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The Manas and the Western Audience

British orientalists of the colonial period, many of whom served in India as administrators or missionaries, found that the Ramcaritmanas embodied what seemed to them the noblest aspects of Hindu culture, which they contrasted to other "degenerate" tendencies—especially the tantric tradition and the devotional cult of Krishna. Even Sir George Grierson, who could at times be so sympathetic to the Hindu ethos, praised the role of the Manas in "Hindustan" by noting that "it has saved the country from the tantric obscenities of Shaivism . . . the fate which has befallen Bengal."[63] F. S. Growse, who served as district magistrate of Mathura, urged the epic's adoption by the colonial Education Department, noting that "the purity of its moral sentiments and the absolute avoidance of the slightest approach to any pruriency of idea . . . render it a singularly unexceptionable text-book for native boys."[64]

Drawn to the text by what they saw as its moral tone and influence, Western scholars devoted themselves to mastering its language and to making it accessible to other English readers through translations, grammars, and theological studies—the latter often couched in patently Christian terms. Having acquired an intimate knowledge of the epic, they expressed high appreciation for both its religious message and its literary worth. Grierson hailed Tulsidas as "the greatest of Indian authors of modern times" and called his epic "worthy of the greatest poet of any age."[65] Vincent Smith, author of a biography of Tulsi's contemporary Akbar the Great, hailed the epic's creator as "the greatest man of his age in India, greater even than Akbar himself."[66]


The twentieth century has seen the publication of four English translations,[67] French, German, Italian, and Russian versions, and a modest number of textual studies that view the epic in the light of religious and literary problems.[68] More typically, however, the epic has been summarily treated by Western scholars as one of many "regional Ramayans" standing in the long shadow of the Valmiki epic. This attitude reflects the classicist bias of many nineteenth-century scholars, who viewed vernacular works as little more than late, vulgar paraphrases of India's "true" literature, which was in Sanskrit. Thus, even though Winternitz noted in his History of Indian Literature (1927) that the Manas had become "almost a gospel for millions of Indians," he nevertheless grouped it among Valmiki's "imitations and translations in the vernaculars"—these were dismissed in a single paragraph, while the Sanskrit text received a forty-two-page treatment.[69]

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, anthropologists and historians of religion began to take a closer and less biased look at the vernacular devotional literature figuring so prominently in contemporary religious practice. The majority of studies that have emerged from this new perspective have focused on the cult of Krishna and its relevant texts,[70] a preference that may in part reflect a reaction to the prejudices of earlier scholars who had condemned the erotic scenarios of the Krishna legend. In contrast, Tulsi's Ram—who was frankly admired by the Victorians—now appeared a tame and even prudish figure ("so good you can't bear him!" as a teacher of mine once remarked). Those twentieth-century scholars who continued to be attracted to the Manas often revealed an explicitly Christian orientation and put forward a view of the epic as a sort of potential meeting-ground of Hinduism and Christianity. Thus, Macfie declared that the concept of "incarnation" "found its highest and most spiritual expression in the work of Tulsidas. His hero is the worthiest figure in all Indian literature."[71] Whaling's work reveals a similar concern for interreligious dialogue and compares


Tulsi's concept of the divine name to the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit.[72] Although such perspectives represent one legitimate approach to the Manas , they tend to set the text in a framework that may be unappealing to readers who do not share the authors' religious commitment.

If Western study of the Manas has suffered from the neglect of vernacular traditions in general and of Ram-bhakti in particular, it has been plagued by the additional fact that the epic comes across badly in translation. While we may accept the dictum that "poetry is that which is lost in translation" (a maxim brought to my attention by A. K. Ramanujan), we might add that not all poetry gets "lost" to the same degree. Tulsi's rhyming verse is highly musical and makes frequent use of alliteration; since, as will be seen, the Manas is normally chanted or sung, its rhythmic patterns and rhymes contribute a great deal to its effect. Even if such patterns could be reproduced in English, they would tend to sound contrived or even ludicrous.[73] Consider, for example, the following line from a chand in Book Six in which retroflex and dental t/t[*] sounds are used to suggest the explosive cacophony of battle:


na latata[*]tana jarjara bhae[74]

Needless to say, such alliteration, far from sounding ludicrous in Hindi, appears to be a conventional key to a poetic mood of enhanced emotional texture.

Whereas early Western scholars were often lavish in their praise of the Manas as literature, the authors of the two most influential English translations have been more equivocal in their judgment. Both Growse and Hill readily concede that the epic is a great work of art "from the Oriental point of view," but they warn readers of features of the poem that may prove "irritating to modern Western taste."[75] Both cite the epic's repetitiveness and use of stock epithets and metaphors: for example, "lotus feet" and "streaming eyes." Growse concedes that some


Western epic poetry is equally repetitious, and recent research on oral and literary epic should make scholarly readers, at least, more sensitive to the typically "formulaic" flavor of the genre. But there is another dimension to Tulsi's apparent "repetitiveness" that neither Growse nor Hill mentions: the fact that some of it reflects more on the deficiencies of the English lexicon than on the formulaic expedients of the Hindi poet. I have counted, for example, twenty-nine different Sanskrit and Hindi terms for "lotus" in the Manas , including such lovely expressions as jalaj (born of the water), saroj (born of the lake), vanaj (born in the forest), nalini (long-stemmed one), rajiv (blue-streaked flower), and tamras (day-flower). For any of these, given considerations of space and syntax, the English translator has little choice but to insert "lotus"—thus obliterating all the subtle shades of meaning the original terms can convey.

For example, in one of the epic's opening sorathas[*] , the poet invokes Vishnu in the following words:

nilasaroruha syama | taruna aruna varijanayana ||

A near-literal translation would be:

Dark one [resembling a] blue arising-from-the-waters [lotus],
[with] eyes [resembling] newly blossomed dawn-red born-from-the-waters [lotuses].

Here it might appear that Tulsi is merely invoking the well-worn convention of Vishnu's "lotus-eyes" and "blue-lotus-colored" body; yet the poet's choice of the words saroruh and varij highlights the relationship of the flower to its watery environment and thus subtly invokes the mythological image of Vishnu reclining on the cosmic ocean. This is underscored in the second line of the couplet:

karau so mama ura dhama | sada chirasagarasayana ||

Make my heart [your] abode,
[you who] eternally recline [on] the milk-ocean.

The above translations also suggest another feature of Tulsi's poetry that is lost in translation: its great compression, resulting from the frequent ellipsis of various syntactic elements. To avoid burdening the text with bracketed explication, the translator must reinsert all such deleted elements, producing a result—whether in a prose or verse format—that is "prosaic" in the extreme. Moreover, every translation implies an in-


terpretation, and this destroys the ambiguity that highly compressed lines often contain—their susceptibility to expansion from a variety of interpretive viewpoints. It is this very quality that renders the Manas eminently suitable for exposition and commentary and is thus germane to all the varieties of oral performance that are examined in this study.

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