Why do I call these the ecological bases of Indian literature? I find this rather unconventional that Indian history and everything we know about India is dominated by what I call ‘landed’ culture. Today we think it is the only culture of India, because, since colonialism, ‘landed’ culture has become prominent. It gave the revenue that the British wanted—they didn’t like trade anyway—and pastoralism more or less quietly disappeared. Three important strands of Indian culture are lost to us, and only one remained—‘landed’ culture. That is when Ramayana becomes the national epic of India. Pardon me for saying that it is not; there are other national epics. Sita became the role model for all Indian women; she was not until a certain point in time in Indian history. Since I am not a historian, I do not want to go into the history of it. I want to look at the narratives in epics and others—they tell us of the three very important and different cultures of India. One not really like the others.
First one, Ramayana is a landed epic. What do you mean by that? In a landed culture you have to protect your land, fight to keep it to yourself. It is not something you can keep in your pocket and walk away. You have to fight for it and only the hero in landed culture will fight a battle and die in the battle. Heroism in a landed culture is to die in battle for something. In fact, today, all the heroes we worship are those who died in battle; statues are made for them, eternal flame for them. All this comes from the landed culture idea. In fact, even in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna wondered if he should fight or not, Krishna says: hato va prashyasi sarvam, jitva va mhokshyase mahim. If you die in battle, you go to heaven, if you succeed, you become king, what do you lose? Fight! That is what Krishna said to him.
This again is an idea of landed culture. You should never show your back to the enemy in a battle. You go to heaven when you die in a battle. Why? Rambha is waiting there for you; you have the pleasure of company. Never mind which side you are fighting on. If you run away from the battlefield, however, your own wife treats you as a woman. In the story of Khadga Tikkana (Tikkana of the Sword) from the Mahabharata, he goes to battle, runs away and comes home. His mother and wife both treat him as a woman. They prepare a place for his bath and put turmeric there; only women use turmeric in bath. He says: What is this? They say: Look! We are three women in this house! His mother serves curdled milk instead of curd. She uses the word curdled—you know we call it broken milk. He says: Why is the milk curdled? She replies: Your heroism is broken, so is the milk. He is so humiliated that he goes back to fight and dies in the battle. When his body comes home, the wife performs sati. She dies on a funeral pyre along with her hero-husband—the proud wife of a hero. That was her pride.
In the Ramayana, you know that Sita was abandoned without a second thought. Let us go back to the idea of the woman in landed culture. In landed culture, women are equated to land—women are fertile and land is fertile. You protect land in the same way you protect your women. Unless you protect your land and say this is my land, you cannot claim the crop as your crop because there is nothing on the crop that actually says this is your crop. Same with children, when a son is born to the wife, if she is not protected properly, who knows whose son he is? Therefore, it is always a problem. If pregnancy is suspected, it is the business of a woman to prove her innocence. She is guilty until she is proved innocent. According to the law, you are innocent until you are proven guilty but that is not the case here. In landed culture, a woman is guilty until proven innocent.
That is what happened with Rama and Sita. After the battle, Rama wants to see Sita, and Sita wants to see Rama. Sita is brought to him well decorated, Rama looks at her and says:
‘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 terrible suspicions about your character and conduct. The sight of you is as painful to me as a lamp to a man with diseased eyes.
You are free to go wherever you want. The world is open to you. 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? I am proud of my noble lineage. How can I take you back when Ravana has touched you and when you have lived under his lustful gaze? I have regained my reputation. That was the sole motivation for rescuing you! I do not want you anymore! You can go where you like!' (Arshia Sattar’s Valmiki’s Ramayana)
Then, Sita had to prove her innocence by entering fire. Lakshmana says: She has been tested with fire, we can take her back. Even then, the people of Ayodhya did not forgive her; they suspected her. This is landed culture. The people said Rama must have been very, very enamoured; he has brought her back to the palace, a woman whose pregnancy he could not know how it occurred. That was enough for Rama to again decide to send Sita away, this time even without consulting her or telling her. He said to Lakshmana: Take her away to the forest, leave her there, let her die.
This is not the end of the story as far as Ramayana is concerned. Women were not quietly taking this. They did fight against it. They were singing these songs amongst themselves in protest, in their own groups. It is called women’s Ramayana.
Then, when Rama decides that she should be sent again to the forest, all the co-wives of Sita, the other brothers’ wives (of Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrugna), they go to Rama and say: Hey we are married into one family, our sister is the not the only one who loves Ravana, we all love him together, so send us to the forest. Because Rama suspects Sita was in love with Ravana, the women protest. That kind of protest you can only find in the oral Ramayana women sing. But that isn’t the main story of Ramayana that everyone knows.
We are all born in one family,
married into one family.
Our sister is not the only one
who loves Ravana now.
We all love him together
So kill us together.
Let us go to the Mahabharata now. I am taking a big risk here. It is a very complex story with a lot of layers, and, in my mind, strongly Brahminised already. You have to go through several layers of it to find out what probably was at one point. In any case, there is enough evidence in the present Mahabharata that it is a story of pastoral people. They fight for cattle. Remember the story of Uttara Gotra? Cattle is property for them, they are not fighting for land. When the Pandavas want something, they want only five villages, not a whole country. In effect, Mahabharata has many traces related to cattle, with cattle wealth as the major wealth. I am trying to relook at it. Let us see the difference between Draupadi and Sita. Draupadi is not a pativrata like Sita. You probably know the story of Keechaka. When Pandavas and Draupadi were living secretly undercover in King Virata’s court, Draupadi was a hairdresser for Virata’s wife, Sudeshna. But then, Keechaka was attracted to and lusted after Draupadi. What does Draupadi do the first time? She says: I have five husbands, they are gandharvas and are very powerful. They will kill you, Keechaka, don’t come near me!
‘Invincible, valiant, virile, exquisitely equipped to destroy any enemy blinded by pride are my husbands, all five of them, gandharvas with bodies of gods. Listen, Kicaka: they will easily ruin your name and kill you. Depend on that.’
That was the threat Draupadi gave to him. But Keechaka was very confident that his strength was more than anybody, and he continued to bargain with Draupadi. King Virata was a weak king compared to Keechaka, his brother-in-law. Then there is Yudhishthira—Dharmaraja—going by the name of Kankubhatta. He says to Draupadi: Good women should not behave like this in public, they should go home and take care of themselves privately, this isn’t good. He was protesting in public against what Draupadi was saying about Keechaka, because Yudhistira was worried that if they were discovered to be the Pandavas they would have to go undercover all over again, for 14 years, all over again.
In trying to protect their privacy, nobody would admit that Draupadi is their wife. Draupadi goes to Bhima very quietly saying: Hey, Bhima, you know what your brother Yudhishthira said? What do I do? I have five husbands, all quietly doing—they are doing undercover and not trying to protect me, because if they try to protect me they have to accept me as their wife. Is there nothing you can do?
Bhima says: Look, stay quiet, do not fight in public. Go to Keechaka and pretend you are in love with him and entice him to go to the theatre where girls dance, where Brihannala teaches them dance. Ask him to go in the evening when the theatre is empty and there is nobody around. Tell Keechaka, “Hey don’t blast it out in public that you are in love with me, come quietly to the dance hall and come by yourself, don’t bring anyone, and I will be there.” We’ll have a good time.
Keechaka was so happy he said: Okay, I will definitely come. I will come alone. I will do anything you want me to do.
He was very happy. In that way Draupadi attracted Keechaka to go to the dance hall by himself where Bhima was waiting, covering his face with a big blanket and pretending to be Draupadi. Bhima then kills him there. You know this story already.
But my question is: Can you ever imagine Sita doing this? Trying to attract Ravana saying I am in love with you, don’t tell anybody and come some place? Sita would not want to do that. Sita was unwilling to go with Hanuman to Lanka. Hanuman says: Sit on my shoulder, I will take you without any problem. What does Sita say? I cannot touch another man’s body; I do not want to come with you. But when she touched Ravana’s body? She says: I was helpless at that time.
Your South Indian Ramayana does not suggest that; it says Ravana lifted Sita from the ground she was standing on, taking a piece of the ground. He did not even touch her, even when he kidnapped her. Sita was that way protecting herself. Her only worry, if you read the Ramayana of Valmiki carefully, was if Rama forgot her, whether he would come to take care of her. She was constantly repeating to Hanuman: Hanuman! Go tell Rama he has to come here, take care of me, protect me and fight a battle with Ravana.
So, we know that Sita is a different kind of pativrata as opposed to Draupadi. I am suggesting that it is because Ramayana is a landed epic and Mahabharata is a pastoral epic, where women are a little freer; they are not as bound as Ramayana’s women were.
Let us go to Kathasaritasagara. The text is available to us thanks to Harsha. There is another Kathasaritasagara also, or stories from Kathasaritasagara, in a book called Tales of Ancient India. I am using both these books. In the entire Ramayana and Mahabharata, one character who is missing is a Vaishya. All characters are Kshatriya or Brahmana, but where is the Vaishya? There is not a single Vaishya in the entire Ramayana and Mahabharata. There is one single Vaishya in the Ramayana and that is Shravanakumara (and his father and mother—they are the only Vaishyas in the entire Ramayana). What happened to this major group of people? A community is made up of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. So where are the Vaishyas? That is what you find in the Kathasaritasagara—they are characters who are Vaishyas. Let us go into a little bit of detail into what happens in the Kathasaritasagara.
You have all heard of vetala (vampire) in a number of folk tales and mentioned in lots of books. There was this king called Trivikramasena. A mendicant called Kshantishila came every day to his court to give the king a fruit. The king unthinkingly threw the fruit in the treasury. One day, the king threw the fruit to a monkey playing in front of him and the monkey also threw the fruit. The fruit broke and inside it was a precious diamond. So, the king asked the treasurer: Hey what were you doing with all the fruit I gave to you?
The treasurer replied: I threw them in the treasury.
So the king says: Go and see what happened.
He goes there and the fruit are all rotten but there are a bunch of diamonds. The king asks the mendicant: So what do you want from me? Every day you give me a fruit with a diamond in it. There must be something you want from me, what is that?
The mendicant says: It is simple. On a dark no-moon night, you have to come to the burial ground and do what I want you to do for me. You should come alone, by yourself.
The king says: Okay, I will do that.
The king, courageous as he was, went there. There the mendicant said: In that tree, there is a dead body hanging. Take it down, carry it for me, and bring it here.
The king says: It is no big deal, I will go there and carry it.
When he went there, he saw a dead body hanging, so he put it on his shoulder and started walking. There was a vampire, a vetala, in it.
The vetala said: Hey, King! You are taking me very quietly. I will tell you a story to while away time. The story has a riddle in it, if you know the answer and do not tell me the answer, your head will break. If you do not know the answer that is a different story altogether. But if you know the answer, the moment you speak, the dead body goes back to the tree.
So it happens 24 times. The king patiently carries the body, every time the vetala tells him a story with a riddle, the king has to resolve it and give the answer. If the answer is given because the king knows the answer, it is the judgement of king. Each time vetala goes back to the tree.
In the end there was a story for which the king honestly did not know the answer. Since he did not speak, he was carrying the body with vetala in it very, very truthfully to the mendicant.
The vetala said to the king: Hey, King! This is going to be dangerous for you. You know that mendicant is performing a ritual where he has to sacrifice a prince with no blemishes, and you are that prince. He will take you there and present you before a goddess he is worshipping. When he says prostrate before the goddess, you know what you must do? Do not do that, do not prostrate. Tell the mendicant: I am a king! I have never prostrated before anybody. I do not know how to prostrate. Will you show it to me?
The mendicant falls down on the ground and says: This is how you prostrate. The king pulls out his sword and quickly kills him. The goddess was very pleased and she gives a whole lot of powers to the king. That is the 25 stories of vetala.
For us it is not the stories that are interesting. What kind of stories are they? They are all stories related to judging something—property, relationship, kinship. The Vaishya community, a trading community, wants that kind of king; they don’t want a king ready for battle. They want a king who is judicious, who will judge their cases judiciously and give good judgements. That is all the rich people are interested in; they do not want a battle to be fought. If there is a battle, they lose their wealth. They want a king who should not be ready to battle at the drop of a hat; they want a king who is honest, courageous, a king who can judge their cases impartially and wisely. That shows that the trading culture wants a king like the one in the story. The story is taken, unfortunately, for the fun of it. That is not the point of these stories. They point to what kind of king the trading community wants. And you can read the rest of Kathasaritasagara, and you will find clear evidence of what trading culture wants: the kind of king, the honesty and truthfulness they want, and what kind of judgement the king gives. That is why, I say, the Kathasaritasagara is a product of the trading culture. People of the trading culture go far away to distant lands, and they come back with fascinating stories, and they tell such fascinating stories.
You know, stories related to Shukasaptati, Hamsavimshati. The stories from Shukasaptati are fascinating. If you read them, you will also hate them. These are stories where a merchant goes away on a trading mission and leaves his wife alone for a long time as he could not return. Meanwhile, the king of the area is attracted to his wife and keeps sending messages to her—Come to me, your husband is away anyway. The woman who is alone wants to go, but there is Shuka, a parrot, who says: Hey young woman where are you going?
I am going to the king, she says.
The parrot says: That is very good, but you know something? If you are going to commit adultery, do you know how to cover it up? You have to know how to cover it up. Do not get caught.
He does not say do not commit adultery; he says do not be caught. The parrot says: Here is a story I will tell you. The story she tells is such a fascinating story, where a woman cleverly entertains another man in the house and the husband suddenly knocks on the door and she has to decide how to get rid of him without getting caught. By the time the story ends, it is already morning. The parrot says: You cannot go tonight, go tomorrow.
The next day again, as she is preparing to go, the parrot stops her and says: You are going to commit adultery right? I will tell you one more story. Then, the parrot narrates one more story of how a woman commits adultery and gets away with it without being caught. All the stories of Shukasaptati are like this. In the end, when the last story begins, the husband comes home.
So, what is so interesting about it? Here, from the outer frame, the woman is protected from committing adultery; from inside, the woman is taught how to commit adultery. This is not easily recognised—that actually these stories are teaching how to commit adultery without being caught. They all (the stories) belong to the same trading culture. The women in the stories of the trading culture are not only courageous, they can do whatever they please and, at the same time, they don’t need a man to protect them. They can protect themselves and the husbands character as well. The husband is away and they even protect the husband. There are many stories in the Kathasaritasagara where the woman, when the husband is away, a number of people are attracted to her and approach her. She says to them: Okay come home at ten, come at eleven, come at twelve. And they all go one after another, and all of them are treated very badly and put in a dark room. The next morning, she goes to the king and says: You know, this merchant has taken a lot of money from my husband, and he is lying. Anyway, she protects herself and her husband and she is alright.
So, the women in Kathasaritasagara are not Sitas, they are not waiting for the husband to protect them; they are capable of protecting themselves. At the same time, they do it with their own courage and intelligence. If I have to summarise, you have three different kinds of women characters, Sita, Draupadi and women of the Kathasaritasagara stories. What happened in all these stories is that they give freedom to women and that does not mean women become prostitutes. No, they can protect themselves—they have the courage for that, the equipment for that, they can do it themselves. Not all Indian women are Sitas waiting for their husbands to save them; they are capable of saving themselves, protecting themselves. Why have you not given this kind of an open freedom to Indian culture? Our heroines are different kinds, depending on what culture they belong to. The heroes are the same.
Another epic is an oral epic, the story of Katamaraju. It is a pastoral epic, not well known outside Andhra. This Katamaraju is a king of cattle. He has a huge herd of cattle and lives in the wilderness, grazing the cattle. The interest of the herders lies in grass. They don’t care whom the land belongs to. They graze and when the grass is gone in one area, they move to another area. They only have a functional interest in the land, not a property interest. Katamaraju enters into a pact with the King Nallasiddhi. The pact says, ‘All the grass that grows from water is ours, and all male calves that are born from the cows are yours.’ It was a mutually beneficial agreement. The king was interested in male calves; the cattle herders were interested in grass. Everything was going well.
Suddenly there was a drought. Katmaraju started to graze his cows on the rice crop of the king. His argument was that rice is also some kind of a grass, it grows with water! My cattle can graze on the crops. There was a battle, as a result. It is a long and interesting story, this Katamaraju Katha. The story tells you the story of the herding community and the values of this community. In this community men could lie and deceive or run away from battle. They could do anything they wanted to win the battle. The heroes can do anything to win. That is not how the Ramayana’s heroes are—they cannot lie. Here, they can lie, all that matters is that they gain cattle at the end, win the battle at the end. That is also the story of women. Their women can protect themselves.
India is not one culture. It is composed of at least three different major cultures: landed culture, pastoral culture and trading culture. Because of the British coming over, landed culture is given the highest importance because they could get land revenue. They were not interested in encouraging trade; they destroyed trade. The same is the case with pastoralism. With more population, they used more land for cultivating crops, there is very little pastoral land left, as a result. India was three different cultures with three different heroisms and three different kinds of women and what was right for women to do.
We have made a single national epic out of the Ramayana, and said all our women are like Sita—timid, waiting for the husband to protect them, they do not do anything to protect themselves, they make sure they are not touched by another man while waiting for their husbands.
This is not what we should propagate among our culture. I wonder why historians do not divide history as the history of pastoral culture, of trading culture, of landed culture or why anthropologists do not produce anthropologies of three different cultures. They do not want to see India in these three ways. I am not able to convince even my own friend, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who is a great historian, that he should rethink the way he is writing the history of India.
My point is, India is a very complex culture. I do not have historical information to prove my point, but I have these three narratives to prove my point.
Question and Answer with Arshia Sattar
Arshia Sattar (AS): I am going to start with the Mahabharata because it is believed that it is the origin story of these three texts and how it is set in a pastoral landscape and how it has a set of pastoral values—very persuasive. In a strange way, the cattle raids in Virata’s kingdom, in the forest when they were in exile, those are a challenge, to ‘come forth identify yourself’.
People like Dumezil, Alf Hiltebeitel and Bruce Lincoln, who are Indo-Europeanists in a sense, and for them the cattle raid is an Indo-European narrative phenomena, they argued that this lay of the Mahabharata is the oldest because it actually takes us back to a larger narrative culture and a larger culture of pastoralism and nomadism, would you agree?
Velcheru Narayana Rao (VNR): It is a little bit of an overstatement but, fundamentally, it is right. Pastoralism is the major underlying story in the Mahabharata. There is, of course, a lot of Brahminisation of the Mahabharata, you cannot avoid that. In fact, I did not bring it up here, if you look at the family history of the Mahabharata people, there is one side which is the Yadava side from which Krishna and Kunti come, and the other side is not exactly Yadava culture. So, it could be that a core group of Yadavas were married to those who were not Yadavas, not herders. It may have caused a bit of a conflict between these two groups, it is likely, I have not thought about it yet. I just made a statement because I was persuaded that we have three different cultures, heroines, heroes, values, and understanding of property and, therefore, I was persuaded by this and made a statement.
AS: So now this is making the Bhagavad Gita even more interesting because Krishna is a Yadava hero and Arjuna the great Kshatriya is asking him for help.
VNR: Now we are going through a whole lot of difficult problems. Was Bhagavad Gita some kind of an add on to Mahabharata later on? We do not know. Why was not Bhagavad Gita a part of Mahabharata in every version? Why did Bhagavad Gita become a separate book in itself?
There are a lot of questions related to the timing, the location, I am not willing to go into that. The Bhagavad Gita is telling what is right for a landed hero to do and Krishna is telling him that.
AS: It is so interesting, the question that Arjuna asked Krishna—Shall I kill, he asks—Shall I kill my teachers, my brothers, my elders—and it is a very different question, as a Kshatriya he has accepted the fact that this is his job. Krishna sort of refines his job for him.
VNR: I don’t want to go into that really, but one way of looking at Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata is that it happens when something very different is happening in the culture. Earlier there were groups of people, now you have a single individual in the family, so from the tribe to the family, a big shift has taken place. You know what is interesting about a tribe? In a tribe, every member of the tribe is you. If a member of the tribe is killed it is like killing yourself, so people in a tribe don’t kill each other. When you become a family, that’s a different story—I can kill the other person, he may be my own uncle. In a tribe that is not possible.
Remember the early parts where Arjuna says: My hands are shaking and I can’t really fight? That is something a person would say when he is asked to commit incest.
AS: Whoa! You must say more, now you cannot stop after you have said that!
VNR: A person who is forced to commit incest will say: No my body shakes, I cannot do that. Which means his uncles, his relatives, they are his tribe, they are one body and I can’t kill them. Then Krishna says: No, you can kill them, they are committing…they’ll be reborn, it is like taking off a soiled shirt and wearing another shirt, death is nothing more than that. So, the whole message of Bhagavad Gita is given to you at a time when the culture is shifting from a tribal culture to a caste culture. It is a very persuasive statement from me but I don’t want to go into it because that is not the major subject of this discussion.
AS: I will just make one more comment. In fact, Krishna tells Arjuna: You have to do this, because this is a time of Varnasamkirana, you know when castes are getting mixed up, the fear is of miscegenation.
VNR: Arjuna’s objection is this: If all the men are killed in a battle, what will happen to women? They will commit adultery and Varnasamkirana will happen. And Krishna says: No, don’t worry about it—dead people are not dead, death is nothing but a transition from one stage of life to another, like you take off a soiled shirt and wear another one.
AS: The other cattle raid that has occurred to me is Vasishtha and Vishwamitra because Vishwamitra wants to become a Brahmarishi and the first thing he does is he wants Kamadhenu from Vasishta who is a Brahmarishi and has this cow. You have got me thinking, I will pursue this thought, but not this evening.
I am also very taken with your reminder to us all that the Ramayana has always been subverted. The misogyny, the patriarchy of the Ramayana has always been subverted by women in their songs. One of my favourite Ramayana anecdotes is—apparently there is a saying in eastern Uttar Pradesh which goes: Don’t marry your daughters to the men of Ayodhya, look at the way they treat their wives!
And then, you know, we think: Oh, we are so cool from the twenty-first century, and we are feminists and post-feminists and we can ask the Ramayana questions about misogyny. But not at all! It has been recognised and challenged by women over the centuries.
VNR: All across centuries, women have a different kind of Ramayana but amongst themselves. They were not contesting the public Ramayana of men, and that is interesting. The more unified as a nation we become, it becomes our national epic, and once it becomes that, we say all women are Indian Sitas. Stop that nonsense, I say. The courage they have, the pride they have, they don’t need men to protect them!
AS: What else can we say about Rama? Is there a way we can we think of him more positively? Not simply that he is an instrument of landed culture, that he becomes, especially in the Uttara Kanda, he becomes an instrument of brahminisation because he goes out of the influence of Vasishta and becomes completely enthralled by Agastya who is telling all these stories. The two things that Rama does in the Uttara Kanda, one is banish his wife and the other is kill Shambuka. His Ramrajya is predicated on those two difficulties.
VNR: These are the issues that give a lot of second thought to people who are telling Ramayana in their own versions. Look at, for example, the Uttara Ramacharita of Bhavabhuti, look at the Naga’s Uttara Ramacharita, there they find a whole lot of stories to protect Sita and her chastity and say: Rama, you have made a mistake. So my point is when the culture was worried about it . . .
Even Kamban says that. What happened to Sita after the abhishekam? He says: I feel too bad, I can’t tell you it breaks my heart. And Rajagopalachari when he retells the Ramayana he does exactly the same thing he says: Oh! The women of our country, they suffer so terribly I can’t tell you what happened to Sita! So there is real anxiety.
There is definitely a worry, but my point is that, fundamentally, Ramayana is a landed culture epic, that is what I am saying.
AS: Yeah, that is why he has to kill Ravana also, not just to get his wife back but also to maintain his reputation. Also, in Uttara Kanda there is a digvijaya, he does the ashwamedha and sends his sons and nephews out to conquer the various areas.
VNR: Yes, there is a fascinating story about what happens after the horse is caught. Who caught the horse finally? It was Sita’s sons, Lava and Kusha, and Rama realises Sita is not dead yet, and there are these sons, his own sons, and they caught the horse. All the gods were there, and the gods said: Please leave the horse, you can’t take it. Lava and Kusha protest: No! He has mistreated our mother and he has to beg for forgiveness by falling at our feet. Here is Rama falling at the feet of his own sons for treating their mother badly. And Sita was ready to go with Rama then, but they stopped her saying: Hey! You can’t go with him, he’s the one that mistreated you. All the gods say different things. Brahma says: Hey! Give your father some respect and bow to him, and give Sita to him. They say: No, Brahma, you are the one who created Ramayana, who encouraged Valmiki to write Ramayana in favour of Rama. The sun god comes and they say: Hey, Sun God, you can’t be impartial because you are the family god of Raghuvamsha. And thus god after god was rejected. Valmiki himself comes and says: Please listen to me. And they say: Valmiki, didn’t you write Ramayana in favour of Rama; we don’t trust you! So, the sons reject them one after the other, saying we want to protect our mother. This is a fascinating story in Ramayana in Telugu.
AS: Yeah. And Bhavabhuti actually says to Valmiki: I will show you how to make a happy ending, the story should have had a happy ending—you couldn’t do it, ,you made her go away, I’m telling you.
VNR: An epic always has different tellings, an epic is not one story. People use it in any which way they like, and retellings of an epic tell you what the culture of those retellers is and what they are trying to protect. So we can’t give one meaning to Ramayana, there are many meanings of many Ramayanas.
AS: You know the Kathasaritasagara, as you rightly say, is a completely enthralling text but it is also a very secular text.
VNR: Very secular text.
AS: And it is an urban text.
VNR: I don’t know why Kathasaritasagara was neglected. I didn’t tell you the actual beginnings of the Kathasaritasagara. It was Gunadhya who was the author of Kathasaritasagara—it is called Brihatkatha, the great story. He competed with Sarvavarma. I probably should have told this. Very quickly.
The king was playing games with water with his wives, he was throwing water at his wives. The wives know Sanskrit and the wives said: Maamodakaistadaya (don’t hit us with water), maa-udakai is how it forms maamodakai. And the stupid king who doesn’t know Sanskrit thought they were asking for modakas. He brings them a bunch of sweet cakes and they go: Come on, King, who asked for modakas? We were saying maa udakai stadaya—don’t hit us with water. Don’t you know any Sanskrit? And the king was very humiliated, and he went and started wondering what to do. He asked Gunadhya and he says: Well, King, 12 years or nothing. It takes 12 years to teach you Sanskrit. And Sarvavarman who was in the same court said: No, I’ll make the king competent in Sanskrit in six months. And Gunadhya said: Hey! If you can make the king competent in Sanskrit in the next six months, I am going to give up every language that I know—Sanskrit, Prakrit—and I will just go to the forest and live there.
When the king really learnt Sanskrit from Sarvavarman, through a book Katantra Vyakarana, Gunadhya had no choice but to leave, to go to the forest and mingle with pishacas (ghouls). The language they spoke was paishachi, and then he has a big story to tell, how to do that? He cannot write, he does not have any writing instruments because he had rejected and abandoned them. So, he writes in his own blood on the leaves. That is the whole Brihatkatha and, at that time, he thinks: What to do with this book? He decides: Let me send it to the king! He would like to publish it for me.
The king looks at the horrible pages with blood on them and says: No, I won’t touch it. He rejected it.
Gunadhya takes leaf after leaf, and reading the story in it aloud, he makes a fire there and burns each leaf. All the animals, birds and beasts were listening in rapt attention to the wonderful stories Gunadhya was telling them, reading aloud leaf after leaf. Meanwhile, the king wasn’t getting good meat, and the hunters were bringing him cheap meat. The king started falling sick and the doctors said: Hey, you are not being fed good meat. And asked the hunters: Why so? The hunters said: What can we do? All the beasts are busy listening to the wonderful stories Gunadhya is telling them. The hunters are sitting, they are not going out hunting, they don’t have any exercise, and that is why the meat is cheap. The king goes himself to see what is happening. He sees Gunadhya buring leaf after leaf in the fire and the king says: Stop. By then he has burnt almost all of it, and was left with one last chapter—one book. And that book the king took. Gundahya was worshipped and honoured. And that book is today available to us. It is not the entire Brihatkatha that was in paishachi. It is a fascinating book. It needs to be preserved, translated, rewritten. It is not folklore! It is an epic!
AS: Yes, it is a great counter narrative to—
VNR: I have said there is an epic for each culture—the Ramayana for landed culture, the Mahabharata for the pastoral culture and then the Brihatkataha. It is not extinct, we knew that it existed until the ninth century—the paishachi book was available but what happened to it we don’t know.
What we have is the Kathasaritasagara written by Somadeva, but the book should be properly translated, interpreted, made available and given the credit it deserves. It is not folklore.
AS: And the narrative of women, as you pointed out, is so strong. And that is why because it doesn’t fit the orientalist paradigm of all Indian texts are religious, all Hindu texts are religious and all women should be kept—
VNR: In fact, this is the message I want to convey: there are three epics in Hinduism, and each should be preserved, protected and talked about.