Thursday, December 15, 2005

modern 'hindutva' and the ancient indian epics


If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Essentially, it is nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with a certain authority.

Emile Durkheim, Individualism and the Intellectuals

The Ramayana has had a profound influence, perhaps an influence much greater than the Mahabharata, upon the social mores of the Indian people. Be it the call for a ramrajya by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or the Sangh Parivar’s championing of the deity, the Ramayana has been at the heart of the political and cultural discourse in the country.

Perhaps this has to do with the intrinsic qualities of the two epics.

The Ramayana is characterized by its essential unity, be it in characterization, action, or its simplistic moral code, based on a principle of stasis rather than that of flux. The ideal society (or ramrajya) is one of extreme consensual ordering. The social structures are seemingly insurmountable and more significantly, absolutely unimpeachable. This may be seen in the characterization of Guha, or in the rationale of ridding the world of an asura’s presence merely because he was born an asura, or in the portrayal of the subservient man-monkeys. The inferiority of Guha, the evil-mindedness of Ravana, and the uncouthness of the man-monkeys, are caused purely by virtue of birth into that particular stratum of society.

The sacrosanctity of the existing social order, that of God – King – Father, is perhaps the most important theme of the Ramayana. The supremacy of the patriarchical holy trinity illustrated in the episodes of Rama’s glad acquiescence with his father’s unreasonable demands, the characterization of Guha, Rama’s assassination of Bali, and Sita’s ordeal.

Rama’s glad acquiescence of Dasharata’s demands, without so much as a token protest, is an instance of the Father being granted absolute subservience. It is imperative that the Father be given absolute powers, for he is clearly the head of the family in this case, and therefore an important part of the patriarchical social order portrayed in the Ramayana.

Rama’s meeting with the boatman Guha is another deeply symbolic scene. The obvious symbol of the boatman, the river, and the crossing, perhaps obscures the more latent symbolism of the Guha’s desire to touch Rama’s feet. Guha’s self-confessed greatest joy in life is the charan-dhooli, or the dust from the feet, of Rama. The King, or his representative in this case, being an authority figure, is not only to be served, but is to be worshipped and granted absolute subservience with joy, for therein lies salvation.

The assassination of Bali, more importantly, the self-righteous justification that he was being punished having been covetous of his brother’s wife, is clearly an instance underscoring the irreproachability of the authority of God. Rama’s purpose in life, that being the assassination of Ravana, is another instance signifying the same unimpeachable moral authority. (The deep irony behind an arbitrary ‘moral’ code being entirely unintended, an undetected undercurrent in the text!)

Sita’s ordeal by fire is a variation on the motif of patriarchical absolutism as vested in the Father figure, only this time around, in the figure of the Husband.

Rama’s return to his kingdom and the glorious reinforcement of the social structures, as signified by his ‘rightful’ ascendance to the throne, provides a fitting climax to the great epic of stasis.

The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is deeply subversive in its depiction of social structures. Drona and Kripa, the warrior Brahmins, the tribal boy Ekalavya who becomes a great warrior in spite of having been refused instruction by Dronacharya and having his thumb cut off as an precaution against him being a threat to Arjuna’s status as the greatest archer in the world, are figures that subvert the existing social order by assuming alternative occupations and striving towards objectives dictated by factors other than the social expectations.

While the Mahabharata still deals with the ‘higher’ classes or the Kshatriyas and the Brahmins, (it was not until the Cilappatikāram appeared that the epic form was used to tell the story of the lives of ordinary people, albeit rich) the portrayal of the lower classes is not as merely subservient, or inherently lesser people. As is to be expected from the conditions under which it was composed, the Mahabharata is not a subversive epic, nor a model of subaltern articulation. The remarkable fact – and this is what makes it in a sense a modern epic – is that the fact of the conflict of interests and the resultant oppression are clearly depicted. The Mahabharata is not an epic where the subaltern speaks loud and clear. Instead it shows the gags that restrain the subaltern.

The deliberate attempts at avoiding all simplistic moral inferences are numerous, particularly in the portrayal of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The nobility of the demon Ghatotkacha contrasts with the uncouthness of Dushasana, a prince. The awe-inspiring killing rampage of Drona, the Kaurava general, is ended by a dastardly act of Drishtadyumna, who kills an unarmed Drona paralyzed upon hearing the (false) news of his son’s death. The same Karna, who had earlier spared the life of Nakula, was caught off guard by Arjuna and mercilessly killed, upon the advise of Krishna himself. The incarnation of God himself, Krishna is a rather Machiavellian figure.

In spatial terms, the Pandavas leave both their capital Indraprastha and the Kaurava capital Hastinapura after the Kurukshetra War, seeking peace and absolution for their sins. The Mahabharata seems to suggest that there can be no restoration of the old order after a devastating war such as the 18-day Kurukshetra War. The motif is one of flux – socially, in terms of fluid structures; morally, in terms of a deliberate avoidance of irreproachable authority figures; and formally, in terms of dynamic characterization.

As Barthes said, myth reinforces the ideology of capitalist society (he used it to mean all dominant societies). In the case of the Ramayana the dominant ideology is hard at work normalizing and naturalizing the social structures prevalent at the time of their composition. (The Mahabharata has been used primarily for purpose of comparison. No doubt, a hundred such objections can be made, by modern readers, to various elements in the Mahabharata.)


A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself. Such `mystification', as it is commonly known, frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts, from which arises the conception of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions.

Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction

Ideology limits the invention of forms, subjects it to taboos and reduces, the margins of the 'normal'.

Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology

The Ramayana’s inherent socially conservative morals and absolute social structures and the Sangh’s own socially conservative, politically fascist agenda are but natural ideological allies.

(Why do I say ‘fascist’?
The laudatory comments of Golwalkar on the methods adopted by Hitler in maintaining ‘racial purity’. Modi’s election speeches targeting the Muslim janta of the state. Sanskritisation of our universities, saffron coloured textbooks. ‘Cultural nationalism’. The attempt to brahminize and thereby homogenize various Hindu cultures, not to mention amalgamating the innumerable cultures in India into a monolith.
Those were only the most obvious…)

The attempt at brahminising the various sects and cultures within the larger Hindu way of life, and thereby subsuming the Dalit and adivasis ways of life and indeed all cultures other than the brahminical, is most reprehensible. It is also, disturbingly, amongst the BJP’s more successful ideological ploys. So much so, that not too much is made of the VHP – Bajrang Dal’s ‘reconversion’ of tribal converts to Christianity by conducting the thread ceremony. This of course is a distinctly Brahmin ritual that has now been generalized to symbolize all of Hinduism by a deft sleight of hand on the part of the BJP. Similarly, BJP’s anti cow slaughter stand is magnanimously on behalf of all Hindus. While their concern for animal welfare is most heartening, the absolute disregard for the views of the Dalits who have, over the ages not considered cows to be sacred, is disconcerting. Indeed, the Dalits and adivasis were not considered a part of Hinduism in the Vedic times as evidenced by their exclusion from the Varna system, and culturally they have always fiercely maintained their independence. It is the BJP who came with promises of reintegration and a glorious new Hindu Rashtra, the price for which is the cultural dissolution into brahminism. Interestingly, Dalit intellectuals have come up with the response that the buffalo, a far more useful animal they claim, is the real ‘sacred animal’.

Apart from the Dalits and the adivasis, temple artists in South India, Kerala in particular, have always used cowhide for their instruments. As anyone who has ever been to a South Indian temple will tell you, worship is incomplete without the ambience created by these percussion instruments.

(A self-indulgent note, entirely irrelevant to current theme:

The tradition of sopanasangeetham in Kerala temples, where the verses from Jayadeva’s Geeta Govindam are sung to accompaniment of the edakka, played by the singer himself, is a lesser-known art form of Kerala. It was Kerala’s indigenous musical tradition before Carnatic music gained popularity.)

The very concept of nationalism espoused by the Sangh ideologues is one of Hindu, Hindi, Hind. There is no place in this nation for those who do not subscribe to the norm, South Indians, North Easterners, Muslims (‘invaders’), Christians (‘proselytizers’), Dalits or adivasis. It is this exclusive and monolithic concept of the nation that seeks legitimization through the myth of the Ramayana.

The unity of the Ramayana, the self-righteousness that excuses all morality, coupled with presumptuous rationalization that draws moral conclusions from arbitrary actions, and the depiction of an ideal society, the much vaunted ramrajya, as absolutely consensual, and almost static, are features that suit perfectly an organization with fascist tendencies.

The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is too morally ambiguous, its characterization too decentralized and its view of society too conflicting. The Cilappatikāram, the only Indian epic to have a woman protagonist, is too deeply subversive and its protagonist’s deeply symbolic act of tearing out her breast and throwing it at an unjust oppressive society, too much of a sexual revolt against existing patriarchy for it to be even decently mentionable.

If the patriarchical subjugation of ethnic, cultural, gender, communal and sexual minorities, and an amalgamation of all cultures within the self-proclaimed cultural elite is the desired objective, it is one for which the Ramayana is particularly well suited.

A note on the texts
Amongst the sources of the Ramayana, I’ve concentrated mainly to the Adhyatma Ramayana, which is a version of the Ramayana that is part of the Brahmanda Purana.

I have also consulted the prose translation of the Ramayana edited by C. Rajagopalachari, which is a version of the Adhyatama Ramayana, for the author’s work is an annoying apologia for ‘the lord’s’ actions, which ‘we lesser mortals may not always understand’.

The Mahabharata has been cited mostly from folklore. (Which basically means that zilch research has gone into it.) I guess Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta will have to do for bibliography.

As for The Cilappatikāram, I’ve used R. Parthasarathy’s excellent translation, which also has insightful critical essays in the form of an Introduction and a Postscript.

A note on authorship
The Mahabharata is of course written by Ved Vyas. Critics are divided over whether he was indeed a person or whether it was the collective pseudonym of a syndicate of scholars and authors.

The Cilappatikāram is a Tamil epic written by a Jaina monk of unknown identity, under the pseudonym of Iļańkō Aţikaļ.

The original Ramayana written by Valmiki has since spawned many versions in Sanskrit as well as regional languages, notable amongst them being Kamban’s Ramayanam in Tamil, Thunchathu Ezhuthacchan’s Kilippattu Ramayanam (literally translated, The Bird Song Ramayana, owing to the practice of it being sung) in Malayalam, Tulsidas’ Ramacharitamanas in Marathi etc.

The Adhyatma Ramayana, derived from Valmiki’s epic, chiefly differs from its source in that the divinity, and therefore the irreproachability, of Rama is presumed, as opposed to Valmiki’s, where it is merely an acknowledged, but quickly forgotten, fact.

There is no critical consensus on its authorship or date of composition of the Adhyatma Ramayana. There is, however, one interesting critical opinion that considers Ved Vyas to be its author, as all the Vedas and the Puranas are traditionally ascribed to him. So it may be that the two texts we have contrasted, irreconcilable as the differences in style and sensibility may appear to be, may have been authored by the same person!


Kausha said...

hmm.Talk about a lit fart deconstructionist reading by Vivian. Is that correct brither? Get a life, katan.This is the second time i'm reading something similar. of course i've heard it all before!!

Kausha said...

Also, might i suggest turning word verification on for comments in order to stop unnecessary spamming.

V. said...

i didnt write this now da.
i was just salvaging some of the posts i liked. never mind that noone ever read these.
now that i ve copied all i wanted to, i will soon get down to writing new ones.

udaymuses said...

all very impressive ...wat r u trying to say?i din getthe point facts r gud...but wat about amalysing the facts