Haphazard History of Ramayana

RamayanaIn the last few days, all the readers of the prime selling newspapers have been inflicted by several views on the existence of Rama and creation of Ramasetu, better known as Adam’s bridge. It is surprising to notice that people from all walks of life have voiced their priced opinions and stated the ‘empirical truth’ except one genre of people who have the best knowledge of myths and realities – The Historians. None of the stalwarts of this genre like R.S.Sharma, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Uma Chakravortty have made their view points available. The question that arises is- Do these historians believe that the ‘truth’ behind the existence of any God or Man-God is a complex process or that faith and truth always don’t go together?

Readers who have recently seen the episode of ‘We the People’ must have heard the remarkable statement uttered by an eminent panelist saying “History is too complicated and complex to be in the hands of an historian.” Readers who believe in the above statement must read the following passage with an objective view point. It is also important to understand that one’s faith on an idol or a belief/cult is extension of one’s own personal space. This may or may not be in accordance to the outcome of historical research of those beliefs.

Ramayana in its inception is a bardic tradition (sung as couplets by the bards). It was recited at the royal events like the homa or the yagyas like aswamedha or rajasuya and was compiled around the 1st to 2nd century BC. It is worth noticing at this juncture that, from its inception to its compilation it was open to extrapolation and deletion by the carriers of the tradition. It is said that it was written by Valmiki but this has not been historically established. The existence of a man through more than five centuries may not be a fact worth entertaining; it is a perfect example of a source to examine the changing material milieu of the stated centuries and the process of state formation after the collapse of Harappa’s.

There are several versions of Ramayana, main being, Valmikis’s Ramayana and Tulsidas‘s Ramcharita manas. The latter was written as a later part of bhakti cult in the 15th century. It depicted Rama as God while the former text had Rama as only a perfect man. There are several differences between the two. One of the startling ones being the incident of Agnipariksha of Sita, which is introduced in the Ramcharita Manas and is absent in Valmiki’s version. Other Ramayana like the version of Jatakas depict Rama and Sita as brother and sister.

According Trautman, the writer of the Aryan debate, Ramayana is a story of conflict between the Aryans and the indigenous people of the ‘Indian’ land. This viewpoint has been accepted by most of the historians. The description of Rama as a tall, fair, sharp nosed etc shows uncanny resemblance to the ‘Vedic people’or the Aryans, the stalk of people who migrated from central Asia and settled in the Indian subcontinent. When they first interacted with the ‘locals’, they gained a superiority complex due to their looks, lifestyle and their warring style. Their superiority complex is visible by the way they describe the indigenous people, for example Ravana is described as dark, snub nosed, squat, muscular and hairy. He is also depicted as a worshipper of cults that have tribal ingredients. The descriptions match the Dravidian stalk of indigenous people. The animal army of Rama can be easily interpreted as the people of different tribes, whose names were those of animals, like the tribe of langur, the tribe of bears. Even if this point is prone to debates, it cannot be denied that all the tribes even today contain these totems.

Another aspect of this saga is the cause behind the war. Wendy Doniger, author of splitting the difference, questions the given cause of the war. The abduction of Sita by Ravana as the cause of the war is now challenged and debatable. Doniger says that it was Rama who first ridiculed the sister of Ravana, Surpanakha and cuts her, nose symbolical of destroying her dignity. Ravana hearing this gets very angry and abducts Sita but doesn’t rape her. The reasons of the same are varied in different versions. In recent decades people have started looking at Ravana as a good man with wrong circumstances working against him.

Coming to the role of Sita in the epic. She was depicted as a very liberated woman of those times. Being a consort of Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, she was constructed as a woman full of virtues. However in Vamiki’s version, Sita is also shown as a woman, though moulded by the patient hand of time, who exerts her opinion and stands against the social norms. She is able to break free from the bondages of proving herself and her chastity again and again. However this freedom or liberty was not accepted by the society and thus Tulsidas introduced the practice of Agnipariksha to test the chastity of Sita. This practice is continued till today in south India where a woman has to walk on hot coals to prove her purity. But this, in addition scandalized the society. They couldn’t picture Rama, their saviour to put his love to test again and again for the sanctification of society. Thus, it was interpolated wherein Sita doesn’t put herself into fire but it was her shadow which does that. Some other versions also state that it was the shadow of Sita that Ravana kidnaps. But it is disheartening to see today that Sita is worshipped only as a consort of Rama but not a woman who followed her heart and went against social norms.

Coming to the main protagonist. Perfection could have been his middle name. Even a staunch atheist can’t sling any mud on his character except say that existence of such perfectness could not have been possible. History dappling with interpretation of the myths/epics speak about layers of culture and different social settings in the character of Rama.

Existence of such a character is a different story completely. Historians don’t except any literary source as an ‘empirical fact’ unless it’s substantiated with archaeological tangible evidence. The state of Ayodhya though is an archaeological site but it’s easily dated to a period later than the creation of Ramayana. As state formation in the Indian subcontinent, after the collapse of Harappans, starts in the 3rd-4th century only and culminates as states only in the 6th century. However ‘city states’ which is a collection of clans bonded through a common ideology exist in the beginning of Christian era. They were in the transition phase between pastoralism to settled agriculture. Ramayan in its time frame actually set in this transition phase where land, cattle and everything worth was owned communally. Linguists and historians have removed layers of interpolation and have arrived at the kernel of the epic. They believed the changing face of Ramayana is due to the complex process of ‘brahmanization ‘or ‘sanskitization’. Which removed the bardic tale from the common man to the hands of elite brahmans who transformed this famous and well known tale to a story legitimizing and reiterating the social hierarchy.

I would like to end it by reiterating what Laloo Prasad Yadav believes ‘its every man’s choice to believe in God or not and it’s in the heart that he resides and not in sum file or paper proving his existence.’