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In conversation with Dr. Heeraman Tiwari on Ram Charit Manas

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Kanad Sinha in conversation with Dr. Heeraman Tiwari

Kanad Sinha: As we know, there is so much debate about the nature of the Rāmakathā tradition. How do you perceive the Rāmakathā tradition? Is it a tradition centred on one ur-text, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, which gradually inspired a wide range of texts; or is it an open tradition formed by several independent versions of the Rāmakathā, each equally valid on its own right, which is known as the ‘many Rāmāyaṇas’ approach ?

Heeraman Tiwari: Yes, your question on the Rāmakathā tradition should be split in two parts. One is the tradition where the story of Rāma is disseminated, chanted, recited and explained to the masses. That is one aspect. In the case of the Rāmcaritmānas, it becomes the base for most of the Hindi-speaking Rāmakathāvācakas. That is certainly true that it becomes a base. However, when you go and listen to these vacanas or kathās from various people, starting from very professional ones to certain devotees – and in modern times there are so many including Murari Bapu – who base themselves precisely on the literature and the story of the Rāmcaritmānas, but when they are narrating the story the narration also goes back to what you mentioned as the ‘ur-text’. That in itself of course has a problem. What, after all, is an ‘ur-text’? But if you ask what is the ‘ur-text’ for the Rāmcaritmānas, I will begin by saying that yes, Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa is the ‘ur-text’ because the storyline is absolutely the same. However, the tradition you mentioned as ‘many Rāmāyaṇas’ which (in regional languages) begins with Kampan[i] and continues up to Kṛttibāsa,[ii] a senior contemporary of Tulsīdās, they all incorporate not only the ‘ur-text’ that is the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki but also include so many other stories which had been hinted in the kathās, particularly in the Rāmcaritmānas of Tulsīdās who takes (his material) from all the Purāṇas and other smṛtis, as indeed he has said. Let me recite it. From the very beginning he openly claims that whatever he is going to write is not only based on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. He says: “nānāpurāṇa-nigamāgamasammatam”. It includes many Purāṇas and auxiliary texts, Upapurāṇas, and whatever is the essence of them. He in fact recreates those Purāṇas through the stories of the Rāmāyaṇa. “Rāmāyaṇe nigaditam kvacid anyato’api” – he also says that it is not only Rāmāyaṇa and the related texts like the Purāṇas, but kvacid anyato’ api that there are so many things I am writing here which are drawn from non-Rāmāyaṇa tradition. Therefore, the Rāmāyaṇa of Tulsīdās, or Rāmcaritmānas as its technical name is, is unique. The closest that comes to the Rāmcaritmānas is the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa. In a way, the pattern had been set by the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa. Some people have gone to the extent of saying that the Rāmcaritmānas is one of the versions of the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa. So it is a long, long story.

But to come back to your initial question of the Rāmakathā, you have these people who narrate and recite the story and disseminate it with multiple purposes. One is of course to extol the divine virtue of this god Rāma, which changes (its character) from the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa up to the medieval period of Tulsīdās. So, you have vācakas who pick up the story from the Rāmcaritmānas and suddenly take a flight into this vast literature which may or may not be authenticated by anybody, many of them coming from what we know as folk tales.

 

K.S: Exactly. That leads us to our next question. What is the source of Tulsīdās’s Rāmcaritmānas in particular or how we locate the various regional ramakathas in general, within the rāmakathā tradition? Should it be considered an Avadhi rendering of Valmiki's text or an independent text deriving materials from Valmiki as well as regional oral traditions, folk traditions as you mentioned, and also the tradition of saguna bhakti which is becoming popular? It is 16th-century Benares where Tulsīdās is composing his text and many of his contemporaries in both nirguṇa and saguṇa bhakti tradition, Bhaktism and Sufism, are at their height. So, one way of looking at Tulsīdās’s Rāmcaritmānas is as an independent bhakti text just like the poems of Kabir or Mīrā or Surdās. Or we can take it as an Avadhi rendering of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa primarily, deriving materials from other sources as well. As A.K.Ramanujan has indicated, it is possible to think of iconic, indexical or symbolic translations of the Valmiki Ramāyaṇa, and he would probably consider it an indexical translation. What is your take on this?

H.T: Absolutely. Your question has led to what I would naturally speak next about. It is whether we can somehow pigeonhole this text as a text furthering the bhakti tradition, which is quite old by now, nearly a 900 year old tradition. The answer would be not exclusively yes, but flatly yes. You can look at it as (a text) derived from the bhakti tradition. However, we cannot forget the fact, as you also mentioned and A.K. Ramanujan has beautifully shown, that it can be an indexical translation (because) it grounds itself very much in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa tradition. When I say Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa tradition, I do not say only about the Vālmīki text we have today. We have Kampan, we have the other texts, and we of course have the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa which I mentioned as one of the sources. So we have no one source. The second part of the answer to your question is that can it be codified or simply labelled as a text which is simply a rendering of the story of Rāma? Obviously not, just as it cannot be considered only a text of bhakti, although bhakti is a motif in the text. A difference between this text and any other text is that here somehow the main character of Lord Rāma has been kept by Tulsī above reproach. There is not even one place except one running mention where he says “siya-nindaka-agha-ogha nasāye/ loka-bisoka-banāi basāye” acknowledging the fact that Rāma is a character which has been criticised. This (criticism of Rāma) is available in several versions beginning with the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa up to the Telugu Rāmāyaṇa. In Kampan, it has been detailed. And not to forget a text like Uttararāmacaritam which I consider a text within the Rāmāyaṇa tradition.[iii] It is not merely a drama. It is a text very much grounded in the Rāmāyaṇa tradition, written from – as I look at it – a Feminist perspective (but I am not putting any extra weight on that). Pratimānāṭakam is another (important) text.[iv]

But, when we come back to Tulsī, in the 16th century when he is writing, many things are happening. First of all, he has the luxury of so many other texts in this tradition. He may or may not have read all of them. But, he is aware of them. Certainly he is aware of Kampan’s great text of the twelfth century. He is obviously aware of the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa because you can almost see the parallel. And he is aware of many others stories which he refers to as anyataḥ api, (from) certain texts which are not necessarily called Rāmāyaṇa texts, but playing on the stories or glories or travels of the Rāmāyaṇa characters or Rāmāyaṇa episodes. So, it is such a complex text that to ask whether it is a text which can be called a text in the bhakti tradition, the answer will be yes and no. It’s a complexity derived from the fact that it considers itself to be a representative of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa but somehow it tries to bring about a narrative of the story on the time that he is living in. And he is obsessed with his time. He feels that something has gone wrong with the society and this is the story which will bring the people back on the track. So, people have gone to the extent of calling it ‘Hindu revivalism’, ‘caste revivalism.’ There are many, many problems in the text with which you and I, when we read the text, can’t really agree. But the sheer attractiveness of the text is such, not only of the language, but of the meaning and all the tropes of poetry that he uses, I as a speaker of Avadhi have no hesitation in saying this, until I grew up old enough to read the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa, I did not know that there was any other Rāmāyaṇa but Tulsī. So, such is the sweep of his reach in the region where it is spoken. And now of course it is almost universal. And just to mention one (more) thing quickly, as you know that a major research was done in the early '90s by Philip Lutgendorf, called ‘The Life of a Text’, which also discusses the same thing and tries to go into the spirit of the narrative, not only of Tulsī’s Rāmāyaṇa. He in fact says what it is (in the text) that this text becomes the basis for so many Rāmakathās or Rāmakathā-vācakas.

 

K.S: Exactly. That way, as I had said in the start, though there are many texts within the Rāmakathā tradition, probably Tulsī’s is the most popular one. Even someone like Paula Richman, who believes in the ‘many Rāmāyaṇas interpretation, agrees that there are some Rāmāyaṇas which can be considered authoritative, and she names four of them: one is Vālmīki’s, one is Kampan’s, one is Tulsīdās’s and the fourth is the Ramanand Sagar teleseial.  And even among these four, at least in North India, Tulsī transcended every other available version. As you said that for a long time you were not aware that there were other Rāmāyaṇas apart from Tulsī…

H.T: That I am saying because of the society that I come from, the level of education…But it is a text that is available. The story is available. In fact, it is as A.K.Ramanujan had famously said, “no Indian reads the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata for the first time.” So, even if I read the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, to me it was only, as I was a person engrossed in the story, more enchanting than disappointing that this was a different text. It could also be my bias towards the text. As I had grown up with the thing, so I look at other texts through the prism of Tulsīdās…

 

 

K.S: And not through the prism of Vālmīki even though it is expected that every other Rāmakathā would be seen through the prism of Vālmīki?

H.T: Exactly.

 

K.S: We actually experience that. Even in the class when we ask the students (the question) who composed the Rāmāyaṇa, everybody does not answer Vālmīki. A large number of the students answer Tulsīdās.

H.T: You know, there are two aspects to this thing: the popularity of the text, and the reach of the text. Now, how it happened is a totally different event. You know the academic debate that you and I may agree or may not agree to. That is one thing. The other (thing) is not only the reach, but the easy availability of the text, which is what should bring us to the discussion in the beginning of the Rāmcaritmānas where Tulsī starts justifying why he should write such a great story which has come from this great tradition of Sanskrit and also, we must say, Tamil which was already a very popular tradition, and other traditions. He goes on to justify that because the story is so powerful that it does not matter in what language you write. He uses bhades for his language which is Avadhi mixed with Braj of the region: “bhaniti bhades bastu bhali baranīBhades is a term which is a Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani term for bhadda which is abhadra, ‘non-elite, ‘a commoner.’ He even uses the word which is used in the Sanskrit tradition as a villager’s language. Not an educated person speaks or uses that language. That hesitation we still watch today when we see people are hesitant to use their regional languages. That’s a problem not of the nineteenth or twentieth century. As you can see, in the sixteenth century he notices this thing that he is writing the Rāmāyaṇa in a language that he believed, and how right he was, will reach the masses.

But the other question, as I said, that should be explored if there was any movement, and I personally don’t agree that there was any movement to push it. It’s a question of two things: the power of this tool and the manner in which it was written. You look at the text. Almost each chaupāī would have a kind of reference where you can go and find the source, not necessarily in the classical Sanskrit tradition. You will find it in the Purāṇas and Smṛtis and (also), as he calls it, in the folk traditions.

 

K.S: Right. Actually, rather than speaking of a movement to push the text, I think there is something in the very nature of the Rāmakathā tradition itself. So, Rāmāyaṇa is a textual tradition. But Rāmakathā is equally an oral performative tradition as well. And, as we know, Vākmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa probably originated as an oral tradition sung by the kuśīlava bards. So, that way, when we look at the present day Rāmakathā as a performative tradition, like the Rāmlīlās, they are primarily based on Tulsī. And speaking of Lutgendorf also, when we look at the Ramanand Sagar teleserial, which is also quite authoritative, its primary basis is again Tulsīdās.

H.T: But the question is who grants the authority? When you say ‘authoritative text’, authority can come from those who are scholars or considered scholars – sambhrāntas, ārṣas – who could simply say this is this. The story is, as you know and everybody knows, so ingrained in the public and the society that to differentiate it from the textual tradition as you and I study, the academic exercise, from the very nature of its, what we call, oral tradition, performative tradition, folk tradition (is difficult). Therefore the idea that someone is pushing it is one thing, you could follow this argument. But my own suspicion is that it won’t take us very far. What would take us, as you just mentioned, the power of the story and the tradition. It is part of an intellectual and emotional exercise.

 

K.S: And performance also. When it is in the vernacular, people can relate to it.

H.T: Yes, (they can) relate to it, and when it is in the vernacular it must be able to disseminate the smell of that region, of that language. Therefore, the tradition, as I said, derives from many, many traditions. It has direct links with what you called the performative tradition. By the time Tulsi was writing it, the story was (known) through many folk theatres (likes of which) we call nauṭaṅkī in our villages. The parts of the Rāmāyaṇa are taken and expanded (in performances). Sometimes, you see the fusion and bringing forward of the stories from the other epic, the Mahābhārata, and other traditions, and it is turned into what you call an art, performative art, which becomes a very sophisticated art to present before an audience which is aware of the story and which is also aware of the fact that this is a cultural heritage at the head of which there is a god. And that tradition then will call in other texts, both folk texts and the classical text.

 

K.S: As you mentioned the point of the god, and you also mentioned how Tulsī’s Rāma is above reproach, he is different from the Rāma definitely in Vālmīki where Rāma is primarily a man and even in the texts like Kampan and Kṛttibāsa, where Rāma is god but there are also his critics…

H.T: But Rāma is a god even in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. He is (also) referred to as someone who is envied by the god…

 

K.S: Rather than being a god. Even Nārada says that all the qualities Vālmīki seeks are lacking in even the gods, but are available in one person…

H.T: Therefore you have to differentiate from our academic exercise that there are (perceptions of) gods which have been gifted to us through the Vedic tradition. Certain gods are the elements of the universe, the physical world, which have been turned into gods. What is a god? Someone who bestows/gifts certain things. Tulsī says, for example, something which is not very different from the Vālmīki tradition. In some sense it reflects that (tradition). He uses a Hindustani-Urdu term derived from Persian: garib nawaj. “gaī bahor garīb navajū/ saral sabal sāhibu raghurājū”. What is his Rāma? He is someone with a capacity to return to you or to his devotees whatever is lost of them, “gaī bahor”: he will return that. He is there somehow straddling at the line which can go to a philosophy and a to bhakti tradition or to a material thing. So the devotion is not devoid of the expectations of returns from the god. There is no devotion which can be simply selfless devotion. That term looks empty here. So ‘gaī bahor’. And ‘saral sabal.” Not only that, he uses the word sarala: straightforward, no complications; which means that he is critiquing the ritual traditions where so many other ways of rituals have to be performed in a very complex manner to be able to propitiate a god or please a god to get the desired result. Here, sarala. And sabala? He has every power. And sahib? He is the god. And who is he? Raghurājū. So, each word that he uses, to me at least, is also critiquing certain tradition and, therefore, (is) chiselling this new character, this god called Rāma, in his text who is supreme.

 

K.S: And he is creating a new theology?

H.T: A new theology around that, which is why I say (that) he is chiselling a god, which is creating a new theology. That theology somehow captured the imagination.

 

K.S: As he created a new theology, the Rāmcaritmānas in the Hindi belt is not just one rendering of the Rāmakathā, it’s the most important scripture for a huge number of people in the Hindi belt.

H.T: I was trying to avoid using the word ‘scripture’ because… it brings to our mind which is called the ‘one text.’ But, Tulsī in the beginning somehow rejects the whole idea of ‘one text.’ He brings a new theology and there is one god, there is one power around which everything has to work. So you and I, or the readers or the receivers, the audience, consider it as scripture. He is of course projecting, he is saying simply that you don’t have to follow any ritual: “bhāv kubhāv anakh ālasahūm/ nām japat maṅgal disi dasahūṃ.” It doesn’t matter whether you have followed a proper ritual to sit down and read the Rāmāyaṇa or chant the name of Rāma. Whatever condition you recite (in), it will always be beneficial to you. So, of course he is projecting within the text a tradition which is a new theology. And that theology circles around the nām of the god. So the nām, the name, becomes very important throughout the text of Tulsī.

 

K.S:  Even if it is not Tulsī’s intention to project it as the ‘one text’, I am speaking about the reception. For a huge number of people in the Hindi belt, this is the ‘one text’ to model the life upon and many verses of the Rāmcaritmānas are recited almost with the same (believed) efficacy of the mantras, like the ‘Hanumān Cālisā’ section.[v] For many North Indians and Western Indians, it’s a mantra.

H.T: It’s a mantra. On this thing, there is a nice anecdote often heard in the Rāmakathās. I myself fancied to become a Rāmakathā-vācaka as a young boy. But, my career took a different turn… The point of the story that is often recited by the Rāmakathā-vācakas is why it is that this text is so powerful, so important. They weave the story as if Tulsī, Kabir and Sūr all of them, were contemporaries and they all were communicating. So, the disciples of Sūrdās, the great blind writer of devotional songs, go to him and ask him whose poetry of that period was better. Sūr says without hesitating – this is the anecdote narrated in order to enhance the beauty of the text, Tulsī’s Rāmāyaṇa – “my poetry, of course.” Now, the disciples were shocked to hear that. So, there was a stunned silence. Then, Sūrdās says, “Did you not like my answer?” Then one of them gathers the courage to say, “Sir, what about Tulsī’s poem? He is also a great poet.” He said, “You are asking about poetry, not about mantras.” So, this is just to beef up, to make this text more attractive, more important, and full of meaning. Whether it is so or not is up to the reader to decide. But those of us who read, we can obviously connect the thread and see why it is so important, because he, in fact, has worked very, very hard.

One more thing which I think emerges from your comment – and it’s a beautiful idea – that he somehow constructs a new theology. One aspect of that theology is that he brings Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism together. It is the most important contribution of this text in that region. So much so that he makes both Śiva the god and Rāma the god speak about each other in such reverenced terms. Right at the beginning, Śiva has to display what a great devotee he is of Rāma. And, Rāma, too, says that. So, these episodes which have been taken from the Purāṇas and are converted in a beautiful story of Pārvatī’s mohabhaṅga where Śiva considers Rāma as his great god and Pārvatī can’t believe it. Later on, Rāma says it again and again. When he establishes the Rameshwaram temple, he uses these two or three lines. He says: ‘sivadrohī mamadāsa kāhavā’, someone who considers himself as an opponent of Śaivism or Śiva as a god and my devotee, ‘so nar sapanehu mohi na bhāvā’, that person can never be close to me, not even in my dreams. So, this he establishes very clearly.

What he also establishes is, if you talk about the structure of the text, that is extremely, extremely important (to see) how many layers that he is describing (there). Yājñavalkya is talking to some sages, Śiva is telling the story to Pārvatī – that is how it begins, Kāka Bhuṣuṇḍī is telling the story to Śiva. So, these multiple layers, it reminds me of a great text of the nineteenth century, which is Mehganādavadhakāvya, the various layers it goes (through). So, the stories are going parallel. So, there is no one Rāmāyaṇa. Tulsī’s Rāmcaritmānas in itself has many kathāvaācakas. It is my guess that because there are so many tellers, there are so many kathāvācakas in Tulsī’s Rāmāyaṇa itself, that it is not impossible to believe why it would be such a good text for people to latch on to.

 

K.S: These kathāvācakas may represent certain things.  As you mentioned, Tulsī, among the various sources of his Rāmakathā, mentioned āgama also. The Āgamas are Śaiva texts primarily. The frame story is Śiva speaking to Pārvatī. And again, the element of Kāka Bhuṣuṇḍī is representative of the folk nature of the text. And then Yājñavalkya, who is probably the most authoritative Upaniṣadic figure from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad

H.T: And it is a very conscious effort of Tulsī to bring them all together, convert them all into the tellers of the Rāma-story, Rāmakathāvācakas.

 

K.S: That will indicate the substance of his theology that even in Śaivism or in folk religions or in the Upaniṣads, the one deity who is being spoken about is ultimately Rāma.

H.T: And not only is Rāma spoken (about) according to his text, but spoken in such reverence that hardly does anybody find any fault within him, anybody who has been brought within it. So, if you look at the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa where certain characters are questioning the ethics of Rāma, whether it is Vālin or Rāvaṇa or any other, in Tulsī those episodes exist, but they are very quickly converted into figures who realise their mistake and apologise. And then Rāma suddenly turns into a naturally benevolent god who can do no harm to anybody. If at all he does, he does that harm, for example killing, only to alleviate the evils in that person. So, in this way (it brings together all), as you mentioned, whether it is Yājñavalkya who represents a very high classical tradition of Sanskrit, Śiva whose telling of the Rāmakathā takes you into the concept of the trinity of Indian theology, and then Kāka Bhuṣuṇḍī who is talking about a folk tradition, and above all Tulsī. He said, “it is my story: bhaniti bhades bastu bhali baranī/ rāmkathā jagamaṅgalakarṇī, because my content (bastu) is so good, that it does not matter in what language I write, it is going to benefit, jagamaṅgalakaraṇī.” It is in this way that we have to look at the Rāmcaritmānas as a very complex text, (though) it does appear that it is a very easy text.      

 

K.S: I was just wondering that Tulsī is composing his Rāmcaritmānas in the sixteenth century. So, in the 14th to 16th centuries you have many great poets in North India, within the bhakti tradition. So, there is Kabir, there is Dādu, in the nirguṇa tradition, and then there is Surdās and Mīrābāī within Kṛṣṇaite Vaiṣṇavism, and there is also the Sufi tradition. You mentioned the word ‘garib nawaj’ which is definitely taken from the Sufi tradition. There is also a powerful poet like Malik Muhammad Jaisi at that time. But none of these works got the (supposed) efficacy of the mantra as you mentioned in the anecdote. May be this explains why…

H.T: Just only to say that Tulsī, in the very beginning of the text i.e. the ‘Bālakāṇḍa’, in 30 odd verses goes on to give credit (to) and acknowledge almost everyone. There he is acknowledging the senior scholars, senior writers, classical writers. One thing that he mentions in favour and in support and justification of the language he uses, which is of course Avadhi or bhākhā as he calls it – in Avadhi both bhākhā and bhāṣā are used – he says, “je prākṛta kabi paramasayāne” – paramasayāne, very, very senior and more intelligent, great scholar of prākṛta. When he says prākṛta, it doesn’t necessarily refer to Prākṛta as a language. It is non-Sanskrit tradition. So, you can see that he is tilting towards that tradition where, as you said in the beginning and I fully agree, the vernacular traditions, the regional traditions of the performance of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Rāmakathā, had a great influence on him. He perhaps realised that this is the way to go about it, because much has been written in Sanskrit. And more people know today the Rāmcaritmānas or the Tulsī Rāmāyaṇa as it is called than even the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. The Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa how many people would know? And there are many other versions that are available. His idea of acknowledging the performative tradition of the Rāma story in various vernaculars is very visible. Once I called him a ‘perfect PhD thesis of the twentieth century’, because his referencing system is amazing. He may not use the referencing system the way we do, but he keeps referring to it that there have been people who have done that. So, he cannot be accused of plagiarising despite the fact that he is taking so many things, because he is already announcing it.

 

K.S: Exactly. Also, the way Tulsī creates his Rāma as someone above reproach, it seems another element taken from the Sufi tradition of symbolic poetry that every character is not so much a historical character as it is a symbol in the devotional tradition. So, Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Bharata and Śatrughna, in one interpretation of Tulsī, represent four strands of divinity and four ways of bhakti. As they say, Rāma represents what is known as sāmānya bhakti – he is equivalent to God and there is no difference, Lakṣmaṇa represents viṣeśa bhakti which is being with God and serving him all the time, and Bharata – denied the opportunity of being with the God – remains in distance yet still devoted (viśeṣatara bhakti) —

H.T: It’s very deep and disciplined. Someone who displays sacrifice, ultimate sacrifice for a particular cause. So, all the four elements are there. However, I am not a scholar on Sufism. One may have read about it a lot. But when you say Sufism you have to include that Indian version of Sufism which is more or less driven by the bhakti tradition starting from the eighth century in South India. So, there is no problem in our reading that Tulsī belongs to that Sufi tradition. But that bhakti tradition of elements coming from Maharashtra, from Karnataka, from the eleventh-twelfth centuries, or the Śaiva bhaktas, their poetry is also not very different from this.

 

K.S: The most interesting element in this interpretation is the character of Śatrughna whom he shows as the exemplifier of viśeṣatama bhakti that is (when) you are denied all opportunities of association with God, still you serve the devotee i.e. Bharata and the devotee will lead you to God.

H.T: So, multi-layers, not only of the stories, but (also of) the bhaktis. And all these traditions are available to him through various reasons. However, what is paramount is that all these various versions (of bhakti) are somehow merged in Rāma. So, you do find Lakṣmaṇa in Rāma, you do find Bharata in Rāma, you do find Śatrughna in Rāma. So, bringing about this kind of unity began. If he was not aware of this thing, he would not try and bring about this kind of complete unity between Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. He, in fact, ignores every diversity, every discord, that existed before him for nearly 700-800 years of Indian bhakti tradition between the Śaiva side and Vaiṣṇavism. Coming back to the strong tradition that flowered most importantly in the 12th century in Karnataka, the vacana tradition of Devaradāsamayya, Allama Prabhu, Basavanna, Mahādevīākkā, and then from Maharashtra to this place, it is from this tradition that he is referring to when he says ‘je prākṛta kabi paramasayāne/ bhaye je ahaṃhiṃ je hoihahiṃ āge’, there have been such great poets writing in vernaculars these two great stories and he also predicts that there will be (more). That, of course, is a different question.”

 

K.S: But, if you look at it from a different angle, as you mentioned in the beginning that the modern reading of Tulsī might find many things problematic, there are two elements (we can speak of). On one hand, as you said, when Tulsī is so reverential to the Prākṛta kabis, and we know that when he decided to tell the Rāmakathā in Avadhi, many of the orthodox brāhmaṇas of Benares did not like it… In that way, he challenged the orthodox Brahmanical tradition i.e. the Sanskritic tradition. On the other hand, there are many elements in Tulsī, which, to many scholars, seemed like Hindu revivalism or reinforcing the Brahmanical tradition.

H.T: Without doubt. Especially, see, what he is reinforcing. One thing that I had mentioned in the beginning is that he is obsessed with the idea of the Hindu unity, whatever that Hindu unity is or in whichever way he liked to interpret it. So, it could be easily considered to be furthering the Brahmanic tradition. But, if you read the literature from the Brahmanic tradition and Tulsī’s Rāmāyaṇa, there is not much similarity except that what he does has all the problems: he carries the prejudice against women, he carries the prejudice in the caste system where the Brahmin becomes right on top. It is in this context that we can always go to a figure of our country, which is Mahatma Gandhi. Now, Mahatma Gandhi was also obsessed with Tulsī and Rāma. Most of his works are teeming with references to Rāma and to Tulsī. So, he was obviously asked by various people – because he was almost a cosmic figure during the freedom movement – that how he could always propagate Tulsī and his Rāmāyaṇa, this tradition, when he says so many (problematic) things. His answer was typical to the nature of Mahatma Gandhi. He said – some people have called it an apology, some people have called it a justified response – that Tulsī was writing in a different time and different place, to which we can say that he was writing during the Mughal Period. His perception of the period, of the rule – that is there. And then he (Gandhi) is saying that we cannot simply transpose those texts and ideas in the twentieth century, the modern time. And he gives a way out that he is not there to force you to accept that everything that he (Tulsī) said is a fact. He himself said that to the people, to judge it, and people are free to judge it. He said that whatever you do not like in Tulsī, just reject it and see whether you can still remain attracted to the story of Rāma. And that I think is a fundamental aspect, not justification, of reading a text like Tulsī. It’s such a universal text.

 

K.S:  That way, one anthropological example can be of help to us. We know that there are infamous statements in Tulsī like ‘a drum, a rustic, animals, shudras and women can be beaten at will’…

H.T: There are many controversial statements which, quite legitimately, people object to. But my assessment is if it is necessary to edit and purge those things to bring about a pristine Rāmāyaṇa. That, as a student of literature and languages, to me, as an academic working in the area, will not only mutilate the text, but also do such harm to the text. We would (in this way) have lost that reflection of the society. He is reflecting on the society.

 

K.S: In fact, the problematic elements are representative of the society he belonged to.

H.T: And this is the only way we can go back. There are other records as well. This is the problem with the reading of ancient Indian texts that sometimes we don’t find what actually happened. So, that is one element… And it is also very, very difficult to reject it as just one text. It is, as you said, considered a scripture, quite legitimately, in my case, representing the story of Rāma which is there, which is part of human psyche. I was talking to Professor Kunal Chakrabarti. He said, “Heeraman, how is it important for us now to find the ur-text or the dating of the text?” And he was talking in a very literary analytical fashion, I believe. Because, this text is so common, almost everyone knows it. So, what is important is to look at the text as a textual tradition, as an interpretative tradition, as a source of disseminating (a) story, as an inspiration for those who want to learn the story. And these are the ways which also can be used in academic circle to read this text and to connect its dots with the Kṛttibāsa Rāmāyaṇa, with Ezhuthachan’s Rāmāyaṇa,[vi] with the Kampan Rāmāyaṇa, and of course the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa and other Rāmāyaṇas which are traditionally written in Sanskrit, and then you can come up with a social study, to use your word ‘anthropological study’ of that tradition.

 

K.S: Yes, because when the question of interpretation comes, as we know that every text has a fluid life. It’s not static. So, for us, in academic exercise we go back to the original text and what is there. But since it’s also a performative tradition and a scripture to many, they interpret the text as they want to see it. So, there is the Ramnami sampradāya in Chhattisgarh, which is a lower cast community, founded by a Chamar called Parsuram. They hold Tulsī’s Rāmāyaṇa as their scripture, but they purge it of the statements against (the lower) caste, focussing on the episode when Rāma is compassionate to a Niṣāda like Guha or to a Vānara like Sugrīva and Hanumān or even to Rāvaṇa or Vibhīṣaṇa, for example, who is a Rākṣasa…

H.T: So, this is also a chiselling of a text and creating one more. What is important, however, is that the central figure, which is why Tulsī’s point is enforced, that is Rāma somehow remains almost unharmed. When he says rāmanāma and they are called Ramanami… This is the justification given by those who think that Kabir had nothing to do with the character called Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa, when he mentions Rāma.

 

K.S: So it’s a name. He (Kabir) says Rāma, Rahim, Govinda…

H.T.: No, he specifically says that he uses Rāma to refer to the character in the Rāmāyaṇa, because it is in the psyche of everybody. That is the point. So, Tulsī knew – he was a very clever person – the value of the rāmanāma. And, of course, as you mentioned this Chhattisgarh tradition, these Ramanamis, they started a powerful strong tradition. So, he (Tulsī) will sit right in the centre of this one millennium, if you like, whom we could somehow look back (at) today, as someone who looked back to these other traditions right from the Vālmīki (Rāmāyaṇa) till his time. So, it is a very complex text. It is a scripture. It does not violate the story. When we go back, we can go back only to the Sanskritic tradition which has been given the authority of being very ‘authentic’ text. Tulsī, therefore, to me, stands as important a text as Vālmīki for one reason that he does not deviate from the story of Rāma, which is available to us from that ‘authoritative tradition’ i.e. Sanskrit tradition.

 

K.S: The last question is connected to this. As we are talking about not only the chiselling of the Rāmāyaṇa by Tulsī but also the chiselling of Tulsī’s text by the modern scholars, as the lower castes have interpreted it in their own way, also there is the Hindu upper caste. There is a tradition from the 19th and 20th century, known as the śaṅkā-mīmāṃsā tradition. There would be many śaṅkās or doubts about the Tulsī Rāmāyaṇa and then brāhmaṇa scholars would interpret it in their own way.[vii]

H.T: So, it is a text which, as I said, is so complex that it brings all kinds of theodicy into it, while developing a theology which you can call the ‘Tulsī theology’. His interest is in the life of Rāma and a particular kind of life as he looks at it, despite all the objectionable things that people find difficult quite rightly in Tulsī. But, again, let me quote that line of Mahatma Gandhi that when we look at a text, and this is what we do in a larger context when we read a text, we can have a holistic study of the text as it is. But, since we are reading today after 500 years or 450 odd years after it was written, we would find it very difficult to imagine in what circumstances and with what motive or objective Tulsī should be writing, that we take it as it is. And this dilemma is faced by every reader when we read a text of any person. Even when you read Marx’s works today… Karl Popper has famously said of the ‘unintended consequence’ that has happened… in the twentieth century particularly of what Marx wrote. Isaiah Berlin in his famous book Karl Marx: His Life and Time, says that how people have begun to understand a particular text or a particular personality. The same is the case with Tulsī. The tradition that he somehow opens the floodgate to the Rāmakathā tradition which is not something that he introduces. In fact, he furthers that tradition and gives impetus in a different way. Two elements are very important. One is the divinity of Rāma, particularly the name itself. The other is the language through which he communicates that and that language is the language of the masses. This is the word that also Mahatma Gandhi used. When I read it I became very excited: “the language of the masses.” The mass in itself separates Tulsī from what you mentioned earlier as the Brahmanic tradition. So, he sits somewhere in the middle where he is sitting as if “I am not going to move away from here, whether you come from this side or you come from the other side”. So, when you mentioned the Ramanami tradition, Tulsī would not disagree with that if he were there. We do not know how he would react, but we would say that the kind of texts – not only this, but the other two texts that he writes, like Vinaya Patrikā – are highly meaningful texts. When I say meaningful, (it means) full of meanings which refer to things which you need to go to and read, both from the folk tradition and the classical tradition, (also) from the Brahmanic tradition. Then only can you appreciate Tulsī fully. And it is not possible, I genuinely believe that it is not one lifetime’s work, to be able to appreciate Tulsī. I am interested in this text. I am fascinated by it. In fact, it always beckons me. The more I read other things, I go back here. And it also, perhaps like Kṛttibāsa, sometimes disturbs you (about) why it is so. But, there is still so much in this text that represents what pre-medieval India and post-medieval India represented in the Rāmāyaṇa and the story of Rāma.       

 

 

 


[i] Composer of the famous Tamil Rāmakathā named the Irāmaāvatāram, possibly in the twelfth century.

[ii] Composer of the most well-known Bengali Rāmakathā, known as the Śrīrāmapā(n)cālī, in the fifteenth century.

[iii] A play by the great seventh century Sanskrit dramatist Bhavabhūti.

[iv] A play based on the Rāmāyaṇa, composed by Bhāsa, the earliest known major dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature, who possibly flourished in the second century.

[v] Forty verses from the ‘Sundarakāṇḍa’ of Tulsī’s text, praising Hanumān.

[vi] Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan’s Adhyāthmarāmāyaṇam Kilippattu, composed in the seventeenth century, is the most important rāmakathā in Malayalam.

[vii] For instance Jayram Das Din or Pandit Ramkumar Das.