Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran has started extolling the virtues of the Ramayana. He reads from a script and his voice carries neither conviction nor authenticity. The message is not spiritual but political, aimed at the BJP-RSS-Hindutva combine: It’s our baby too!
Poet-Minister G. Sudhakaran said last year that Ravana was more decent then Rama. Now he says the Ramayana is classic literature and the new generation should be aware of it. That’s a sign of the changing times. The CPM seems to be wallowing in confusion. To read or not to read – that’s the million dollar question.
Believed to have been composed by Valmiki between 700 and 500 B.C., this heart-rending Sanskrit masterpiece comprises seven texts - Balakanda, Ayodhyakanda, Aranyakanda, Kiskindakanda, Sundarakanda, Yuddhakanda and Uttarkanda – each describing a crucial phase in the life of the ideal man (purushottam) Rama, son of Dasaratha.
Rama’s image, however, is not unblemished. His rejection of Sita, his treatment of Surpanaka, and the treacherous killing of the monkey king Vali, serve to tear apart the flimsy veil of perfection. Rama is a man after all. To uphold dharma he publicly humiliates his wife. He speaks cruel words. He listens to gossip. Yes, he is an avatar of Vishnu, but he is not flawless.
Valmiki first teaches the Ramayana to Lava and Kusa, the twin sons of Rama born to Sita after she was abandoned in the forest. The boys recite the poem to Rama, King of Ayodhya. The delightful composition adorned with similie and metaphor, hyperbole and many other figures of speech, moves languidly from climax to anticlimax again and again, until it culminates in tragedy.
There is tragedy at the beginning too - the curse on Dasaratha - which appears later in a flashback. Dasaratha’s childlessness and the miracle cure, Kaikeyi’s boon, Ravana’s abduction of Sita in his aircraft, Rama’s use of the monkey brigade, Hanuman’s ocean-crossing, and the Lanka war, all serve to hold the audience spellbound.
Surprisingly, the word ‘lakshmanrekha’ appears nowhere in the text. The Pampa is said to be full of lotuses. The Yamuna has swans and water-birds. Yes, there are surprises aplenty.
The oldest available version of the Ramayana is dated to the 11th century. The Adyatma Ramayanam is of the 16th century. Some interesting quotes from the Valmiki Ramayana (English translation by Arshia Sattar) are presented here, with a focus on the lesser known narratives.
We learn that the sons of Dasaratha recited the gayatri mantra. “The princes bathed and recited the gayatri, the best of all mantras.” I thought the gayatri was a Brahmin privilege. Here we have kshatriyas reciting it too. And what’s more, on his arrival in Lanka,”...In the hour before dawn, Hanuman heard virtuous rakshasas chanting the Vedas.”
When Rama is reluctant to kill Tataka because she is a woman, Viswamitra advises him, “Rama, for the welfare of the Brahmins and the cows, you must kill this wicked yakshi ....Have no hesitation about killing a woman, for you must do what is best for the four castes. A king must do what will benefit his subjects, even if it is unrighteous, for such is his duty. Don’t you know how Indra killed Manthara...?”
Lakshmana says to Rama, “How can a man like you, who stands so strong and proud in the dharma of the kshatriya, sing praises of this thing called destiny? Fate is the refuge of the weak and the impotent.” Now this should sound familiar to our Marxist brothers. Remember what Marx said about religion being the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’ and the ‘opium of the masses’?
When Rama refuses to take Sita with him to the forest, she exclaims “How did my father, the king of Mithila and the lord of the Videhas, get you, a woman disguised as a man for a son-in-law!” Later in the forest, Rama says to Lakshmana, “When I think of the disaster that has befallen me as a result of the king’s infatuation
I feel the pursuit of pleasure must be even more compelling than the pursuit of wealth or dharma. Even an ignorant man would not renounce his son for the sake of a beautiful woman.”
To Bharata who comes to visit him in the forest, Rama says, “Bharata, no man can do exactly as he pleases, for he is not his own master. His fate drags him hither and thither. All wealth is spent, men rise only to fall, all unions lead to separations, and death is the end of life...Days and nights move on, diminishing the lives of all beings, just as surely as the heat of the sun dries up the moisture in the earth...We rejoice when we see the sun rise every morning and set every evening without realising that with it our lives are passing too.”
Few of us are aware that Ravana wasn’t the first Asura to get hold of Sita. The rakshasa Viradha appears in the Dandaka forest, grabs Sita, and issues dire threats to the Ram- Lakshman duo, whereupon Rama says to his brother, “I cannot bear the thought of Sita being touched by another man.
It upsets me more than the death of my father and the loss of my kingdom.” This is so typically human, so macho male, so credible in ‘modern’ society, it reinforces one’s belief in the immutability of the male psyche.
In the wilderness, Sita warns Rama of the dangers of mindless violence. She expresses the view that the mind is perverted by proximity to weapons. “Like dry fuel bursts into flame when it is near a fire, so too, a Kshatriya’s passions are ignited when he has a bow at hand....May it never happen that you attack the Rakshasas of the forest without reason, simply because you carry a weapon. I cannot bear the thought of innocents being killed, O hero! A Kshatriya should use his bow in the forest only to protect the oppressed.”
In Lanka, Ravana says to the rakshasis, “Take Sita to the Asoka grove and guard her zealously, safe from prying eyes. Threaten her and cajole her alternately, the way wild elephants are tamed. Convince her that she must accede to my wishes!” But Rakshasas have their code of honour too. Ravana tells Sita, “Let my body be ravaged by desire, I will not touch you until you want me to.
Trust me, you have nothing to fear.” I guess the erudite minister G. Sudhakaran was right about Ravana – the guy wasn’t so bad after all. War over. Ravana killed, Sita reclaimed. Then comes what Shakespeare would have called ‘the unkindest cut of all’. Rama tells Sita in the presence of the monkeys and the Eakshasas, “I have done my duty by rescuing you from the enemy and avenging the insult to myself. You should know that this war, which was won by the heroic efforts of my friends, was not fought for your sake. I did it to vindicate my honour and to save my noble family from disgrace...I have no more use for you, Sita! How can a man born into a noble family lovingly take back a woman who has lived in the house of a strange man?”
The similies and imagery are simply out of this world. “Blood poured from Sugriva’s body like cascades from a mountain.” And “Stunned by the blow, Vali reeled, as a small boat carrying merchants and their goods is rocked upon the ocean.” Ravana tells Sita, “My love for you makes me hold back my anger, as a good charioteer reins in his horses that have gone off the road. Love is a terrible bind! ” On the battlefield Indrajit says to Lakshmana, “My arrows shall consume you the way the fire consumes bales of cotton!”
Dasaratha welcomes Viswamitra with the words, “Your visit here has made me as happy as if I had obtained the nectar of immortality. Your presence is like rain in drought, like the birth of a son to a childless man, like the recovery of wealth for a man who has lost everything. I welcome you from the bottom of my heart.” Our politicians would do well to turn the pages of the Ramayana once in a while.
Dasaratha sends his son and crown prince to the forest. Rama sends his pregnant wife to the forest. Pathos is a common thread that runs right through the epic poem. At every twist and turn it tugs at the heart-strings. In that sense the Ramayana is beyond religion.
In our globalized world in the twenty first century is it necessary to read the same book more than once? Why not? After all, the Ramayana has captured the imagination of millions. Today it is performed all over south-east Asia, most prominently in Indonesia, a Muslim country. Malabar has a Mappilla Ramayanam and you can hear Comrade T K Hamza quote from it on youtube. M N Karassery who stumbled upon it in the midst of his research, has spoken about the pertinent questions the discovery threw up. Do Muslims need the Ramayana? Does the Ramayana need Muslims? Similarly we need to ask in the present context: Can today’s communists afford to ignore the lessons of the Ramayana? Well, not when an election is round the corner.
Politics apart, there are only a few things a human being can do again and again without feeling bored. Reading the Ramayana is one of them.
(The author is an IT professional)...