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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


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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,


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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?


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