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Two The Text in Recitation and Song
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The Varieties of Recitation

The recitation of Tulsidas's epic is one of the most visible—and audible—forms of religious activity in Banaras. It forms a part of the morning and evening worship of innumerable households, is broadcast by loudspeakers from the spires of many temples, and periodically, at the time of major public programs, echoes for hours each day through large sections of the city. Similarly, the singing of the text to musical modes with instrumental accompaniment is a popular evening pastime, and recently, the playing of a commercially recorded version of the sung epic has become a virtually predictable background to functions ranging from annual temple srngars[*] to family mundan[*] and marriage ceremonies.[1] In order to understand the presence and role of the Manas in these


varied activities, it is first necessary to examine some of the implications of the indigenous notion of "recitation" (path[*] ) itself.

Whereas the term puja is generally applied to the most common form of worship in popular Hinduism (the veneration of a deity with offerings of flowers, incense, and lights, accompanied by prayers or hymns of praise), the term more often used for personal worship is the compound puja-path[*] . The linking of these two terms is indicative of more than just the Hindi speaker's fondness for alliterative compounds. Path[*] is a Sanskrit word meaning "recitation, recital, reading, perusal, study, especially of sacred texts";[2] its presence in the compound reflects the importance of the oral/aural dimension of ritual and the notion that it should ideally include recitation of the sacred word. Since path[*] can refer to recitation from memory as well as to reading aloud, it is an activity in which the illiterate as well as the literate can engage.

In principle, texts for recitation can be drawn from a vast field of sacred literature, much of it in Sanskrit: the Vedas, Upanishads, epics, eighteen major and countless minor Puranas, and numerous sectarian works. Certainly there are individuals whose daily path[*] is taken from some of these works, such as the Bhagavadgita and the Valmiki Ramayana[*] . But in practice, access to Sanskrit literature is restricted to a small segment of the Hindu population, and most path[*] selections of any length tend to be taken from vernacular religious works, of which the most popular is the Manas .

Since the Manas is a narrative, the most logical way to recite it is sequentially from beginning to end. This is referred to as parayan[*]path[*] —"complete recitation"; most Manas reciters are engaged in a parayan[*] of one kind or another. But because the text is of epic proportions and the amount of time most people can devote to daily recitation is limited, it becomes necessary to divide the book into segments that can be conveniently covered in daily installments. A common approach is to read a fixed number of stanzas daily, such as five, seven, or ten. At the charitable trust known as Chini Kshetra, near Dashashvamedh Ghat in central Banaras, the Manas is chanted each morning from 8:00 to 8:30 by some thirty small boys—Brahman students who have come to the city for religious studies—who proceed at the rate of five stanzas per day. Their parayan[*] takes about seven months to complete, whereupon they begin another. Other people have told me that they recite "ten stanzas each morning and evening," "thirty-six stanzas a day," or some similar regimen. One young man, an aspiring vyas , or expounder of the


text, told me that he read the Manas for "one to two hours" every afternoon when he came home from college. When I asked how much of the text he covered during this period, he replied, "Generally only one or two lines, and never more than a stanza." Clearly, this man's path[*] was not just recitation but involved (as he further explained) a careful study of the text with the aid of a commentary. His parayan[*] , he said, would take five years to complete.[3]

Individuals may proceed through the text according to some such regimen of their own choosing, but two formalized types of recitation are currently widely practiced: navah parayan[*] , or "nine-day reading," and the thirty-day masparayan[*] . (month's reading), Most printed editions of the epic contain annotations indicating stopping points for each of these sequential readings and also include detailed instructions in their introductory matter for accompanying ritual procedures. A third form of recitation is akhand[*]path[*] , or "unbroken reading"—the recitation of the entire Manas within a twenty-four-hour period.

Although there are various systems of dividing the text for sequential recitation, those in common use today are featured in the ubiquitous Gita Press editions of the epic, and they have some notable idiosyncrasies. The system of navahparayan[*] , for example, is based on a purely mathematical division of the epic's 1,074 stanzas into daily installments of 119 or (on three of the days) 120 stanzas. But since the stanzas are of varying lengths, the length of the daily installments (and of the time required to recite them) varies accordingly, although the numerical count of the stanzas remains constant. In one nine-day program that I attended, for example, the amount of time devoted to the daily reading varied from about four to six hours.

The nine-fold division is, of course, quite independent of the epic's narrative structure. Thus, the third day of recitation concludes with the 358th stanza of Balkand[*] (120 + 119 + 119 = 358), even though only three stanzas remain in this kand[*] and so it might appear reasonable to finish it and be ready to begin Ayodhyakand[*] the following day. More important to devotees, each day's reading is dominated by a key episode in the narrative. Thus, Day One is particularly associated with the story of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, which forms part of Tulsi's "introduction" to the Ram story and occupies about 70 of the 120 stanzas recited that day. The high points of Day Two are the birth of Ram and the first meeting of Ram and Sita in King Janak's flower garden. Day Three is dominated by the marriage of Ram and Sita, and so forth. The


importance of these narrative focal points for nine-day recitation programs will become clear when I examine several programs in detail.

A mathematical division of the text into thirty parts for masparayan[*] yields a daily installment of thirty-six stanzas; this is known as "balanced" or "even" reading (santulit path[*] ).[4] The Gita Press scheme, however, is anything but balanced—daily passages vary from as few as sixteen to as many as ninety stanzas—which is puzzling, since the system is presumably meant for the convenience of people with limited time for daily recitation. In any case, it is commonly held that undertaking a masparayan[*] requires "an hour a day."

"Unbroken" recitation is, as the name implies, uninterrupted. The specific rites and rigors of this type of path[*] are discussed below, in the context of a description of such a performance.

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