsi's great emphasis on the power of the name—his insistence in Balkand[*] that "the name is greater than Ram himself" (1.23), and his endorsement in Uttar kand[*] of the name as a panacea for all the ills of the Dark Age—gave further impetus to the cult of the name. Whether or not one accepts Rajnikant Shastri's irate charge that Tulsi's advocacy of the name "has rendered millions of householders and thousands of ascetics apathetic and weak . . . firmly convinced that in the Kali Yuga, apart from the repetition of Ram's name, no other discipline or activity can be fruitful,"[177] one cannot deny the pervasive presence of Ram's name in North India today, reflected in its invocation in moments of distress, as the most common rural greeting (Ram-Ram ), and in the pallbearers' chant (Ramnamsatya hai —"Ram's name is truth"). But if Tulsi urged the ceaseless verbal repetition of the name, millions of literates and marginal-literates armed with pens and paper have taken up a new discipline based on the name, which has given rise to a new kind of popular religious institution.

I first became aware of this phenomenon in an encounter with a woman who worked as a servant in a Banaras guesthouse. During her afternoon rest periods I would see her sitting on the steps, diligently writing in a notebook. My curiosity was aroused. Was she studying something? Keeping a journal? Doing accounts? On inquiry, I was shown pages and pages filled with minute renderings of a single name, in an immaculate hand and bright red ink. This activity was not spontaneous; the notebook, she cheerfully explained, was provided by "the priest at the Hanuman temple" and was to be filled and returned to him, whereupon she would be issued another. My curiosity as to what would become of the filled notebook—it could hardly be thrown away, since it contained the name of the Lord—was answered on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, where I discovered that the latest trend was the construction of special "banks" (so labeled with a transliteration of the English word) for the deposit of these uniform workbooks, neatly ordered in bales of fifty or a hundred, wrapped in red cloth, and stacked floor-to-ceiling in


small, Plexiglas-fronted temples. A sign on the facade of one such establishment showed that someone was keeping track of the accumulated merit; it invited the pilgrim to "enjoy the auspicious sight of 125 karor[*] (1,250,000,000) names of Ram!" In the foreground, several larger notebooks were on display, on whose opened pages artists had created striking images of Manas scenes in what at first appeared to be a hazy, pointillist style but on closer inspection proved to consist entirely of minute, ingenious permutations of the name in various shades of ink.

The spiritual exercise of repeatedly writing out a divine formula is not new; Tibetan Buddhism long ago developed it with comparable technological ingenuity, and it has also long been customary, I was told, to present Hanuman at the Sankat Mochan Temple in Banaras with paper garlands, the links of which contain 100,000 renderings of the name. Yet the "banking" scheme seems, for India, a peculiarly late twentieth-century development—a reflection of an only recently popularized system of savings banks and a modern variant on an enduring need for tangible signs of religious activity. The mere name on one's tongue may seem an ephemeral thing in these materialist times, but a filled Ram-nam notebook is, as we say, "like money in the bank"—congealed merit (punya[*] ) slowly accumulating interest in the concrete and Plexiglas vaults of a vast but (one hopes) uncommonly efficient spiritual bureaucracy. More than once in Katha programs, I heard Ram's court described not as a darbar or kacahari (the royal or magisterial court of the nineteenth century) but as a daftar —a modern bureaucratic office—complete with desk and file cabinet and with Hanuman at the door to screen petitioners.[178] Though intentionally humorous, the metaphor plays on the real anxiety that many Indians feel about their dealings with bureaucracy; any expedient to circumvent the system, any magical "chit" or passbook to get the Great Man's attention, is not to be overlooked.

To these brief vignettes might be added many others that likewise suggest the continuing vitality of the Ram tradition and its principal text,[179] but the reader may not require further evidence on this point. Yet what of the future of Manas performance genres? Urbanization,


industrialization, and increasing literacy are among the factors that are unquestionably changing many aspects of life in India. What effect will such changes have on the popularity of Tulsi's epic? Before I address this question, let me raise a pertinent and related one: Do Manas devotees understand what they are reciting?

Avadhi, Khari Boli, and "Hindi-Ization"

In the course of my research I sometimes encountered educated people who told me that they could not understand the Manas . "It's in Avadhi," one man said, "not in Hindi, and so it's just like a foreign language to me." Although the performance genres that I have described undoubtedly help spread knowledge of the text, they also presuppose a considerable familiarity with it; the most effective Katha performances require an audience knowledgeable enough to interact with the performer and even to complete his quotations from the text. Yet Tulsi's epic is more than four centuries old; unlike its Sanskrit ancestor, it was not composed in a frozen literary language but in a fluid spoken dialect. Thus, it seems inevitable that the archaism of the text will obscure its meaning and erode its popularity. Hein observed that an important function of the Vaishnava dramas he witnessed in Mathura in 1949-50 was to mediate texts that were no longer readily comprehensible to their audiences. He warned that "the thought and language of Surdas and Tulsidas . . . present all the difficulties Shakespeare would have for us if in addition he had been a Scotsman. The gap which the players are called upon to bridge is widening, and the time will come when the best dramatic skills will not be able to make the old poetry live."[180] The growing use of standardized Khari Boli—the dialect of the Delhi re-gion—to mediate the Manas in oral performance is undeniable, as is the fact that much recitation is conducted in a mechanical fashion that gives little importance to comprehension; shall we assume then, that most contemporary devotees, like the man cited earlier, no longer understand their epic?

To answer this question, we must consider the linguistic complexity of northern India and the continued existence, even within the Hindi belt, of variant dialects, particularly in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population still lives. The region has long been characterized by the coexistence of more or less standardized dialects used for intra-


regional communication, with localized ones used for the expression of a village- or district-level cultural identity. Despite Tulsi's assertion that he wrote in "village speech," linguists have come to recognize that he, along with other bhakti poets, evolved new, composite dialects "aimed at a larger audience much beyond their own dialectical region."[181] What Tulsi's literary language had in common with much village speech—and this is as true today as it was in the sixteenth century—was its oral playfulness, its readiness to twist and transform words while still leaving them recognizable in their context. As Edwin Greaves noted in his 1895 study of the grammar of the epic, "Any attempt to indicate all the modifications and changes to which a word is liable in the hands of Tulsi Das would be quite vain. He does not go in search of a word to fit into a certain corner, as a meaner poet would do, but takes the word most suitable in meaning and makes it fit, and it is wonderful how snug and comfortable these words look and sound, after the eye and ear have had a little practice."[182] Thus, when we read that the Manas is composed in "Avadhi," we should bear in mind that this was not, in Tulsi's hands, a precisely standardized language; rather it was a synthetic dialect built on a base of Eastern Hindi grammatical forms but incorporating elements from other dialects and utilizing an enormous vocabulary of Sanskrit, Perso-Arabic, and local words,[183] all of which were subject to the poet's characteristic transformations. "A little practice" was probably as necessary in the sixteenth century as it is today, although comprehension of the variant forms comes more readily to the ear than to the eye.

Greaves wrote nearly a century ago, when Khari Boli prose was already becoming the standard literary dialect of the educated and doubts were being raised concerning the "archaism" of the Manas . Yet Greaves argued that "[the epic's] very difficulties constitute its peculiar value to the student who wishes to learn the language of the people" and went on to observe, "There are some, I know, who look upon the Ramayan as written in, perhaps, interesting, but still, obsolete, language, and who say, 'But the villagers don't talk in the language of the Ramayan'; it can only meekly be replied, 'But they do.' Not, of course, entirely, but village boli is very much nearer to the language of the Ramayan than probably any other book that could be named."[184] Many of the epic


forms that Greaves cited as current in his day—such as kakahabata (what shall I say?), toke and mose (to you, and by me) and dui (two)—remain in everyday use in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where they coexist with the Khari Boli forms that people learn in school. Concluded Greaves, "This is the language of the Ramayan and this is the language of the people."[185]

Gandhi, who promoted the use of Khari Boli Hindi as a national language, was inclined to agree and to praise Tulsi's colloquialisms: "He just picked up words spoken in the streets and used them, because Tulsi Das was writing for you and me. . .. The language of Tulsi Das therefore is our language."[186] Lower-class devotees usually confirmed this assertion; when I asked the Manas singers at Khari Kuan if they understood the words they were singing, one replied, "Brother, this is our own local speech. How could we not know it?" On the other hand, educated people sometimes indicated varying degrees of difficulty with the idiom; one daily reciter estimated that she understood "about half" of the text as she chanted it; to understand it fully, she said, she would have to read it more slowly and with the aid of a prose commentary. Such difficulty, however, may stem as much from poetic style as from dialect; some lines are simply convoluted and obscure, and probably always were. The straightforward narrative of Books Two to Six is, in my experience, more readily comprehensible than the philosophical digressions of the first and last books. Poetically difficult language invites interpretation and commentary, and the obscurities of the Manas have always been germane to its performance traditions. When one expounder told me that the Manas was "difficult," I asked him whether he meant that its language was difficult. "No," he replied, "its language is simple—its inner meaning is difficult," and added, smiling broadly, "that's why we expounders are necessary."[187]

Indians are often bi- or trilingual and relatively comfortable with variant dialect patterns. The fact that Braj Bhasha and Avadhi, in their pure forms, were spoken by relatively few people at any given time did not prevent poetry in these languages from being widely enjoyed. Indeed, until this century, these dialects, together with Urdu, were the preferred media of poetry; a person who wished to express poetic sentiments switched into one or another of them, just as Banarsis shift back and forth between Bhojpuri, Khari Boli, and Urdu, according to the


context and the person being addressed. We may compare this multivocality to that in the American musical idiom, where, for the expression of certain conventional sentiments, white northern singers assume a southern or African American dialect and accent.

Frequency of exposure and knowledge of context are critical to the comprehension of a literary dialect. Elizabethan English varies sufficiently from contemporary speech that we cannot understand many of its terms and idioms without a glossary. Yet we may grasp a good deal of this language when we hear it performed, particularly if we are familiar with the general context of a passage or (in the case of Shakespeare's works) with the plot of a play. Returning to Hein's observation, I suggest that the King James Bible might be a more apt choice for comparison with the Manas than the works of a Shakespeare, Scots or otherwise. A person raised in a household where passages from this Bible were recited daily would become imprinted with its patterns (even though he would not necessarily use them in ordinary speech) and might even feel, as many Christians did until recently, that its archaisms were essential to religious diction, so that in addressing God in prayers or hymns, he would automatically shift into these special forms, which were sanctified by long use. In the same way, many contemporary speakers of Khari Boli use Braj or Avadhi forms when singing devotional hymns to Krishna and Ram.

Both Greaves and Growse, writing a century ago, stressed the ready comprehensibility of the epic to even uneducated people; Growse observed that "a Hindu child generally grasps at once the familiar idiom, and finds no great difficulty in even the most crabbed passage."[188] A century of linguistic change and increasing standardization of urban speech necessitates modifying these observations somewhat. It is notable, for example, that in the nineteenth century the most popular section of the Manas was said to have been Ayodhyakand[*] , even though it was admitted to be long and slow-moving and to contain (especially in its latter half) some of the most convoluted and obscure language in the epic.[189] When I asked contemporary devotees which section they liked best, the answer was usually Sundar kand[*] —which is short, action-packed, and one of the easiest books linguistically; only one old woman told me that she liked Ayodhya best—"Because of the way they talk to each other."


Clearly not everyone grasps the idiom so readily now, especially if he or she was not raised in an environment permeated by the text. An upper-class resident of Delhi, reared on a combination of Punjabi-flavored Khari Boli and public school English and never exposed to the epic at home, encountering it for the first time in a college course on medieval Hindi literature, would assuredly find its language highly irregular. It was one such person whom I cited earlier, who informed me that he could not understand the epic. But it is important to recognize, as was clear in the context, that this man wished to convey to me not only that he did not "understand" the Manas but that he did not particularly like it or believe in it; he wanted to distance himself from its folk ethos and "backward" values. If large numbers of Indians felt this way, then of course the text would quickly lapse into the status of a literary relic. But as long as people continue to value the epic and to perform it—which a great many still do—its language, even though significantly different from their everyday speech, will remain accessible to them.

One more linguistic factor in the popularity of the text should not be overlooked: the ever-growing influence of Hindi as a (usually unacknowledged and often explicitly denied) lingua franca for much of India. Little credit for this development can be given to heavy-handed governmental efforts to impose a highly Sanskritized form of Khari Boli as a national language, yet despite the resistance that such efforts have provoked and the continued vitality of other regional languages, Hindi of one sort or another has continued to make inroads in many regions. The popularity of Hindi films and, more recently, of Hindi-language television (most notably the Ramayan and Mahabharat serials) has obviously contributed to this process, but other, more subtle factors have long been at work. Bharati noted that, despite the explicit emphasis of Hindu Renaissance leaders on Sanskrit texts and education, the actual effect of their activities has been what he terms "Hindi-ization" and the spread of a more homogeneous, bhakti -oriented popular faith, permeated by texts in the "bhakti lingua franca"—one or another dialect of Hindi.[190] Like Hindi itself, the Manas has tended to "win by default" in popular religious practice, as an accessible and relatively nonsectarian scripture equally suitable for a Hanuman puja or a Devi vrat . This has been true not merely in the epic's homeland but also in neighboring regions that do not have a comparably authoritative text in their mother tongue. I was told by a Kannada friend, for example, that he knows of


middle-class ladies in Mysore who have become convinced of the benefits of reciting the Manas and have taken up the study of Hindi solely for that purpose.[191]

Along with the above factors, we may note the effects of increased mobility and especially of pilgrim traffic to important religious centers in Hindi-speaking areas, such as Banaras, Allahabad, Hardwar, Ayodhya, and the Himalayan shrines of Uttar Pradesh, where pilgrims encounter a milieu permeated by the epic's influence as well as bazaar bookstalls filled with inexpensive editions that they carry back to their home regions. This process of dissemination has also been influenced by the diaspora of a people who themselves originated outside the linguistic homeland of Tulsi's epic, but whom historical circumstances have now made among its most active propagators.

The New Patrons

I have referred several times to historical changes in the patronage of Manas performance; these changes may be summarized as follows:


principal patrons

seventeenth century

lower classes and mendicants

eighteenth century


nineteenth century

rajas, large zamindars, (later) urban merchants

twentieth century

merchants and industrialists

Of these developments, the most significant for contemporary performance genres was the shift from aristocratic to mercantile patronage during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it will now be worthwhile to take a closer look at some of the causes and consequences of this shift.

The historian C. A. Bayly has argued that until the nineteenth century the influence of merchant groups, even in cities such as Banaras, Faizabad, and Lucknow, was subordinated to that of the land-based gentry, which represented the dominant local power and exercised considerable control over trade. This pattern began to change as the economic impact of the colonial presence became more pronounced. The British attempt


to standardize the revenue system and promote a cash economy began to threaten systems of local taxation, local mints, and the pattern of (what the British termed) "idle consumption" by aristocratic society, "acted out in forms of relationship between orders of people, and gift-giving, feasting and display."[192] These changes were augmented by a widespread economic depression in northern India between roughly 1830 and 1850, probably worsened by a series of poor harvests, which altered the economic standing of key segments of the population.[193] The gradual recovery that followed, helped along by the construction of the railways, was characterized by a steady reduction in courtly consumption and by the growing importance of trading and adminstrative centers and (by the end of the century) of manufacturing cities—notably Kanpur, strategically located on the new railway line. One consequence of these developments was a change in the role of the merchant, who had always functioned as both trader and moneylender (baniya ).

In the Indian states the usurious role of the merchant had often been offset in part by lavish royal expenditure and investment which the merchant community also helped to finance. Merchant, peasant, artisan and ruler had been part of a system in which it was not in the interest of one element to reduce any of the others to complete dependence. Many of the negative features attributed to the Indian Baniya in more recent times do not seem to be a product of inherent viciousness but of particular historical circumstances. In particular, his role changed in the absence of the lavish local elite expenditure and intrusive political authority which had once put limits to the consequences of his commercial ruthlessness.[194]

The stereotype of the "commercially ruthless" Baniya is most often applied in contemporary North India to the Marwaris, a group of mercantile castes that migrated from the princely states of Jodhpur (Marwar), Jaipur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer in a diaspora to the rising commercial towns of northern and central India. These castes had formerly served as bankers and brokers to the Rajput houses of their home regions and had also participated in overland trade with western Asia, which declined with the coming of the British and the rise of maritime commerce. They represented what some economists have termed a "resource group," a far-flung network of closely knit family firms joined by ties of marriage and religious affiliation, which seems to have put them in a uniquely advantageous position to exploit commercial opportunities.[195] Their di-


aspora had begun in the eighteenth century, when Marwaris served as bankers and contractors to some of the Maratha kingdoms; during the early nineteenth century, large numbers of Shekhavati Aggarwals (a trading community from the Jaipur region) became prominent in the opium trade out of Malwa, while other groups of Marwaris established themselves in the grain markets of the Doab and the Ganges Valley. By 1832 James Tod could write (perhaps with some exaggeration) that "nine-tenths of the bankers and commercial men of India are natives of Maroodes [Marwar]."[196]

The cohesiveness of the Marwaris contributed to their success. During the period 1840-60, when Marwari merchants began to establish themselves in Calcutta in competition with indigenous Bengali and Khatri trading communities, prosperous Marwaris set up subsidized boarding houses to attract other members of their community, whom they employed in their growing firms. By 1864 roughly half the bankers in Calcutta were Marwaris, and by the 1880s they had begun to beat out Khatris and Bengalis in the battle for coveted appointments as chief brokers to the leading British import-export firms. By 1921 the diaspora had grown to an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 persons spread throughout India (in addition to some 600,000 community members in Rajasthan), who controlled an increasingly disproportionate percentage of the nation's commerce.[197]

Even more significant for India's subsequent economic development was the entry of Marwaris into manufacturing following World War I. The Birla family, which had quadrupled its assets in the profitable trade of the war years, opened a jute mill in Calcutta in 1919 and textile mills at Delhi and Gwalior in 1920-21; during the 1930s the family added sugar refineries and cement plants. Such family conglomerates continued to grow during the post-Independence period, buying up many of the British firms they had previously served as commercial agents; by 1964 the "Birla Group" had become the largest private conglomerate in India, controlling 151 companies, the majority of which were headed by brothers, cousins, and nephews of the pater familias, Ghanshyamdas Birla.[198] The family's success was signal but not unique; the Marwari community as a whole is estimated to control 60 percent of the assets of Indian industry.


Great success often arouses jealousy; such folk sayings as "If you meet a snake and a Marwari, kill the Marwari" reflect the popular stereotype of the community as unscrupulously self-aggrandizing. The merchants' rise to prominence was paralleled by the decline of the landed gentry and the traditional economy in which the Marwaris themselves, back in Rajasthan, had once participated. The colonial government's increasing demand for cash revenue, coupled with cycles of bad harvests, the repeated subdivision of inherited estates, and the enforcement of uniform and inflexible commercial laws, resulted in the old rich getting poorer throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The merchant was the beneficiary, and for commercial castes the period might be characterized as one of semiinvoluntary upward mobility. Put into varna[*] terms, Vaishyas were being turned, by historical circumstances and their own commercial ambitions, into Kshatriyas. One Gokuldas, for example, of the banking firm of Sevaram Khushalchand of Jabalpur, acquired numerous estates in forced sales for tax defaults and ended up owning 158 villages and having the title "raja" prefixed to his name.[199] Such success was financially desirable, but it was also threatening, since it challenged the traditional order to which the Marwaris, like other pious mercantile communities, implicitly subscribed:

The area of the greatest and most pervasive social risk, however, was for Hindus, like Jains, the boundary between the inward, frugal life of the merchant and the kingly manner which involved constant giving and receiving. Merchant families might find themselves trapped in the limbo between these two styles of life, unable to command the power and respect of the ruler yet "expensive" enough to forfeit credit in the mercantile sphere.[200]

Power in the rising cities was increasingly concentrated among "bodies of entrepreneurs and property-owners who were not well accommodated within the older relations of ranking and precedence."[201] In other words, the merchants faced a crisis of identity that reflected the classic tension in Hindu society between upward social aspiration and downwardly imposed order. In the special circumstances of the period, the interaction of these forces in the assertion of new identities helped fuel both nationalism and religious revival.

Despite their legendary wealth, the great Marwari families of Calcutta avoided the kingly pattern of luxury consumption and instead


concentrated on patronage of religious and cultural institutions. Among the most lavish activities of these pious Vaishnava familes were funerary observances, entailing the feeding of huge numbers of Brahmans and guests.[202] Enormous sums were also given to charity, and such largesse benefited both religious and nationalist causes. The Marwaris were reckoned to be one of the most conservative and "backward" mercantile communities; the census of 1921 reported that whereas their male Hindi literacy rate was high (this being essential to the conduct of business), their rate of English literacy and involvement in higher education was low and their female literacy rate was almost nil—evidence of continued adherence to rigid rules of female seclusion (parda ).[203] Marwaris were active in Sanatani organizations and in the cow slaughter agitation of 1917.[204] The prominent Marwari families of Allahabad at the turn of the century "dotted the town with temples and rest houses, patronized the Ramlila Committees, and became presidents of orthodox religious bodies in the neighborhood."[205] Yet at the same time Marwaris were active in the Nationalist movement and became committed Gandhians, devoted to such causes as women's rights and Harijan uplift; indeed the community—and especially Ghanshyamdas Birla, a close personal friend of Gandhi's—was the major financial power behind the Indian National Congress, donating an estimated Rs 100,000,000 to the movement by 1947.

Like other Marwaris (and like Gandhi himself), the Birlas continued to identify themselves as Sanatani Hindus; Ghanshyamdas's elder brother, Jugal Kishor, retired from the family business in 1920 (after cornering the market in opium futures) to devote himself to religious activities, constructing a chain of temples and rest houses at major pilgrimage places. As he grew older, Ghanshyamdas himself manifested similar interests. Patronage of the Manas , as we have seen, was often synonymous with Sanatani activity, and as a community the Marwaris have become so active in this respect that they may rightfully be regarded as heirs to the princely patrons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Swami Karpatri's religiopolitical activities were underwritten by the Marwari community of Banaras, which also organized, with his blessing, the Gyan Vapi Manas Festival. The Poddars (the name means "treasurer," and the clan was originally said to have served the nawabs


of Fatehpur in this capacity) founded the Gita Press of Gorakhpur, which became the preeminent North Indian distributor of the epic. The Birlas, through their Academy of Art and Culture, sponsored mass recitations and Katha performances, published Atkins's two-volume English translation of the epic, and spread the fame of Pandit Ramkinkar, the family's favored expounder. The example set by the most powerful families was emulated by lesser Marwari clans, and the exodus of top-ranking Katha performers to the industrial cities of Kanpur, Bombay, and Calcutta noted earlier is essentially a consequence of Marwari patronage.[206]

The identity crisis to which I referred above was not unique to the mercantile community, for other groups were also affected by the economic and social reshuffling of the late nineteenth century. Rajas and zamindars themselves, though in overall decline, tried to hold on to their perquisites and continued to patronize their traditional clients as long as they had the means; the conspicuous patronage of religious performances was one of the more visible ways in which to uphold a public image. The Brahman and Kayasth service communities dependent on these patrons likewise promoted orthodox religious causes in order to retain their own prestige. Moreover, it must be remembered that the landholding class, despite a dominant Rajput ethos, was far from monolithic in caste constitution; during the late nineteenth century as several of the "marginally clean" agricultural castes, such as the Ahirs and Kurmis, rose in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they too manifested a desire to assert an upper-class life-style and identity. The fact that British census takers in 1901, convinced of the relevance of the varna[*] system to Hindu social organization, classed the Ahirs as "Shudras," produced an immediate reaction in the formation of a caste association to press for recognition of Kshatriya status. Thousands of Ahirs began wearing the sacred thread and appending "Singh" and "Rai" to their names; this effort also propelled them into the forefront of cow slaughter agitation and other Sanatani causes, and hence into an unlikely alliance with Brahmans and Rajputs, who often did not recognize their claims.[207]

The "new men" of the late nineteenth century faced the need to assert their identity and status by participating in a perceived Great Tradition-in a process as old as the historical record in India. But other


factors specially relevant to this period and to these men help explain the appeal the Ramayan tradition exerted for them. The Birla family has remained in the forefront of the progressive wing of the Marwari community; its sons and nephews today have no qualms about "crossing the black water" to earn M.B.A.s at foreign universities before taking over their assigned portfolios, and they then operate with considerable autonomy within the conglomerate. Yet close-knit family structure is still regarded as essential to the corporate success of the Birla Group. As the family dharmasastra par excellence, the Ramayan presents a paradigm of the loyalty, cohesiveness, and hierarchy that the Birlas and other leading Marwari clans recognize as one of their greatest strengths—hence its obvious appeal to a family-oriented business community. Then too there is the factor of diaspora: the Marwaris achieved their success in areas remote from their homeland. They carried with them a revered text and, in the typical manner of the émigré, sought to promote it in their new regions, bringing renowned pandits from Banaras and Ayodhya to Calcutta and Bombay to publicly expound it.[208]

The decline of the princes and zamindars in the late nineteenth century was not simply another of the periodic dynastic fluctuations of the past; it had a finality that even the most conservative merchants must have sensed—the world was changing in fundamental ways and there would be no going back to the old order. The men who rose up to replace the princes did so in a new milieu of nationalism; they spoke of something called "India," of concepts of democracy and equality that challenged the traditional structure of society. The interplay of order and transcendence, of real and ideal, within the Manas made this epic, to troubled and uncertain "new men," a source not only of orthodoxy but also of "peace of mind."

The Future of Manas Performance

"The theater," Bernard Shaw is said to have quipped, "is always in a state of decline." Hindu culture seems to have reached a similar consensus regarding the cosmos in general and human affairs in particular. The mangoes of one's childhood, it seems, were always sweeter, the musicians more talented, and people in general simpler and less greedy; and


in one's grandparents' day, all these were better still. To the human tendency toward nostalgia and the pervasive myth of a lost Golden Age may be added, in the Indian case, an explicit cosmology of decline through successive ages, culminating in our own interminable and ever-darker Dark Age—and even, from a contemporary perspective, some stark facts of real decline due to rising population, scarcity of resources, and relentless inflation. A researcher studying traditional performance genres must be mindful of such factors in attempting to judge responses to queries concerning the present and future vitality of a given tradition. I was told again and again, "You can't hear real Katha anymore nowadays!" and "These days it has become just another business." One man summed up this attitude with ingenuous clarity, saying, "The Katha I heard in my childhood—that was the real Katha !" Yet only moments later, he was praising his own favorite expounder, Ramnarayan Shukla, with the words "His is the real Katha , like in the old days."[209]

Are traditions of Manas performance really declining? Let me begin with the most basic one: path[*] , or recitation. As noted in Chapter 2, the spread and standardization of this practice was an outcome of both the advent of printing technology and the increasing literacy of the middle classes. The presence of the Manas as an authoritative yet accessible scripture gave literate people who were not religious specialists the potential for a heightened form of interaction with the efficacious sacred word and spawned a range of related ritual practices. Far from being in decline, certain of them—such as twenty-four-hour and nine-day recitations—were on the increase in the early 1980s. Although I have had only a limited opportunity for firsthand observation since, the militant Hindu revivalism that swept North India in the latter half of the decade and had as a special focus Ram's birthplace in Ayodhya gave continued prominence to the epic and its recital. The popular booksellers whom I interviewed in Banaras (and whose stock typically ranged from Sanskrit sastras to rustic self-help manuals on hypnotism, dream interpretation, and astrology) told me that they sold more copies of the Manas than of any other work—a typical shop carried a dozen or more editions in all sizes and price ranges.

To be sure, much recitation is conducted mechanically and perhaps, as one Banarsi connoisseur disparagingly remarked to me, "reciting the Manas and enjoying the Manas are two entirely different things!" The comprehensibility of the text is certainly influenced by such factors as


the reciter's mother tongue or dialect, degree of education, and frequency of exposure to the epic. Many devotees maintain that it is not necessary to understand the text in order to benefit from it. The woman who told me that she could readily understand about half of her daily recitation added, "But it is not necessary to understand in order to benefit. The words that Goswami-ji used have a power of their own. If I am very busy or have a lot on my mind, I just hurry through to the break and don't worry about whether I understand or not." Such attitudes may invite scorn—thus, Rajnikant Shastri, mocking the tendency toward "mindless" repetition, accused devotees of having made the epic into a "web of spells"[210] —yet they hardly represent an innovation in Hindu practice. The widely held view of the Manas as mantra is a sign of its prestige as well as its occasional obscurity—an indication of its status as the "Hindi Veda." Moreover, mindless repetition is a vital part of the training of those to seek to understand the text best—traditional scholars and expounders—as it leads to memorization and "internalization." If nothing else, the constant loudspeaker bombardment of Manas recitation and singing that one encounters in religious centers like Banaras and Ayodhya keeps the epic very much "in the air" and reinforces exposure to it. And an observer with no knowledge of the text should not be too quick to assume that it is all gibberish, even to casual passersby.

A few interviewees complained of the vulgarity of mass-recitation festivals. Significantly, these critics belonged to the aristocratic class that had formerly been influential patrons, and they looked with disdain on the activities of "those merchants" and their hired Brahman specialists. Whatever one may think of electrified dioramas and booming loudspeaker networks, one must recall that religious kitsch is not an invention of the twentieth century.[211] Some two centuries ago the ancestors of these critics, like today's Marwari merchants and industrialists, charted their own upward social course using the epic as a vehicle of legitimation, and their patronage of Ramanandi sadhus and small-town Ramayanis may likewise have earned the disdain of the then-established elite.

Katha —good, bad, or indifferent—is certainly booming, even amid (to paraphrase Mark Twain) greatly exaggerated reports of its demise.


Again, foreign observers should be cautious of the airy generalizations thrown out by the English-educated residents of large urban areas to the effect that "no one goes in for that kind of thing anymore." Years ago, before I began studying the Manas , I lived for nearly a year in a middle-class neighborhood in New Delhi, and had I then been asked about epic performance in the city, I would have opined that one would have to go to a smaller, more traditional place to find it. Yet I was to discover, on the contrary, that I had to return to the heart of India's capital to hear and record one of the most celebrated contemporary expounders, and I also found ongoing Katha programs in some of the fashionable southern suburbs as well as on commuter trains. The fact that middle-aged people predominate in many audiences cannot in itself be taken as an indication of declining interest in the epic among the new generation, for in the asram scheme of the life cycle it is indeed older people who are expected to take greater interest in religious discourse. In any case, I also encountered youthful enthusiasts for Katha as well as many young and ambitious performers.

As one Hindi journalist noted, there is today no lack of claimants to the exalted title of vyas . Despite nostalgia for the era of great expounders like Shivlal Pathak and Ramkumar Mishra, it is clear that, at least for today's "All-India" performers, financial incentives have never been better. And even though some might suppose that "modernization" leads to declining interest in religious oratory, others argue to the contrary. Shrinath Mishra, after detailing his own packed performance schedule, offered this opinion on the present popularity of Katha .

Just observe, interest in Katha keeps going on increasing. And one cause is this: nearly everyone is unhappy. Everyone has got some problem or other—someone's health is bad, or another's mental state is not good; someone else has economic troubles, or someone's business is not going well, or someone is worried over marrying off a daughter . . . it's this modern life-style that affects nearly everyone. There didn't used to be such crowds at programs; if a hundred or so people came to hear a Katha , it was a lot. And nowadays there have started to be such huge crowds and, well, the main cause is that everybody has anxiety over some problem or other, and in hearing Katha that anxiety disappears.[212]

Anxious or otherwise, large numbers of North Indians are being exposed to a great deal of Katha , and it is an art form that appears readily adaptable to modern electronic media, concerning the impact of which I have more to say shortly.


The Ramlila tradition is likewise flourishing, at least in the sense that there are probably more productions today than in the past. As I have noted, most of them are based on the Manas but utilize the text to varying degrees. Devotees of the Ramnagar pageant like to imply that other productions represent a debasement of the tradition. "They are all stage plays," one man told me; "only Ramnagar is lila ." It is true that the producers at Ramnagar are notable for their fidelity to the text and their insistence on reciting every word of it, and neighborhood productions often use only excerpts—although we have seen that there are exceptions to this rule. Yet this too is not new; the majority of Ramlilas have never lasted for more than nine or ten days—for the average Ramlila committee lacks the means to mount a lengthier production—and it is impossible to enact the complete Manas in that period. The Ramnagar style was an innovation of the early nineteenth century and a reflection of the patronage of a leisured class that could afford the enormous inputs of time and energy it required. It is still widely admired, but like other aristocratic pastimes it is suffering from the decline of its original patrons. Like many an orchestra or ballet company in the West, the Ramnagar Ramlila —with a cast of ninety-five, a crew of over one hundred, and an annual budget in six figures[213] —has made an uneasy transition from princely to public patronage, with the bulk of its funding now supplied by the government of Uttar Pradesh. Attendance continues to be high—probably higher than in the past, since many of the sites were built to accommodate smaller crowds than now pack in and around them—but of course no admission is charged, and costs continue to increase while the budget remains more or less fixed. Schechner speculates that "if some economically productive plan is not developed the sheer production elements of the Ramlila —the effigies, the environments, the costumes, the flares—will get shoddier and shoddier."[214] The potential decline of this magnificent pageant—one of the cultural treasures of North India—should be a cause for public concern. But the very uniqueness of this production underscores the fact that its present difficulties and troubled future cannot be taken as indicative of the popularity of Ramlila in general.

Any discussion of the future viability of genres like Katha and Ramlila must take into consideration the new communications media that


have already become influential in South Asian culture. How may radio and television and audio and video recording be expected to influence the storytellers and actors of the Ramayan tradition? During recent decades, growing scholarly awareness of (to paraphrase the preeminent media pandit of the 1960s) the inseparability of medium and message has tended to foster the assumption that new technologies usher in "revolutions" that radically transform cultures, decisively effacing older traditions. In contemporary Western pop culture, change associated with new technological gadgetry is almost invariably hyperbolized as an epoch-making upheaval—so that we are invited to marvel at, successively, the "Industrial Revolution," the "Data-Processing Age," the "Information Explosion," the "Compact Disc Era," and so on. Marshall McLuhan's ominous pronouncement concerning the introduction of movable type in fifteenth-century Europe—"as the Gutenberg typography filled the world the human voice closed down"[215] —is typical of the dramatic and portentous tone of much contemporary discourse on media.

Recent scholarship has begun to apply such assumptions to cultures outside the Euro-American cultural sphere. Thus, Susan Wadley suggests (albeit with some appropriate caveats) that the spread of print technology in North India may cause localized oral traditions to wither away and be replaced by "less malleable, more widely spread written traditions."[216] Although it is certain that the availability of printed texts encourages literacy and standardization, it cannot be assumed that it necessarily discourages oral performance, at least not in a culture in which oral rhetorical skills remain highly valued. As we have seen, even though the Manas has been in print for more than a century and a half, its oral exegetical and storytelling traditions continue to flourish and to interact in various ways with print media.

With respect to the newer electronic media, the Euro-American model again tends to be taken for granted. A critic of television like Neil Postman argues that the world of rational discourse created and maintained—especially in the United States—by the dominance of print media is now threatened by the power of a seductive flood of decontex-tualized images disseminated daily over the airwaves.[217] Postman's observations offer much insight into American popular culture, but one


may well ask how relevant they are to South Asia—where, for example, typographic technology is only a little more than a century old and has never produced the kind of print-saturated culture that developed in the United States; where "oral literacy" (in which people who cannot read and write are familiar with and sometimes creators of sophisticated bodies of literature) remains prevalent; where great religious significance attaches to images and to the acts of "seeing" (darsan ) and "hearing" (sruti ); and where a wide range of performance genres have long coexisted with mass-produced texts and images. All these factors contribute to creating an environment in which the advent of electronic media may produce less jarring discontinuity and cultural alienation than it purportedly has in the United States.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, short Katha programs are occasionally broadcast by All-India Radio stations; Ramnarayan Shukla, for example, told me that he sometimes goes to Allahabad to record talks for broadcast on the local station. The present vogue of taping talks is also noteworthy; when I observed, in 1983, the upper-class devotees of Ramkinkar Upadhyay collecting and exchanging his talks with the same enthusiasm with which they traded the latest film videos, I wondered why no one had thought of marketing such tapes.[218] Returning to India six years later, however, I found prominently displayed in the cassette stalls of Vrindavan a multi-cassette series of discourses by Morari Bapu, a Gujarati Manas expounder whose fame, by the late 1980s, had come to rival that of Ramkinkar. Entrepreneurs have, moreover, begun to utilize video technology to increase the impact of Katha performances, and this trend is likely to continue. The 1987-88 television serialization of the Ramayan reflected the interpretive strategies of katha -style elaboration of characters and themes, and the staging methods and iconography of the Ramlila . In keeping with a long-standing convention of Hindu storytelling, the television narrative was framed by introductory and concluding segments in which orators—one of whom was the famous Manas expounder Morari Bapu—discoursed on the significance of the events portrayed. The unprecedented success of the Ramayan serial was itself the most dramatic demonstration to date of the power of television to command mass attention in South Asia, and its showcas-


ing of oral exegesis may well encourage further videotaped presentations of katha -style discourses.

One religious movement has already made a successful use of such technology: the Bombay-based sect known as Swadhyaya (self-study), which is estimated to have one million adherents in northwestern India and among Indian communities overseas. This movement bases its message on the teachings of a Maharashtrian Brahman named Pandurang Athavale, who is affectionately known to his followers as "Dada" (elder brother). Dada's message of individual and social transformation through bhakti is conveyed to his far-flung congregation via weekly discourses (labeled pravacan ) delivered at his headquarters in Bombay but, since the late 1970s, videotaped for worldwide distribution. Every Sunday morning, audiences from Kansas City to Nairobi assemble to watch these "sacred tapes" and participate in all the formalities of Katha performance described earlier (removal of shoes in the hall, antiphonal chanting of an initial prayer, closing arti ceremony, etc.). Dada hails from a region in which the Tulsi version of the Ramayan story is less well known, and his discourses are often based on other Vaishnava texts, such as the Bhagavadgita (especially popular in Maharashtra), but like all Katha they consist largely of free oral improvisation on religious themes, interwoven with tales, anecdotes, and quotations from authoritative texts. What is most significant is that the weekly videotaped performances form the essential basis of this movement's message—for although numerous printed materials bear the Swadhyaya founder's name, they are all said to be transcriptions of oral performances, and it is emphasized by his followers that Athavale "writes" nothing. For Swadhyaya's contemporary adherents, the oral word of the inspired teacher retains its primacy, and video—which conveys it both audibly and visually and permits the recreation of much of its ritualized milieu—becomes an ideal medium for its promulgation.[219]

I have briefly reviewed the three principal performance genres treated in my study and have found signs of continued vitality in each. To speculate on their future appeal, however, we must further consider the question of social aspiration, and of the text's role as an authoritative scripture. Hindu social mobility has often been understood in terms of the concept of "Sanskritization," first elaborated by anthropologist M. N. Srinivas, which refers to the acquisition of status by an adherence to accepted standards of upper-caste behavior;[220] a classic example was


the bid for Kshatriya status, mentioned in the preceding section, of the members of the Ahir or milkman caste. The overall utility of the concept: has been much debated; McKim Marriot, for example, has pointed out that it suggests too external a view of a process that he would prefer to call "samskar -ization[*] ," since from the point of view of participants, the high-status and ritually pure forms of behavior adopted are truly samskars[*] ("impressions" or "alterations of substance"), which change them in fundamental ways.[221] Implicit in the process, however one labels it, is the tension between aspiration and dominance.

The Hindu universe is a closed system and conservative in the most literal sense; matter, energy, and all else are conserved and recycled endlessly. The notion of unlimited growth favored in Western economic theory, like the corresponding sociopolitical ideal of universal equality, is fundamentally incongruous to this worldview, which indeed might find something perverse in it, like the quest for physical immortality in which the Puranic demons are always engaged. There cannot always be more and more of everything, the tradition reasons, because really there is only so much. And it is only the existence of hierarchy that makes aspiration possible: one can rise only with reference to others above and below. Those who successfully achieve mobility within the system become what they have aspired to and, in so doing, necessarily change. That is why, ironically, aspiring castes are often especially harsh in their treatment of those still below them.[222]

But closed systems become stifling and must then be broken open. The aims of human life (purusarth[*] ) as conceived by Hindus are said to be four, but historians tell us that once they were only three; dharma in late-Vedic thought was identical with the cosmic order, and there was nothing higher. The recognition that dharma itself was part of the mundane system necessitated the quest for a fourth aim: a breaking free from the wheel to achieve ultimate liberation (moksa[*] ). It is understandable that the relationship of this fourth aim to the other three has remained problematic, since it exists beyond the system that encompasses everything else human beings do and know. Those people, like Kabir, who set their sights on this transcendent goal can afford to thumb their noses at the system. Yet their followers, who have to live in this world, invariably seek some kind of accommodation with it.

Texts, like people, have to live within the system or move beyond it,


and the identification of moksa[*] as the ultimate aim of life paralleled, historically speaking, the withdrawal of the Vedas from an active role in human affairs. The Hindu archetype of scripture became "liberated" when it ceased to serve any practical role and became squarely situated in the other world as an eternal referent of transcendence. For this very reason, having left the realm of cyclical flux, it was rigidly and perfectly preserved, even though (or indeed, because) its contents had ceased to have any relation to worldly activity.[223] The most authoritative text for the tradition was, ironically, the least living one. And conversely, living texts could never be ultimately authoritative.

The problem of textual authority and vitality—itself a variation on the tension between order and transcendence—can be clearly discerned in the genesis of the Ramcaritmanas . We know that this epic was the creation of a single man, a poetic genius who lived in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Yet when this man boldly undertook the fashioning of something new—a religious epic in the language of ordinary people—he had to situate it within the worldly order and also give it a relationship to the transcendent archetype. And so he presented it as only a fourthhand transmission of a divine Katha first uttered by Shiva to Parvati and then carefully preserved and passed on by authoritative narrators, and he was careful to point out its fundamental consistency with "numerous Puranas, Vedas, and agamas ." Despite the epic's obvious orthopraxy, its claim to authority did not go unchallenged. For its linguistic accessibility—its one truly revolutionary feature, and one which should not be underestimated—must have posed an implicit threat to the established order of scriptural mediation.[224] The triumphant and irresistible rise of the Manas —the folksong that became a Veda—is graphically allegorized in the famous story of its attempted "suppression" by the Brahmans of Banaras beneath a pile of Sanskrit scriptures. Not surprisingly, this work became the text-of-choice for the upwardly mobile and the nouvel arrivé : the vehicle of legitimation for an upstart dynasty of Bhumihar tax collectors, the solace of rising mercantile and agricultural communities, and the refuge of captains of industry seeking religious merit and good public relations.

Yet there is another dimension to social mobility that should not be overlooked: the fact that those who arrive at the top sooner or later cast


in their lot with those already there and become part of the repressive mechanism of the system—what "holds down" in opposition to aspiration. The example of the Ramanandi sadhus is pertinent. For several centuries they formed one of the most liberal religious orders in India, accepting women, untouchables, and Muslims into their fold.[225] But when, in the eighteenth century, they sought royal patronage in order to enhance their prestige and protect their network of religious institutions, they had to adhere to a different set of rules: to restrict entry to twice-born males, apply varna -based[*] commensality practices to communal meals, and appoint only Brahmans as their mahants .[226] This process was not confined to orthodox Vaishnavas; the same dynamic was at work, for example, among the Shaiva Udasis, and even among the radical reformist sects.[227] In the case of the epic, this process is reflected in the tendency of an elite, having associated itself with the text, to appropriate it and make it narrowly its own, and to use it to assert its dominance over other aspiring groups. If these groups come in time to accept the association, then the text may wither, like a tree cut off at its root.

The most revolutionary thing about the Manas was its language—its unashamedly folk diction—and in a curious way this has remained true. The very existence of a brilliant religious epic, however traditional in its outlook, in the "vulgar" mother tongue of flesh-and-blood people, has remained vexing to those whose self-image and status are derived from one of the "father tongues" of India—Sanskrit then, English now. There have been repeated attempts to fabricate line-by-line Sanskrit versions and present them as the original "divine" Manas of Shiva, which Tulsi merely translated into common speech.[228] Such desperate efforts to set


Tulsi's epic, once and for all, within prescribed limits—not unlike the effort to "Brahmanize" Kabir[229] —present an example of "Sanskritization" so literal as to seem laughable—save that they are so doggedly implacable. But an alternative and more subtle means of appropriation is what might be termed "Veda-ization."

It is from this perspective that we must reconsider the latter-day yajñas of Swami Karpatri and his followers, in which perhaps more than words are being "sacrificed." It is not the mechanical recitation that is problematic here—as I have already noted, that has a long tradition and a practical use—but rather the attempt to associate the Manas with Vedic ritual performance: to give it the ultimate status, which also means to withdraw it from the realm of the living. For these occasions, the Gita Press prints up elaborate instructions in Sanskrit on the "correct" way to recite the Manas , and the ritual specialists go through the motions with customary expertise. These trappings of Brahmanical culture represent an association dating back less than half a century, yet they are clearly important to the patrons who pay for the events and seek to derive status and merit from them. Such performances, though impressive, are in fact devoid of the real life that the text has for its audience—its life as story—and so this has to be pumped back into them through dioramas, processions, and dramatizations: a return to more vital genres such as jhanki and lila . The yajñas currently proliferating throughout the Hindi heartland make Manas recitation a spectator sport and specialist activity, and the more modest householders who seek to imitate these events do so mindful of the new rules of the game: they hire Brahman reciters to come into their homes, loudspeakers and all, and end with a fire sacrifice. The family members, unless particularly ambitious, sit it out on the sidelines. Thus, the sacralization of the cultural epic may be accompanied by a shift away from direct participation in its performance. One of my most outspoken interviewees observed of Swami Karpatri, "He has made our Manas into a religious book, something people chant in the morning, after taking a bath. But in my family we used to sing it together at bedtime, for pleasure. Do you see the difference?"

Parallel to the vogue for yajña is the increasingly unrelenting association of the Manas with varnasram[*] dharma, in the euphemistic and re-


pressive sense in which, as I have noted, this term is now used by the upper classes.[230] Another significant and related phenomenon is the withdrawal of the modern elite from recreational contact with the lower classes. The one form of Manas performance that seemed to be on the decline in Banaras was the most egalitarian and participatory of them all: the local folksinging style that appeared to embarrass some of my educated neighbors.[231] Such recreational, rather than ritual, use of the text in a pleasurable group activity uniting upper and lower classes now appears to be acquiring the stigma of "backwardness." Kumar has noted a similar process at work in neighborhood festivals, including Ramlila ,[232] and although Katha seems to have retained a relatively high status, the participatory and folk dimensions of this art too may in time restrict its patronage or, perhaps more likely, cause it to be withdrawn from the public arena. I found, for example, that certain of my wealthy and educated acquaintances were eager to hear and copy my tapes of Katha performances (provided the expounder was of high repute), yet they would never go to such programs themselves; to sit on the ground amid a motley crowd, to strain forward eagerly to hear, to exclaim with delight at a nice turn of phrase—these things were no longer suitable to people of their dignity. They would sit in private shrine rooms and do ritualized recitation, yes, but they would no longer go to a lila , a Katha , or a singing program. The current vogue for private Katha may likewise reflect an attempt to control the environment and restrict the audience. I am told, for example, that the Tamil expository art of kathakalaksepam[*] has recently moved into the concert hall to become an elite performance genre, with tickets priced at Rs 40 and up, and a dignified and unresponsive upper-class audience.[233] The combination of the elite's withdrawal from mass-participatory forms of performance and its emphasis on an interpretation of the text heavily weighted toward the rigid protection of privilege might ultimately convince the lower classes that there is no recourse for them in this epic and discourage them from using it, as so many have done, for personal and social aspiration.

I set out to discover the "life" of this text and found it in performance. The essential nature of performance, which is to effect emo-


tional uplift through communication, imposes limits on the tendency toward ritualization and withdrawal. Audiences still "vote with their feet,"[234] and a text that no longer speaks to them will quietly drop out of the repertoire, as most of the Puranas appear to have done. A living text, like an organism, has a life cycle, and perhaps a life expectancy as well. Yet religious texts in India never "die"; they simply recede into the more ethereal realms of the Word—authoritative but rarely heard—and yield their places to some upstart on the road to Veda-hood. For this upstart, as for so many problematic things in the culture, there is a euphemism: the "Fifth Veda." Through the centuries numerous texts have earned this designation: the Natyasastra[*] for an actor or musician, the Tiruvaymoli[*] for a Tamil Shrivaishnava, the Mahabharata for almost everyone; and now, for Hindi speakers, the Manas . The Fifth Veda is the text we actually know and love, and because we love it, we want it to be true and authoritative. But the designation, great as it is, is a symbol of transience too, for real eternality is beyond this world and belongs only to texts that no one knows. And so the Fifth Veda, ensign of our own aspiration, gets an honorary but always unsteady place on the borders of eternity.

Shrinath Mishra once told me that the greatness of the Manas and the secret of its popularity lies in the fact that it "teaches by example." I have indeed found this to be true—and in more than the conventional sense—because for Hindu culture, along with (and perhaps more important than) what a text says , is what it does . For four hundred years the Manas has functioned as something like a living yajña —a performance of meaning that samskar -ized[*] and thereby changed its performers: made them over into what they aspired to be, while bringing transcendence to earth in the form of human language and song. When it ceases to do this—and fresh memories of large, enthusiastic audiences tell me that this day is yet a long way off—the Fifth Veda will merge with the other four, in the world beyond change and aspiration.

But that is outside the limits of this Katha .


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