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Six The Text in a Changing Society
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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.

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