The Ramayana Syndrome
Romila Thapar (1989)

Romila Thapar, The Ramayana Syndrome, Seminar, No.353, January 1989; repris dans Romila Thapar, The Past As Present. Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, New Delhi, Aleph Book Company, 2014.

La série télévisée Ramayan, dirigée par Ramanand Sagar et diffusée sur Doordarshan en 1987–1988, eut un succès inouï. Romila Thapar tire les leçons de cet événement culturel et politique.

The opinions that were gathered by newspapers when Ramanand Sagar's TV serial on the Ramayana ended revealed what an extraordinary media success it had been. The show's popularity reached out across religions, castes, occupations, languages. Was this because it was an emotion-filled story narrated in the style of TV serials; or the enactment of a religious belief in a new idiom associated with modern life? Is there an intrinsic attraction in fantasies on good vs. evil that have a particular appeal if they claim to represent past times? It was stated that its popularity resulted from its being a part of the collective unconscious; that among adults it evoked memories of childhood stories and among children it paralleled the exploits of a hero like Superman; that it was an embodiment of higher values and laid out the quest for dharma in a simple, narrative form; that it projected the ideal woman in Sita; that it appeased the apprehensions and insecurities of a society transitioning to modernity; that it gave visual form to the spiritual fountainhead of Hinduism. Those who were unhappy with the rendering complained of the absence of poetry and meaning. It was also described as a folk genre, a small town Ramlila that managed to hit the big lights by being broadcast on television.

Only a few seemed concerned about the long-term effects of such a serial. Were we perhaps witnessing an attempt to project what the new culture of the country should be, an attempt to expunge diversities and present a homogenized view of what the Ramayana was and is? Could the serial be seen as part of an increasing trend of treating the state as the arch patron of culture, of state patronage requiring a uniform culture with the state determining the manifestations of culture, whether it be the festivals, the media or the aims behind the cultural zones? The state defines culture, finances culture, is the final arbiter and as the patron bestows recognition on those whom it regards as creative and worthy. Private initiative cannot compete with the financial outlay and the public reach that the state can provide, and there is not enough public initiative to provide alternate avenues to support innovatory forms. Would private initiative support innovation or would it encourage the conventional and the conservative?

The state prefers to endorse a uniform, homogenised culture, as such a culture would be simple to identify and easy to control. To concede that a nation's culture may be constituted of a variety of cultural systems would require that the functionaries of the state be sensitive to these multiple cultural systems and respond to their political implications. Where culture is taken over by the state as the major patron, there the politics of culture is inevitably heightened. It is therefore often easier for the state as patron to adopt a particular cultural stream as the mainstream: a cultural hegemony that frequently coincides with the culture of the dominant social group.

Some would see this new extension of patronage by the state as legitimate, for the state is now expected to provide for everything. But others would see this as a threat to creativity. The relationship between the patron and the one who creates is delicate, where, although the patron controls finance and recognition, the patron is at best merely the agency for the act of creativity. In earlier times acts of creativity had an audience but could do without a patron, although the more elaborate arts and literature required a patron. That creativity today is far more dependent on patronage, requiring the patron to be particularly careful about the representation of culture, particularly where culture is being represented through the authoritative state-controlled media. I would like to illustrate this by reference to the Ramayana.

The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places, even within its own history in the Indian subcontinent. The Indian epics were never frozen as were the compositions of Homer when they changed from an oral to a literate form. Professional reciters, kathakaras, recited the written versions with their own commentary and frequently adjusted the story to contemporary norms. The appropriation of the story by a multiplicity of groups meant a multiplicity of versions through which the social aspirations and ideological concerns of each group were articulated. The story in these versions included significant variations that changed the conceptualisation of character, event, and meaning.

Even within the literate tradition there are substantial differences. Scholars working on the Ramayana argue that the now non-existent original ramakatha was perhaps worked over and added to by Valmiki. This version may then have been changed by the Bhargava brahmana redactors who introduced the concept of Rama being an avatara of Vishnu, thus transforming the epic into sacred literature, a transformation that in the past captured popular literature for didactic purposes. Parallel to this was the Buddhist rendering in some of the Jatakas, whereas in the Dasaratha Jataka, Sita is the sister of Rama, which change in the kinship pattern is reflected in Buddhist origin myths and carries its own meaning.

A Jaina version, the Paumacharyam, claims to be the sole authentic version of the story and maintains this unequivocally.The treatment of Ravana in this text is much more sympathetic. Lanka is as important if not more so than Ayodhya and the events are coloured by Jaina ethics. Thus Dasharatha and Rama end up as Jaina munis and Sita gets herself to a nunnery. The earliest Tamil version by Kampan changes the treatment of Ravana who is here the tragic hero rather than the villainous demon. The religious importance of the story increased in the early second millennium A.D. with the spread of the Ramanandin sect that worshipped Vishnu in his incarnation as Rama and their most popular sacred literature was the sixteenth century work of Tulasidasa, the Ramacharitamanas.

Even within the literate tradition, the significance of these variations is not ignored. The differences highlight the varying perceptions of many aspects of the story, more than are underlined in any one of the various versions, such as notions of ethical behaviour, whether it be the ideal of the kshatriya in the brahmanical version or the ideal of the Jaina ascetic in the Paumacharyam; or the idea of historicity, where the Jaina version claims it, but the brahmanical one ignores it; or of the depiction of Ravana as the personification of evil or as a tragic hero; or of the embodiment of women where the role of Sita varies.These were not simply variations in the story to add flavour to the narrative. They were conscious attempts at taking up a well-known theme and using it to present a new point of view arising out of ideological and social differences of perspective.

These were acts of deliberate innovation, where the creator of the form felt free to experiment with the story even after the story had been given a sacred character by brahmana redactors. These variants were not hidden in some obscure treatise. They took the form of popular narratives, recited and written in Pali and Prakrit and later in regional languages, and therefore available to large numbers of people. If we are to be aware of at least this strand of our cultural tradition then the debate and the dialectic embedded in these various versions should be more openly discussed.

What would happen today if an attempt were made to project on T.V. a different version of the story? It is likely that Doordarshan or any other channel would not allow it, arguing that it would hurt the religious sensibilities of the majority community. Even if an attempt were to be made to perform it only as a play, the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism, such as the Shiv Sena, V.H.P., R.S.S., Bajrang Dal, and similar organisations, would prevent its being staged. The assault of the Shiv Sena on a theatre in Bombay and the beating up of the playwright, where a play was to be performed on the interlocking theme of Rama and Sita and Romeo and Juliet, is an indication of what would happen. Unfortunately, public protest has been too ineffectual to counteract such attitudes. But if the state or whomsoever else claims to be the major patron of culture, such incidents require at least a statement from the patron.

If the state as the main patron of culture withdraws from innovations in creativity on the grounds that it will hurt the sentiments of a 'religious community', culture will tend to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. The interface between religion, politics, and culture becomes a central issue in this situation. Religious sects of various beliefs in India — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Animist — are characterised by a relative absence of the equivalent of the fiat from the Vatican. Who then speaks for that nebulous mass which is referred to as a 'religious community'? Those that force the issue on the state taking action on cultural or intellectual items are not always the religious functionaries of a community, but often the political spokesmen of some group claiming to represent a religious community. Tolerance does not grow with banning what is thought to be unpalatable; it grows with arguing and talking about it.

Thus the Shiv Sena can once again object to the government of Maharashtra reprinting a chapter of Dr. Ambedkar's book because it questions the authenticity of the brahmanical version of the Ramayana among other things, and the government bends. It may not even be a question of objecting to the suppression of the views of Ambedkar per se, but of allowing various readings of a cultural tradition. Or another person demands the banning of Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, and again the government accedes to this demand. Predictably the next step is that the government anticipates a demand from some Christian groups to ban The Last Temptation of Christ and yet once more it caves in under pressure and bans the film. Are we going to be left then with laundered strips of culture because the patron, the state or whatever the agency of authority cannot distinguish between claims to religious sensibilities and cultural articulation?

A statement repeated ad nauseum is that of tolerance being a valued characteristic of Indian civilisation. There has been little attempt to analyse the nature of this tolerance. It assumed a segmented society in which each caste functioned in accordance with its own dharma and the totality was juxtaposed and coexisted. Intolerance was effective within each caste but by and large other castes were left alone to do and believe as they pleased. All, of course, except those that were treated as outside castes — those whom we now call tribals and Dalits. They had a permanent rank at the bottom. Polemics were in fact an essential part of ideology and belief. Now that we are moving away from a segmented society, we have to consciously acquire a concern for tolerance that includes the entire society. We can retain tolerance only if we refrain from rushing to censorship of all kinds.

Tolerance does not grow with banning what is thought to be unpalatable; it grows with arguing and talking about it; for that which is unpalatable gets discarded. Before a book or a film or an exhibition is banned there should at least be a debate about why it is necessary to do so. There was no attempt to discuss what had actually been said in The Satanic Verses and the issues involved. Those who demanded the ban blatantly stated that they had not read the book. Those who rushed to ban it had not read it either. To demand the immediate banning of the book was shrewd as it also pre-empted any discussion, even among Muslims, on the issues raised in the book. Such a discussion might have revealed differences of opinion, differences indicating that not every Indian wanted the book banned and there were many that wanted it discussed to ascertain what exactly was being attacked in the book. And such discussions are imperative even for those who have a strong religious identity of any kind, if, as a society, we are to break the siege of communalism.

Let me return to the Ramayana and its different versions. The authorship included bards, brahmanas, monks, local storytellers. Change in authorship and social setting introduced new features. Even those aspects that are regarded as intrinsic to the story, such as the birth of Sita from the furrow, and the ten heads of Ravana, were at one point, innovations. So too were other events, as for example, the notion of the shadow Sita—that the real Sita was not the one who went through the agni pariksha, the fire ordeal, but an illusory or shadow Sita, for the real Sita returned to Rama. This innovation has been explained as deriving from the advaita-vedanta philosophy and the doctrine of maya. Possibly a more immediate reason was the influence of the Shakti cults, where a woman was viewed as an embodiment of power and the indignity of a fire ordeal to prove chastity may not have been easily accepted. This episode might even reflect the debate on sati that was prevalent at the time, since the self-immolation of a widow, was supposed to lead to reunion with her husband and the sati was regarded as a symbol of chastity.

The gradual diffusion of the story influenced the folk genres and the result was something very different from the literary tradition of upper caste culture. One of the major areas of difference focused on the depiction of Sita. I have recently been informed that in one tribal version, the fire ordeal is performed not by Sita or a shadow Sita; but by another woman substituted for the purpose, the tribal Shabari. This speaks volumes for the way in which a tribal society perceives its relationship with the mainstream culture.

Tamil speaking societies derive their version from Kampan or from a variety of local forms, which were earlier recited but during this century have come to be published and are now read. A recent discussion on this genre focuses on the Catakantaravana-katai, or the story of the ten-headed Ravana. Here it is Sita who, with Rama as her charioteer, goes into battle against Ravana. In single combat she is the one who kills Ravana. Clearly the imprint of the powerful, assertive, goddess figure overrides the more accommodating and submissive image of the Sanskrit and Hindi texts. These are not marginal traditions for they are central to the societies from which they emerge. If it is claimed that Indian culture, as being propagated by the state, is representative of the Indian people and not just of a small segment of Indian society, then these variants must also find a place.

The question then is that of whose version of the story are we propagating? What was shown on TV and has now become the received version was essentially a mix of the Valmiki Ramayana and the Ramacharitamanas of Tulasidasa. The choice of this version must have a reason: perhaps because it is best known among Hindi speakers and is therefore familiar to north Indians? Epic-type compositions need not be religious documents in origin. But some versions of an epic story can be transformed into religious statements as happened with the later version of the Valmiki Ramayana.

The TV version is not a folk genre. It borrows from the films of the 1940s and 1950s, the 'mythologicals', and it borrows from the Ramlilas. The latter are again prevalent in the region where Hindi is spoken, for in other parts of the country, these festivals associated with Rama have other connotations and rituals, such as the widespread Durga puja. But what is absent from the TV version is the incorporation of the folksiness and the comedy of the Ramlilas. Local issues and local commentary gave a flavour and vibrancy to these performances. If the literary version in Sanskrit attempted to freeze the rendering of earlier centuries, the TV version may now have the same effect on future Ramlilas. Curiously and perhaps as a consequence of the TV version, local Ramlilas and their audiences from the neighbouring mohallas, seem to have declined especially in the larger cities. Yet these multiple and connecting versions had and still have legitimacy since they are statements of a social condition and a historical moment. Received versions deny the legitimacy of others as also the idea that a society does not have a single culture but is a collation of cultures.

Culture is not an object. It is among other things a way of conducting social relationships expressed in various idioms. State patronage and direction of culture tends to look for a single 'national culture'. It tends to take on the perspective of the dominant group and the culture of this group is projected as the mainstream national culture. This happens where the state may not be the main patron of culture. The media for instance envisages the cultural ideal as that adopted by the middle class and it aspires to appropriate and project that culture. Cultural hegemony requires the marginalizing or ironing out of other cultural expressions. Those who complain against this hegemony and argue that to treat Ramanand Sagar's version as the received version is to display poverty in understanding Indian culture, are for some strange reason described as deracinated, westernized Indians, out of touch with the culture of the masses. They are dismissed as 'elitists' seeking to dictate cultural norms, forgetting of course that in the system described, choice is anyway restricted and the so-called 'elitists' are in fact supporting a more extensive choice. What is also surprising in this context is that no comment is made on some of the more glaring examples of deracination and elitism seeking to influence cultural choices, namely, the majority of the advertisements that precede and follow the sponsored programmes on TV.

The enthusiasm of the masses has been repeatedly invoked in justifying the TV version as an expression of national culture. Which masses are we invoking? Those below the poverty line who are unable to come within watching distance of a TV set? Or are we referring to the urban underclass who have access to a neighbourhood set? Even if it is the latter, one wonders what they make of the commentary spoken by Ashok Kumar, who, like the bard of older times, introduces after each episode, parallels with contemporary life. When the young princes of Ayodhya are sent at a tender age to the gurukula for training, and their mothers are saddened by their departure, Ashok Kumar introduces the parallel of young children today going to boarding school—hardly an experience with which the masses would be familiar.

When supernatural weapons, the brahma-astras, swirl and zig-zag across the screen, the commentator compares them to the weapons in Star Wars — perhaps a subtle appeal to the wishful thought that Indian civilization once might have had space-age « weapons, and certainly an endorsement of such weaponry. The depiction of the demons who threaten the noble rishis and whom Rama and Lakshmana are fetched to destroy, are so evidently the physical type associated with tribal peoples that the message of their being alien and evil hardly needs stating in words. If the TV version is fulfilling the live role of the storyteller in the life of the young child, then what are the nuances that it portrays? Comics drawing on these stories and the TV version are part of an urban child's fantasy. The versions that had a universal appeal also had a different kind of message. Are we really talking about an appeal to the masses or are we talking about the expanding middle class and other aspirants to the same status?

Tulasi's Ramacharitamanas did have an appeal for caste Hindus. The upsetting of caste hierarchies and the rise of low castes to positions of status did not auger well especially in the Kali age. A return to a rama-rajya would set society on the right course. If each man functions according to his allotted caste then all is right with the world. The notion of rama-rajya does have a widespread appeal. It is a generalized millennarian dream that envisages the well-being of all. It does not go into the question of social inequities. To romanticize hierarchy is one way of supporting it and the message means different things to those at the upper levels and to those down below. The appeal to the latter is the religious message. The religious wrapping around the past tended to hide the political message. But it could not altogether hide the political message when the actor cast as Rama campaigned on behalf of the Congress-I in the Allahabad election in the early 1990s and his role on TV was constantly referred to. If religion is reduced to a vote-catching mechanism then the consequences can only be very different from the avowed goals of either the state or the religion.

The religious message of the Tulasidasa version is stated in no uncertain terms. Tulasidasa repeats that the only thing of supreme importance is Rama-bhakti—unqualified devotion to Rama as the incarnation of Vishnu, to which his text is dedicated. Clearly this rendering of the Ramayana theme has to be differentiated from the many others which either identify with other religions and ideologies or else are genuine folk genres where such identities are subordinated or are at any rate less sectarian. The very specific identity of the Tulasidasa version cannot be extended to include the picking up of the theme and its alteration in other religious traditions (including incidentally Islamic features in Indonesian and Malaysian versions).

There have been statements by the public, commenting on the serial in defence of the right of the Hindus to see their religious literature on TV. It is said that the majority of Indians are Hindus and therefore a public broadcasting system and television has a duty to bow to the tastes and preferences of the majority. This is a statement that may be seen as impinging on the government's policy towards programmes on the audio-visual media and would require a response from a secular government. If the media had been autonomous, as has « often been urged by various government appointed committees, then the onus would not be on the government. But since the media are government controlled, the government is responsible for the categories of programmes it is supporting and the influence of these programmes on public issues, not to mention concepts of culture. If the state is anxious to be the patron par excellence, one assumes that it is aware of what it is patronizing.

Of course the Ramanand Sagar version has a popular appeal. It is the world of Indian middle-class fantasy, in which problems arise but are miraculously solved. Its presentation through spectacular sets, glittering costumes and ham acting, matches up to these fantasies. And we all need fantasies, ranging from those who have avidly watched the serial every Sunday, to those who play Dragons and Dungeons with the computer, or others like me who read science fiction.

One's anxieties about the Ramayana syndrome arise from other causes: that the fantasy of one social group should not be projected as the fantasy of the entire society, for the essence of cultural renewal is the freedom to innovate and to use changing idioms even for themes regarded as traditional or sacred — as indeed was done in the past; that culture be treated not as a single, homogenized, national package, but as free intersecting cultural systems reflecting the assumptions of all the constituents of Indian society; and lastly, the question of whether the state realizes that behind every fantasy there lies a reality and the fantasies of some can be in conflict with those of others. Is the state aware of the reality behind this particular fantasy?