It would be anomalous to begin an essay on the anti-colonial efficacy of a sixteenth-century sacred epic poem by first discussing a British civil servant. Still, let us give it a try. Frederic Salmon Growse (1836-1893) served as the collector in Mathura and Bulandshahr in the 1870s and 80s. A devout Christian, Growse helped greatly in constructing Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Mathura. While in Mathura, he became fascinated by the popularity among its ordinary people of the Ramcharitmanas.
As a cue for curiosity and a tool for governance, Growse set out to translate Ramcharitmanas into English. This translation titled The Ramayana of Tulsidas (1883) was the first such attempt. In his introduction, Growse observed, “…poem is the best and most trustworthy guide to the popular living faith of the Hindu race at the present day.” Growse added that Goswami Tulsidas’ epic “is in everyone’s hands, from the court to the cottage, and is read, heard, and appreciated alike by every class of the Hindu community, whether high or low, rich or poor, young or old.”
George Grierson (1851-1941), superintendent of the Linguistic Survey of India under the British Raj, was to recall, “Half a century ago, an old missionary said to me that no one could hope to understand the natives of Upper India till he had mastered every line that Tulsidas had written. I have since learned to know how right he was.”
Basic facts about ‘Ramcharitmanas’
- ‘Ramcharitmanas’, is Hindu scripture in the language of Awadhi, composed by the 16th-century Hindu poet, Goswami Tulsidas (c.1532–1623)
- It means the lake of the deeds of Rama
- Tulsidas began writing the scripture in Vikram Samvat 1631 (1574 CE) in Avadhpuri, Ayodhya
- The exact date is stated within the poem as being the ninth day of the month of Chaitra, which is the birthday of Ram, Ram Navami
- A large portion of the poem was composed at Varanasi, where the poet spent most of his later life
- Tulsidas wrote ‘Ramcharitmanas’ in seven Kandas, and they are called Bala Kanda, Ayodhya Kanda, Aranya Kanda, Kishkindakand, Sundar Kanda, Lanka Kanda, and Uttar Kanda
- The number of verses in ‘Ramcharitmanas’ is 27, the number of Chopai is 4608, and the number of Doha in ‘Ramcharitmanas’ is 1074
No wonder they became interested in the Awadhi text as curious civil servants of the British Empire who were as dependent on intelligence gathering and social communication as on violence to govern the subjects.
Among the first printed versions of Ramcharitmanas was an 1810 edition published in Calcutta, the city which, partly due to the presence and patronage of the East India Company’s College of Fort William, popularly publishing in Hindi as well as Bengali, had its start. After the First War of Independence (1857), a significant expansion occurred in Manas printing. During the next two decades, at least seventy different editions of the epic appeared from publishing houses large and small, representing virtually every moderate-sized urban centre in north and south Bharat.
The oral tradition of Manas and its performatives underwent a radical change in colonial India. With the continuation of centuries-old oral tradition, Manas was rediscovering its new popularity under a new print culture.
The persistent criticism and attack on Sanatan Dharma by Christian missionaries initiated a cultural churn in the nineteenth century. Manas played a very crucial role in it.
It appeared as the handiest of scriptures and mainstream text par excellence. It was seen as a Bhakti work that orated reverence for cows, pleaded to be in accord with a comfortably undefined Veda, offered a satisfying synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism, and in the minds of many devotees, stood at the same time for spirited devotional egalitarianism. Sanatani leaders, whose rhetoric was increasingly coloured by anti-colonial sentiments, came to view the sacred epic as an inspired response to a Dark Age particularly characterised by “foreign” domination of Bharat.
Many political leaders used religious texts to mobilise the people against imperialism by conceptualising British rule as Satanic or Ravanraj (rule of the demons) and Swaraj as Ramraj –
(rule of God)
Undoubtedly, the most prominent Sanatani spokesman in the early twentieth century was Madan Mohan Malaviya, who led the campaign to establish a Hindu University in Banaras. A tireless advocate of cow protection and Devanagari script, Malaviya also issued a call for Manas Prachar– the promulgation of Tulsi’s epic: “Blessed are they who read or listen to Goswami Tulsidas-ji’s ‘Manas-Ramayan’. … But even more blessed are those people who print beautiful and inexpensive editions of the ‘Manas’ and place them in the hands of the very poorest people, thus doing them priceless service… At present ‘Manas-katha’ is going on in many towns and villages. But wherever it is not, it should begin, and its holy teachings should be ever more widely promulgated.”
Struggle against Islamic terrorism
- Tulsidas wrote ‘Ramcharitmanas’ when Bharat was facing Mughal invasions and Hindu temples were being destroyed
- During this period, the ‘Ramcharitmanas’ instilled
spiritual fervour and courage in the Hindus
One milestone for the Sanatani movement in the 1920s was founding of the Gita Press of Gorakhpur, publisher of the influential monthly Kalyan. The Press answered Malaviya’s call by churning out low-priced Manas editions of every size and description, sponsored contests to test children’s knowledge of Manas verses, encouraged mass recitation programmes and frequently published written exegesis by eminent Ramayanis like Jayramdas “Din” and Vijayanand Tripathi.
Even though such historical encounters have been dubbed “communalist” by Marxist historians, the use of religious and Dharmik rhetoric was prevalent to rally and mobilise the masses during the freedom struggle. Many political leaders used religious texts to mobilise the people against imperialism by conceptualising British rule as Satanic or Ravanraj (rule of the demons) and Swaraj as Ramraj – rule of God. It is remarkable how many significant leaders of anti-colonial struggle, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 – 1920), MK Gandhi (1869 – 1948), Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950), C Rajagopalachari (1878 – 1972), to name a few, were scholars of Ramayan and Bhagavad Gita and have contributed rich writings as commentaries on them. Mahatma Gandhi championed Ramayan and cow protection. So, he championed Swaraj as Ramraj. In Hind Swaraj (1909), he goes to great extent to underscore cow protection, so much so that he said, “the only method I know of protecting the cow is that I should approach my Mahomedan brother and urge him for the sake of the country to join me in protecting her.”
Inspiration during Independence movement
- The first printed versions of the ‘Ramcharitmanas’ was an 1810 edition published in Calcutta
- After the First War of Independence (1857), a significant expansion occurred in Manas printing
- During Independent movement, many political leaders used religious texts, especially ‘Ramcharitmanas’, to mobilise the people
- Baba Ram Chandra, a radical farmer leader, organised the farmers of Awadh into forming a united front to fight against the abuses of landlords in 1920s and 1930s
- Baba Ram Chandra used the ‘Ramcharitmanas’ in the Awadh countryside, not only to expose and oppose the British, but also to highlight the inner contradictions of the Indian society
These two themes, which saw a new kind of representation of Ramacharitmanas in Bharat during the colonial rule, are important not only for presenting a cultural history which is often downplayed, but also for a political one.
Ramacharitmanas as Political Action
Ramacharitmanas became the text of political action for illiterate peasants. While Marxists and subalterns have kept arguing about politicisation of the peasantry during the anti-colonial struggle, they don’t understand that Dharma and Raj-neeti of peasants in the countryside had different connotations and sources. Let us recall Baba Ram Chandra in Oudh and how he rallied peasants behind him.
Baba Ram Chandra (1864/1875–1950) was a radical peasant leader who organised the farmers of Awadh into forming a united front to fight against the abuses of landlords in 1920s and 1930s. Before that, he stayed in Fiji for thirteen years and actively participated in the movement to emancipate many indentured labourers. On his return to India, he settled in Ayodhya and became a sadhu.
Baba Ram Chandra used the Ramcharitmanas in the Awadh countryside to expose and oppose the British and highlight the inner contradictions of the Indian society. He used it to characterise the British, princes, landlords and the leaders of the national movement; to describe the condition of the peasants; to make the peasants aware of their exploitation and of the necessity to organise and assert their rights; to tell the peasants their duties during the national movement; and finally, what the achievement of Independence meant to the peasants as against the upper strata of society.
- SF Andrews wrote a book, The Renaissance in India, its missionary effect, in which he highlighted how Hindus are rooted in Dharma owing to the characterisation of Prabhu Sri Ram in the ‘Ramcharitmanas’
- Andrews considers ‘Ramcharitmanas’ one of the biggest hurdles missionaries faced in their conversion attempts
- Andrews admitted that ‘Ramcharitmanas’ keeps Hindus rooted in Dharma and brings spiritual solace to them
- Attack on Sanatan Dharm by Christian missionaries initiated a cultural churn in the nineteenth century and ‘Ramcharitmanas’ played a very crucial role in it
- ‘Ramcharitmanas’ brought followers of Vaishnavism and Shaivism together in the fight against foreign forces
A close reading of his papers housed at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library opened many interesting facets of how Ramacharitmanas was incorporated as a manifesto of political action against the British Raj. As soon as he used to enter a village, he would ‘blow’ the whistle of Sita Ram to collect the peasants and recite chaupais from the Ramayan. The slogan of Sita Ram later on developed into a war cry during the peasant movement in 1920-21. Anybody in distress would raise the cry, which would be repeated by whoever heard it. The cry would thus be relayed to the village and hundreds of peasants would soon converge at the point where the cry originated.
The slogan of Sita Ram became so famous and crucial that even a secularist like Jawaharlal Nehru couldn’t help himself from recording its impact. In his An Autobiography (1962), Nehru writes, “Sita Ram was an old common cry but he (Ram Chandra) gave it an almost war like significance and made it a signal for emergencies as well as a bond between different villages.”
Denigrating Hindu Bhagwan
Ramayan has also been subjugated to oppositional readings in the same anti-colonial struggle period by EV Ramasamy Periyar. He kept calling all the Sanatani scriptures as Brahmanical all his life. Periyar not only burnt Manusmirit in 1927, he led a campaign to burn Sri Ram’s portraits on a beach in Trichy in August 1956. Again in January 1971, Periyar led a massive rally in Salem during a ‘Superstition Eradication Conference’. Amid protests by Sanatanis and nationalists, the 92-year-old iconoclast and his followers were seen beating portraits of Ram with shoes. They also burnt an effigy of Sri Ram. “If they burn our Ravan, we’ll burn their Ram,” the protesters shouted.
During Indpendce movement, the slogan of Sita Ram became so famous and crucial that even a secularist like Jawaharlal Nehru couldn’t help himself from recording its impact
Lately, the recasting of Ravan as the wronged subaltern and Sri Ram as the scheming agent of imperialism has been made fashionable by many historians and political theorists. Especially in the context of Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Movement (1984-92), when these anti-Sanatani scholars found themselves losing the battle of culture, they subverted the discourse to make Ravan a ‘Dravidian’ icon. The same mindset makes Mahishasura a ‘Dalit’.
Now that the construction of Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Temple is on, a new set of attacks on Ramayana and its bhakti is understandable. These narrow-minded attackers fail to comprehend the scale and sacredness of Ramayana and how it makes Bharat and its people who they are. As per Goswami Tulsidas’ depiction, the Ramrajya that he elucidates in Ramacharitamanas is an order of morality under the stewardship of the Divine Himself. Thus Goswami provides a picture of an ideal commonwealth. And in such a utopia, Mahatma Gandhi finds the Swaraj for his countrymen. “By political independence I do not mean an imitation to the British House of commons, or the soviet rule of Russia or the Fascist rule of Italy or the Nazi rule of Germany. They have systems suited to their genius. We must have ours suited to ours. What can be is more than I can tell. I have described it as Ramarajya, i.e., sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority.” (Harijan, 2-1-1937) We imitated the “British House of commons” and even the “soviet rule”, but long after the independence, as few attacks on Ramacharitamanas shows, many of us couldn’t realise what was truly “ours”.