A reading of selections from Tulsidas's rendering of the many deeds of Ram

Topics Ramayana | BOOK REVIEW

Armed with divinity: Tulsidas imbued Ram with God-like qualities and used Bhakti Rasa-a sentiment infused with devotion- to achieve a kind of apotheosis that elevates Ram as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity of gods
Reading Pavan K Varma’s selections from Tulsidas’s  Ramcharitmanas along with his commentary will almost inevitably remind you of what A K Ramanujan had expounded in his famous book-length essay — “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”. Providing a masterly sweep of how the story of Ram was treated differently in different parts of India and Southeast Asia, Ramanujan had questioned the definitive portrayal of Ram only as a god.

But his thesis that there are many versions of Ram and the Ramayana became so controversial that the University of Delhi eventually succumbed to pressure from bigoted right-wing elements in academia and banned the essay from its curriculum in 2011. That was unfortunate and signalled in many ways the rapidly growing influence of an obscurantist approach to understanding and appreciating Hindu epics.

Hopefully, Varma’s selections from  Ramcharitmanas will arrest this trend of defining Ram as a unidimensional character. The 44 carefully selected sections from Tulsidas’s rendering of the many deeds of Ram reiterate once again how Ramanujan, with his vast erudition as a poet and scholar, had aptly captured the essence of Ram as a towering character with many personas portrayed in different versions of the Ramayana. Note that Ramcharitmanas is not the Ramayana. Yes, the central character is the same, but Ram in Tulsidas’s epic and Ram in Valmiki’s Ramayana are two different personas with different traits and attributes. Varma’s commentary does not make it very obvious, but reading it closely will leave you with no other conclusion.

Indeed, even Ramanujan in his essay on the many versions of the Ramayana referred to Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas as presenting a different version of Ram, almost as an aside. Ramanujan talks about the many stories of Ram in different languages — “Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan — to say nothing of Western languages.” Ramanujan does refer to Tulsidas’s  Ramcharitmanas later, but only to underline how Tulsidas portrayed Ram as a god, like Kampan’s Tamil Ramayana did.

Book cover of The greatest ode to Lord Ram
The differences between Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas are quite stark. The endings are different — Tulsidas concludes the epic with the coronation of Ram as the king of Ayodhya, much before even the disappearance of his wife, Sita, into Mother Earth; Valmiki goes on further and concludes only when Ram gives up his life near the river Sarayu. More significantly, Ram in Valmiki’s Ramayana was Maryada Purushottam — the man who could not be faulted as a human being — and Tulsidas imbued Ram with God-like qualities and used the Bhakti Rasa — a sentiment infused with devotion — to achieve a kind of apotheosis that elevates Ram as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity of gods. Varma’s commentary and the sections he has selected from Tulsidas’s epic bring these elements out quite eloquently.

Ramanujan’s thesis gets further corroboration when you read Varma’s commentary on how Tulsidas describes Ram’s crestfallen disorientation after he learns of Sita’s abduction from their forest home. Tulsidas writes: “Shri Ram, who is bliss personified and has all His wishes accomplished, and who is both unborn and immortal, behaved like a mortal.” Ram’s behaviour like a mortal after the abduction of Sita may be the only such occasion in Ramcharitmanas. But Valmiki’s Ramayana presents many more instances when Ram behaves like a human being, with all the weaknesses and even faults of an ordinary person, particularly in the manner in which he treats Sita after her return from Lanka. Valmiki’s narration makes no secret of the author’s disappointment over the way Ram questions a disconsolate Sita, soon after she is rescued in Lanka.

For Tulsidas, making a lone exception in presenting Ram with the weaknesses of showing emotion as a human being is significant. Ramcharitmanas was composed in Awadhi in the late 16th century so that the story of Ram could be accessed by ordinary people. As Varma writes, there was a lot of pressure on him to write the story of Ram in Sanskrit, but even though Tulsidas spent a good part of his life in Kashi (present-day Varanasi), he decided to compose Ramcharitmanas in the local language. That also perhaps explains why Tulsidas portrays Ram to the ordinary people as the incarnation of Vishnu and with virtually no weaknesses that Valmiki’s Ram had shown. What helped Tulsidas was the structure of  Ramcharitmanas, which excluded sections that saw Sita embrace Mother Earth to end her life after the two humiliating experiences of proving her integrity and loyalty to Ram.

A few of the sections, which Varma chose to highlight in this volume with his commentary, also bring out Tulsidas’s idea of social inclusion and a secular worldview. The conversation between Shabari, who belonged to a lower Hindu caste, and Ram, highlights the importance Tulsidas attached to the idea of social inclusion, although there would be legitimate questions over the suggestion that it was only the incarnation of Vishnu who would help Shabari achieve salvation. Similarly, the section on Ram Rajya demonstrates Tulsidas’s predilection for a secular worldview where he endorses the idea of people from all classes living in harmony.

Of the 44 sections in this volume, as many as 19 are presented as dialogues. Many of these dialogues are between key characters in the epic and bring out the intricacies of the relationships between the participants. The dialogues that add dimensions to the epic are the ones between Ram and his brother Lakshman and between Ravan and his wife Mandodari. No less significant is the dialogue between Ram and Bali, who was killed by the former in an unfair battle.

Varma has an easy and accessible style. He explains the significance of many incidents that Tulsidas chooses to depict in Ramcharitmanas with clarity and simplicity. For those who wish to read a Hindi commentary on all 44 sections of Ramcharitmanas in this volume, there is a short appendix at the end, which is useful and complements the English rendering of the work.

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