UNDIPLOMATIC TIMES

INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS

AS HISTORY

THE RAMAYANA



This is a consolidation of blog posts written in India between 2011 and 2012:


SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2011

Criticism of the move to drop A. K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from the BA History syllabus at Delhi University has been entirely predictable. Those who wear their “secular” label on their foreheads, saw the decision to drop the essay as a response to pressure from the Hindutva brigade. Some Press reports said the Hindutvadis considered the essay “blashphemous.”

“Cultural fascism” said some. “Talibanizing history” said others. "A matter of academic freedom" said milder folk. The truly fatuous decried the attempt to negate the Ramayana as "a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions." It was as if the country had hit a time warp and woken up in the 1980s with its poisonous "Left-Secular" v "Right-Hindutva" confrontation.

I think we should all take a breather and re-examine what the essay contributes to our understanding of the past.

Ramanujan’s essay is nothing more than a testament to the enduring popularity of the epic in many lands and the irrepressible creativity of those who have retold its story. It says nothing about the Ramayana's significance in Indian history or its impact on Indian society. Written for a foreign audience, the essay emphasizes what we might call the folkloric, the quaint and the bizarre.

An essay on the Ramayana of value to Indian students of history would examine its enormous role in inspiring and shaping Indian society. For millennia, the Prince of Ayodhya has been a role model for Indians. More, it is a critically important marker in the evolution of our society. The story of Rama brought into the daily life of India the philosophical wisdom of the Upanishads. The Ramayana records and justifies the emergence of the unitary State, not the Leviathan of enforced national security as in Hobbesian Europe, but acclaimed in the person of the virtuous and beloved king.

Rama is not an all-powerful dictator to whom people bend in awe but a popular ruler solicitous of his people's opinion in all things. He even rejects Sita because of murmurs among the citizens of Ayodhya that her pregnancy soon after returning from Ravana’s clutches implied a violation that made her unfit to be queen. In that, as in his self-doubt and anguish at critical points of the story, Rama is everyman. As king, he is a democrat.

 In the devotion to his father, love for Sita, loyalty to Laxman, and generosity towards Kaikei, he is the archetype of the good family man. He goes to war not to extend his kingdom or for profit but to regain his wife. In his misfortunes he is graceful, in victory he is modest. Rama is the God-king next door, neighbourly, considerate and kind.

In short, Rama is accessible to all Indians regardless of status or caste, a point the Ramayana underlines in many ways. Perhaps most striking is the legend of Valmiki the author of the Ramayana, the low born brigand whose devotion to Rama makes him India's First Poet-Sage. Repeatedly, the narrative underlines Rama's openness to all people. The gods applaud when the prince sits comfortably with the low caste forest-dweller Guha. A poor woman offers fruit to him after biting into it to make sure it is sweet; Lakshman protests but Rama silences him; she acts out of love. That unforced love of the ruler is the basis for Ramrajya – Rama’s virtuous rule – the widely held ideal of the Indian state for thousands of years.

Another point an essay written for Indian students might explore is the significance of Rama's insistence on going into exile to make good his father's old pledge. It makes clear the critical importance the Ramayana places on the integrity of the king, the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the state.

It might also be useful to get the young thinking about how India's rise from foreign domination by mobilizing the best of its tradition, and its success in maintaining democratic rule in the face of staggering odds, owe a great deal to values we can trace back to the Ramayana.

In the face of all this, I am all for dropping Ramanujan’s essay purely on the basis that it is a tawdry, insubstantial treatment of a great subject.


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ROMILA THAPAR ON THE RAMAYANA

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2011

The Hindu carried last Friday (Op-ed page, 28 October), a lengthy interview of historian Romila Thapar. It focused on the decision of the Academic Council of Delhi University to drop from the BA syllabus, the controversial essay on the Ramayana by the poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan.

In introducing the interview, the paper noted that the Academic Council decision came three years after "the Hindutva student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) vandalized DU's History Department to protest against the teaching of this essay."

As I noted in an earlier post, the essay is a very insubstantial treatment of a topic rich in historical significance but the academic combatants of the so-called "secular Left" have risen in its defence as a matter of politics, not scholarship. 

That was, in fact, Thapar's first point. She noted that the ABVP activists had arranged for television cameras to be on hand, and that their primary objection to the essay was that it "hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community." That was "hardly an academic demand. And quite clearly, the way in which the activity was organised, it was an act of political opposition to the History department and to this particular essay."

Delhi University had initially appointed a four-member group of academics to look into the matter, and three of them had found in favour of retaining the essay, while the fourth said it was too nuanced and complex for undergraduate students. The University had then, in the face of a law suit, referred the matter to the Academic Council, which had voted 90:10 against retaining the essay.

Faulting that decision, Thapar returned to her primary point: "whether courses and syllabi can be changed by groups beating up faculty and vandalising departments." She thought that was "a very fundamental question which academia has to face and answer and take a position on." 
Casting scorn on the ABVP activists who she doubted had even read the work they opposed, Thapar then made a highly questionable argument. She said definitively that the Valmiki Ramayanawas coincidental with the Buddhist and Jain Jataka versions, and that it preceded the Tamil Kamban version by a millennium. 

That is going far out on a very shaky limb, for there is no scholarly agreement on dating Valmiki's authorship. The work itself says Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama, placing him in the Treta Yuga. Scholars who have studied the descriptions of the positions of stars in the Ramayana have suggested that it was written 7000 years BCE (before the current era). That would place it at about the time when the many tribes of India were jelling into the interdependent castes of new kingdoms supported by the spread of agricultural civilization. 

In noting the variations of the Jataka versions from Valmiki's story -- Ravana as a respected figure, Rama and Sita as brother and sister, and other oddities -- neither Ramanujan in his essay nor Thapar in The Hindu interview, pointed to the obvious explanation, that the variants were Buddhist/Jain efforts to co-opt/subvert a much loved Hindu tradition.

Thapar is disdainful of the argument that the Ramanujan essay is too difficult for Delhi University instructors to explain to undergraduate students. She has surely not considered that any adequate explanation will have to explore the matter of inter-religious propaganda wars in a wider context. If academic freedom requires retention of the essay in the syllabus, should Delhi University require the study also of The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code? Should it diversify its faculty and course offerings to reflect the views that were ignored until students turned to hooliganism?


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AN INDIAN VIEW OF THE PAST

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2012


To see clearly the need for a uniquely Indian historiography we have to keep in mind the evolution of European concepts of history. From the time of the ancient Greeks to the middle of the 19th Century, it was a literary pursuit, of interest mainly to the elite interested in governance. In ancient Rome, it became moralistic in Plutarch’s Lives, overtly polemical under the impetus of missionary Christianity, nationalist in the 18th Century, and racist during the colonial period. 

Until about 1850, history was the occupation of amateurs; then, under the influence of German scholars, it took on the pretensions of a science, with a methodology that aimed “not to please, nor to give practical maxims of conduct, nor to arouse the emotions, but knowledge pure and simple” (Langlois & Seignobos: Introduction to the Study of History, 1904). In practice, European historians have come nowhere near that ideal, but our professional historians have accepted their propaganda as fact and belittled India’s own understanding of history. To see what that is we have to look at how Indian tradition has shaped our view of the past over the millennia.

Ramayana & Mahabharata
Far from being poor historical material, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are key markers of the evolution of Indian society. The Ramayana, as noted in an earlier post, records and justifies the evolution of kingship, not as an imposition of force accepted in trembling and fear as in Hobbesian Europe but founded in the love of a virtuous and beloved king. Rama is not an all-powerful dictator but a ruler solicitous of popular opinion in all things. 

The story of the Mahabharata is completely different in moral content. The personality of Krishna is suited for a time when the State is well established and dominated by power-hungry, immoral people. He is the primary strategist and tactician for the dispossessed and politically weak but virtuous Pandavas, their spiritual mentor even in the rush and press of battle. As the only purna swarup among the incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna is fully conscious of his divinity from the moment of birth, acutely aware of the need to confront and check the growth of evil as the baneful Kali Yuga approaches. 

The revelation of his Universal form to Arjuna is to drive home the teaching that the workings of the Universe lie beyond human knowledge, that even if we do not like the hard choices before us, we must make them according to our best lights; in the worst of times we cannot despair and should not abandon our duty. 

To be able to do that in an age dominated by ignorant passions of every kind, he advises detachment. “You have the right to action, not to the fruit thereof” he tells Arjuna. “True yoga is to be unmoved by defeat and loss, or wealth and victory.” He did not say (as Western commentators so often misinterpret), that we should deaden ourselves to feeling; only that our actions should be dispassionate. 

All this is meaningful history. The rich content of our ancient literature, declared largely irrelevant in the frame of European historiography, is central to the Indian national narrative. That is so not because we assert that the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are literally true but because we define historical truth differently. It matters little whether Rama and Krishna were “historical figures.” They have lived in Indian hearts for thousands of years, and their stories illuminate who we are as a people; that gives them a reality far beyond that of any tinny chronology. 

Their significance is not in the miraculous stories of the epics, but in the values they incarnate, and the moral guidance they offer. It says more about India than any library of Western “histories” that without benefit of church or clergy its people have made national treasures of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is their moral weight, more than anything else that has allowed India to endure the massive corruptions of the culturally amnesiac class brought to power by colonial rule. 

In seeking a new historiography relevant not just to modern India but to a globalizing world it would be useful to look at how differently Europe and India have approached and achieved the primary goals of remembering the past and being guided by it. Perhaps the simplest way to do that would be to compare the hopes expressed in the introductory passages of the Histories of Herodotus and of the Mahabharata. 

Herodotus was impelled to write by “the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” His gossipy stories are still read today, but mainly by scholars and history students, and few would attribute much “glory” to the people in his narrative. 

The hopes expressed at the opening of the Mahabharata as the visiting Ugrasrava begins telling the hermits of the Naimisha forest of Vyasa’s great work, are markedly different from those of Herodotus: “As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full-moon by its mild light expands the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana has expanded the human intellect. By the lamp of history, which destroys the darkness of ignorance, the whole mansion of nature is properly and completely illuminated.” 

The illuminating power of history is in line with that of the sun and moon. The Mahabharata is not just about a particular war but about “religion, profit, pleasure and final release” – that is to say, all of life. While the histories of Herodotus gather dust on bookshelves, Vyasa’s story is known in every village in India and far afield; its heroes are remembered fondly in the names of children throughout the land, and its teachings taken to heart by unschooled peasants, scholars and saints. 

The Mahabharata has kept a nation of great diversity in touch with its essential cultural unity and instructed countless generations on what is to be valued in life, and what is without worth. This is what history is supposed to do. As a remembrance of the past that puts the present in proper perspective the Mahabharata is unmatched by any other work. Western historiography with its malleable truths and tribal loyalties has produced nothing remotely comparable. 

A Work of National Guidance

That the Mahabharata is a sophisticated work of national, moral and philosophical guidance is evident at many places in the narrative. Consider, for example, the origin and nature of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Although always referred to as “cousins,” the two sets of siblings, ostensibly the sons of the blind Dhrithirashtra and his younger brother Pandu “the pale,” are unrelated by blood. 

The sons of Pandu, who is cursed to die instantly if he should give way to carnal desire, are actually fathered by different gods invoked by his two wives. Dharma, the personification of universal law fathers the first-born Yudhisthira. Maruti the Wind begets Bhima of immense strength. Indra the warrior god of thunder and storm is the father of Arjuna, the perfect warrior. The twin Aswins, skilled in the arts and husbandry that support life, are the parents of Nakula and Sahadeva. 

Together, they represent the essential strengths of any civilization: Law, Power, the capacity for war and the skills for peace. India is united not by its bloodlines but by the indissoluble bonds of a brotherhood of very mixed parentage; that theme is further emphasized in the love of the Pandavas of one shared wife who can be seen without taxing the imagination as the beautiful land to which all are wedded. 

The Kauravas are also not the natural sons of the blind Dhritrashtra. His wife Gandhari (from Gandhara, modern Afghanistan), is childless and becomes pregnant only through the magical intercession of Vyasa (a literary device he uses throughout the Mahabharata to signal didactic intent). Her pregnancy is abnormally prolonged, and as it draws past the second year she hears of the birth of Pandu’s first son and, losing patience, induces birth. What emerges from her womb is not a baby but a horrible ball of flesh, hard as iron. Vyasa returns to remonstrate with her. If she had not lost patience her offspring would have been of unrivaled splendour. 

However, all is not lost: he cuts up the ball of flesh into a hundred and one pieces, putting each in a separate jar. After two years of incubation the Kauravas emerge from the jars, all boys except for the youngest; they seem normal, even splendid, but are demonic by nature. As the Pandavas exemplify the attributes of a healthy society, the Kauravas illustrate the monstrous consequences of human over-reaching and incontinence. 

Dhrithrashtra’s blindness and Gandhari’s decision on her wedding day to blindfold herself for life establish a theme Vyasa returns to repeatedly in his long narrative: Evil is rooted in the incapacity or willful refusal to see reality. Every fateful choice the Kauravas make as they spiral down to doom illustrates the delusive power of egotism, greed, anger, hate and envy. No Satan plots their downfall, for Hinduism has no such entity; their fate is sealed by the failure to see the kinship of all things underlying the world’s vast differentiation; without spiritual cognition, they lack compassion, and thus understanding. 

These value judgments indicate a factor of central importance in Vyasa’s story: the course of human affairs is not accidental. The immutable laws that govern the universe extend into human conduct and our actions propel destiny. In telling of the origins and development of the conflicts that culminate in the killing field of Kurukshetra, Vyasa shows repeatedly how bad karma has insidious and long-term effects. 

Pandu brings on his curse because he shoots a deer in the act of coupling. Karna is resplendent like his father the Sun god and a greater warrior than Arjuna; but he accidentally kills a poor man’s only sustenance, a cow, and invites the curse that disables him at a critical point in battle and causes his death. The matchless warrior Bhisma inadvertently ruins the life of a princess he kidnaps according to the Kshatriya code, and her revenge comes after her death and rebirth as the effeminate Sikhandin, against whom he will not defend himself. 

The repercussions that flow from ill-considered actions are clothed as curses, but they are manifestly the ineluctable working out of karma. The Bharata war itself is a karmic landmark, for it occurred just before the world entered the Kali Yuga, the most benighted of the four-phase cycle of the moral universe.

The lesson of the whole of Vyasa's work is that when bad times come, there is nothing to do but accept it, knowing that it is karma at work. The best response is to create good karma, oppose evil with good, understand hatred, fight it with love.


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THE FUTURE OF THE PAST

SATURDAY, APRIL 7, 2012

Earlier sections of this series have dealt with the claims of colonial Europe to have a unique historical sensibility and the acceptance of that by Indian historians who have generally dismissed their own strong national historiography. This concluding section looks at why a globalizing world must reconstruct its past and how the Indian experience could be a model.

In two landmark essays on Indian history in 1912 and 1923 Rabindranath Tagore contrasted India’s peaceable diversity with homogenous Europe where “entire populations indulge in orgies of wholesale destruction unparalleled in ferocity in the history of the barbarian.” 

When faced “with non-Western races in a close contact” Europeans never knew “any other solution of the problem but extermination or expulsion.” 

Tagore noted that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had recorded India’s achievement but beyond pointing to the interplay of the conservative (Brahmin) and dynamic (Kshatriya) elements within the caste system, he did not analyze how exactly India had melded its thousands of tribes into peaceful coexistence. To my knowledge, no one else has done so either. 

In part the achievement was conceptual. The idea of a Universal Soul (Paramatma) provided a unifying umbrella for a wide variety of tribal beliefs and established with each of them a mutually legitimizing relationship.

On that shared spiritual foundation the Upanishad(discussion) tradition erected a structure of belief modeled on the easily observed seasonal cycles of Nature. It postulated the immortality of individual souls, all passing through many cycles of life and death in their evolution towards self-awareness and ultimately, the full enlightenment of merger with the Universal Soul. 

As the individual's long passage to enlightenment occurred within the matrix of universal law (Dharma) and the moral causality of action (Karma), it emphasized individual responsibility and modulated the collectivist passions of the tribe. That allowed diverse groups to maintain their autonomy of custom and ceremony while settling into functional interdependence. The result was the caste system, a loosely hierarchical order that was essentially obedient to function, although its propagandists claimed it was divinely ordained. 

A second aspect of the Indian achievement was the inspired story-telling of its two great Epics. They not only incorporated the complex teachings of the Upanishads into gripping and hugely popular stories, they spun all tribal beliefs into narratives reinforcing a core set of values.

Reworked into local storytelling traditions over many generations the Ramayana and Mahabharata shaped the common denominators of a culture that made India a nation unlike any known to the fiercely tribal nations of Europe. 

The British in their efforts to maintain an always tenuous hold on India did much to subvert and poison the relations between its many groups. The caste system was a particular object of malign policy because it seemed to be the bulwark of the country’s resistance to religious conversion and manipulation. In that context it is interesting to note early 19th Century British assessments of the caste system. 

Monstuart Elphinstone, who spent many years in the country, described the caste system as without rigor in his 1841 History of India. “The Brahmins claim that they alone now have preserved their lineage in its purity. The Rajputs, however, claim to be pure Kshatriyas. In the main, the Brahmin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Kshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter.” 

By the end of the century British writers were presenting the system as irretrievably rigid, ruled by iron custom set in place by the Brahmin caste to maintain its own superiority.
  
There was indeed an increase in the rigidity of the caste system in the 19th Century, but it had little to do with Brahmins: it was almost entirely the result of the first census of India (1871), which not only enumerated castes but presented them in hierarchical order.

The muddled British understanding of a complex and fluid system caused a great outcry across India but the damage could not be undone. Caste relations were embittered and subsequent British manipulations made things steadily worse. Thenceforth Indian reformers had to take in hand not only the many oppressive corruptions that had fractured caste relations over the millennia they had to wage a constant ideological battle with a Missionary-Bureaucratic combine seeking to divide and rule. 

This background is important as we seek to move a swiftly globalizing world beyond the “clash of civilizations” model within which analysts working in the European tradition have conceptualized it. By further emphasizing the tribalism of religious faiths – the opposite of what traditional India achieved – they have made it virtually impossible to build a peaceful world.

In seeking to remedy this situation we must keep in mind the striking differences between the impacts of European and Indian historiography: 

1. European historiography has bred unceasing war by accentuating the particularities of competing groups; far from modulating conflict the commonalities of religion have been a potent cause of violent intra-European intolerance and conflict. 

2. The Indian approach to history shaped an overall understanding of the human condition that tamped down tribal hostilities and allowed widely diverse groups to coexist in peaceful interdependence. 

In a world where hundreds of millions of people deride spiritual faith as delusion and billions frame their religious beliefs with missionary intolerance it will not be easy to construct a modern historiography based on the Indian model. However, the “sitting together” tradition of the Upanishads does offer a way to deal with existing differences. 

It could probably be most effectively revived under the umbrella of UNESCO’s World History program. To begin with, a series of structured international discussions could bring into a common frame the different perceptions of the universe as metaphysical and our knowledge of it as phenomena; that is to say, the spiritual and the scientific. 

Shorn of its usual shrill juvenile aspects, such a discussion would make clear that there is no fundamental conflict between the two approaches. Science itself distinguishes between the particle and wave natures of phenomena (the province of chemistry and physics respectively). Science now also takes it to be axiomatic that neither matter (particle) nor energy (wave) can be destroyed; they can only be converted into the other. This supports the concept of an indestructible soul. The existence of the genetic code further supports the idea of a unique and transmissible individuality.

Scientific acceptance of a "Big Bang" that initiated the phenomenal world and the inability to postulate what went before that “singularity" closely parallel religious views of Creation.  The similarities of Indian Spirituality and Western Science are even more pronounced if we consider that both are based on the existence of universal laws (Dharma) and inescapable causality (Karma). The great difference between the scientific and spiritual approaches now lies in the concept of divinity: do we live in an accidental or purposeful universe? 

Rather than try to resolve that issue at the outset, the new global historiography could make it a key object of study. Other key aspects of exploration would be the dynamic relationship of many diverse fields of human endeavor. At present historians put political and economic developments within a common frame of reference; we must also bring into an interactive picture a range of other dimensions represented by literature, art, science, mathematics, the use of technology and experience of the sacred. 

In such a multifaceted context events and trends will take on entirely new meanings and suggest commonalities and inter-relationships that are now hidden. Tribal consciousness will blur as such understanding grows. (Of course, elite groups that benefit from social dissension will have to be countered.) The Indian experience suggests also that a moral perspective will emerge from a study of history: some trends will appear beneficial, others demonic in impact. And beyond that duality there is a reality unaffected by either. 

The end of the Mahabharata illustrates that reality beyond human definitions by having Yudhisthira ascend to Heaven, where he finds all the evil people he battled on earth; his brothers, the virtuous Pandavas, are in Hell. It turns out to be an illusion and that is the final teaching of the Mahabharata: both Good and Evil are part of Maya, the delusive fog that cloaks the changeless Universal essence. Dispassionate awareness of that reality is the foundation of wisdom. 

We can experience a modern approximation of that realization by noting the net results of the terrible period of Western colonialism and industrial civilization. The genocides of colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, the intercontinental flows of indentured labor, the planting of settler colonies in the Americas and Africa, and the emergence of global economic and political systems, all have churned the human gene pool into an unprecedented unity. 

The revolution in racial attitudes that Mahatma Gandhi initiated and Martin Luther King made global (ironically, with the color-blind help of the mass consumer market), has brought us to a world more unified in its humanity than ever before. The poisonous nature of industrial society has focused our attention on humanity’s close and custodial relationship with Nature. Pushed, pulled and prodded, the human species seems to have been prepared for a major evolutionary leap, a new age. 

Sri Aurobindo, perhaps the greatest visionary India has produced, touched on the potential of such an age when he wrote of a “spiritual religion of humanity” as the hope of the future. He meant by that not “what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite,” but the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one” and “that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth.”

That would imply that the “human race and human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here … [and] a growing attempt to live out this knowledge … not merely a principle of cooperation but a deeper brotherhood, a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life. There must be the realization by the individual that only in the life of his fellow men is his own life complete.” 

I think that passage sets out the overall aim for a modern global historiography.