Bihar education minister, Chandra Shekhar, who belongs to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), said recently that Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas promoted “social discrimination and spread hatred in society”. To my mind, such a remark betrays a spectacular ignorance of the true intent of the Manas. My problem is not with the fact of his criticism. Hinduism allows for it. For instance, the philosopher Brihasapati, who founded the materialist Charvaka school around the seventh century BCE, said that the Vedas are bereft of sanctity. This was not considered blasphemy, and the Charvaka school remains a part of Hinduism.
Mahatma Gandhi, who had the utmost concern for the poor and the oppressed, regarded the Ramcharitmanas as the greatest book in all devotional literature. Tulsidas (1532-1623) was a bhakti poet. His subject of devotion was Maryada Purushottam Ram. For him, Ram was the personification of the adrishta (unseen), achintya (beyond thought), akhand (indivisible), sarvavyapi (omnipresent), poorna (complete) and nirguna (attribute-less) Brahman of the Upanishads and the Advaita philosophy developed by Adi Shankaracharya (788-820). As he writes: “Ram Brahma paramaratharupa, abigataalalkhaanadianupa: Shri Rama is no other than Brahman, the supreme Reality, unknown, imperceptible, beginningless, incomparable, changeless and beyond all diversity.”
If Ram is in essence the nirguna (attribute-less) Absolute, his human avatara is his saguna (attribute-full) form. But the two are actually the same. Tulsi writes: “Agunasaguna dui Brahma svarupa: Nirguna and saguna are two aspects of the same Brahman.” Or again: “Agunaarupaalakhajjoi, bhagata prem basasaguna so hoi: There is no difference between nirguna Brahman, which becomes saguna due to a devotee’s love.” If, therefore, in the Manas, Ram is actually the nirguna cosmic consciousness that pervades the whole universe, and is in all of us as the Atman, how can it be accused of social discrimination?
An incident from Adi Shankaracharya’s life both explicates and endorses this view. As per the story, Shankara, then in Varanasi, was going to the Ganga to bathe when he came upon a “chandala”, someone from the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. Brahmins were supposed to be “defiled” by the very presence of this caste, and the disciples of Shankara asked the chandala to move out of the way. However, the chandala retorted by asking the question: “How do differences such as ‘This is a chandala and this is a Brahmin arise in the Advaita doctrine? After all, it is the same atman that is present in each of us, irrespective of caste.’”
On hearing this, Shankara promptly exclaimed that anyone who sees Brahman as the sole reality and recognises the atman as the same in all, is worthy of respect. All other distinctions are false, and the chandala who has realised the unity of the supreme consciousness, is akin to my guru. Shankara then composed the Manishapanchakamon the spot, where he emphatically stated: “Chandalostusatudvijostugururityeshamansisha mama: Be it a chandala, or be it a twice born, both as part of that supreme consciousness, are my gurus, this is my resolve.”
Human divisions are created by Maya. When Lakshman asks Ram to explain Maya, Ram — in Tulsi’s words — replies with remarkable poetic brevity: “Main aru mora tora tai maya, jehinbasakinhejivanikaya: The false feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and ‘you’ and ‘yours’ is maya, which holds all created beings under its sway.” Ram further adds: “Gyanamaanajahanekaunahin, dekha Brahma samaanasabamaahin: Spiritual wisdom has no sense of superiority or pride, and sees the Supreme Spirit equally in all.”
In his saguna form, Ram is the symbol of compassion. When he is born, Tulsi writes: “BhayepragatakripaladinadayalaKaushalyahitkari: The gracious Lord, who is compassionate to the lowly and the benefactor of Kaushalya appeared.” In a famous bhajan written by Tulsi in the Vinay Patrika, he describes Ram in the same manner: “Shri Ramchandra kripalubhajumana, haranabhavabhayadarunam: O mind, worship the compassionate Lord Ram, who removes the fear of death and rebirth.” To Bharat, Ram says: “Para hitasarisadharamnahin bhai, par peedasamanahinadhamai: Brother, there is no greater dharma than concern for other’s welfare, and nothing worse than oppressing another.” Tulsi’s bhakti, in its philosophical dimension which is its prime focus, allows for no differentiation in accordance with human categories. During his meeting with Shabari, Ram explains to Lakshman: “Jaatipaati kula dharma badaii, dhanabalaparijanagunachaturai, bhagatiheennarasohaikaisa, binujalabaridadekhiyejaisa: Despite caste, kinship, lineage, dharma, position, wealth, strength, accomplishments and family, a man lacking in devotion is of no more worth than a cloud without water.”
The Ramcharitmanas contains 12,800 lines, divided into 1073 stanzas and seven kands. It ranks among the greatest works of world literature, and is akin to the Bible for many Hindus. To take one line or two from such an epic — which could well be later interpolations — to malign the entire Ramcharitmanas is an act of unforgiveable hubris. Of course, caste and gender discrimination (the Uttara Kanda on Ram’s controversial treatment of Sita is in Valmiki’s Ramayan, not the Manas) were condemnable then as they are now. Tulsi was a product of his times; nor was he a social reformer, or completely without biases; but to say that the Manas promotes hatred displays an egregious ignorance of the profound philosophical nature of the epic, where Ram, as the personification of the nirguna Brahman, is in equal measure in all, the high and the low. People in public life should refrain from sweeping generalisations based on half-baked knowledge. Tulsidas knew the reason why they still do this: “Nahinkouasajanama jaga maahi, prabhuta pai jahinmadanahin: Never was a creature born in this world whom power did not intoxicate.”...