Who was A. K. Ramanujan –
It is very tough to categorize A K Ramanujan (AKR). He was a poet, an author, translator, folklorist, playwright and a scholar. He was educated in Mysore University and was a Fullbright Scholar at Indiana University. He was also a lecturer at M. S. University of Baroda for about eight years before moving on to US, where he taught at many US Universities, like Harvard, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. He was honoured by the ‘Padmashri’ by the Government of India besides the number of accolades that he would have received during his life time. He breathed his last in 1993.
He was also credited for compiling folk-tales from across the country and categorizing them according to topics and analyzing them according to the cultural milieu. It’s a seminal work which is today considered a reference point in the study of folk-literature.
The Essay –
“Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and Three Thoughts on Translations”, written in 1991, is a seminal work on the different versions of Ramayana in our country and abroad. The many diverse versions give it a local flavor and its assimilation in the said culture. But just as India is different every 15kms you travel, so is the interpretation and treatment of the epic. If it is impossible for one to read all the texts in one’s lifetime, then this essay allows you to peep into different versions which give you a view of the diversity in each, maintaining the unity with the original.
Ramayana is written in many of the Indian languages, viz. Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. besides many foreign languages like, Malaysian, Sinhalese, Balinese and Thai amongst then being the prominent ones. In Sanskrit itself, there are about twenty-five versions available.
The main works compared by AKR in this essay are that of the Ramayana written in Sanskrit by Valmiki, the original author of the epic, Kampan’s Ramayana in Tamil, Bengali Ramayana by Krittivasa, Ramayana in Jain texts and the Thai version of Ramayana. The essay brings out the major difference in each of the works and at times also goes on to explain the reasons of difference and how cultural and geographic outlook shapes the changes in the personalities of the central characters.
The Controversy –
The said essay was included in the B.A., History syllabus of Delhi University in the year 2006. ABVP, the youth wing of the BJP sought banning of the said essay as it hurt the religious sentiment of the majority and termed it ‘blasphemous’ and ‘anti-Hindu’, besides many other things not worth mentioning. In 2008, the Delhi High Court directed a four member committee to give its opinion on the inclusion of the essay in the syllabus and the committee gave a 3-1 verdict in favour of inclusion of the essay on the merit of its academic value. The DU Council however, ignored the recommendation of the Committee and in October 2011, decided to bend its knees to the demand of the ABVP and banned the essay.
The Issue –
The issue is deeper than what it seems, not surprising though. It is less to do with anti-Hindu and blasphemy, and more to do with politics – which is the tragedy. The academia has succumbed to the hegemony of politics. This might not have happened for the first time, but that is hardly a solace and neither should it be.
One of the reasons of raising the issue is that the panel which decided on the inclusion of the essay had Ms. Upinder Singh, the daughter of PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh. The move by ABVP was more to embarrass the ruling party than anything else. To avoid another embarrassment for the PM (amongst many) the DU council came to his ‘rescue’ by simply ‘dropping’ the essay as against ‘banning’ it.
In all this politics it is the students who actually stand to lose. Besides being an issue of academic freedom, it is also a case of an effort to control education by a bunch of goons. When illiterates and goons who have nothing to do with academics decide what to teach and study in temples of education then the society is going nowhere except down the tube. Delhi University is not an exception – sometime back we had seen the dropping of a book in Mumbai University sought by the student wing of the Shiv Sena. The Academia protested but nothing worthwhile happened.
In erstwhile Communist Russia and many other societies and cultures, we have seen the banning and systemic-stymying of literature. This stifling of debate will lead to the growth of regressive mindset of a supposedly progressive society. Any culture or progressive societies have to be open to debate and what has been discussed in AKR’s essay is the mindset of different cultures and their views of the epic, which have been written hundreds of years back. Can the Tamil version of Ramayana be banned or can Krittivasa’s Bengali version be banned? The tribal version of Ramayana is a far cry from Valmiki’s Ramayana, but nobody has sought for a ban on that, then why the essay which critically analyses the said versions.
The essay by AKR is about 25 pages of sheer literary genius. In the forthcoming articles I will take up some of the well-known Ramayanas and discuss the difference and the reasons for the same. While doing this, I will be leaning heavily on the essay to bring the work of literary genius to all my readers, which some wayward elements are trying to sabotage.