Preferred Citation: Lutgendorf, Philip. The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1991.

One The Text and the Research Context

The Text and the Research Context

The nature of this Manas, how it came to be, and to what end it was manifested to the world—I will now narrate all these matters, remembering Uma and her Lord.



Anyone interested in the religion and culture of Northern India sooner or later encounters a reference to the epic poem Ramcaritmanas and its remarkable popularity.[1] This sixteenth-century retelling of the legend of Ram by the poet Tulsidas has been hailed "not merely as the greatest modern Indian epic, but as something like a living sum of Indian culture," singled out as "the tallest tree in the magic garden of medieval Hindu poesy," and acclaimed (by the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi) as "the greatest book of all devotional literature."[2] Western observers have christened it "the Bible of Northern India" and have called it "the best and most trustworthy guide to the popular living faith of its people."[3]

[1] All translations from the Ramcaritmanas are mine except where otherwise indicated. Numbers refer to the popular Gita Press version edited by Hanuman Prasad Poddar. For an explanation of the numbering system, see below, p. 15.

[2] The first quotation is from R. C. Prasad, in his introduction to the revised edition of Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , v; the second is from Smith, Akbar, The Great Mogul , 417; the third is from Gandhi, An Autobiography , 47.

[3] E.g., Macfie, The Ramayan of Tulsidas ; the second phrase comes from Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , xxxviii.


Such remarkable notices may arouse one's curiosity, first of all, to read the text—although here the English-language reader may be daunted by the fact that (for reasons to be discussed below) Tulsidas's great epic fares rather badly in translation. Beyond that, a student interested in the popularity and impact of this remarkable work has had to be content with a literature consisting primarily of textual studies that, despite their undoubted contributions to an understanding of the origin, structure, and meaning of the epic, shed little light on its interaction with its audience—an interaction that has never been primarily through the medium of the written word. Indeed, it seems ironic that a text so often cited as a popular and living tradition has received so little study as such, apart from a handful of treatments of Ramlila folk dramas, the most obviously "theatrical" genre of Ramcaritmanas performance. The present study, which grew out of one reader's encounter with the text and increasing curiosity about its living performers, seeks to fill this lacuna by investigating a wide spectrum of performance genres that utilize the epic, including traditions of public and private recitation, folksinging and formal exposition, as well as the more familiar Ramlila pageants. Approaching the text from the perspective of its performance, it will suggest that, in the audience's experience, the two are essentially inseparable.

Since its underlying approach will be to treat the Ramcaritmanas as, in S. C. R. Weightman's admirable phrase, "a religious event"[4] and as a living—hence necessarily changing and evolving—presence in North Indian society, this study will also be concerned with the historical development of the performance genres that it treats. This is problematic, since written source materials are meager, and oral history—although richer—cannot be relied on for accuracy. Yet a historical perspective is all the more necessary given the tendency of many within the Hindu tradition to assert the hoary antiquity and static changelessness of their practices, and of some Western scholars to accept such pronouncements uncritically. The living tree of Hinduism may indeed have deep roots, but it is constantly putting out new branches as well as occasionally shedding dead leaves, and although many of the performance genres described here had ancient precursors, their evolution and present popularity reflects, as will be seen, specific social and historical developments of the comparatively recent past.

Even a study of text-in-performance must necessarily begin with the text—itself an essential context for understanding its performance. The

[4] Weightman, "The Ramcaritmanas as a Religious Event," 53-72.


present chapter is intended to provide the general reader with background information necessary for an appreciation of the performance genres to be examined in succeeding chapters. To this end it touches on a number of potentially vast subjects: the history of the Ramayan tradition, the life and works of Tulsidas, and the metrical and narrative structure of the Ramcaritmanas —even though, in some cases, exemplary studies or even whole literatures on these topics already exist. For a study based primarily on field research, other contexts must also be delineated: conceptual, methodological, and geographical; hence this chapter also introduces some of the concepts that underlie the study, places them in reference to other recent research, and outlines the structure of the investigation to follow. It concludes with a brief introduction to the city of Banaras and its importance as a setting for the performance of the Tulsidas epic.

Tulsidas and the Ramayan Tradition

The Ramcaritmanas is an original retelling, in a literary dialect of Hindi, of the ancient tale of Prince Ram of Ayodhya—a story that exists in countless variants both within and beyond the Indian subcontinent and represents one of the world's most popular and enduring narrative traditions. The Ram legend has not only given rise to hundreds of literary texts, including several that rank among the masterpieces of world literature, but has also flourished for at least two millennia—and still flourishes today—in oral tradition.

The most influential early text of this tradition is the one called Ramayana[*] ; indeed, in India this name has come to be used as a sort of genre name for all texts of the tradition and even as a colloquial label for any long narrative (as in the Hindi expression "to narrate a Ramayan"—i.e., to go on at great length about some matter). Traditionally attributed to the poet Valmiki, this Sanskrit epic of some 24,000 couplets is thought to have been composed within the first few centuries before the beginning of the Christian Era[5] . Internal evidence suggests that a considerable portion of it may indeed have been the work of a single author, but nothing is known of Valmiki as a historical figure. Popular legend depicts him as a lowborn robber who was transformed into a sage by the grace of Ram and who wrote his narrative during his hero's own lifetime, in the Treta Yuga or second aeon of the current cosmic cycle, which Hindus commonly place in the extremely remote

[5] On the dating of this text, see Goldman, The Ramayana[*]of Valmiki : Balakanda[*] , 20-23. Note, however, that many scholars disagree with Goldman's early attribution.



Figure 1.
A pilgrim recites the Manas for a sadhu, in Ayodhya at dawn on
Ram's birth anniversary (Ram Navami)

past—"nine lakh [900,000] years ago." Valmiki is thus hailed by later tradition as adikavi —the first poet, the inventor of the influential sloka meter and the mentor of all later poets, especially those of the Ram narrative tradition.

Although the Sanskrit epic exerted a great influence on later retellings of the Story, the vernacular "Ramayans" that began to be produced from roughly the eleventh century did not offer simple translations of Valmiki's story, but rather reinterpretations of it. Because the specific transformations of the story through various texts have been traced by literary scholars,[6] it suffices here to note that the most important trend in the development of the tradition was the reinterpretation of the narrative in the light of the bhakti (devotional) movement, which effected the transformation of the epic's protagonist from an earthly prince with godlike qualities of heroism, compassion, and justice, to a full-fledged divinity—or rather, the divinity; for in North India today the word Ram is the most commonly used nonsectarian designation for the Supreme Being.

The bhakti movement, in significant contrast to the earlier southward penetration of Aryan Sanskritic culture, appears to have begun in

[6] See, for example, Bulcke, Ramkatha : utpatti aur vikas ; Whaling, The Rise of the Religious Significance of Rama .


South India and slowly spread northward. Although certain of its influential texts were composed in Sanskrit, the movement was characterized by a preference for local languages, reflecting a concern to make its teachings accessible to the widest possible audience, irrespective of caste or class. The earliest texts associated with this new orientation, the hymns of the Vaishnava Alvars and the Shaiva Nayanmars, were composed in Tamil, the Dravidian language spoken near the southern tip of India. The first major vernacular Ramayan was also in Tamil: the Iramavataram of the c. eleventh-century poet Kampan, which remains the best-known Ramayan in Tamil-speaking regions.[7] Already in Kampan's version, Ram as the earthly incarnation (avatar ) of the supreme lord Vishnu retained his divine qualities of omniscience and omnipotence, so that his entanglement in the plot became merely a matter of appearance—or as the tradition would say, of lila : a self-staged divine "sport." Likewise, his beloved wife Sita had acquired many of the titles and attributes of the great goddess, mother of the universe, and her inviolability had become such a matter of principle that the poet had to concoct the device of having her demon abductor scoop up the plot of earth she stood upon, lest the touch of his hands defile her.

Kampan's epic was followed by the c. thirteenth-century Telugu Ramayana[*] of Buddharaja and by the fourteenth-century Bengali epic of Krittibasa. But even by the middle of the sixteenth century, there was still no major Ramayan in any of the dialects of the central Gangetic plain—the region that, ironically, was the geographical locus of the Ram legend. The story remained widely known and was told and retold in Hindu communities; its Sanskrit versions continued to be studied and commented on by members of the religious elite and expounded by them to wider audiences. But it may well reflect on the conservatism of this elite that no major literary rendering of the story had been made in the "impure" language of the people, even though such versions had long won acceptance further to the south and east.

The birthdate of the man who was to compose the Hindi epic of Ram—the poet Tulsidas—cannot be fixed with certainty, but many scholars have settled on 1532 as a likely year.[8] An unresolved and more emotional debate has concerned the poet's birthplace, with no less than seven places in present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states vying for the

[7] For a partial English translation, see Hart and Heifetz, The Ramayana[*]of Kampan .

[8] Gupta, Tulsidas , 138-40; in English see the same author's "Biographical Sketch," in Nagendra, ed., Tulasidasa: His Mind and Art , 64. F. R. Allchin, however, favors a birthdate of 1543; see the introduction to his translation of Kavitavali , 33.


honor of claiming Tulsidas as native son.[9] Most modern accounts of Tulsi's life are based on slender internal evidence from his poetry supplemented by two controversial accounts attributed to contemporaries[10] and by later devotional hagiographies. In several apparently autobiographical verses in the Kavitavali and Vinay patrika —works thought to belong to the poet's old age—Tulsi refers to early abandonment by his parents (traditionally attributed to his having been born during an unlucky astrological conjunction) and to a childhood of loneliness, hunger, and pain, from which he was apparently rescued by a group of Vaishnava sadhus who gave him his first lessons in devotion to Ram, the "purifier of the fallen."[11] Yet it is thought that Tulsi himself did not become a sadhu at once but underwent a period of traditional Sanskrit education, probably at Banaras, and then returned to his native village to marry and live the life of a householder until a personal crisis caused him to renounce home and family. His subsequent wanderings took him to Ayodhya, Ram's birthplace and capital, and later to Banaras, where he settled, composed most of his major works, and died at an advanced age—probably in 1623.

The bare framework of this probable biography has of course been richly embellished by the hagiographic tradition. One of the best-known legends concerns Tulsi's decision to renounce worldly life, which is said to have been precipitated by his infatuation for his wife, Ratnavali. Unable to bear her absence while she was visiting her parents, Tulsi is said to have braved a rain-swollen river to reach his in-laws' house, only to receive, on arrival, a stinging rebuke from Ratnavali in the form of a couplet that has become proverbial.

This passion for my flesh-and-bone-filled body—
had you such for Lord Ram, you'd have no dread of death.[12]

These words are said to have opened Tulsi's inner eye and effected his conversion into a lifelong devotee of Ram, and so Ratnavali is some-

[9] Gupta, Tulsidas , 140-61; "Biographical Sketch," 65-77.

[10] These are the Mulgosaim[*]carit , attributed to Benimadhav Das (d. 1643) and the Gautamcandrika of Krishnadatta Mishra, supposedly composed in 1624; both were discovered only in the twentieth century. The former is widely regarded as spurious; the latter has been cautiously accepted by some scholars. For a brief discussion, see Gopal, Tulasidas , xii.

[11] See Kavitavali 6.73, 7.57, and Vinay patrika 275.1-3. For discussion of these verses, see Allchin's introduction to his translations of both works, Kavitavali , 33-34, and The Petition to Ram , 31-32. "Purifier of the fallen" is a translation of the much-used epithet patit-pavan ; see, for example, the closing chand of the Ramcaritmanas (7.130.9).

[12] The original verses are given by Grierson in "Notes on Tul'si Das," 267.


times cited as his "initiating teacher" (diksa[*]guru ). Other well-known stories concern the poet's ascetic and devotional practices (sadhana ) and his mystical experiences and miracles. Some of these will be recounted later in the words of modern devotees, for they show the reverence in which Tulsi and his poetry continue to be held.

The genesis of the Hindi epic of Ram has received considerable study.[13] Although the influence of Valmiki's classic may be taken for granted, Tulsidas makes significant departures from the older epic's version of the story, and some of these appear to reflect the influence of other Sanskrit texts. Thus the Bhagavatapurana[*] probably inspired his glowing depiction of Ram's childhood, while the drama Prasannaraghava may have influenced his decision to include a romantic encounter between Ram and Sita in a flower garden (phulvari )—a scene that has become one of the Hindi epic's most beloved passages (1.227.3-236). Another likely influence was the Adhyatmaramayana[*] ("spiritual" or "esoteric" Ramayana[*] ), a text probably composed in South India in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, which added a significant dimension to the theology of Ram by presenting him as not only an incarnation of the preserver-god Vishnu but as the personification of the ultimate reality or ground of being—the brahman of the Upanishads and of the Advaita or non-dualist school of philosophy.[14] Although this interpretation weakened the narrative and reduced the character of Ram to an austere abstraction who could hardly arouse the devotional sentiments of the masses, it may have helped inspire Tulsi's more successful integration of the Advaita and Vaishnava systems. It also anticipated one of Tulsi's most striking deviations from the traditional story: his introduction of an "illusory Sita" who alone suffers the indignity of abduction and imprisonment in Ravan's stronghold, while the real Sita—Ram's inviolable sakti , or feminine energy—remains safely concealed in the element of fire.[15]

The Ramcaritmanas is both the longest and earliest of the poet's major works; its composition was apparently begun when Tulsidas was in his early forties. The opening section of the poem includes the following well-known passage:

[13] Gupta, Tulsidas ; Vaudeville, Etude sur les sources ; and Bulcke, Ramkathaaur Tulsidas ; an English summary of Bulcke's analysis of the stages of composition is contained in his essay, "Ramacaritamanasa and Its Relevance to Modern Age," 58-75.

[14] Whaling, The Rise of the Religious Significance of Rama , 111. The text is available in an English translation by Bali Nath, The AdhyatmaRamayana[*] .

[15] The relevant passages are 3.24.1-5 (in which Sita conceals herself and substitutes her pratibimb , or "shadow") and 6.108.14-109.14 (in which the shadow is destroyed and the real Sita restored).


Now reverently bowing my head to Shiva
I narrate the spotless saga of Ram's deeds.
In this year 1631 1 tell the tale,
laying my head at the Lord's feet.
On Tuesday, the ninth of the gentle month,
in the city of Avadh, these acts are revealed.

Tulsi thus assigns the commencement of his labor to the birthday of Ram in the year 1631 of the Vikram Era—i.e., A.D . 1574—in Ayodhya, Ram's own city. The weighty text must have occupied him for several years, and the fact that its fourth book opens with an invocation to Kashi (Banaras) is generally taken as an indication that the poet had by then shifted his residence to that city.

Even though the immediate reception accorded to Tulsi's epic cannot be historically documented, several passages in the poet's works suggest a concern to anticipate and respond to critics. The invocatory stanzas of the epic include an ironic obeisance to the "ranks of scoundrels" who delight in criticizing others and a reference to "poetic connoisseurs" who are likely to laugh at his efforts, for as he observes,

My speech is the vernacular, my mentality simple.
It's deserving of laughter—no fault in laughing!

My speech lacks every virtue
but one, known to all the world.
Reflecting on this, let those
of pure discrimination listen well.

For herein is the lofty name of Raghupati—
utterly pure, essence of Veda and Purana!
1.9.4, 1.9, 1.10.1

While Tulsi's denial of poetic skill (couched, of course, in verses of great ingenuity) may have been aimed at those who favored the highly contrived Sanskrit poetry still influential in his day, his assertion that his work contains the essence of the scriptures was more likely directed at critics within the Brahmanical elite. That the vernacular Ramayan was initially derided in these conservative quarters is suggested by the hagiographical tradition and by a few verses in Tulsi's later works.[16] Yet such a negative reaction in turn suggests that the work had found an

[16] Thus in Vinay patrika 8:3, the poet complains to Shiva that the god's "servants" in Banaras have been tormenting him. The Gautam candrika speaks of "conceited traditionalists" taking offense at Tulsi's devotional verses.


enthusiastic reception among other groups, which may have included the mercantile class and the lower orders of society, including religious mendicants.

How rapidly the influence of the Hindi epic spread, in the absence of printing and despite the fact of overwhelming illiteracy, may be gauged from the fact that Nabha Das in his Bhaktamal —a work probably composed toward the end of Tulsi's life—hailed the Banarasi poet as Valmiki himself, who had taken birth again to reissue his Ramayana[*] to the world.[17] Nabha is thought to have resided at Galta, a Vaishnava shrine in Rajasthan, roughly a thousand kilometers from Tulsi's home but an important halting place for itinerant sadhus. It is likely that such mendicants played a major role in the early dissemination of the epic and were among its first expounders.

The small number of extant seventeenth-century manuscripts and the much larger number of eighteenth-century ones reveal some interesting features. Perhaps as many as 10 percent are in Kaithi, the script of the Kayasth, or scribal, caste—a writing system favored in political and economic contexts.[18] A smaller but still significant number are in Persian script, and the second-oldest translation of the epic (1804) is into the Persian language. All of this suggests the text's popularity with the aristocracy and business classes. Its association with Brahmans and acceptance by them as a work of the highest religious authority appears to have come about only gradually. As recently as. 1887, F. S. Growse could observe that there were many pandits who "still affect to despise [Tulsi's] work as an unworthy concession to the illiterate masses."[19]

A popular legend highlights the tension that is thought to have surrounded the religious establishment's initial response to Tulsi's epic. The Brahmans of Banaras, censorious of Tulsi for having rendered a sacred story in the common tongue, decided to test the worth of the text by placing it at the bottom of a pile of Sanskrit scriptures in the sanctum of the Vishvanath Temple, which was then locked for the night. When the shrine was opened in the morning, the Hindi work was found to have risen to the top of the pile, and its cover bore the words satyam[*] , sivam[*] , sundaram[*] (truth, auspiciousness, beauty) inscribed by an un-

[17] Rupkala, SriBhaktamal , 756, chappay 129. On the dating of this text, see Gupta, "Priya Dasa," 64.

[18] This estimate was made by C. N. Singh, who examined a large number of early manuscripts while helping edit the Kashiraj Trust edition—the first Manas edition to utilize Kaithi manuscripts; interview, February 1984.

[19] Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , lv.


known hand. Faced with this divine imprimatur (in Sanskrit, no less), the pandits were forced to give grudging respect to the text.[20]

The legend suggests Tulsi's success at transcending sectarian differences and at synthesizing diverse strands of the Hindu tradition. In the nineteenth century, Growse noted the abundance of sects identifying themselves with the names and teachings of their founders, and Tulsi's overarching and catholic influence: "There are Vallabhacharis and Radha-Vallabhis and Maluk Dasis and Pran Nathis, and so on, in interminable succession, but there are no Tulsi Dasis. Virtually, however, the whole of Vaishnava Hinduism has fallen under his sway; for the principles that he expounded have permeated every sect and explicitly or implicitly now form the nucleus of the popular faith as it prevails throughout the whole of the Bengal Presidency from Hardwar to Calcutta."[21]

Reconciliation and synthesis are indeed underlying themes of Tulsi's epic: the reconciliation of Vaishnavism and Shaivism through a henotheistic vision that advocates worshiping Shiva as Father of the Universe while making him the archetypal devotee of Ram. A similar rapprochement is effected between the nirgun[*] and sagun[*] traditions—between worship of a formless God and of a God "with attributes." Tulsi's contribution is to offer, in Frank Whaling's words, "an integral rather than a new symbol" of Ram,[22] and his hero is at once Valmiki's exemplary prince, the cosmic Vishnu of the Puranas, and the transcendent brahman of the Advaitins. What weaves together such "inconsistent" theological strands is the overwhelming devotional mood of the poem, expressing fervent love for the divine through poetry of the most captivating musicality.

The Ramcaritmanas is one of a dozen works generally accepted as authentic compositions of Tulsidas.[23] These include six "minor" and six "major" texts that together have acquired a sort of canonical status for the Ram tradition, so that their verses may be cited as authoritative "proof" or "validation" (praman[*] ) of any point an expounder or commentator wishes to make. In addition to these literary works, the North Indian oral tradition includes a sizable body of couplets and short songs that claim Tulsidas as their author by inserting his name in the poetic

[20] The legend is recounted in the Mulgosaim[*]carit ; the version given here is based on an oral retelling by a temple priest of Ramnagar; February 1984.

[21] Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , lix.

[22] Whaling, The Rise of the Religious Significance of Rama , 228.

[23] For a short summary of their contents, see Grierson, "Notes on Tul'si Das," 197-205, 253-59.


"signature line" (bhanita ) common to such poems. Some of these aphorisms and songs are indeed drawn from Tulsi's written works—scores of lines from the Ramcaritmanas have entered folk speech as proverbs[24] —but others belong to none of the poet's known works or are in dialects (such as Khari Boli) or even other North Indian languages (e.g., Punjabi and Gujarati) that he is unlikely to have known.[25] Such fragments belong to a genre of literature in which folk poets assume the name and persona of famous poets—Kabir, Tulsi, Surdas, and Mira being four favorites—in order to invoke a characteristic ethos or aura of authority.[26] But whereas the proliferation of such compositions has sometimes confused or even obliterated the boundaries of a poet's authentic oeuvre,[27] the Tulsidas oral tradition exists as a complement to a distinct and well-attested literary corpus. Thus while editions of Surdas's major work, Sursagar , may contain anywhere from a few hundred to many thousand poems, the numerous published editions of the Ramcaritmanas exhibit only comparatively minor variations.[28]

One other poem needs mention in the context of Tulsi's works, genuine or otherwise. The Hanumancalisa —"forty verses to Hanuman"—which popular belief, backed up by a signature line, universally attributes to Tulsidas, has become one of the most recited short religious texts in contemporary North India.[29] The poem opens with a couplet from the Ramcaritmanas and contains several other lines that appear to be adapted from the epic; the remainder suggests a rather inelegant approximation of Tulsidas's style. But questions of authenticity and literary merit aside, the most striking thing about this poem is its enormous popularity. As a prime text of the flourishing cult of Hanuman—one of the most visible manifestations of popular Hinduism—it is fervently recited by millions of people every Tuesday and Saturday, the two week-

[24] Examples of these may be found in the section on lokokti (folk sayings) in Shukla, ed., Tulsigranthavali 4:93-158.

[25] Some of these compositions may be attributable to later authors who bore the same name, such as Tulsi Sahab of Hathras (1763-1843), a poet of the Sant tradition who is regarded by some devotees as a reincarnation of Tulsidas.

[26] Bhanita literally means "uttered"; such a poetic signature is also known as a chap , or "seal." On this convention, see Hawley, "Author and Authority," 269-90. On its use by Kabir and others, see Vaudeville, Kabir , 62.

[27] On the problem of delineating an "authentic" Surdas, see Bryant, Poems to the Child-God, vii-xi; and Hawley, SurDas , 35-63. Textual problems in Kabir are discussed by Vaudeville, Kabir , 49-70. No early manuscripts exist for the countless poems attributed to Mirabai; see Hawley and Juergensmeyer, Songs of the Saints of India, 122-29.

[28] For a discussion of variant manuscript readings, see Chaube, Manasanusilan , 37-169; or Mishra, ed., Ramcaritmanas , 463-501.

[29] For a rough translation accompanied by some discussion of the poem's message and popularity, see Kapoor, Hanuman Chalisa.


days regarded as especially suitable for worshiping Ram's ideal devotee, and also at other times when special assistance is sought (thus it is said that the onset of annual school examinations brings a flood of college students into Hanuman temples to devoutly' intone the prayer). Authentic or not, the verses of the Hanumancalisa are today among the best-known lines attributed to Tulsidas.[30]

Since the Ramcaritmanas is a text in the Ramayan tradition, for which the Sanskrit epic of Valmiki is the accepted archetype, it is commonly referred to simply as "the Ramayan" and many popular editions bear only this name on their spine and cover, perhaps adding above it in small print: "composed by Goswami Tulsidas" (GosvamiTulsidas-jikrt[*] ).[31] Such use of the generic title is of course revealing of the fact that this epic has become in effect the archetypal Ramayan text for Hindi speakers. The "Ramayan composed by Valmiki" (Valmikikrt[*]Ramayana[*] ) is to the vast majority of people only a famous name for the archetype of a beloved story, not a known or accessible text, and most Hindi versions of it are prose condensations of its story, not literal translations of its verses.[32] Few devotees would be able to describe how Tulsi's version differs from its Sanskrit precursor, for their conception of the story depends overwhelmingly on the Hindi poet's rendition of it. And indeed, the immensely successful Indian television serialization, "Ramayan," which aired during 1987-88, closely followed Tulsi's version of the story.[33]

The significance of Tulsi's own chosen title, Ramcaritmanas —which W. D. P. Hill has rendered "The Holy Lake of the Acts of Ram"—is discussed in some detail below. Although Western authors have sometimes replaced this unwieldy compound with the acronym RCM, the Hindi tradition prefers to shorten it to its final element and call it simply the Manas —a custom I follow here.[34] This abbreviation, as we shall see, is not a mere truncation of the title, but a significant condensation that focuses on the central metaphor of the poem.

[30] Despite his popularity, Hanuman remains little studied. To date, one of the best treatments is Wolcott, "Hanuman."

[31] The term gosvami ("master of cattle" / "master of the senses," commonly Anglicized as "Goswami") is a respectful title given to certain religious leaders; the suffix -ji connotes enhanced respect. In Vaishnava discourse, the term "Goswami-ji" normally refers to Tulsidas.

[32] A typical example is Gupta, Valmikramayan[*] .

[33] See Chapter 6, People of the Book.

[34] Even titles of scholarly works in Hindi often refer to the text by this name; e.g., Chaube, Manasanusilan (A study of the Manas ); Chaturvedi, ManaskiRam Katha (The Ram story in the Manas ). The same abbreviation occurs in speech, and a traditional scholar of the epic is sometimes termed a Manasi (Manas specialist).


Metrical and Narrative Structure

The Ramcaritmanas is a poem of roughly 12,800 lines divided into 1073 "stanzas" (to be defined shortly), which are set in seven "books" (kand[*] ). The latter division is common in texts of the Ramayan tradition and reflects the primacy and influence of the Valmiki epic, which is so organized. All but one of Tulsi's books bear the same names as those of the Sanskrit epic,[35] but this resemblance does not extend to their contents and relative lengths. Tulsi's first book, Balkand[*] , for example, is his longest, comprising roughly a third of the epic and including much introductory material not directly related to the Ram narrative; the Sanskrit epic's opening book is its second shortest and commences the story of Ram with relatively little digression.

Although by the standards of Indian epics the Manas is fairly compact (it is less than a third the length of Valmiki's version), it is nonetheless substantial, and the line-count noted above reflects a poem that in printed editions typically runs to between five and seven hundred pages. The titles and relative lengths of the seven books are as follows:[36]

Title of Book

Number of Stanzas

1. Balkand[*] (Childhood)


2. Ayodhyakand[*] (Ayodhya)[37]


3. Aranya[*]kand[*] (The Forest)


4. Kiskindha[*]kand[*] (Kishkindha)


5. Sundar kand[*] (The Beautiful)


6. Lanka[*]kand[*] (Lanka)


7. Uttar kand[*] (The Epilogue)


Viewed in terms of the relative lengths of its sections, the work presents a rough symmetry: the first two and last two books are longer (the last two are lengthier than the stanza count suggests, as their stanzas themselves are generally longer), and the middle three shorter. The

[35] The exception is the sixth book, to which Valmiki gives the title Yuddhakanda[*] , "The Book of War."

[36] In all citations, the kand[*] will be indicated by number: "1" for Balkand[*] "2" for Ayodhyakand[*] , etc.

[37] This book contains a controversial stanza that some commentators regard as an interpolation; the Kashiraj edition, for example (published by the maharaja of Banaras under the editorship of Vishvanath Prasad Mishra) assigns no number to the troubling stanza (although it includes it), yielding an Ayodhya of 325 stanzas.


shortest book, Kiskindha[*]kand[*] , which describes Ram's encounter with the monkeys who will be instrumental in recovering his abducted wife, serves as a turning point in the narrative. Much of the first and last books consists of extended "introduction" and "epilogue" to the core narrative, which begins about halfway through the first book and ends about a third of the way into the final book.

The term "stanza" reflects no equivalent term in Hindi but is a useful designation for the conventional divisions of the text, which are based on a repeated sequential use of two meters: caupai and doha .[38] The former refers to a two-line unit containing four equal parts. Its individual lines are each known as an ardhali (half) and comprise thirty-two "beats" or "instants" (matra ), the metrical units of most Hindi prosody, which are based on the perceived relative duration of long and short vowels. Each ardhali is divided in turn into two feet (pad ) of sixteen beats, separated by a caesura (indicated in writing by a vertical line called a viram , or "stop"; a double viram marks the end of a full line). A sample line from Balkand[*] is given below; vowels marked with a macron and diphthongs are regarded as long and carry the relative weight of two beats; the others are short.

akaracarilakha caurasi | jatijivajala thala nabha vasi ||

(There exist) 8,400,000 forms of life, born by four modes, dwelling in water, on earth, and in the atmosphere.

Although in theory a caupai should consist of two such lines, in practice the term refers to any single line in this meter, and a person asked to recite "a caupai " from the Manas will usually quote an ardhali such as the one given above. Moreover, many stanzas contain an uneven number of lines, indicating that Tulsidas himself did not feel constrained to place such verses in pairs. Most modern editions of the Manas number each line in caupai meter as an individual unit, and this convention will be followed here.

As the epic's predominant verse form, caupais[*] have been likened by the poet to the lotus leaves that crowd the surface of a lake. They are interspersed, however, with the blossoming lotuses of more "ornamental" meters. The most common of these is the doha and its variant form, the soratha[*] . A doha is a couplet, each line of which consists of two unequal parts, usually of thirteen and eleven beats respectively; in reci-

[38] For a general introduction to Hindi prosody, see Kellogg, A Grammar of the Hindi Language; caupai meter is discussed beginning on p. 578.


tation, the break between the two parts of each line can be discerned, but in notation it is not shown.

magavasinara narisuni

dhamakamataji dhai |

dekhi sarupasaneha saba

mudita janama phalu pai ||

Hearing this, people who lived along the road
came running, leaving homes and work.
Delighted to behold the embodiments of love,
all obtained their births' reward.

A soratha[*] is a doha's mirror image: two lines each divided into eleven and thirteen-beat segments, with the rhyme falling at the end of the first segment rather than at the end of the line.

Sankara[*]ura ati chobhu

Satina janahimaramu soi |

Tulasidarasana lobhu

mana daru[*]locana lalaci ||

Shiva's heart was greatly agitated
but Sati did not perceive his secret.
Tulsi says, he craved sight of the Lord;
his mind hesitated but his eyes were greedy.

Throughout the epic, each series of caupais[*] —commonly eight or ten lines—is bracketed by one or more dohas or sorathas[*] . These couplets are numbered consecutively throughout each book, and it is the repeated structural unit of caupais[*] + doha/soratha[*] that I refer to as a "stanza." Thus, for example, the citation "7.24.6" refers to the sixth line in the twenty-fourth stanza of the seventh book (Uttar kand[*] )—the stanza that concludes with doha number 24.[39] When a stanza concludes with a series of couplets, it is the convention to assign them a single number and to designate individual couplets with letters of the alphabet. Thus "24c" refers to the third of a series of couplets at the end of stanza twenty-four.

The use of the caupai-doha stanza as the basic structural unit for a poetic narrative was not original to Tulsidas but appears to have had a long history in the North Indian vernaculars. In Avadhi itself—the dia-

[39] One could argue that a stanza might just as reasonably begin with a doha/soratha[*] , since all but one of the kands[*] open with invocatory verses in these meters. In fact, both notation systems are in use, but oral performers typically seem to regard the doha as a unit of closure, and the authoritative commentary Manaspiyus[*] (ed. Sharan) prefers this approach. As a consequence of this convention, invocatory dohas will be designated by a "zero" (0) in notation; thus "2.0" refers to the doha that opens Ayodhyakand[*] .


lect of the Manas —it had been used in a number of allegorical romances by Sufi poets, beginning with the Candayan of Maulana Daud (c. 1380) and including the great Padmavati of Malik Muhammad Jayasi (c. 1540).[40]

A third meter that occurs with fair frequency in the Manas is harigitikachand —"meter of short songs to Vishnu"; this is generally shortened to chand in notation. Verses in this meter seem to be inserted at moments of heightened emotion and serve to elaborate on something that has already been described rather than to advance the flow of the narrative, for which the more prosaic caupai is preferred. Chands are nearly always placed between a group of caupais[*] and their concluding couplet; thus they are contained within "stanzas" as defined above, and in my notation simply continue the numbering of stanza lines. A chand comprises four equal lines of twenty-six to thirty beats. The final syllables in each line rhyme and there is often internal rhyme within lines; the rhyme scheme, combined with the frequent use of alliteration, gives this meter an especially rhythmic and musical quality. Appropriately, it is the chands among all the verses of the Manas that are most often set to melodies and sung as devotional hymns.[41] A famous example occurs in the passage celebrating Ram's liberation of Ahalya—a woman transformed into a stone by her husband's curse. The first two lines of this chand read:

parasata pada pavanasoka nasavanapragata[*]bhaitapa punjasahi |
dekhata Raghunayakajana sukha dayakasanamukha hoi kara jori rahi ||

In his 1887 translation F. S. Growse attempted to simulate the rhyme scheme of some of these musical verses; for the above lines he offered:

At the touch so sweet of his hallowed feet,
she awoke from her long unrest,
and meekly adored her sovereign lord,
awaiting his high behest.[42]

Whatever the aesthetic merits of this approach, it necessitated taking considerable liberties with the text; a more literal translation would be:

[40] On the genre of Sufi premakhyan (allegorical romance) in Avadhi, see Millis, "Malik Muhammad Jayasi."

[41] For example, in one commercial recording of Manas hymns (SriRamayanamah[*] , Bombay: Polydor of India, Ltd., 1979), nearly all the selections are in chand meter.

[42] Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , 133.


At the touch of his holy feet, which destroys grief,
that treasury of asceticism became manifest.
Beholding Ram, who delights his devotees,
she stood before him with palms joined.

Meters other than the caupai , doha/soratha[*] , and chand occur only rarely in the Manas . They include invocatory, Sanskrit slokas , which open each book and close the final one, and occasional hymns of praise (stuti ) spoken by characters—learned Brahmans or sages—who might be expected to address the Lord in Sanskrit; several of these are widely used in worship today.[43] Another Hindi meter called tomar chand (spear meter)—similar to the caupai but with shorter and more strident lines—occurs twice during battle scenes (3.20.1-13; 6.113.1-16), to which it was evidently thought to be well suited.

Apart from its division into books and stanzas, the Manas has, in the view of its audience, a further implicit division into episodes (prasang[*] ) and dialogues (samvad ). These appear to reflect the conventions and constraints of oral storytelling and sequential recitation.[44] Their acquired names are often printed in the margins of modern editions for the convenience of devotees and are commonly invoked in oral discourse on the epic—thus a traditional scholar may be asked to expound the "episode of the departure for the forest" (van-gaman prasang[*] ) or "Ram's dialogue with the boatman" (Ram-kevat[*]samvad ). Certain beloved passages have acquired names that seem to bear little relation to their narrative content; thus, Lakshman's philosophical discourse to the tribal chief Guha in Book Two[45] is commonly referred to as Laksman[*]gita (The Gita expounded by Lakshman)—implying the similarity of its message to that delivered by Krishna to Arjuna in the Mahabharata .

One other convention deserves note, for it is used frequently in all the recurring "ornamental" meters of the epic: the bhanita , or signature of the poet. This usually consists of the word "Tulsi" or "Tulsidas" placed in a line in such a way that it must be construed to mean "Tulsidas says . . ." or taken as an interjection ("O Tulsi!"). Although such a signature was a convention in medieval lyric poetry that added an element of personal witness to the verses, within the epic scope of the Manas it was adapted to serve an additional purpose: to remind the

[43] E.g., Atri's hymn to Ram (3.4.1-24); Sutikshna's hymn to Ram (3.11.3-16); a pious Brahman's hymn to Shiva (7.108.1-18).

[44] Weightman suggests that it is in part the episodic structure of the Manas that makes it "read" badly in translation and gives Western readers a poor impression of the effect of the original; "The Ramcaritmanas as a Religious Event," 60.

[45] 2.92.3-94.2.


audience of an overarching design within which the narrative is set. This design and its significance must now be briefly examined.

The Fathomless Lake: Tulsi's Narrative Framing

Recent studies in sociolinguistics and in the rhetorical approach to literary criticism have drawn attention to the technique of "framing"—the framing of communication in general and verbal art in particular. This concept has been developed and applied by linguists and anthropologists and most recently by folklorists interested in the study of "verbal art as performance"—to cite the title of an essay by Richard Bauman that makes a valuable contribution to performance theory. Drawing on the work of Gregory Bateson, Bauman notes,

It is characteristic of communicative interaction that it includes a range of explicit or implicit messages which carry instructions on how to interpret the other messages being communicated. This communication about communication Bateson termed metacommunication. . . . In Bateson's terms, "a frame is metacommunicative. Any message which either explicitly or implicitly defines a frame ipso facto gives the reader instructions or aids in his attempt to understand the messages included within the frame."[46]

The theme of the present study is the presentation of a literary work to its audience, and the metacommunicative strategies employed by oral performers to "frame" the Manas are discussed in due course. It is useful, however, to begin by examining the ways in which the text itself has been deliberately "framed" by its author—that is, placed within contexts that provide the listener/reader with clues for interpreting its message. Such framing, I suggest, is not simply a literary convention but a cue to the intended use of the text in cultural performances.

Two explicit frames are built into the structure of the Manas ; each has implicit dimensions that may not be readily apparent to readers of a different cultural background. The first is the title itself, which is introduced in the thirty-fifth stanza and then developed into a complex allegory comprising more than a hundred lines. I identify this frame as "first." because, in selecting this title, Tulsi knew it was likely to be the first message about the work that would reach a listener. Hill's English rendering, "The Holy Lake of the Acts of Ram," though unexceptionable, inevitably fails to convey the mythological associations that the title evokes for the North Indian listener.

[46] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 15. Bauman cites Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), 188.


The name Ram , no doubt the poet's own dearest element in the title—his mantra, or spiritually efficacious word par excellence—needs little elaboration here; not merely the name of the hero of the narrative, it was to Tulsi and his fellow devotees the personal designation of the supreme godhead.

I venerate "Ram," the name of Raghubar,
the cause of fire, sun, and moon.
Breath of the Veda, filled with Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva,
incomparable, qualityless; treasury of all qualifies.
The Great Mantra that Shiva repeats
and his instruction, giving liberation in Kashi.[47] 1.19.1-3

The Sanskrit word carita (from the verbal root car, "to move") is a perfect participle connoting "going, moving, course as of heavenly bodies," and by extension, "acts, deeds, adventures."[48] The compound Ram-carit is thus roughly synonymous with the term Ramayana[*] , if the latter is taken to mean "the goings [movements] of Ram" (Rama + ayana ). Yet carit is not random movement but expresses the inherent qualities of the mover; in Sanskrit literature the word has been used in the titles of biographies of religious figures and idealized kings (e.g., the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosa; the Harsacarita[*] of Bana). A Manas scholar in Banaras once expressed the meaning of carit with an analogy to geometry: a car is a moving point and its carit the circle it inscribes—the track or orbit that records its passage. In this interpretation, Ram is the moving point of the infinite that passes through our world, the track of his passage being delineated by his carit. For Tulsidas, this was an appropriate term to describe the earthly activities of one whom he revered as the incarnation of God.

Manas is derived from the root man —"to think, believe, imagine, perceive, comprehend."[49] This root and its derivatives—such as the Sanskrit word manas —pose a perennial problem for the translator, in that no one English term can express both its cognitive and its emotional connotations: it is frequently rendered as either "mind" or "heart." From this term is derived the word manas —"arising out of manas, "

[47] Mahatma Gandhi's reputed dying exclamation, "He Ram!" (O Ram!) offered a dramatic example of the widespread habit of invoking the name in moments of crisis. Tulsi helped popularize the belief that it is by virtue of the power of Ram's name, which Shiva whispers in the ear of anyone who dies in Kashi (Banaras), that liberation from further rebirth is assured.

[48] Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 389.

[49] Ibid., 783.


"belonging to manas "—that is, mind/heart-born. Used as a proper noun, this is the name of a remote Himalayan lake, situated on the Tibetan plateau at the foot of Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva. References to this lake are found in numerous texts, beginning with the Mahabharata and Ramayana[*] epics.[50] In later religious poetry, the lake is often used as a metaphor for the mind itself in its highest aspect: its waters are said to be as pure and still as the consciousness of the contemplative is to become, and on their surface floats the stainless hamsa[*] bird—symbol of the Self—which feeds on the pearls it plucks from the lake's clear waters. The discriminating hamsa[*] also possesses the ability to separate milk from water, a skill that Tulsi likens to the ability of saintly people to grasp the good and discard the evil in worldly life (1.6).

The Manas , then, is the "Holy Lake" of Hill's translation: a profound reservoir gleaming at the foot of towering white peaks.[51] This, the poet identifies as the fountainhead of Ram's mysterious carit, from which the discriminating listener, hamsa -like[*] , may extract clues to Ram's reality. Tulsi attibutes the origin of the narrative and its title to Shiva himself.

Shiva formed this and placed it in his heart.[52] Finding good occasion he narrated it to Parvati.
Upon contemplation, the excellent name,
Ramcaritmanas , he joyfully gave it.

He then begins his allegory, first situating the mystical lake in the "soil of good intelligence" in the depths of the heart, and the source of its water in the boundless ocean of scripture—the revealed Vedas and the Puranic "old stories" (1.36.3). The saints are likened to clouds? which draw this water from the depths and release it in showers of "Ram's fame"—the stories of his deeds, which enter the heart through the channels of the ears and so fill the Manas reservoir.

Having established the origin of his lake, the poet describes its surroundings:

[50] For relevant references, see Mani, Puranic Encyclopaedia, 474. The Valmiki text states that the river Sarayu, which flows through Ayodhya, arises from this lake (1.23.7,8 in the Critical Edition)—an idea that is developed in Tulsi's allegory. See Bhatt and Shah, eds., The ValmikiRamayana[*] .

[51] Hagiographic tradition maintains that Tulsi's wanderings included a visit to this remote and sacred goal of Hindu pilgrims. For a modern account of the pilgrimage, see Hamsa, The Holy Mountain.

[52] There is a play on words here, as the term I have rendered "heart" is actually manas .


The four lovely and excellent dialogues,
shaped by lucid contemplation,
are the four charming ghats
of this holy and auspicious lake.

The word "dialogues" (samvad ) refers to the other explicit set of frames, which will be discussed shortly: the narrating of the Manas as a series of interwoven conversations; these form the banks of this lake of Ram's glory. The poem's seven books are called "stairways" or "descents" (sopan ), leading down the ghats into the water, while its meters are the lotus leaves and flowers that cover the water's surface (1.37.1,4,5). Living creatures are added to the picture—the "bees of good deeds," which sip the nectar of the lotus verses; the "swans" of wisdom and detachment, and the "fish" of various poetic devices and moods, which dart about below the water's surface (1.37.7,8). Surrounding the lake is a forest of mango trees—"the assembly of devotees"—and the faith of these good people is the spring season, which ever reigns there (1.37.12). Thus the poet introduces into his landscape the potential audience of his poem.

Those who diligently sing these acts
are the skilled guardians of this lake.
Men and women, ever listening with reverence,
are the fortunate gods, masters of this Manas .

Similarly, lustful and vindictive people are said to be like crows and storks (the former impure, the latter scheming, according to the Hindu bestiary), but the lake holds no attraction for them, as it is free of the "snails, frogs, and scum" of sensual stories (1.38.3,4). Should they ever get a glimpse of it—which is all but impossible, since access is blocked by "straying paths of bad company" and "towering peaks of domestic cares" (1.38.7,8)—they will go away disappointed, without having drunk or bathed in its waters, and will afterward abuse it to others and discourage them from setting out to find it. Yet,

All these obstacles cannot obstruct one
on whom Ram has looked with grace.
Such a one bathes reverently in the lake
and the three terrible fires cannot scorch him.
Brother, let him who yearns to bathe in this lake
diligently cultivate the company of the holy!


The poet then describes how .the "gladdening current of love" arises from the lake to become the "river of lovely song," which he identifies with the Sarayu, the sacred stream of Ayodhya. Later it joins the "Ganga of devotion to Ram" and the mighty Son, signifying "the fame of Ram and his brother in battle," until the many merged streams flow into "the ocean of Ram's inherent being" (1.40.1-4). Succeeding stanzas further expand the allegory, likening the major episodes of the narrative to various features of the river and its banks, and to the appearance of the river in each of the six seasons of the North Indian year (1.42.1-6).

The imagery of the Manas Lake and its ghats is not confined to this introductory passage but is reaffirmed periodically throughout the poem. Each of the seven books, true to the allegory, is termed a "descent" into the lake (sopan ). Balkand[*] is the "first descent," Ayodhya is the second, and so on, each stage in the narrative drawing the listener deeper into the waters. In the final book, the image of the lake is reintroduced in the dialogue between Bhushundi and Garuda, which serves as an epilogue to the narrative.[53]

The appropriateness of Tulsidas's choice of the Manas Lake as an allegorical frame for his epic is best appreciated in light of the role that the text has come to play in North Indian society—as a great reservoir of myth, folk wisdom, and devotional expression on which people constantly draw. The image also suggests a source of meaning that can never be exhausted, a story that can be continually reinterpreted and expanded on; this concept, as will be seen, is a presupposition of all Manas performance, as is the notion that there can never be a single definitive interpretation of the text.

The second explicit framing device in the Manas —the presentation of the narrative through a series of four dialogues—exemplifies a traditional pattern in Indian literature: the presentation of a text as an oral narration by a particular teller to a particular listener, within a carefully delineated context. Although hardly unique to India, this device has been used there with very striking consistency, even outside the realm of "story" literature; indeed many premodern philosophical, aesthetic, and scientific treatises were framed as contextualized dialogues. Even though it is not possible here to explore all the ramifications of the use of this kind of framing in Indian literature, a few relevant points may be raised. First and most obviously, the technique suggests an intimate and unbroken connection between oral and written literature, and a contin-

[53] See, for example, 7.92, which speaks of the "fathomless reservoir of Ram's qualities," and 7.113.9, where the theme of the title and its significance is again taken up.


uing awareness of the former as a source and model for the latter. A second point involves the problematic but utilitarian notion of India as a "traditional" society—as contrasted to the equally problematic category "modern." A traditional society is generally held to be one in which norms of behavior established or thought to have been established in the legendary past are accepted as authoritative and frequently invoked in reference to present behavior, and in which "originality" that involves a radical departure from these norms is discouraged (although originality in the reassertion or even the reinterpretation of norms may be highly prized). In such a society, as Bauman has observed, an "appeal to tradition," often accompanied by a "disclaimer of originality" (at least as regards the content to be communicated) can serve as one of the most important "keys" to performance—a necessary cue to prepare listeners/readers to become an audience for a display of verbal art.[54]

A perhaps more useful designation for India is as a "context-sensitive" society, in which people perceive much of their behavior against a background of social, religious, and historicolegendary contexts.[55] Performances in such a society must be "keyed" by reference to traditional frames, because frames provide the contextual information necessary for the reception of a communication as a performance and thus become constitutive of the very nature of verbal art.

Like the society for which it was created, the Manas too is "context-sensitive," and one of its relevant contexts is the tradition of oral retelling of the Ram legend—a story that people invariably hear long before they ever (if ever) read it. Early in the first book, the poet tells how he came to hear it.

I too heard from my guru
that story, in Sukarkhet.
But I didn't comprehend it,
being but an ignorant child.
Teller and listener should be treasuries of wisdom;
Ram's tale is mysterious.
How could I, ignorant soul, understand,
a fool in the clutches of the Dark Age?
But then the guru told it again and again,
and I grasped a little, according to my wit.
That very tale I set in common speech,
that it may enlighten my heart.
1.30a,b; 1.31.1,2

[54] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 21.

[55] This concept was first brought to my attention by A. K. Ramanujan; personal communication, February 1979.


Tulsidas's "appeal to tradition" and "disclaimer of originality" goes beyond this bit of autobiographical detail, however, for his retelling of the legend of Ram is set within the context of no less than four narratives—the "four excellent dialogues" mentioned earlier. They are introduced in a passage immediately preceding the lines just cited (which themselves identify the fourth teller/listener pair: Tulsidas himself and his audience):

Shiva formed this beautiful story
and then graciously related it to Parvati.
The same he gave to Kak Bhushundi,
recognizing him as Ram's devotee, and worthy of it.
From him then Yajnavalkya obtained it
and he recited it to Bharadvaj.

The four frames thus implied may be diagramed as in Figure 2.[56]

Such narrative genealogies are common in Hindu literature, and a large number of medieval religious texts, especially those of the tantric tradition, ultimately trace their teachings to dialogues between Shiva and Parvati. Tulsi was thus appealing to a well-established tradition in his choice of Shiva as the primal narrator; he was also buttressing one of his prime theological positions—the fundamental compatibility of Vaishnavism and Shaivism—by depicting Shiva as a model devotee of Ram. But Tulsi's sequence of narrative frames is not merely a textual genealogy, cited at the start of the work and not referred to thereafter; all four narrators remain actively present throughout, and at any given moment one of them is always speaking, addressing his respective listener. Even in straightforward narrative passages, the poet interjects frequent asides from speaker to listener, including a vocative identifying the latter (such as "O Best of Birds!"—an epithet of Garuda—or "O Uma!"—another name for Parvati) and hence, by extension, the narrator as well. The transition from story to frame and back again is often abrupt and may strike the Western reader as a gratuitous interruption of the tale. Yet the device occurs with such frequency that one must assume it to be an important element in the poet's strategy; evidently Tulsi expected his audience to remain continuously aware of all four narrative

[56] The diagram postulates a "chronological" transmission, but in fact the exact sequence is a matter of debate. The ambiguity in my translation reflects that of the original: does "him" in the third verse refer to Shiva or to Bhushundi? Other passages confuse the issue further—at one point Shiva is described as hearing the story from Bhushundi (7.57), who in turn is said to have learned it from the sage Lomash (7.113.9,10); the unraveling of such enigmas is among the special tasks of traditional expounders. All commentators agree, however, that Shiva's narrative is the archetype, and Tulsi's its most removed descendant.



Figure 2.
Narrative framing in the Manas

frames. A good example is the passage in Sundar kand[*] (5.41.6-8) describing Ravan's abuse of his brother Vibhishan, who has advised him to return Sita to Ram:

(narrative: Ravan kicks Vibhishan)

Thus saying, he struck him with his feet.
Still the younger brother clasped them again and again.

(aside: Shiva to Parvati)

O Uma! Such is the greatness of saints, who always return good for ill.

(back to narrative: Vibhishan speaks)

Well may you, who are like a father to me, abuse me. Yet Lord, your salvation lies in worshiping Ram![57]

It seems appropriate that the frame diagram presented earlier should resemble a telescoping box-lens, or a pool set below a series of descending steps. These metaphorical images suggest the poet's strategy in periodically shifting his focus: now placing listeners in the midst of the story, now withdrawing them to a desired distance in order to call their

[57] See also 1.124a,b, in which a single doha/soratha[*] pair includes comments from Shiva, Yajnavalkya, and Tulsi.


attention to contextual material in light of which he desires them to. interpret it; of alternately immersing them in the depths of his lake and lifting them back to its peripheral ghats. Tulsi thus weaves a series of "commentaries" into the very fabric of his text.

Another frame is implied as well: just as Tulsi is relating the story and commenting on it to his listeners, so they in turn may become tellers of and commentators on his story through the performance genres that have developed around its recitation. It is worth noting here that the tradition of oral and written commentary on the Manas discussed in chapters 3 and 4 came to regard the four dialogues precisely as contexts or "approaches" (as a ghat is an approach to a body of water) according to which the Ram story might be interpreted. The diagram favored by most commentators disregards the chronological element of story transmission and assigns to each dialogue and ghat a cardinal direction, setting them equidistant from the lake/narrative, as shown in Figure 3.[58]

A brief account of the interrelationship between the epic's narrative frames will serve both to suggest how the poet uses them to emphasize various aspects of the story, and to acquaint the reader with some of the distinctive features of Tulsi's retelling. The opening of Book One places the listener at the outer rim of the first diagram; speaking in his own voice, Tulsidas invokes the blessings of all beings in the mighty labor he is about to undertake and presents his allegory of the mystical lake. Stanza 43 concludes this introduction and begins the account of the meeting between the sages Yajnavalkya and Bharadvaj in the latter's hermitage at Prayag. Bharadvaj presses Yajnavalkya to tell him the story of Ram, feigning confusion over the question of whether the legendary prince of Ayodhya could be the same transcendent Ram whose name "the immortal Shiva eternally repeats" (1.46.3). Here Tulsi introduces one of his major themes: the reconciliation of the nirgun[*] (quality-less) and sagun[*] (endowed with qualities) conceptions of divinity. Yajnavalkya relates how a similar confusion once arose in the mind of Shiva's wife, Parvati, in her former incarnation as Sati. This leads to a lengthy retelling of the Puranic story of Sati's suicide at King Daksha's sacrifice; her rebirth as Parvati, daughter of Himalaya; and eventual reunion and marriage with Shiva (1.47-1.103). Tulsi's exuberant retelling of this popular myth runs to nearly six hundred lines—about one-seventh of Balkand[*] .[59]

[58] The diagram is adapted from one given by Sharan in Manas piyus[*] . 1:583. I have heard similar diagrams "drawn" by oral expounders.

[59] Tulsi makes one of the motivating factors in Sati's suicide Shiva's renunciation of conjugal relations, due to her having once taken the form of Sita in order to test Ram's omniscience and having thus become in effect his own "mother" (1.54.1-1.64.8).



Figure 3.
The four ghats

With the conclusion of this tale, Yajnavalkya recounts a dialogue between the reunited Shiva and ' in which the god accedes to his wife's request that he relate the entire story of Ram. Shiva thus takes over as narrator from stanza 112 onward, bringing the listener to the innermost frame of the diagram. Yet he too does not begin the story at once but instead sets the stage for Ram's advent with a series of Puranicstyle tales involving curses and boons—the plot devices par excellence of traditional Indian fiction—that will precipitate the births of the principal characters.[60] It is only with the conclusion of the lengthy tale of King Pratapbhanu (some 240 lines) and at a point nearly midway through the first book that Shiva's actual narration of the Ram story begins—with the birth of the demon Ravan, his austerities and attainment of sovereignty over the world, and the gods' plea to Vishnu that he

[60] The stories of Jay and Vijay (1.122.4-123.2); Kashyap and Aditi (1.123.3,4); Jalandhar and Vrinda (1.123.5-124.3); Narad's intoxication (1.124.5-139); Svayambhu Manu and Shatrupa (1.142.1-152); and King Pratapbhanu (1.153.1-176).


take human form to destroy their enemy. Following the birth of Ram in stanza 191, the traditional narrative proceeds without major digression through the six succeeding books, concluding with Ram's triumphant return to Ayodhya and a glowing description of his idyllic reign.[61]

The central narrative concludes in stanza 51 of Uttar kand[*] , but the Manas continues for another eleven hundred lines. This lengthy epilogue focuses for the first time on the second narrative frame: the dialogue between the crow Kak Bhushundi and the divine eagle Garuda (Vishnu's symbolic vehicle), the special theme of which is the saving power of bhakti in the Dark Age. Like each of the earlier dialogues, it begins with a query. Garuda is confused by his master's apparent helplessness when in the human form of Ram. To enlighten him, Shiva sends him to meet one of the most unusual characters in the epic—an immortal being in lowly form (for the crow is said to be the "untouchable among birds"), who endlessly narrates the story of Ram to an audience of fowl on the summit of the mysterious Blue Mountain (nilparvat ) and reveals to Garuda the salvific power of Ram's name.[62]

The epic's concluding passages withdraw through the narrative frames to return listeners to the starting point. With the close of the Bhushundi-Garuda dialogue, Shiva delivers a final paean of praise to the story, ending with the famous dhanya (blessed, fortunate) passage, a ringing affirmation of the epic's values.

Blessed is the land where flows the Ganga,
blessed the woman faithful to her lord,
blessed the king who clings to proper conduct,
blessed the twice-born who strays not from his code,
blessed is wealth given in charity,
blessed intelligence grounded in virtue,
blessed the hour of companionship with the holy,
blessed a life of service to the twice-born.

O Uma, blessed and holy is that family,
revered in all the world,
in which is born a humble man
firmly devoted to Raghubir.
7.127.5-9, 7.127

[61] Tulsi chooses to omit the "tragic" episodes of Valmiki's Uttarakanda[*] —the second banishment of Sita, the exile of Lakshman, and Ram's ultimate death. These are well known m his audience, however, and an eighth kand[*] incorporating them is often appended to bazaar editions.

[62] Bhushundi (a.k.a. Bhushunda) was already known to the author of the c. twelfth-century Yoga vasistha[*] ; see Venkatesananda, The Concise Yoga Vasistha[*] , 276-87. Tulsi's introduction of this narrator, however, probably owes more to a postulated Sanskrit Bhusundi[*]ramayana[*] , a text of which has recently been published; see Singh, ed., Bhusundi[*]ramayana[*] ; for a grief discussion of this text, see Singh, "Bhusundi[*] Ramayana[*] and Its Influence on the Medieval Ramayana[*] Literature."


Parvati adds her own hymn of gratitude, whereupon—as in the beginning of the epic—Tulsi assumes his own voice to conclude.

By Ram's grace and according to my intelligence
I have sung this holy and beautiful story.
In this Dark Age there is no other expedient,
neither yoga nor sacrifice, formula, austerity nor ritual,
but to remember Ram, to sing "Ram,"
and to listen constantly to Ram's noble acts!

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]

[63] Grierson, "Tulasidasa, the Great Poet of Medieval India," 2.

[64] Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , lv.

[65] Grierson, "Notes on Tul'si Das," 89, 260.

[66] Smith, Akbar, The Great Mogul, 417.


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

[67] In addition to that of Growse (Allahabad, 1887), those of Chimanlal Goswami (Gorakhpur, U.P.: Gita Press, 1949-51), W. D. P. Hill (London, 1952), A. G. Atkins (Delhi, 1954), and S. P. Bahadur (Varanasi, 1978).

[68] These include the studies by Vaudeville, Whaling, and Macfie cited in nn. 13, 14, and 3; Carpenter, The Theology of Tulasi Das; and Babineau, Love of God and Social Duty in the Ramcaritmanas .

[69] Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature 1:477.

[70] Prominent examples are Singer, ed., Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes; Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon; Hein, The Miracle Plays of Mathura ; and Hawley, At Play with Krishna.

[71] Macfie, The Ramayan of Tulsidas, 252.


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

[72] Whaling, The Rise of the Religious Significance of Rama , 292. Note that the author of a recent rhyming-verse translation, A. G. Atkins, served in India as a Protestant minister. The Austrian Jesuit Camille Bulcke was also among Tulsi's admirers and noted the utility of quoting from the Manas in his sermons; "Ramacaritamanasa and Its Relevance to Modern Age," 61.

[73] See, for example, Growse's effort quoted above. Atkins's translation is similarly unfaithful and stilted.

[74] 6.49.13; Hill renders this "The formidable monkey warriors closed; they were cut to pieces but gave no ground though their bodies were riddled with wounds"; The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama , 389.

[75] The first phrase is from Hill, The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama , xx; the second appears in Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , lvii.


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.

On Poetry and Performance

In everyday usage the most common associations evoked by the word "performance" are the ones relating to conventional Western entertainment forms such as the theater and concert hall, the cinema and electronic media. In recent years, however, scholars in a number of disciplines—notably anthropology, folklore, and sociolinguistics—have begun to apply the term to a wider range of human activities. Although ethnographers have long been interested in such "cultural performances" as folk dances and dramas and the recitation of folktales by professional bards, recent studies have found the notion of performance equally useful in examining such activities as the telling of parables and jokes in everyday situations, the formulation and delivery of religious sermons, and even the construction of "street speech"—such as the humorous boasts and insults exchanged by urban American black youths.[76]

The direction of such studies has been toward viewing performance as "a mode of language use, a way of speaking"; this in turn has led to efforts to develop a comprehensive theory of performance as "a species of situated human communication."[77] Both the above phrases are taken from an essay by Richard Bauman that makes an important contribution to the development of such a theory. Bauman first points to the increasingly encompassing use of the term "performance," to convey a dual sense of artistic action —the doing of folklore—and artistic event —the performance situation, involving performer, art form, audience, and setting.[78] He emphasizes the need to identify the features that distinguish performance from other "interpretive frames" for communication, and then offers a "very preliminary attempt" to specify the interpretive guidelines set up by the "performance frame":

Fundamentally, performance as a mode of spoken verbal communication consists in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of

[76] See, for examples, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "A Parable in Context"; Rosenberg, The Art of the American Folk Preacher (for further discussion of Rosenberg's work, see below Chapter 4, The Nature of Katha ); Labov, Language in the Inner City.

[77] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 11.

[78] Ibid., 4.


communicative competence. This competence rests on the knowledge and ability to speak in socially appropriate ways. . . . From the point of view of the audience, the act of expression on the part of the performer is thus marked as subject to evaluation for the way it is done, for the relative skill and effectiveness of the performer's display of competence. Additionally, it is marked as available for the enhancement of experience, through the present enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of the act of expression itself. Performance thus calls forth special attention to and heightened awareness of the act of expression and gives license to the audience to regard the act of expression and the performer with special intensity.[79]

Bauman's analysis suggests two criteria for identifying an act of expression as a performance. The first relates to the performer's "assumption of responsibility" and so might be termed a "formal" criterion; it accords well with one of the dictionary definitions of performance as "execution in a set or formal manner or with technical or artistic skill."[80] The second criterion relates to the potential effect of a performance on participants—its ability to enhance or intensify experience—and so might be termed "affective." Performance events, then, are demarcated by both formal and affective boundaries from ordinary events and communications.[81] They "break through" into the mundane context, signaling their presence by formal cues but justifying their existence by their ability to transform and enhance life, often by reference to impersonal values and experiences.[82]

One of the underlying concerns of Bauman's essay is to free scholars of verbal art from a text-centered orientation. He urges that "it is no longer necessary to begin with artful texts, identified on independent formal grounds and then reinjected into situations of use, in order to conceptualize verbal art in communicative terms. Rather, in terms of the approach being developed here, performance becomes constitutive of the domain of verbal art as spoken communication."[83] This insight reflects a sea change in folklore studies from the period of the nineteenth-century folktale collectors who regarded oral performances as just another category of texts and the performers (if they noted them at all) as mere channels—often annoyingly imperfect ones—through which such

[79] Ibid., 11.

[80] Webster's New International Dictionary, unabridged, 2d ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam Webster, 1960), p. 1818.

[81] Bauman is careful to point out, however, the difficulties inherent in any attempt to define "ordinary" speech (Verbal Art as Performance, 10). It may be more useful to speak of a continuum of communicative frames, some of which have a higher "performance density" than others.

[82] Cf. Hymes, "Breakthrough into Performance."

[83] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 11.


texts were transmitted.[84] The realization of the unique, emergent qualities of oral performances came as something of a revelation and perhaps inevitably led to a reaction against the text-centered approach. Albert Lord's study of Yugoslav bardic poets, The Singer of Tales (1960)—a work of such originality and vigor that it still tends to be invoked, Ganesh-like, at the beginning of any major study of oral performance—conveyed an infectious enthusiasm for bardic recitation and gave recognition to the previously unknown art of "oral-formulaic composition." It also gave rise to an "oral-formulaic school" of literary critics who, in a sort of retroactive revenge on textualists, set out to dissect various literary classics in order to demonstrate that they were, in effect, imperfect records of "lost" oral performances.[85] Ironically, although The Singer of Tales grew out of Millman Parry and Albert Lord's research on the Homeric epics, its author came to take a negative view of the relationship between oral and written literature, suggesting that the latter was parasitic on the former and that its dissemination would inevitably result in the decline and disappearance of oral traditions.[86]

Perhaps influenced by this view, much recent folklore research has focused on nonliterate cultures with vigorous oral traditions—often small communities located in remote areas of the globe. Such studies appear to transport us to a "pure" realm of oral communication, untainted by the written word. Bauman writes confidently of the possibility of creating an "ethnography of verbal art" for such cultures as the Plateau Malagasy of Africa, the Ilongot of the Philippines, or the Quechua speakers of Bolivia—a project that would involve the cataloging of all the "major speech styles" in the community.[87]

Scholars interested in the verbal art of North India, however, face a more complex situation: a society possessing a literary heritage dating back three millennia, but much of which has always been orally transmitted and performed; a mixed literate and illiterate culture that supports an extraordinarily broad range of performance genres and an intricate text/performance relationship that should rarely be excluded from any comprehensive study of either text or performance. Thus, for example, it has recently been observed with regard to certain oral tradi-

[84] Thus, for example, the British scholars who recorded the Alha cycle in North India patronizingly regarded their bards as the imperfect preservers of what they mistakenly assumed to be a "lost" twelfth-century epic; see Grierson's introduction to Waterfield, The Lay of Alha .

[85] For an appraisal of the school's contribution, see Finnegan, Oral Poetry, esp. 69-73.

[86] Lord, The Singer of Tales, 137.

[87] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 12, 13, 20.


tions that the modern proliferation of printed texts has not put an end to performances (as Lord's prognosis would suggest) but has in some cases encouraged them or has led to the development of new performance styles.[88] On the other hand, scholars of classical Indian literature are finding increasingly that they must come to terms with reflections of "performance" in their texts.[89] For the study of performance in the Indian setting, then, it may sometimes be necessary "to begin with artful texts," because many oral performances in this culture do precisely that. As we shall see, a religious epic like the Manas has for its audience an inherently "emergent" quality: it is a means rather than an end, a blueprint rather than an artifact.

The strength of Bauman's contribution lies in its emphasis on a broad and inclusive vision of performance as "a unifying thread tying together the marked, segregated esthetic genres and other spheres of verbal behavior."[90] This vision of performance as a mode of communication with both formal and affective dimensions serves here to relate such seemingly disparate activities as the solitary chanting of the Manas by an individual in his own home and the presentation of a drama based on the text by a large ensemble of costumed actors before an audience of fifty thousand people.

The identification of performance as a distinctive communicative frame sets it in contrast to other such frames, and despite the difficulty in defining what is "normal" or "ordinary" speech in a given society, most speakers would identify some such category as their "standard" form of communication.[91] In the realm of literature there is an equivalent dichotomy between prose and poetry; the former, albeit bound by its own formal conventions, represents the written equivalent of "ordinary speech" and hence is the medium of choice for the description of the "prosaic" world of everyday life. Yet what separates poetry from prose is not merely the formal conventions (such as meter and rhyme) by which a poet "assumes responsibility for a display of communicative competence" but also poetry's potential to provide "enhancement of experience" and "heightened awareness."

The intimate relationship between poetry and oral performance is

[88] See, for example, Karine Schomer's work on the Alha tradition; "The Audience as Patron." A close parallel with the Indic situation is the oral-textual interaction in Malay, richly explored in Sweeney's A Full Hearing.

[89] E.g., the growing interest among Sanskritists in the oral-performance context of the Puranas; see Rocher, The Puranas[*] , esp. 53-59; also Bonazzoli, "Composition, Transmission, and Recitation of the Puranas[*] ."

[90] Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 5.

[91] E.g., the "everyday talk" of the Malagasy; the "stylistically unmarked 'straight speech'" of the Ilongot; Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance, 12-13.


underscored by the fact that the spread of literacy and print technology does not necessarily increase the appreciation of poetry. In the modern West, near-universal literacy has been accompanied by the gradual eclipse of poetry by other written entertainment forms to the point that literature instructors have become accustomed to hearing students complain that they "like to read but hate poetry." Of course, students in literature classes continue to dutifully read the writings of poets; some may even have the chance to hear these writings recited by an inspired teacher—which is much better. But few today have the kind of repeated exposure to poetry that causes it to be, as our idiom so appropriately puts it, "learned by heart"—internalized to the degree that it can become self-performing within us. This is an essential part of the experience of poetry, and without this experiential/performative dimension it is hardly surprising that the popularity of the art has suffered.

Poetry has suffered too in its association with the act of "reading," which has become largely a private and silent experience.[92] But although it is relatively easy to "read" a prose narrative or nonfiction work, it is (as has often been observed) more difficult to "read" a poem. Subjected to the kind of silent scanning normally given to prose literature, poetry tends to remain opaque and unrewarding, to seem either too obvious or too obscure. Of course, poetry of a sort retains mass popularity through one specific genre: the popular song. Here technology on a mass scale—but in an oral rather than a print medium—has tremendously enhanced the popularity of poetry, whatever one may think of its quality or predominant themes.

The Ramcaritmanas was the product of a culture that lacked a strong prose tradition, widespread literacy, and the technology for mass dissemination of texts. All of these factors have, in the modern West, given rise to a style of appreciation of literature known as "reading," which despite its undoubted merits, does not appear to be well suited to the appreciation of poetry. That the Manas was not meant to be "read" in this sense—that it was always intended to be performed—is repeatedly emphasized in the text itself. Although a verb meaning "to read" (bancna ) occasionally occurs at appropriate moments when written communications are "read,"[93] this verb is used nowhere in reference to the "reading" of religious truths or of the Manas itself. Instead, the

[92] For an excellent summary of recent research on the technological and cultural transformations associated with this development and their impact on the experience of sacred texts, see Graham, Beyond the Written Word.

[93] E.g., King Dashrath reads (to himself) the letter from King Janak telling of Ram and Sita's marriage (1.290.4); Ravan receives a letter from Lakshman and "has it read" to him (bancvana , a causative form of bancna ) by one of his ministers (5.56.10).


verbs commonly used are "to recite" (kathna ), "to tell" (kahna ), "to sing or chant" (gana ), and "to listen" (sunna ). These verbs occur especially in the concluding verses of each book, which are known as "hearing the fruits" (phalsruti ) because they describe the benefits that the text offers to devotees. Sundar kand[*] concludes:

Singing the virtues of Raghunayak yields all blessings.
Reverently listening, one crosses the ocean of existence without a boat.

The closing chand of Kiskindha[*]kand[*] declares:

Whoever hears, sings, recites, or meditates on this story,
attains the highest state.

Such verses are found in many Hindu texts. They are not simply a convention, but a reflection of an ancient belief in the efficacy of hearing, reciting, and memorizing the sacred word—a belief reflected in the traditional categories of literature, which are conceptualized not as read but rather as "heard" (sruti ) and "remembered" (smrti[*] ).[94] The Manas grows out of a religious milieu in which oral performance is both the basic medium for the transmission of religious truths and a ritual act and discipline possessing inherent virtue and power.

If the Manas was not intended to be read, we may add that it is not "read" in the modern sense—except perhaps by Westerners who labor through it out of cultural or historical curiosity or by a somewhat larger number of Indian students who dutifully digest excerpts from it in college literature courses, much as their Western counterparts "read" Milton and Shelley.[95] Such readers make up one audience for the text, but they are hardly its prime constituency. The latter is composed of the many millions of Hindi-speaking Hindus for whom the Manas is both

[94] Tulsidas also advocates the memorization of his epic. The phalsruti of the final book (7.130.15) urges one to memorize (literally, "place in the heart") a specific number of verses; the numerical terms (sat panccaupai ) can be interpreted in several ways. Hill translates "five or six' (The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama , 498) but most traditional commentators favor "105" or even "500." Some have attempted to identify which verses the poet had in mind, and published anthologies exist for the convenience of devotees who wish to memorize the "essence" of the epic.

[95] I was fortunate in that the teacher with whom I first read the Manas , Kali C, Bahl, encouraged me from the beginning to chant it aloud and taught me melodies to which each of its meters could be sung. I found my comprehension and appreciation of the text greatly enhanced by this practice. I also began memorizing verses that pleased me especially; this too proved helpful, as each newly acquired line became an internalized paradigm that helped me to understand other passages. I am convinced that both recitation and memorization (however unpopular the latter may be with Western students and educators) are vital to the appreciation of poetry.


an epic song to be savored aesthetically and a liturgy that plays an important role in everyday life—with the added observation that these two forms of "appreciation" generally cannot be separated.

It has often been noted that the popularity of the Tulsidas epic crosses the boundary between educated and illiterate. In discussing the appeal of folk dramas based on the epic, Kapila Vatsyayan observed, "There is no question of making demarcation between the literate and the illiterate in this sphere, for many times a seeming illiterate will know the story and the words better and with a greater understanding of its value than one who reads it only as an intellectual exercise."[96] If people who cannot read know not only the story but also "the words" of a text, then the question arises as to how they have learned them—obviously by hearing them performed. But when, how, and by whom is the text performed? A researcher interested in these questions will find only a few intriguing clues in scholarly sources. Thus Allchin, in the introduction to his translation of Vinay patrika , cites the popularity of the Manas and mentions "generally accepted schemes of division so that the whole work may be completed in either nine or thirty parts. Such public recitations are one of the strongest parts of Vaishnavite religious education. They are also supported by a vast body of private readers or reciters who regularly read the story of Ram in their own homes, often completing a whole reading each month."[97] Vatsyayan mentions another kind of performance—that of a professional reciter and singer "who recites the theme either as pure recitation or as the sung word. This Kathakara is known to all parts of India. Sometimes he is called just a Kathakara , sometimes a Rama-Kathakara or a Hari-Kathakara . He is a professional singer, an artist who is a reciter, singer, musician, mono-actor and instrumentalist, all at once."[98]

Allchin's and Vatsyayan's observations suggest two performance genres that utilize the epic, neither of which has been systematically studied. A third genre that has received some attention is that of Ramlila dramas, although in this case most of the research has focused on theatrical and staging conventions rather than on the role of the epic text in the performances. These three genres—simple recitation, recitation plus exposition, and full dramatic enactment—may be ordered in a sequence proceeding from simpler to more complex, and so the structure of this study may be visualized as shown in Figure 4.

The recitation of the Manas (Manas-path[*] ) can be carried on by a

[96] Vatsyayan, Traditional Indian Theatre, 111.

[97] Allchin, The Petition to Ram , 65.

[98] Vatsyayan, Traditional Indian Theatre, 111.



Figure 4.
Schema of Manas performance

single person and there need be no listeners; this is clearly the simplest way to perform the text and is represented by the inner frame of the diagram. Even though one might suppose that in this case there is a performer but no audience, it would be more correct to say that performer and audience are the same; for both the criteria of performance noted earlier are present here, although reflected in a solitary activity. This kind of performance is discussed in Chapter 2. Recitation's more complex variant, in which there is an outside audience and the reciters assume a professional status, is examined in the same chapter, along with a special style of group singing of the epic (Ramayan[*]gana or dhun ) that is popular in the Banaras region.

The exposition of the text (Katha or pravacan ) necessarily involves both performer and audience. The latter may be of any size, and today the use of electronic media has brought this art to huge audiences. The performers in this tradition are largely professionals; the patronage relationship thus implied contributes to the further complexity of the genre, which is treated in chapters 3 and 4.


The third and, technically speaking, most complex genre is the one in which the text serves as the basis for a full-scale enactment of the Ram legend (Ramlila ), requiring the cooperative efforts of large numbers of people—reciters, prompters, actors, costumers, prop makers, and musicians—and aiming to present the text and its story to the widest audience. This genre is discussed in Chapter 5.

Just as my diagram of the epic's narrative "genealogy" had an implied outer frame—the performance and interpretation of the text by Tulsi's own hearers—so the present diagram has an encompassing matrix: the social and cultural context within which these performances unfold, which influences them and is influenced by them in diverse ways. This context and these influences are considered in the concluding chapter.

Banas: City of Tulsidas

The genres of Manas performance outlined above may be found throughout a large geographical area, including not only the Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan—a composite region with a total population of roughly three hundred million persons—but also adjacent states where Hindi is not the predominant language. Thus, the Manas has long been popular among Hindus in the Punjab and among certain Vaishnava communities in Gujarat, as well as among transplanted Hindi-speaking groups in other regions. Some influence of the epic is said to extend eastward into Orissa and southwestward into the Kannada-speaking state of Karnataka.[99] A more detailed survey of the geographical extent of Manas performances would be interesting, but it is beyond the scope of the present study.

Although the kinds of performances I have studied occur regularly throughout the above-mentioned region (and I have included some data from a variety of locations—e.g., Delhi, Ayodhya, and Chitrakut), I have chosen to focus my research on a single locale in order to acquire

[99] Kali C. Bahl described to me his childhood exposure to the Manas in Amritsar and has documented Katha programs there. It is also noteworthy that a major nineteenth-century commentary on the epic was composed in mixed Punjabi-Hindi dialect by Sant Singh, a Sikh (see Chapter 3, The Manas-Katha Tradition). The popularity of the Manas in Gujarat is attested to by Gandhi's early exposure to the text in Kathiawar (see Chapter 6, The Politics of Ramraj ), and a number of prominent contemporary expounders are Gujaratis. In recent times, Calcutta and Bombay have developed into major centers of Manas performance, because of the presence of wealthy Hindi-speaking patrons (see Chapter 6, People of the Book). On the popularity of the epic further to the east and south, see Induja Awasthi, "Ramcaritmanas and the Performing Tradition of Ramayana," 507-8.



Figure 5.
Banaras: bathers at one of the city's many ghats

a greater familiarity with the range of the performances that occur there and to develop closer relationships with the people who create and patronize them. This locale is the city of Banaras, located on the western bank of the River Ganga (Ganges) in eastern Uttar Pradesh—a city that occupies a special position in the Hindu world and in the Manas tradition.

The city is commonly known by three names—Banaras, Kashi, and Varanasi—each used in a different context. "Varanasi," the least commonly used name, appears in formal writing and on government maps and signboards. "Banaras" is favored in everyday usage to refer to the city as an economic and cultural unit.[100] "Kashi" is used in religious contexts to refer to the city as a holy place (tirth ), the boundaries of which are strictly defined and do not correspond to the urban limits of modern Banaras. The distinction is important; when I asked one religious scholar whether he lived in Banaras, he replied pointedly, "No, I live in Kashi," adding, "Banaras is only a city, but Kashi is a sacred abode [dham ]."

The praises of Kashi/Banaras have been sung by countless poets, mystics, and theologians and more recently by a number of anthropologists and historians of religion interested in the rites and institutions of popu-

[100] Diana Eck points out that this name is not, as is often claimed, a recent Anglicization of Varanasi, but a vernacularization with a long history; Banaras, City of Light , 26.


lar Hinduism.[101] Diana Eck's notable study presents a vivid and sensitive account of the city as a sacred complex and attempts to convey to Western readers the experiences and associations it evokes for Hindu pilgrims. Drawing heavily on Sanskrit mahatmya literature glorifying the city, this study understandably presents a somewhat idealized view of its subject, and although it also offers much information on the contemporary religious life of Banaras, this is slanted toward the Shaiva sites and institutions for which the city is famous. Yet Banaras today epitomizes the multiform synthesis of Vaishnava and Shaiva outlooks that, partly as a legacy of Tulsidas himself, is characteristic of popular Hinduism in North India.[102] Since my own study will be concerned with performances that unfold within the context of everyday life in Banaras, it seems appropriate to present here some additional data on the city's contemporary ambience and ethos and on its special relationship to the Manas and the Ram devotional tradition.

During the two decades prior to the period of my field research (1982-84), Banaras grew from a city of some five hundred thousand people to an urban complex of more than one million. Little substantial modification was made to the physical layout of the older sections of the city to accommodate this increased population, and although new suburbs sprang up on three sides, their growth was largely unplanned and placed a further strain on the city's already-overburdened road network, as well as on its water, electricity, and waste disposal systems. A particularly serious crisis developed because of the discharge of enormous quantities of sewage into the Ganga—which is the source of the city's water supply, its principal bathing place, and the embodiment of its special sanctity. In earlier times, lower population and traditional methods of waste disposal (involving the daily transport of nightsoil to outlying fields) had kept river pollution at lower levels; the advent of flush toilets and sewage mains precipitated an ecological crisis, reflected in a high incidence of gastrointestinal problems and a high infant mortality rate in the region. In the early 1980s, a grass-roots campaign was organized, headed by a traditional religious leader, to educate the city's residents about the gravity of the pollution problem and to urge the local government to take remedial measures. Despite official indifference and

[101] E.g., Sukul, Varanasi down the Ages ; Vidyarthi et al., The Sacred Complex of Kashi ; Eck, Banaras, City of Light .

[102] Although Eck presents data on a number of Vaishnava sites (e.g., the Bindu Madhav Temple) and festivals, she sometimes accords them rather peremptory treatment. Thus her account of Dashahra, which climaxes the Ramlila cycle, labels the event a "Kshatriya festival" and conveys the impression that the lila is restricted to the royal production at Ramnagar; Banaras, City of Light , 269.


continued popular belief in the inviolability of Ganga water, the campaign had a modest impact and attracted world attention to the city's plight.[103]

Banaras is certainly not unique in its pollution problems, although its inhabitants' intimate relationship with the river that is their city's most powerful symbol makes the problem particularly visible. The overcrowding of the central city in recent years and the resultant traffic problems (it is sometimes literally impossible to move, even on foot, in the downtown area at peak traffic periods), as well as increasing levels of air and noise pollution, are all common to much of urban India—indeed to urban centers throughout the world. The fact that, despite such problems, Banaras retains its magnetic appeal for Hindu India and continues to evoke the fervent pride of its own citizens invites us to consider just what it is that is so special about this city.

Most residents would probably sum it up with the word Banarsipan —"Banarsiness"—an allusion to the city's characteristic ethos, which is thought to combine spirituality and worldly pleasure, sanctity and satisfaction.[104]Banarsipan is held to manifest itself in a carefree life-style characterized by such qualities as "passion," "intoxication," and "joy" (mauj, masti , and anand ) and in the cultivation of "passionate engagement" (sauk ), especially in religious or cultural activities. Educated Hindu Banarsis often allude to the city's unique "culture" or "civilization" (samskrti[*] )—a term that, to Western readers, may suggest universities, museums, libraries, and concert halls. All these institutions exist in Banaras—most in varying degrees of dilapidation—but the culture-specific sense of "culture" here may be better understood in terms of smaller and less centralized units: neighborhood temples that stage oratorical and singing programs; merchants' associations that sponsor neighborhood fairs; ethnic social clubs that mount elaborate puja rites, accompanied by processions and musical performances; families that sponsor annual poetic competitions or music recitals in honor of a revered ancestor's death-anniversary; aged pandits who live in tiny rooms off dingy alleys but carry whole libraries of Sanskrit and Hindi texts in their heads; household-oriented schools of music and dance under the

[103] The Svaccha Ganga Abhiyan (Clean Ganga Campaign) was led by Dr. Virbhadra Mishra, who was both the mahant (hereditary head) of the popular Sankat Mochan Temple and a professor of hydraulic engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University. Partly as a result of this campaign, in 1986 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi cited the cleanup of the Ganga as one of his government's priorities.

[104] The concept of Banarsipan was first brought to my attention by Nita Kumar, whose excellent study of urban recreational activities includes much insight into its implications; The Artisans of Banaras, 8.


tutelage of renowned gurus; groups of migrant laborers from the hinterland who gather on street corners to sing their village folksongs for hours. The city's annual festival cycle is complex;[105] its cultural performance cycle is beyond cataloging. On one particularly busy weekend in October 1983, for example, there were some forty Ramlila pageants running concurrently in various neighborhoods, along with thirty (Muslim) Muharram processions and more than a hundred elaborate Durga Puja tableaux mounted by Bengali cultural associations[106] —not to mention the usual assortment of nautanki[*] folk plays, all-night concerts, annual temple srngar[*] festivals, wrestling competitions, and semi-public functions such as marriage celebrations with their bands, processions, and fireworks.

For a visiting student of cultural performance no less than for a resident Banarsi, such events help to compensate for the inconveniences of everyday life in the City of Light—for the fact that shops, schools, and offices rarely open on time, function indifferently, and occasionally close without warning; for the fact that water and electricity supplies sometimes fail and telephones are dead more often than they are alive. But if cultural programs are what help to make Banarsi life worthwhile, they may also contribute to making it difficult. If the bureaucrat one needs to see is not at work yet at 11:00 A.M. (or is present but nonfunctioning), it is possibly because he was up all night at a Ramlila , srngar[*] , or nautanki[*] program. Where else in the world could thousands of people routinely take a month's leave from work each year to attend the all-engrossing lila cycle at Ramnagar? It happens in Banaras.

The words Banarsipan and samskrti[*] suggest music and ceremony, dance and decoration. They also evoke a range of atmospheric associations: temples, Brahmans, and even cows are part of "culture" here, and so are cacophonous gongs, bells, and conch-trumpets at 4:00 A.M. , awakening the deities to the accompaniment of loud cries of "Har Har Mahadev!" (two names of Shiva, uttered in his praise). Banarsi culture is also, quite literally (borrowing Richard Bauman's phrase) "a way of speaking," for apart from the many kinds of performances that occur in the city, Banarsi speech itself has a high "performance density," manifested in the speaker's ability to shift artfully between vocabularies and dialects appropriate to various contexts—for example, from a highly Sanskritized suddh ("pure" or "refined") Khari Boli Hindi used for for-

[105] For a partial festival calendar, see Eck, Banaras, City of Light , 257-78.

[106] This information is courtesy of Linda Hess, who interviewed the harried Superintendent of Police; personal communication, October 1984.


mal speech, to the Bhojpuri dialect associated with the city's rustic hinterland, or the Urduized Hindustani preferred by the city's Muslims—and also to ornament his speech with folk maxims and quotations from poetry and popular songs.

The Banarsi ethos manifests itself too in a certain plucky cynicism, an urbanity that is at once worldly-wise and otherworldly, and a simultaneous local self-deprecation and intense pride. One frequently hears complaints of "our wretched eastern U.P.," where everyone is poor, the authorities are corrupt, and nothing functions as it should. Then one is reminded, "Look here, brother, this is Kashi!"—the Center of the World, or rather, not in the world at all, since it is balanced atop the trident of Lord Shiva, and all who live and die here, whether religious or not, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, even (as someone told me) "flies and mosquitoes," are guaranteed liberation from further rebirth by the grace of Shiva and the power of the name of Ram. This embarrassment of spiritual riches becomes itself a source of verbal humor, as when cycle-rickshaw drivers teasingly hail one another: "He guru-ji! He mahatma-ji!"—"O Master! Great-souled One!"

It is well known that Banaras is the City of Shiva, who is adored here in many forms and under many names: as Rudra and Bhairav, awesome lords of ghosts and spirits; as the transcendent and resplendent Mahadev of the Puranas, husband of Parvati and father of Ganesh, with his trident, serpent necklace, and long matted locks from which the River Ganga pours forth—a slayer of world-threatening demons and a dancer who beats out the rhythm of the aeons on his double-headed drum. He is also the Bhola Nath of folklore—the "mad" or "simple" god—intoxicated both with divine wisdom and with bhang (a cannabis preparation much consumed in Banaras), a wandering ascetic who is also a storehouse of erotic energy and fertility. For Banarsis he is especially Vishvanath—the Lord of the World—who is all these things and also a smooth, dark stone, roughly the size and shape of an ostrich egg, set upright in a gold-plated recess in the inner sanctum of the city's most famous temple, which lies at the heart of a maze of narrow, congested lanes near the riverfront. In everyday speech this deity is affectionately known as "Baba Vishvanath"—Papa Vishvanath—the city's benign and paternalistic ruler as well as its supreme preceptor, who imparts the liberation-granting mahamantra to all who leave their bodies within his special jurisdiction. This "great mystic utterance" is widely held to be the name Ram, which is inscribed on countless walls and doorways in the city. Shiva Vishvanath is thus a special patron of the Ram bhakti tradition as well as the original narrator of its great epic.


It is said that Tulsidas came to Banaras for his religious education and studied for fifteen years under the guidance of the Vedantic scholar Shesh Sanatan at Panchganga Ghat. The story is not improbable, since Tulsi was clearly familiar with a good deal of Sanskrit religious literature and Banaras was then, as it is today, a leading educational center. He is thought to have returned to the city sometime in the fifth decade of his life and to have remained in it, apart from periods of travel, until his death in 1623. Today, numerous sites in the city are associated with him. There is a house at Prahlad Ghat, near the northern limits of the sacred area, where an image of the poet has been placed and where, neighborhood people say, "Goswami-ji lived when he was writing the Ramayan." A plaque on an old building near Gopal Mandir, a Vaishnava temple in the Chowkhambha area of the central city, identifies the room in which Tulsi is supposed to have composed his Vinay patrika . Some two kilometers to the south, almost on the Assi creek forming the southern boundary of the holy city, stands a riverfront house in which the poet is believed to have spent his last years. Tradition holds that it was built by Todar Mal, a local landowner who was Tulsi's intimate friend and admirer. The tiny room that the poet is supposed to have occupied has been made into a shrine, and objects of veneration include a pair of wooden sandals and an image of Hanuman—one of roughly a dozen believed to have been established by the poet within the city.

More must be said concerning Tulsi's—and the city's—association with this deity, the "monkey god" whose vermillion-daubed images are among the most ubiquitous of Banarsi icons. A divinity who surely rose out of the "little" or folk tradition, Hanuman is a dispenser of power and potency. As a martial hero and Ram's victorious general, he is the patron deity of wrestlers (pahalvan )—young men who practice body-building and martial arts in gymnasiums or clubhouses (akhara[*] ) situated along the ghats, most of which incorporate his shrines.[107] But Mahavir, the "great champion," is also the patron of grammarians and students, fervently invoked before annual school exams and in the face of problems in general; the deity to repair to on "dangerous" days like Tuesday and Saturday, associated with malefic planetary influences. In this capacity he is primarily an intercessor figure, a middleman. The Hanumancalisa hymns:

You are the guardian of Ram's door,
there is no access without your leave!

[107] On the akhara[*] culture of North India, see Alter, "Pehlwani. " Hanuman is discussed on pages 399-438.


In the influence-conscious society of eastern Uttar Pradesh, such connections can make all the difference. I have heard oral expounders exclaim jokingly that there are more temples to Hanuman in Kashi than to Ram himself; this may well be true, and on a little reflection, it seems only appropriate. For as every U.P. politician knows, the key to getting the Great Man's ear is knowing the right person in his entourage. If Tulsi's Ram, in his endless perfection, seems distant and unattainable at times, his monkey servant is earthy and accessible. The fact that Hanuman is divine and can, like all divinities, be invoked in the most exalted terms (as "the ocean of wisdom and virtue" and "illuminator of the three worlds")[108] never entirely obscures the fact that he is also a monkey, or rather a god in monkey form. Accounts of Hanuman's deeds often feature comic episodes arising out of his simian simplicity, crude strength, and occasional destructiveness. To laugh at these things is, for Hindus, in no way incongruent with reverence, and retellings of Hanuman's heroic mission to Lanka to find Sita—celebrated in Tulsi's Sundar kand[*] —can alternately evoke laughter and tears.

A further point needs to be made concerning Hanuman. I have noted that a major theme of Tulsi's epic is the compatibility of the worship of Ram/Vishnu with that of Shiva. In this sphere too, Hanuman plays the role of intermediary and "bridges" the two traditions, even as, in the narrative, he leaps the sea separating the mainland from Lanka (where Ravan and his cohorts, like most Puranic demons, are devout Shaivas). It is said in the Manas that at the time when Ram was born in the house of Dashrath, "all the gods" took the form of monkeys and went into the forests to wait for him, to assist him in the war against Ravan (1.188.2-5). A popular tradition, widely current in the Banaras region, holds that Shiva became Hanuman and thus that the Son of the Wind (an epithet of Hanuman, whose father is usually said to have been Vayu, the wind god) is none other than a special avatar of the Great Lord himself. This idea, which was already current in Tulsi's day,[109] remains a favorite theme of Manas expounders, who support it with their interpretations of certain verses.[110] Such readings offer additional evidence of the syn-cretizing influence of the epic: Shiva, the primal knower of Ram's mysterious carit , does not merely enter the story as its original narrator but also becomes one of its best-loved characters.

[108] Hanumancalisa , 1.

[109] See Vinay patrika , 25.3 and 26.1.

[110] E.g., when Ram praises Hanuman on the latter's return from Lanka, the poet suddenly interjects, "Recalling that state, Parvati's lord was overcome with bliss" (5.33.2,3). The choice of participle is often cited to support the view that Shiva was "recalling" his own former experience.


Further evidence of the commingling of the cults of Ram, Hanuman, and Shiva in the Banaras religious complex is provided in succeeding chapters, but one shrine needs special mention here. The Sankat Mochan (Liberator from Distress) Hanuman Temple is located in the southern section of the city and outside the traditional limits of the sacred area. Although far less ancient than the Vishvanath Temple, it can be said today to complement it in popularity, drawing worshipers from throughout the city and its environs. Most of the structures in the Sankat Mochan complex have been built within the past few decades (and the site appears to owe its popularity in part to the southward expansion of the city following the construction of Banaras Hindu University), but the main shrine encloses a stone image of Hanuman—now barely discernable as such beneath heavy layers of vermilion—believed to date to Tulsidas's time and linked to an important episode in the poet's legend.

Like Elijah and Khwaja Khizr in the Jewish and Sufi mystical traditions, Hanuman possesses physical immortality, for Ram is thought to have granted him the boon that he might retain his body "as long as my story is current in the world."[111] The circumstances of the boon suggest the special association of Hanuman with the Ram-narrative tradition, for he is said never to tire of hearing the creative retelling of the deeds of his lord and thus is the special patron of oral expounders; it is still widely believed that he is present (albeit usually disguised) at every Manas performance. A well-known legend, first recorded in the Bhaktirasbodhini of Priyadas (c. 1713), concerns Tulsi's own encounter with the god.[112]

It is said that Tulsidas was in the habit of retiring for his morning ablutions to a spot in the woods outside Banaras, taking with him a water pot with which to cleanse himself. On his return to the city, he would pour the small amount of water that remained in the pot at the foot of a certain tree. As it happened, this tree was the abode of a bhut (a type of ghost), who was greatly pleased with the daily water-offer-ing—for ghosts are always tormented by thirst and are happy to receive even impure water. One day the ghost appeared to the poet, thanked him for his longtime service, and offered him a boon; Tulsi replied that his life's desire was to obtain a glimpse of Lord Ram. "That's out of my league," said the ghost, "but why don't you ask Hanuman to arrange it?

[111] Shastri, trans., The Ramayana[*] 3:516.

[112] For the original text and an English translation, see Growse, The Ramayana[*]of Tulasidasa , xliii. The version given here is based on oral accounts and differs in some details from Priyadas's version.


He comes every day to hear your Katha . He is disguised, but you may know him by the fact that he is always first to arrive and last to leave."

That evening when Tulsi took his seat on a ghat along the Ganga to recite and expound his epic of Ram, he observed that the first listener to arrive was an aged leper, who positioned himself unobtrusively in the rear of the enclosure. When the Katha was over, Tulsi quietly followed this old man, who led him out of the city and into a thickly wooded area—to the very spot where Sankat Mochan Temple stands today. There Tulsi fell at the leper's feet, lauding him as Hanuman and imploring his grace. "I know who you are. Help me! I want to see Ramchandra!" At first the old man pretended annoyed incomprehension: "Go away, you're mad! Why are you tormenting an old, sick man?" But the poet held firmly to the leper's feet and at last the Son of the Wind revealed his glorious form—

With golden-colored body shining with splendor,
like another Sumeru, the world-mountain.

The god blessed Tulsidas and instructed him to go to Chitrakut, the place of Ram's forest exile; there he would have his desired vision.[113] Later, Tulsi showed his gratitude by causing an image of Hanuman to be erected at the spot where the god appeared to him—or rather, devotees believe, he used the power of his holiness to draw forth the image as an eternal saksat[*] (visible to the eyes) manifestation of his beloved guide.

Although urbanization has in recent years engulfed the Sankat Mochan complex, some eight and a half acres of land remain as a preserve around the temple, and most of this has been left in a semi-wild condition: a mass of bamboo thickets and towering trees, appropriately infested with troops of chattering monkeys. Easily the most pleasantly situated temple in a city where green space is at a premium, Sankat Mochan has literally become a refuge for the urban population—for worship, prayer, and even for family outings on Sundays. It is also an important center for Manas performances. On any morning or evening people sit before the main shrine, reciting the epic—especially the beloved Sundar kand[*] , which celebrates Hanuman's exploits—and every afternoon professionals expound the poem in the temple courtyard. In addition, there are twice-yearly exposition festivals, and on Hanuman's birthday (the full moon of Chaitra—March/April) there is all-night Manas singing by groups from all over the city. The temple also spon-

[113] The manner in which the instruction bore fruit is celebrated in another story; see Hill, The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama , xi-xii.


sors a Ramlila troupe, which stages an eighteen-day production of the epic during the Dashahra festival season. Thus, the temple serves as a locus for many of the performance genres to be discussed in this study.

One other shrine may be mentioned here; even though it is more a museum than a temple, it has become one of Banaras's biggest attractions and is revealing in its own way of the status of Tulsi's epic in this city. Tulsi Manas Temple, an enormous marble-faced edifice that stands in an ornate garden on the main road linking the city with the university, was built by a wealthy Calcutta merchant and opened by the president of India in the mid-1960s. The fact that the two levels of its inner walls bear the entire text of the Manas inscribed in white marble is but one of its curiosities. It also contains a life-sized mechanical image of Tulsidas, perpetually reciting his epic via an extremely scratchy recording; a library of Ramayan-related literature; and a sort of religious penny arcade where, for fifty paise (four cents), one may view a series of electrified dioramas of mythological scenes. Each year during the rainy season month of Shravan (July/August), the temple's expansive grounds become the setting for an outdoor fair that draws huge crowds, the centerpiece of which is a vast exposition depicting, through similarly motorized dioramas, every major episode in the Manas . This Disneyesque approach to the beloved Hindi epic—in an architectural setting that causes art historians to shudder—has scored a great popular success, and today hardly a pilgrim leaves Banaras without a visit to the Manas Temple.[114]

To this brief sketch of Banaras as a setting for the life of a text I would add one small but telling vignette, which surprised and delighted me when I first became aware of it. Anyone who has traveled in South Asia has seen the ubiquitous "public carrier" trucks plying the countryside and noted the garish and grandiloquent folk art with which their carriages are usually adorned. In the Banaras region many of these trucks bear an additional touch: a half-caupai from the Manas painted on their sides. Several verses are in current use, but the most common one is drawn from Sundar kand[*] and again has associations with Hanuman. As he is about to enter Ravan's fortress city, the monkey is challenged by a female demon who serves as its gatekeeper. When he knocks her down, she recognizes him as Ram's messenger and as the fulfillment of a

[114] Its fame has now inspired imitation; not to be outdone, an Ayodhya mahant in the 1970s solicited funds to erect a more-Sanskritic-than-thou "Valmiki Bhavan" similarly enshrining the 24,000 slokas of the Sanskrit Ramayana[*] . This structure is roughly the size of an airplane hangar and has already become a great tourist attraction. Ironically, it is frequently used for Manas recitation performances.


prophecy she heard long before concerning Ravan's eventual doom. Overcome with emotion (in Tulsi's world, even demons may become Ram devotees), she gives her blessing to Hanuman—and now to countless lorries, scooters, rickshas, pedestrians, and even an occasional foreign researcher:

Enter the city and carry out all your work,
keeping in your heart the Lord of Koshala![115] 5.5.1

[115] I.e., Ram; Koshala is another name for Ayodhya.


One The Text and the Research Context

Preferred Citation: Lutgendorf, Philip. The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1991.