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Ramanujan & the Ramayana

Delhi University is home to a literary battle that has turned political. Ragini Bhuyan reports

RAGINI BHUYAN  30th Oct 2011

n 9 October, Delhi University's Academic Council decided to drop A.K. Ramanujan's essay 300 Ramayanas from the Delhi University B.A. syllabus, largely due to pressure from right-wing organisations. The Council, which deals primarily with administrative affairs, saw fit to intervene in this case and dismiss the essay, despite recommendation to the contrary by the expert committee. The essay has been the subject of controversy since 2008, when these groups first objected to some of the findings presented by Ramanujan.

On Monday, 24 October, hundreds of professors and students across DU marched in solidarity, protesting against the removal of this essay from the syllabus. Slogans like "Historical inquiry pe attack nahi sahenge" rent the air, while various placards called for people to resist the saffronisation of higher education and to oppose the policing of academia. Immediately after this, the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP) and another organisation called the National Democratic Teacher's Front (NDTF) held a press conference to explain their position.

Those against the essay are bothered by the examples cited from other Ramayanas. Ramanujan studies some of the myriad 'tellings' of the essay throughout South and South East Asia. Many of these tellings vary from, or even contrast with, the Valmiki Ramayana most Indians are familiar with. For example, in a South Indian folk account of the Ramayana, it is Ravana who becomes pregnant with Sita and gives birth to her when he sneezes. Ramanujan says that in Kannada, the word sita means 'he sneezed', and thus Sita's name is given its Kannada etymology in this version. At the ABVP and NDTF press conference, this example came under much fire. "Is this scientific, can this be true that a man can get pregnant and give birth to a daughter by sneezing? How can this be taught at the college level?," asked Dr Avnijesh Awasthy, NDTF President and a professor of Hindi at PGDAV College. This had many people at the press conference perplexed, wondering whether Dr Awasthy was arguing that the version of events presented in the Valmiki Ramayana could be scientifically verified.Image 2nd

On the Thai Ramakien, Ramanujan writes, "The focus in the Ramakien is not on family values and spirituality. Thai audiences like Hanuman more than Rama. Neither celibate nor devout, as in the Hindu Ramayana, here Hanuman is quite a ladies' man, who doesn't mind looking into the bedrooms of Lanka and doesn't consider watching another man's wife while she sleeps to be immoral, as Valmiki's or Kampan's Hanuman would." Although Ramanujan is merely drawing out the differences in the various narratives, for the ABVP and the NDTF, the reference to the Thai Hanuman as a voyeur is an insult to Hindu sentiments. At the press conference, ABVP State President Rohit Chahal said, "We worship Hanuman in our daily life. But a student who reads this will be led to believe that this was Hanuman's character!" These groups seek to unite two quite separate spheres — academic inquiry and a student's private individual belief. The central premise of their argument is that a student exposed to alternate ways of thinking will necessarily adopt them, instead of doing what is actually expected of students, which is to evaluate the information you are presented with.

The central premise of their argument is that a student exposed to alternate ways of thinking will necessarily adopt them, instead of doing what is actually expected of students, which is to evaluate the information you are presented with.

At the press conference, Chahal argued that the world erupted in protest when cartoons of Prophet Muhammad were published by a Danish newspaper. Christian organisations also protested against the portrayal of the Vatican in Dan Brown's worldwide bestselling thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Chahal went on to cite the example of the professor in Kerala who wrote a question in an exam paper referring to Prophet Muhammad, and who sufferred the horrific fate of having his hands cut off. The inference was clear: other religions don't tolerate it, so why should Hindus?

he press conference also brought to light some undercurrents in this battle. The NDTF and the ABVP's press release says, "It is a well-known tactic of the Leftists to attack deep-rooted religious beliefs of Hindus." Dr Awasthy claimed at the press conference that "these historians are all Left wing. The Nehru Memorial Museum, the ICSSR and Delhi University are full of Left historians. This is a conspiracy by the Left. Even the expert committee was, after all, full of historians. If they are so eager to defend academic freedom in the face of religious sentiments, then why didn't they protest when Professor Joseph's hands were cut off in Kerala?" When this journalist asked them for the names of historians they were unhappy with, they responded with at least three names — Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and D.N. Jha. Their press release also asks "Whether the same historians will recommend a narrative by Salman Rushdie as a compulsory text for the study of the Quran or Islam?"

Chahal argued that when it came to the Rama Setu controversy, the same historians said that Rama was not a historical subject, but now felt free to teach stories about Rama in a history course. He said they would make sure the essay that replaces Ramanujan's does not contain anything offensive to Hindus, indication that this brand of academic vigilanteism will only intensify.

Two ideas underprin the discontent — that the syllabus of Delhi University is hostage to a Leftist conspiracy and that the students who read this essay will be brainwashed into believing all the things the author says. Forgotten in this debate is the role of academics itself. The purpose of higher education is to inculcate critical faculties in the student. Critical analysis of texts is an integral part of humanities and social sciences education. Ramanujan's word is not gospel and a student or teacher is free to agree or disagree with his essay. Renu Bala, one of the nine Academic Council members who voted in favour of retaining the essay, says, "Ramanujan has not concocted these stories but merely presented his findings. If 18-year-olds have the right to vote in India, then can we not consider second-year B.A. students mature enough to judge the essay for themselves?"

But the controversy over the Ramanujan essay is merely a chapter in a larger political battle. Censorship and attacks on freedom of speech have become de rigueur in this new atmosphere. This has, in turn, given rise to the culture of intolerance and a purported right to 'take offense'. Journalist Nilanjana Roy, who has written extensively on censorship of texts and banning of books in India, says, "The function of a university is not only to hand out degrees, it's to encourage students to a life of independent thinking, to introduce them to the many ways of understanding the world rather than just one narrow view." She feels that India does not have a culture of protecting free expression, "nor do we have a political understanding of why freedom of expression is such a fundamental part of having a functioning democracy. The erosion of free speech in India has happened over a period of time, as one institution after another has chosen to give in to the demands of extremist sections or to the threat of violence. If you can edit out inconvenient truths or inconvenient ways of seeing India's history from university syllabi, or ensure that there is silence around many subjects — a discussion of religion, a discussion of Shivaji's life or the lives of key players in the National Movement — you come one step closer to ensuring that it is only your narrow view of history and India that will gain ground. The aim is also to shut down discussion and debate; to threaten or bully people into turning away from active, independent inquiry".

The battle rages on. 24 October saw more than 500 students and professors walking across the DU campus, their voices resonating in college halls and doorways. One of the placards at the protest said, "Read the world: stop censorship of texts." An admirable sentiment in these narrowed times.

Dinesh Singh: Eye of the Storm

At the centre of the controversy is the university's Vice Chancellor, Prof. Dinesh Singh. Singh is a well-respected academic from the Maths Department, who took on the unenviable task of stepping in after his predecessor, Deepak Pental, had steamrolled in the semester system, ignoring widespread protests across University. Singh's father, U.N. Singh, was a pro-Vice Chancellor of Delhi University..Image 3rd

Prof. Sheo Dutt, an expert on Ancient History and Academic Council member, laments the way in which the Vice Chancellor has relinquished his authority. "Prof. Dinesh Singh comes from a very educated and progressive family. I think he is being pressurised because this is very unlike him. He is a sad person these days. He is not facing journalists. Though I feel bad for him, I also hold him responsible for allowing saffronisation of this course and for allowing fundamentalists to rule. He should not have allowed a decision to be reached on the work of a scholar like Ramanujan based on the voice of people who are not experts on this subject. The Academic Council usually leaves it to the department to decide the academic merit, and it accepts the expert's recommendations. But in this case, because of political pressure, it entertained complaints which were not based on academic merit. Also, the VC set such a serious matter as a supplementary agenda at the meeting and circulated the copies of the essay amongst the members at the last minute."

However, Singh still has some defenders amongst his erstwhile colleagues. Prof. Ajay Kumar, currently Dean of Research at Delhi University, has known him as a colleague and friend in the Maths department for 15 years, and says that he doesn't think that the VC has any political affiliations of his own. "He is a wonderful and easy going man", he says.

Singh has earned the favour of the ABVP, which has openly praised the VC for dropping the essay. But it will not be easy to override the immense anger and opposition from the history department and other students. At Monday's protest, the anger against the VC was palpable, as slogans of 'Dinesh Singh sharm karo' and 'Vice Chancellor jawab do' continued throughout the protest march.

Study in Shame?

300 Ramayanas, one of the seminal essays in Indian literary theory, deconstructs the various versions of the Ramayana story as it exists across South and South East Asia. A.K. Ramanujan, the Padma Shree winning scholar, prefers to call them "tellings", as the word 'version' seems to suggest that there is an original master narrative and all other forms of the story have deviated from it. It recounts the different ways in which the Ramayana story survives today amidst different cultures and draws connections between various tellings.

There are more than 25 different tellings of the Ramayana in Sanskrit alone. Many later versions of the Ramayana take inspiration and draw from previous versions. Ramanujan narrates one of his favourite passages from the sixteenth century Adhyatma Ramayana — "When Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, 'Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn't go with Rama to the forest?'".

Ramanujan's essay also discusses Jain tellings of the Ramayana. Here Ravana is a tragic figure and his virtues are extolled. In some Jain tellings, the story has shades of what psychoanalysts refer to as the Elektra-complex, where Sita is his daughter, though Ravana is not aware of this. Jain Ramayanas are full of Jain homilies and legends, and presents Rama as an evolved Jain man who does not even kill Ravana. On the other hand, the Thai Ramakien regards Rama as a human figure. Hanuman is portrayed as quite a ladies man, and Thai audiences are more fond of him than Rama. Also, though Valmiki's telling focuses on Rama, other tellings focus on different characters. In some later extensions like the Adbhuta Ramayana and the Tamil story of Satakantharavana it is Sita who goes to war and slays Ravana. In Santhal oral tellings, Sita is even portrayed as an unfaithful wife and is seduced by both Ravana and Lakhshmana.

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