Recently, a few public figures made uncharitable observations regarding Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. While one of them objected to certain lines from the Sundar Kaand, the other issued a summary dismissal calling it a text that foments social discord. This episode of hostility towards Tulsidas—although not without precedent—stirred a major controversy, leading to mudslinging, libels and lawsuits. But responses from both sides were largely emotive, with little or no reference to the great Indian tradition of reading, reciting and performing the text of Ramcharitmanas.
Ramcharitmanas and the Popular Ethos
According to Italo Calvino, every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading. Arguing after Calvino, one can easily assert that no Indian reads Ramyan or Ramcharitmanas for the first time. Much before we approach the text of the epic—whether Valmiki’s Sanskrit original or Tulsidas’s epoch- making Awadhi translation—we are already familiar with its plot. This is because the story of Ram and his clan comes to us through multiple sources. Through edifying anecdotes fondly narrated by our grandparents; through bhajans played out every morning by temple loudspeakers; through numerous television adaptations; through Amar Chitra Katha and animated tales of Baal Hanuman and through the annual autumn Ramleela, performed at thousands of locales all across our country. It is beyond doubt that the story of Ram has a strong sacred dimension. The shrine place in many Hindu homes proudly display a copy of Ramcharitmanas on a wooden rehal, wrapped carefully in red muslin cloth. Most of us would have seen akhand or uninterrupted readings of Ramcharitmanas, organised ritually with all the scriptural precautions. For some of us, the text is an article of family inheritance, passed on through generations. That’s how I got my copy of the epic, first bought by my grandfather in the 1950s. However, this religiosity notwithstanding, an average Indian’s experience will tell you that Ram’s story takes far greater space in our collective popular imagination than in our spiritual musings. Our ability to quote spontaneously from the text or cite examples from Ramcharitmanas to buttress an argument at workplace is based on the simple truth that Tulsidas is an inalienable part of our everyday lived experiences. It covers nearly every sphere of our lives — from instruction to entertainment. It is available for multiple use and appropriation. And therefore, as Tulsidas avers in Bal Kaand, जाकी रही भावना जैसी, प्रभु मूरत देखी तिन तैसी (Lord’s countenance mirrors a devotee’s truest intentions).
Disregarding the Great Tradition
In the light of the divine everydayness of Ramcharitmanas, its dismissal by a few politicians—who call it exclusionary and alienating—stands in blatant disregard of the great tradition. Ironically, this great tradition originates in the Bhakti Movement and is fundamentally democratic in its orientation. Bhakti literature sought to bring a devotees in direct contact with the deity. Poets like Surdas, Mirabai and Tulsidas emphasised spiritual awakening over rituals and in a clear sense undermined the priestly class’s iron grip over Sanatan faith. In fact, by rendering the Sanskrit epic into Awadhi, the language of the masses, Tulsidas incurred the wrath of the orthodox Brahmins of Banaras. As Rohini Chowdhury writes in her introduction to the Penguin edition of Ramcharitmanas, “Despite this initial disapproval by the Brahmins, it became hugely popular amongst other groups, especially the merchant caste and lower orders of society, and soon acquired the status and religious authority usually enjoyed only by Sanskrit texts.” Clearly, contrary to what one of the politicians claimed, the text does command sacred veneration, even though the extent of its religious authority may have exceeded Tulsidas’s original design.
Our ability to quote spontaneously from the Ramcharitmanas or cite examples from the epic to buttress an argument at workplace is based on the simple truth that Tulsidas is an inalienable part of our everyday lived experiences
Ever since it was composed, Ramcharitmanas served as the greatest social binder in India. This is particularly true of the Ramcharitmanas-based Ramleelas. Based on her study of the two-hundred old Ramnagar Ramleela, Linda Hess points out that even though “no systematic survey was taken, we observed in several years of attendance that the audience included many merchants, office workers, and shop employees of modest means. In addition we met students, farmers, labourers, and bureaucrats, some bureaucrats, some quite poor, some quite prosperous, some educated, some not.” Hess’s assessment speaks volumes about the spirit of inclusion that Ramcharitmanas inspires, offering a sharp rejoinder to charges of divisiveness hurled at it.
Towards the end of the Sundar Kaand, a repentant Sagar or the Sea God avers, “ढोल गँवार शुद्र पसु नारी, सकल ताड़ना के अधिकारी” (drums, idiots, sh-udras and women—they all deserve to be chastised). In this episode, Sagar has been disciplined by Ram for his rude refusal to offer a passage to Lanka. When faced with Ram’s wrath, Sagar yields and makes a desperate case for mercy. To my mind, there are three ways of reading these lines. First, it must be remembered that the Sagar is no source of authority or wisdom in the text. His sociological insights are those of a braggart and therefore not to be taken seriously. In Ramcharitmanas Tulsidas offers a laboriously detailed account of social mores prevalent in his times—wart and all. In his epic, the sagacious characters speak their mind, as do the vile ones; this is how writers manage to capture the complexity of any milieu. But that doesn’t mean the writer endorses each of the views expressed by his characters. The social mores reflected in Sagar’s views are not the ones Tulsidas is likely to have endorsed.
Secondly, it is possible that in the original manuscript, the word ताड़न (chastise/thrashing) was तारण implying redemption or moksha, a final release from the burdensome earthy existence. While one may argue what good is moksha to ढोल drum, but considering, Tulsidas’s gift for wordplay, it cannot be ruled out completely. Thirdly, any writer or poet should to be read in terms of the totality of his ideas and oeuvre, rather than a through a stray reference. As argued earlier, the central thrust in Tulsidas’s oeuvre is Bhakti or devotion, rather than rituals. And devotion recognises no caste, creed or gender. In Kiskindh Kaand of Ramcharitmanas, when Sabri is gripped by doubts over her ability to be of service to Ram, the latter reassures her saying he only recognises bonds of Bhakti and love. Ram further adds:-
जाति पाँति कुल धमर् बड़ाई । धन बल पिरजन गुन चतुराई ॥
भगित हीन नर सोहइ कैसा । बिनु जल बारिद देिखअ जैसा ।।
Caste, station, clan, sect, fame, wealth, might, family, skills or intelligence—nothing matters to me.
A man without Bhakti is as useless as a could without rainwater.
In yet another episodes, Tulsidas reflects on the plight of the women and laments the state of servitude they are made to suffer. It must be added here that these observations are made by Maina, Parvati’s mother, on the occasion of latter’s marriage. She says:
कति बिध सृजी नारी जग माही, पराधीन सपनेहु सुख नाहीं।
How unfairly is a woman’s lot forged in our society; a chained soul can’t even dream of happiness.
Reading 16th Ramcharitmanas requires an honest appreciation of the world Tulsidas inhabited; its literary propriety, poetic conventions, narrative techniques, politics of writing etc. are different from ours. Applying 20th century critical parameters to a text that predates them by five-hundred years is reckless anachronism. In all fairness, Marxist theoretical assumptions, borne out of the experiences of industrialised Europe in the 19th century, cannot be summoned at the trial of Tulsidas. Yet, with or without ‘progressive’ certification, the enduring charm of Ramacharitamanas suggests that it resonates with all sections of the society and speaks for the downtrodden. Throughout the epic, we see Ram forging bonds of friendship with those on the periphery. The famous Marxist critic Ramvilas Sharma was also of the same opinion. For him, Ramcharitmanas exuded unmistakable with anti-feudal stance. And by extension, against the rigidities of caste and certainly pro-women.
Ramcharitmanas in Nationalist Consciousness
As historians like Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey have argued, the agrarian mobilisation during freedom movement had a distinctly religious character. It is a well documented fact that Ramcharitmanas payed a seminal role in mobilising the masses during the nationalists movement. For example, between 1920 and 1950, an Indian runaway from Fiji used Ramcharitmanas to unify the caste-ridden rural populace in Jaunpur and Pratapgarh districts of Oudh. In his forceful speeches and writings, Shreedhar Balwant Jodhpurkar (or Baba Ramachandra, as he was popularly called) not only used couplets from Ramcharitmanas to mobilise people against the Ravan or the British rule, but also emphasised the definition of Bharat which could be derived from the epic. Such was the popularity of Baba Ramachandra that even someone like Nehru was forced to admit that, “Sita-
Ram was an old common cry but he [Baba Ramachandra] gave it an almost war like significance and made it a signal for emergencies as well as a bond between different villages.”
The central thrust in Tulsidas’s oeuvre is Bhakti or devotion, rather than rituals. And devotion recognises no caste, creed or gender
During freedom struggle, Tulsidas became an important source of ‘national’ authority. Modern concepts were refracted through his verses and contemporary forces were examined with reference to representation of politics in Ramcharitmanas . In an essay published in January 1936 issue of Hans, Tulsi‘s Ram is compared to Kalidas‘s Dushyant to explore the features of an ideal king and an ideal kingdom. Tulsi Jayanti [Tulsidas’s birthday] became an important event and his couplets describing the ideal politician, his concept of Lok Dharma and descriptions of the relationship between the leader and the masses were idealised. To the Hindu mind, he was a Rasthtrakavi (national poet) and a defender of the Sanatan faith, particularly at a time when the Mughals were on an ascendancy.
The popularity and sagacity of Tulsidas’s epic was such that even the skeptical Indologists and Orientalists were charmed it. By 1880s Frederic Growse had made Ramcharitmanas available to English-language readers through his translation. Similarly, George Abraham Grierson, the editor of the monument Linguistic Survey of India wrote several articles about the Tulsidas in influential journals of the day. He called Tulsidas “the greatest of Indian authors of modem times,” and further argued that no sage or poet since Buddha has left a greater imprint on Indian social psyche. This is indeed true of the ageless Harikatha as told by Tulsidas.