Ramayana’s pluralism visible from Ayodhya to Yogyakarta, but not in DU
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Ramayana’s pluralism visible from Ayodhya to Yogyakarta, but not in DU

An evening in Yogyakarta watching the Ramayana Ballet – running every day for decades – is fairly high up on my wish list. I am told that in the travelers’ paradise of Java, the package includes dinner, a visit backstage to see the preparations of dancers if early but above all a peep into this extraordinary version of the great epic – that showcases the “legendary epos written by Walmiki in Sanskrit language” and whose narrative begins with “Prabu Janaka holding a contest to determine the would-be husband for Shinta, his daughter that finally was won by Rama Wijaya”.

The ballet, mirroring Javanese culture, is reputed to be the longest running ballet anywhere in the world and is just one of the countless versions of the great story of Ram, his wife Sita, brother Lakshman, follower Hanuman and rival Ravan.

The reason for mentioning the ballet that is most likely to remain on my wish list is because of the senseless banning from Delhi University’s syllabus of an essay by famed scholar AK Ramanujan on the pluralistic tradition of reading the Ramayana.

The Academic Council’s decision is a throwback to sectarian protests 18 years ago by organisations claiming that Hindu sentiments and sensibilities were hurt by a panel in an exhibition mounted by SAHMAT in August 1993. The guilty panel? A narrative and textual depiction of a Buddhist Jataka tale which showed that Ram and Sita were brother and sister.

The Buddhist Jataka story was not SAHMAT’s creation. In March 1931 when the legendary Prof KA Nilakanta Sastri was heading Department of Indian History and Archaeology at University of Madras, he delivered a lecture – “The Ramayana and Valmiki Abroad” at the Madras Samskrita Academy. In the course of the lecture he stated: “”Everyone knows of the ancient Dasaratha Jataka of the Buddhist birth-stories which opens by making Rama and Sita brother and sister, and ends by making them husband and wife , a story which knows nothing of Ravana or Lanka.”

For more variety on scholarly studies on the Ramayana’s pluralistic tradition it might be worthwhile to throw light on the works of John Brockington, a widely respected scholar known for his lifelong perusal of Sanskrit epics. For his D Phil, Brockington presented his thesis on the language and style of the Ramayana. In the early 1990s when the Ayodhya agitation was peaking and my interest on it was on the way to result in my only book so far, I was introduced to Brockington’s Righteous Rama – one of the finest expositions on the evolution of the Ramayana.

Brockington wrote the book a few years before Ramanand Sagar’s version of the Ramayana began telecast on Doordarshan culturally reintroducing the story in middle class homes when a political battle over it was being fought.

Reductionist approaches to studying Ramayana will do disservice to Ram’s story and the creative endeavors of Valmik and numerous other narrators of the epic. Past efforts to curtail pluralistic interpretations had to be abandoned. The sooner Delhi University realizes this the better it would be.