Around the 1950s, adult literacy was one of the most important programmes that almost all state governments had launched in India. Bulk of its target audience was the masses of our illiterate villagers with a practical goal in mind: in a rapidly industrializing and mechanized world, literacy meant survival itself. The success of this programme was the proverbial mixed bag but an anecdote in the context of Karnataka is highly revealing.
A good chunk of villagers (and other former illiterates) who had become newly literate appreciated the value of the written word and the immense joy of reading. Still, they posed a question to the officers of the Government’s education department. Nobody had taught them to ask this question. It welled up from the spring of their cultural life: “Sir, we are truly grateful to you. You have taught us how to read and write. You regularly give us all kinds of books to read and that is also good. But why should we even learn how to read if we don’t read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? That way, we would have earned punya along with the joy they give us. That way, our life would have been fruitful.”
Recalling this incident, the brilliant Kannada poet laureate, Sri Kuvempu says, “our people are truly blessed! No matter how corrupt our daily life may appear on the surface, in the innermost recesses, the soft glow of the Tapas of our ancients continues to illuminate it.”
Truer words were never spoken. Indeed, as we have written elsewhere, in a way, our devotion to Sri Ramachandra is directly determined by our attitude towards Srimad Ramayana.
In an age obsessed with numbers and “data,” it might surprise a good number of Indians to learn that Srimad Ramayana remains a constant “bestseller.” A new edition of this immortal epic in at least five languages is being readied even as I write this. There are hundreds of examples of devout Rama Bhaktas who have even sold their homes to publish His Story. To the deeply utilitarian mind, this question arises: for what benefit? The answer will be self-evident to minds that have transcended the notion of benefit and utility. The answer can also arise in the form of a counter question: for what or whose benefit did Maharshi Valmiki compose Srimad Ramayana? To quote Sri Kuvempu again, “the poet Valmiki has himself incarnated as the epic for performing an act of Lokasangraha.” The word Lokasangraha does not render well in English. At best, it can be translated as “well-being of the world.” Indeed, even as Valmiki was composing the Ramayana, the Ramayana was profoundly sculpting him. While it was giving itself to him, it was also taking from him.
Indeed, the Ramayana originates in a feeling of intense melancholy and culminates in high philosophy. It begins in Dukha and ends in Darshana. Thus, when the poet extols its glorious immortality in the words of Brahma himself, he is merely stating a future that has already come true.
O Valmiki, your curse to that hunter has taken the form of a sloka. Your shoka (sadness) has become a sloka because Saraswati, the Goddess of Poetry, has already incarnated in you. You have already listened to the story of Sri Rama from Narada. Compose the full story in sloka. Be it any episode related to Sita-Rama-Lakshmana, be it any event related to the Rakshasas, be it the thoughts of any character in the story, everything will reveal itself to you, nothing will be hidden. Not a grain of untruth will enter your language. Till mountains and rivers exist on this earth will your Ramayana remain.
There is an oblique suggestion here as well: a true poet or litterateur must free himself of Raga (attachment, bias, etc) and Dwesha (anger, jealousy, etc) while composing his work.
It is equally clear that the composition of Srimad Ramayana was how Maharshi Valmiki executed Brahma’s will and became a Kavi-Brahma himself. Indeed, Valmiki’s celebrated honorific, Adikavi (First Poet) has this meaning implied in it.
It is precisely this depth of feeling, this reverential inner attitude that made our people bestow the status of a sacred work, and a work of Dharmasastra upon Srimad Ramayana. For countless centuries, it tilled and cultivated their civilization, and refined their culture and lives. So long as our people lived its ideals in their lives, the need for the Government to create new laws was proportionally absent. This operative reality was working behind the lament of the aforementioned newly literate people: “why should we even learn how to read if we don’t read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?”
Thus, unless the song of the Ramayana that Maharshi Valmiki sang so long ago resonates and wells up in our own hearts with the same feeling, every “reading” of the epic becomes superficial and pointless. Such a resonance will indeed, recreate Srimad Ramayana within ourselves. Else, it will lead to dangerous outcomes like that ignorant and obnoxious essay, 300 Ramayanas. A similar danger that has erupted like wildfire in recent times is a misguided and inferiority-ridden attempt to forcibly unearth “historical truths” in the Ramayana. Taken to its logical end, it will leave us with neither history nor the true essence of the Ramayana. We can once again turn to Sri Kuvempu who puts it best:
The Ramayana is not a work of history. It is a poetic work of Darshana that reveals the real truths behind the apparent truths of Divine Sport.
An event of history cannot occur again. But Valmiki’s great work is not history, but Kavya [poetry]. The history he writes in the Ramayana occurred on the dais of his Inner Life…
If we compare Akbar’s reign with Anjaneya’s Great Leap over the Ocean using the methodology of history, it will obviously sound ridiculous. The former is history, the latter is poetry. History can perchance become literature through poetic experience and talent. But such literature cannot be called history. Thus, we must not read such a work from the perspective of history. If we do that, we will incur the twin loss of distancing ourselves from the insights of history and cheat ourselves of the philosophical enlightenment that a study of literature gives us.
The nature of scholarship that attempts to seek only events of world history in Valmiki’s Ramayana is akin to a fool who sees only a stick in sugarcane. Such a scholar will defraud himself from the readily-available intrinsic advantage and will not only misdirect himself but will mislead others as well. The damage that such a scholar does is incalculable…The real essence of sugarcane is its incomparable sweetness and the greatest culmination of this sweetness is jaggery…But the person who propounds that the stick is the only reality of the sugarcane and tries to forcibly falsify the reality of its sweetness will harm himself and others. Attempts to posit a north-south Indian divide, Aryan-Dravidian conflict, trying to “study” the “civilization of monkeys” in Kishkindha, and “sociological” studies of the Sri Lankan people using Ravana as the yardstick…all such endeavours do not bring respect to the discipline of history research. [Emphasis added]
Srimad Ramayana may or may not contain truths of history but such elements are completely tertiary and merely incidental to the work. The real “benefit” of Srimad Ramayana is an expansion of our heart, a tempering of our passions, a wakeful maintenance of our inner hygiene, all of it leading to the awakening of what Swami Vivekananda called, the “divinity within.”
Think about it. None of these “research” works on the Ramayana will evoke the depth of feeling that arose within Sri Krishnabrahmatantra Yatindra when he listened to just a few verses:
On one occasion, Sri Krishnabrahmatantra Yatindra was looking for some verse in the Ramayana… His disciple, Sri Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma opened the Ramayana and read out some Slokas at random. The verse he was looking for was located a few pages ahead. When Sri Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma flipped the pages to get to the specific verse, his Guru said, “Don’t stop. Read the same portion you’re now reading.” These verses narrated the episode where Sumitra was consoling Kausalya who was profusely weeping at the news of Sri Ramachandra’s banishment to the forest. Sri Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma read the Slokas from this portion at a slow pace. After reading some more verses, he paused and looked sideways. Swami Krishnabrahmatantra Yatindra’s eyes had filled with tears.
Which “historical dating” or “research work” on the Ramayana has the capacity to offer even a fraction of this? I suppose we are living in truly barren times, undergoing a perverse, unending curse. Our hearts seem to have turned to stone.
But then, we’re not Ahalya either.
|| Sri Rama Jayam ||
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