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

Six The Text in a Changing Society

The Future of Manas Performance

"The theater," Bernard Shaw is said to have quipped, "is always in a state of decline." Hindu culture seems to have reached a similar consensus regarding the cosmos in general and human affairs in particular. The mangoes of one's childhood, it seems, were always sweeter, the musicians more talented, and people in general simpler and less greedy; and

[208] The epic has been similarly favored by groups settled outside India. For example, among the Hindus of Fiji, anthropologist John Kelly found performance of the Manas to have become the community's dominant form of religious activity; indeed, since 1916, Tulsi's epic has been the text on which Fijian Hindus take oaths in court. John Kelly, personal communication, August 1986.


in one's grandparents' day, all these were better still. To the human tendency toward nostalgia and the pervasive myth of a lost Golden Age may be added, in the Indian case, an explicit cosmology of decline through successive ages, culminating in our own interminable and ever-darker Dark Age—and even, from a contemporary perspective, some stark facts of real decline due to rising population, scarcity of resources, and relentless inflation. A researcher studying traditional performance genres must be mindful of such factors in attempting to judge responses to queries concerning the present and future vitality of a given tradition. I was told again and again, "You can't hear real Katha anymore nowadays!" and "These days it has become just another business." One man summed up this attitude with ingenuous clarity, saying, "The Katha I heard in my childhood—that was the real Katha !" Yet only moments later, he was praising his own favorite expounder, Ramnarayan Shukla, with the words "His is the real Katha , like in the old days."[209]

Are traditions of Manas performance really declining? Let me begin with the most basic one: path[*] , or recitation. As noted in Chapter 2, the spread and standardization of this practice was an outcome of both the advent of printing technology and the increasing literacy of the middle classes. The presence of the Manas as an authoritative yet accessible scripture gave literate people who were not religious specialists the potential for a heightened form of interaction with the efficacious sacred word and spawned a range of related ritual practices. Far from being in decline, certain of them—such as twenty-four-hour and nine-day recitations—were on the increase in the early 1980s. Although I have had only a limited opportunity for firsthand observation since, the militant Hindu revivalism that swept North India in the latter half of the decade and had as a special focus Ram's birthplace in Ayodhya gave continued prominence to the epic and its recital. The popular booksellers whom I interviewed in Banaras (and whose stock typically ranged from Sanskrit sastras to rustic self-help manuals on hypnotism, dream interpretation, and astrology) told me that they sold more copies of the Manas than of any other work—a typical shop carried a dozen or more editions in all sizes and price ranges.

To be sure, much recitation is conducted mechanically and perhaps, as one Banarsi connoisseur disparagingly remarked to me, "reciting the Manas and enjoying the Manas are two entirely different things!" The comprehensibility of the text is certainly influenced by such factors as

[209] S. S. Singh, interview, July 1983.


the reciter's mother tongue or dialect, degree of education, and frequency of exposure to the epic. Many devotees maintain that it is not necessary to understand the text in order to benefit from it. The woman who told me that she could readily understand about half of her daily recitation added, "But it is not necessary to understand in order to benefit. The words that Goswami-ji used have a power of their own. If I am very busy or have a lot on my mind, I just hurry through to the break and don't worry about whether I understand or not." Such attitudes may invite scorn—thus, Rajnikant Shastri, mocking the tendency toward "mindless" repetition, accused devotees of having made the epic into a "web of spells"[210] —yet they hardly represent an innovation in Hindu practice. The widely held view of the Manas as mantra is a sign of its prestige as well as its occasional obscurity—an indication of its status as the "Hindi Veda." Moreover, mindless repetition is a vital part of the training of those to seek to understand the text best—traditional scholars and expounders—as it leads to memorization and "internalization." If nothing else, the constant loudspeaker bombardment of Manas recitation and singing that one encounters in religious centers like Banaras and Ayodhya keeps the epic very much "in the air" and reinforces exposure to it. And an observer with no knowledge of the text should not be too quick to assume that it is all gibberish, even to casual passersby.

A few interviewees complained of the vulgarity of mass-recitation festivals. Significantly, these critics belonged to the aristocratic class that had formerly been influential patrons, and they looked with disdain on the activities of "those merchants" and their hired Brahman specialists. Whatever one may think of electrified dioramas and booming loudspeaker networks, one must recall that religious kitsch is not an invention of the twentieth century.[211] Some two centuries ago the ancestors of these critics, like today's Marwari merchants and industrialists, charted their own upward social course using the epic as a vehicle of legitimation, and their patronage of Ramanandi sadhus and small-town Ramayanis may likewise have earned the disdain of the then-established elite.

Katha —good, bad, or indifferent—is certainly booming, even amid (to paraphrase Mark Twain) greatly exaggerated reports of its demise.

[210] Shastri, Manasmimamsa[*] , 202.

[211] Ayodhya displays many examples of late nineteenth-century kitsch—such as Kanak Bhavan Temple—which, like early Hindu calendar art, now appear charmingly antique (although it remains difficult to imagine the Tulsi Manas Temple ever taking on this patina).


Again, foreign observers should be cautious of the airy generalizations thrown out by the English-educated residents of large urban areas to the effect that "no one goes in for that kind of thing anymore." Years ago, before I began studying the Manas , I lived for nearly a year in a middle-class neighborhood in New Delhi, and had I then been asked about epic performance in the city, I would have opined that one would have to go to a smaller, more traditional place to find it. Yet I was to discover, on the contrary, that I had to return to the heart of India's capital to hear and record one of the most celebrated contemporary expounders, and I also found ongoing Katha programs in some of the fashionable southern suburbs as well as on commuter trains. The fact that middle-aged people predominate in many audiences cannot in itself be taken as an indication of declining interest in the epic among the new generation, for in the asram scheme of the life cycle it is indeed older people who are expected to take greater interest in religious discourse. In any case, I also encountered youthful enthusiasts for Katha as well as many young and ambitious performers.

As one Hindi journalist noted, there is today no lack of claimants to the exalted title of vyas . Despite nostalgia for the era of great expounders like Shivlal Pathak and Ramkumar Mishra, it is clear that, at least for today's "All-India" performers, financial incentives have never been better. And even though some might suppose that "modernization" leads to declining interest in religious oratory, others argue to the contrary. Shrinath Mishra, after detailing his own packed performance schedule, offered this opinion on the present popularity of Katha .

Just observe, interest in Katha keeps going on increasing. And one cause is this: nearly everyone is unhappy. Everyone has got some problem or other—someone's health is bad, or another's mental state is not good; someone else has economic troubles, or someone's business is not going well, or someone is worried over marrying off a daughter . . . it's this modern life-style that affects nearly everyone. There didn't used to be such crowds at programs; if a hundred or so people came to hear a Katha , it was a lot. And nowadays there have started to be such huge crowds and, well, the main cause is that everybody has anxiety over some problem or other, and in hearing Katha that anxiety disappears.[212]

Anxious or otherwise, large numbers of North Indians are being exposed to a great deal of Katha , and it is an art form that appears readily adaptable to modern electronic media, concerning the impact of which I have more to say shortly.

[212] Shrinath Mishra, interview, October 1983.


The Ramlila tradition is likewise flourishing, at least in the sense that there are probably more productions today than in the past. As I have noted, most of them are based on the Manas but utilize the text to varying degrees. Devotees of the Ramnagar pageant like to imply that other productions represent a debasement of the tradition. "They are all stage plays," one man told me; "only Ramnagar is lila ." It is true that the producers at Ramnagar are notable for their fidelity to the text and their insistence on reciting every word of it, and neighborhood productions often use only excerpts—although we have seen that there are exceptions to this rule. Yet this too is not new; the majority of Ramlilas have never lasted for more than nine or ten days—for the average Ramlila committee lacks the means to mount a lengthier production—and it is impossible to enact the complete Manas in that period. The Ramnagar style was an innovation of the early nineteenth century and a reflection of the patronage of a leisured class that could afford the enormous inputs of time and energy it required. It is still widely admired, but like other aristocratic pastimes it is suffering from the decline of its original patrons. Like many an orchestra or ballet company in the West, the Ramnagar Ramlila —with a cast of ninety-five, a crew of over one hundred, and an annual budget in six figures[213] —has made an uneasy transition from princely to public patronage, with the bulk of its funding now supplied by the government of Uttar Pradesh. Attendance continues to be high—probably higher than in the past, since many of the sites were built to accommodate smaller crowds than now pack in and around them—but of course no admission is charged, and costs continue to increase while the budget remains more or less fixed. Schechner speculates that "if some economically productive plan is not developed the sheer production elements of the Ramlila —the effigies, the environments, the costumes, the flares—will get shoddier and shoddier."[214] The potential decline of this magnificent pageant—one of the cultural treasures of North India—should be a cause for public concern. But the very uniqueness of this production underscores the fact that its present difficulties and troubled future cannot be taken as indicative of the popularity of Ramlila in general.

Any discussion of the future viability of genres like Katha and Ramlila must take into consideration the new communications media that

[213] Schechner and Hess estimate the total production cost (including the year-round maintenance of sites) at Rs 350,000; Schechner, Performative Circumstances , 285-86.

[214] Ibid., 286. I most recently viewed the pagent in 1989 and found it to be essentially unchanged.


have already become influential in South Asian culture. How may radio and television and audio and video recording be expected to influence the storytellers and actors of the Ramayan tradition? During recent decades, growing scholarly awareness of (to paraphrase the preeminent media pandit of the 1960s) the inseparability of medium and message has tended to foster the assumption that new technologies usher in "revolutions" that radically transform cultures, decisively effacing older traditions. In contemporary Western pop culture, change associated with new technological gadgetry is almost invariably hyperbolized as an epoch-making upheaval—so that we are invited to marvel at, successively, the "Industrial Revolution," the "Data-Processing Age," the "Information Explosion," the "Compact Disc Era," and so on. Marshall McLuhan's ominous pronouncement concerning the introduction of movable type in fifteenth-century Europe—"as the Gutenberg typography filled the world the human voice closed down"[215] —is typical of the dramatic and portentous tone of much contemporary discourse on media.

Recent scholarship has begun to apply such assumptions to cultures outside the Euro-American cultural sphere. Thus, Susan Wadley suggests (albeit with some appropriate caveats) that the spread of print technology in North India may cause localized oral traditions to wither away and be replaced by "less malleable, more widely spread written traditions."[216] Although it is certain that the availability of printed texts encourages literacy and standardization, it cannot be assumed that it necessarily discourages oral performance, at least not in a culture in which oral rhetorical skills remain highly valued. As we have seen, even though the Manas has been in print for more than a century and a half, its oral exegetical and storytelling traditions continue to flourish and to interact in various ways with print media.

With respect to the newer electronic media, the Euro-American model again tends to be taken for granted. A critic of television like Neil Postman argues that the world of rational discourse created and maintained—especially in the United States—by the dominance of print media is now threatened by the power of a seductive flood of decontex-tualized images disseminated daily over the airwaves.[217] Postman's observations offer much insight into American popular culture, but one

[215] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 250; cited in Graham, Beyond the Written Word , 39.

[216] Wadley, "Popular Hinduism and Mass Literature in North India," 81.

[217] Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death , esp. chaps. 3-6.


may well ask how relevant they are to South Asia—where, for example, typographic technology is only a little more than a century old and has never produced the kind of print-saturated culture that developed in the United States; where "oral literacy" (in which people who cannot read and write are familiar with and sometimes creators of sophisticated bodies of literature) remains prevalent; where great religious significance attaches to images and to the acts of "seeing" (darsan ) and "hearing" (sruti ); and where a wide range of performance genres have long coexisted with mass-produced texts and images. All these factors contribute to creating an environment in which the advent of electronic media may produce less jarring discontinuity and cultural alienation than it purportedly has in the United States.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, short Katha programs are occasionally broadcast by All-India Radio stations; Ramnarayan Shukla, for example, told me that he sometimes goes to Allahabad to record talks for broadcast on the local station. The present vogue of taping talks is also noteworthy; when I observed, in 1983, the upper-class devotees of Ramkinkar Upadhyay collecting and exchanging his talks with the same enthusiasm with which they traded the latest film videos, I wondered why no one had thought of marketing such tapes.[218] Returning to India six years later, however, I found prominently displayed in the cassette stalls of Vrindavan a multi-cassette series of discourses by Morari Bapu, a Gujarati Manas expounder whose fame, by the late 1980s, had come to rival that of Ramkinkar. Entrepreneurs have, moreover, begun to utilize video technology to increase the impact of Katha performances, and this trend is likely to continue. The 1987-88 television serialization of the Ramayan reflected the interpretive strategies of katha -style elaboration of characters and themes, and the staging methods and iconography of the Ramlila . In keeping with a long-standing convention of Hindu storytelling, the television narrative was framed by introductory and concluding segments in which orators—one of whom was the famous Manas expounder Morari Bapu—discoursed on the significance of the events portrayed. The unprecedented success of the Ramayan serial was itself the most dramatic demonstration to date of the power of television to command mass attention in South Asia, and its showcas-

[218] The 1983 EMI catalog of the Gramophone Company of India lists six recordings under the heading "Katha"; some of them appear to be musical renditions of Ramayan themes (such as "Sita-Ram ki kahani Katha" by Krishna Goyal and chorus) while others may be pure exposition (i.e., "Dhanus[*] yajna" by Madanmohan Shastri). I am grateful to Scott Marcus for these references. Note, however, that in Karnataka the genre of devotional discourse and song known as harikatha is immensely popular on tape cassette.


ing of oral exegesis may well encourage further videotaped presentations of katha -style discourses.

One religious movement has already made a successful use of such technology: the Bombay-based sect known as Swadhyaya (self-study), which is estimated to have one million adherents in northwestern India and among Indian communities overseas. This movement bases its message on the teachings of a Maharashtrian Brahman named Pandurang Athavale, who is affectionately known to his followers as "Dada" (elder brother). Dada's message of individual and social transformation through bhakti is conveyed to his far-flung congregation via weekly discourses (labeled pravacan ) delivered at his headquarters in Bombay but, since the late 1970s, videotaped for worldwide distribution. Every Sunday morning, audiences from Kansas City to Nairobi assemble to watch these "sacred tapes" and participate in all the formalities of Katha performance described earlier (removal of shoes in the hall, antiphonal chanting of an initial prayer, closing arti ceremony, etc.). Dada hails from a region in which the Tulsi version of the Ramayan story is less well known, and his discourses are often based on other Vaishnava texts, such as the Bhagavadgita (especially popular in Maharashtra), but like all Katha they consist largely of free oral improvisation on religious themes, interwoven with tales, anecdotes, and quotations from authoritative texts. What is most significant is that the weekly videotaped performances form the essential basis of this movement's message—for although numerous printed materials bear the Swadhyaya founder's name, they are all said to be transcriptions of oral performances, and it is emphasized by his followers that Athavale "writes" nothing. For Swadhyaya's contemporary adherents, the oral word of the inspired teacher retains its primacy, and video—which conveys it both audibly and visually and permits the recreation of much of its ritualized milieu—becomes an ideal medium for its promulgation.[219]

I have briefly reviewed the three principal performance genres treated in my study and have found signs of continued vitality in each. To speculate on their future appeal, however, we must further consider the question of social aspiration, and of the text's role as an authoritative scripture. Hindu social mobility has often been understood in terms of the concept of "Sanskritization," first elaborated by anthropologist M. N. Srinivas, which refers to the acquisition of status by an adherence to accepted standards of upper-caste behavior;[220] a classic example was

[219] Information on the Swadhyaya movement and its founder is taken from Little, "Video Vacana."

[220] See Srinivas, Caste in Modern India, and Other Essays , 42-62.


the bid for Kshatriya status, mentioned in the preceding section, of the members of the Ahir or milkman caste. The overall utility of the concept: has been much debated; McKim Marriot, for example, has pointed out that it suggests too external a view of a process that he would prefer to call "samskar -ization[*] ," since from the point of view of participants, the high-status and ritually pure forms of behavior adopted are truly samskars[*] ("impressions" or "alterations of substance"), which change them in fundamental ways.[221] Implicit in the process, however one labels it, is the tension between aspiration and dominance.

The Hindu universe is a closed system and conservative in the most literal sense; matter, energy, and all else are conserved and recycled endlessly. The notion of unlimited growth favored in Western economic theory, like the corresponding sociopolitical ideal of universal equality, is fundamentally incongruous to this worldview, which indeed might find something perverse in it, like the quest for physical immortality in which the Puranic demons are always engaged. There cannot always be more and more of everything, the tradition reasons, because really there is only so much. And it is only the existence of hierarchy that makes aspiration possible: one can rise only with reference to others above and below. Those who successfully achieve mobility within the system become what they have aspired to and, in so doing, necessarily change. That is why, ironically, aspiring castes are often especially harsh in their treatment of those still below them.[222]

But closed systems become stifling and must then be broken open. The aims of human life (purusarth[*] ) as conceived by Hindus are said to be four, but historians tell us that once they were only three; dharma in late-Vedic thought was identical with the cosmic order, and there was nothing higher. The recognition that dharma itself was part of the mundane system necessitated the quest for a fourth aim: a breaking free from the wheel to achieve ultimate liberation (moksa[*] ). It is understandable that the relationship of this fourth aim to the other three has remained problematic, since it exists beyond the system that encompasses everything else human beings do and know. Those people, like Kabir, who set their sights on this transcendent goal can afford to thumb their noses at the system. Yet their followers, who have to live in this world, invariably seek some kind of accommodation with it.

Texts, like people, have to live within the system or move beyond it,

[221] McKim Marriot, personal communication, February 1986.

[222] Cf. Erdman, who calls this phenomenon "middle-level conservatism"; The Swatantra Party , 30.


and the identification of moksa[*] as the ultimate aim of life paralleled, historically speaking, the withdrawal of the Vedas from an active role in human affairs. The Hindu archetype of scripture became "liberated" when it ceased to serve any practical role and became squarely situated in the other world as an eternal referent of transcendence. For this very reason, having left the realm of cyclical flux, it was rigidly and perfectly preserved, even though (or indeed, because) its contents had ceased to have any relation to worldly activity.[223] The most authoritative text for the tradition was, ironically, the least living one. And conversely, living texts could never be ultimately authoritative.

The problem of textual authority and vitality—itself a variation on the tension between order and transcendence—can be clearly discerned in the genesis of the Ramcaritmanas . We know that this epic was the creation of a single man, a poetic genius who lived in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Yet when this man boldly undertook the fashioning of something new—a religious epic in the language of ordinary people—he had to situate it within the worldly order and also give it a relationship to the transcendent archetype. And so he presented it as only a fourthhand transmission of a divine Katha first uttered by Shiva to Parvati and then carefully preserved and passed on by authoritative narrators, and he was careful to point out its fundamental consistency with "numerous Puranas, Vedas, and agamas ." Despite the epic's obvious orthopraxy, its claim to authority did not go unchallenged. For its linguistic accessibility—its one truly revolutionary feature, and one which should not be underestimated—must have posed an implicit threat to the established order of scriptural mediation.[224] The triumphant and irresistible rise of the Manas —the folksong that became a Veda—is graphically allegorized in the famous story of its attempted "suppression" by the Brahmans of Banaras beneath a pile of Sanskrit scriptures. Not surprisingly, this work became the text-of-choice for the upwardly mobile and the nouvel arrivé : the vehicle of legitimation for an upstart dynasty of Bhumihar tax collectors, the solace of rising mercantile and agricultural communities, and the refuge of captains of industry seeking religious merit and good public relations.

Yet there is another dimension to social mobility that should not be overlooked: the fact that those who arrive at the top sooner or later cast

[223] Heesterman, "Veda and Dharma," 80-81.

[224] Cf. Derrett's observation on renaissance Europe, "The coming of good vernacular Bibles and the collapse pro tanto of the traditional moral authority, which claimed secular and spiritual jurisdiction, were interconnected"; "The Concept of Duty in Ancient Indian Jurisprudence," 41.


in their lot with those already there and become part of the repressive mechanism of the system—what "holds down" in opposition to aspiration. The example of the Ramanandi sadhus is pertinent. For several centuries they formed one of the most liberal religious orders in India, accepting women, untouchables, and Muslims into their fold.[225] But when, in the eighteenth century, they sought royal patronage in order to enhance their prestige and protect their network of religious institutions, they had to adhere to a different set of rules: to restrict entry to twice-born males, apply varna -based[*] commensality practices to communal meals, and appoint only Brahmans as their mahants .[226] This process was not confined to orthodox Vaishnavas; the same dynamic was at work, for example, among the Shaiva Udasis, and even among the radical reformist sects.[227] In the case of the epic, this process is reflected in the tendency of an elite, having associated itself with the text, to appropriate it and make it narrowly its own, and to use it to assert its dominance over other aspiring groups. If these groups come in time to accept the association, then the text may wither, like a tree cut off at its root.

The most revolutionary thing about the Manas was its language—its unashamedly folk diction—and in a curious way this has remained true. The very existence of a brilliant religious epic, however traditional in its outlook, in the "vulgar" mother tongue of flesh-and-blood people, has remained vexing to those whose self-image and status are derived from one of the "father tongues" of India—Sanskrit then, English now. There have been repeated attempts to fabricate line-by-line Sanskrit versions and present them as the original "divine" Manas of Shiva, which Tulsi merely translated into common speech.[228] Such desperate efforts to set

[225] The best-known verse attributed to the order's founder enjoins, "Do not inquire from anyone his caste or community; whoever worships the Lord belongs to the Lord"; cited in van der Veer, Gods on Earth , 93.

[226] Burghart, "The Founding of the Ramanandi Sect," 133-34; Thiel-Horstmann, "Warrior Ascetics in Eighteenth Century Rajasthan," 5. Whether the sadhus in fact gave more than lip service to these standards is another question.

[227] Ghurye, Indian Sadhus , 145-46; Tripathi, Sadhus of India , 85. Note also that the "radical" Garib Dasis now assert their status by opening Sanskrit colleges; Tripathi, Sadhus of India , 53.

[228] These unsuccessful "duplicities" are mentioned by Sharan, "Manas ke pracin tikakar[*] ," 908. I too was sometimes smugly informed that the Manas was "copied" from a Sanskrit original; cf. Shastri's testy contention that the narration cannot really be Shiva's because Shiva would have spoken "the divine tongue"; Manasmimamsa[*] , 89-90. Hawley suggests that a similar "Sanskritization" process was at work in the Surdas tradition, reflected in the attempt to organize Sur's corpus according to the structure of the Bhagavatapurana[*] ; personal communication, September 1986.


Tulsi's epic, once and for all, within prescribed limits—not unlike the effort to "Brahmanize" Kabir[229] —present an example of "Sanskritization" so literal as to seem laughable—save that they are so doggedly implacable. But an alternative and more subtle means of appropriation is what might be termed "Veda-ization."

It is from this perspective that we must reconsider the latter-day yajñas of Swami Karpatri and his followers, in which perhaps more than words are being "sacrificed." It is not the mechanical recitation that is problematic here—as I have already noted, that has a long tradition and a practical use—but rather the attempt to associate the Manas with Vedic ritual performance: to give it the ultimate status, which also means to withdraw it from the realm of the living. For these occasions, the Gita Press prints up elaborate instructions in Sanskrit on the "correct" way to recite the Manas , and the ritual specialists go through the motions with customary expertise. These trappings of Brahmanical culture represent an association dating back less than half a century, yet they are clearly important to the patrons who pay for the events and seek to derive status and merit from them. Such performances, though impressive, are in fact devoid of the real life that the text has for its audience—its life as story—and so this has to be pumped back into them through dioramas, processions, and dramatizations: a return to more vital genres such as jhanki and lila . The yajñas currently proliferating throughout the Hindi heartland make Manas recitation a spectator sport and specialist activity, and the more modest householders who seek to imitate these events do so mindful of the new rules of the game: they hire Brahman reciters to come into their homes, loudspeakers and all, and end with a fire sacrifice. The family members, unless particularly ambitious, sit it out on the sidelines. Thus, the sacralization of the cultural epic may be accompanied by a shift away from direct participation in its performance. One of my most outspoken interviewees observed of Swami Karpatri, "He has made our Manas into a religious book, something people chant in the morning, after taking a bath. But in my family we used to sing it together at bedtime, for pleasure. Do you see the difference?"

Parallel to the vogue for yajña is the increasingly unrelenting association of the Manas with varnasram[*] dharma, in the euphemistic and re-

[229] Keay, Kabir and His Followers , 28. Such attempts to "rewrite history" (as anti-Muslim propagandist P. N. Oak frankly labels his agenda) may be more influential in shaping the popular Hindu conception of the past than either Indian or Western scholars realize.


pressive sense in which, as I have noted, this term is now used by the upper classes.[230] Another significant and related phenomenon is the withdrawal of the modern elite from recreational contact with the lower classes. The one form of Manas performance that seemed to be on the decline in Banaras was the most egalitarian and participatory of them all: the local folksinging style that appeared to embarrass some of my educated neighbors.[231] Such recreational, rather than ritual, use of the text in a pleasurable group activity uniting upper and lower classes now appears to be acquiring the stigma of "backwardness." Kumar has noted a similar process at work in neighborhood festivals, including Ramlila ,[232] and although Katha seems to have retained a relatively high status, the participatory and folk dimensions of this art too may in time restrict its patronage or, perhaps more likely, cause it to be withdrawn from the public arena. I found, for example, that certain of my wealthy and educated acquaintances were eager to hear and copy my tapes of Katha performances (provided the expounder was of high repute), yet they would never go to such programs themselves; to sit on the ground amid a motley crowd, to strain forward eagerly to hear, to exclaim with delight at a nice turn of phrase—these things were no longer suitable to people of their dignity. They would sit in private shrine rooms and do ritualized recitation, yes, but they would no longer go to a lila , a Katha , or a singing program. The current vogue for private Katha may likewise reflect an attempt to control the environment and restrict the audience. I am told, for example, that the Tamil expository art of kathakalaksepam[*] has recently moved into the concert hall to become an elite performance genre, with tickets priced at Rs 40 and up, and a dignified and unresponsive upper-class audience.[233] The combination of the elite's withdrawal from mass-participatory forms of performance and its emphasis on an interpretation of the text heavily weighted toward the rigid protection of privilege might ultimately convince the lower classes that there is no recourse for them in this epic and discourage them from using it, as so many have done, for personal and social aspiration.

I set out to discover the "life" of this text and found it in performance. The essential nature of performance, which is to effect emo-

[230] Cf. the testimonials prefixed to the Vijayatika[*] , which constantly emphasize as this commentary's special feature the fact that it upholds varnasram[*] dharma.

[231] Although the same caveats given earlier must be applied to any hasty judgment of the "decline" of this tradition, it is notable that the singers at Sankat Mochan on Hanuman's birthday in 1983 told me that a decade or so earlier the courtyard had been crammed with groups, whereas now only six or seven were present at one time.

[232] Kumar, The Artisans of Banaras , 195.

[233] Lee Weisman, personal communication, August 1986.


tional uplift through communication, imposes limits on the tendency toward ritualization and withdrawal. Audiences still "vote with their feet,"[234] and a text that no longer speaks to them will quietly drop out of the repertoire, as most of the Puranas appear to have done. A living text, like an organism, has a life cycle, and perhaps a life expectancy as well. Yet religious texts in India never "die"; they simply recede into the more ethereal realms of the Word—authoritative but rarely heard—and yield their places to some upstart on the road to Veda-hood. For this upstart, as for so many problematic things in the culture, there is a euphemism: the "Fifth Veda." Through the centuries numerous texts have earned this designation: the Natyasastra[*] for an actor or musician, the Tiruvaymoli[*] for a Tamil Shrivaishnava, the Mahabharata for almost everyone; and now, for Hindi speakers, the Manas . The Fifth Veda is the text we actually know and love, and because we love it, we want it to be true and authoritative. But the designation, great as it is, is a symbol of transience too, for real eternality is beyond this world and belongs only to texts that no one knows. And so the Fifth Veda, ensign of our own aspiration, gets an honorary but always unsteady place on the borders of eternity.

Shrinath Mishra once told me that the greatness of the Manas and the secret of its popularity lies in the fact that it "teaches by example." I have indeed found this to be true—and in more than the conventional sense—because for Hindu culture, along with (and perhaps more important than) what a text says , is what it does . For four hundred years the Manas has functioned as something like a living yajña —a performance of meaning that samskar -ized[*] and thereby changed its performers: made them over into what they aspired to be, while bringing transcendence to earth in the form of human language and song. When it ceases to do this—and fresh memories of large, enthusiastic audiences tell me that this day is yet a long way off—the Fifth Veda will merge with the other four, in the world beyond change and aspiration.

But that is outside the limits of this Katha .

[234] I borrow the idiom that Eck so aptly applies to the behavior of Hindu pilgrims; Banaras, City of Light , xvi.


Six The Text in a Changing Society

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