Essay: Ayodhya and the end of the Hindu imagination - Hindustan Times
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Essay: Ayodhya and the end of the Hindu imagination

BySaikat Majumdar
Feb 07, 2024 08:10 AM IST

The most magical thing about the Ramayana is that it has the capacity to enter our personal lives, dreams and nightmares. But will that continue to be possible now that a single official version has been enshrined?

When a state stamps its ownership on a much-loved story, its ordinary citizens have no choice but to let go of their own versions. In effect, they have to give up their own peculiar, personalised love for the tale, its range of characters, the various scenes and episodes. By loving the story, once upon a time, they could write parts of it themselves, create echoes of it for their daily lives, loves and prayers. All of that is now lost. There remains only one story to follow, only one hero to admire, designated virtues to worship.

Devotees throng the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple on the first day after the Pran Pratishtha ceremony, in Ayodhya on January 23, 2024. (ANI)
Devotees throng the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple on the first day after the Pran Pratishtha ceremony, in Ayodhya on January 23, 2024. (ANI)

I lost my Ramayana on January 22, when the Indian state took it away from me.

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“When a state stamps its ownership on a much-loved story, its ordinary citizens have no choice but to let go of their own versions.” A scene from the TV serial Ramayana (1987). (HT Photo)
“When a state stamps its ownership on a much-loved story, its ordinary citizens have no choice but to let go of their own versions.” A scene from the TV serial Ramayana (1987). (HT Photo)

The most magical thing about stories is that they are private, that they have a shape-shifting capacity of entering our personal lives, dreams and nightmares. When the democratically elected leader of a country consecrates a particular version of a story in a designated temple that leads to a flurry of holidays nationwide, when national media live streams the consecration to every corner of the nation, when dignitaries from the walks of life that really matter in India – film and cricket and politics – gather to watch the consecration, can you still go on loving the story and its characters in your own private and idiosyncratic way?

When Ram Rajya is the utopia around us, is it possible anymore to mourn the loss of Sita to her Earth Mother? Is it possible anymore to love and admire Indrajit, aka Meghnad, Ravana’s spirited younger brother, invincible behind the clouds? Once upon a time, a great Bengali poet had written an epic poem in the manner of Milton where Lakshman killed the cloud-warrior with the latter in the middle of his puja, in a rare moment of vulnerability. Lakshman’s breach of military ethics had the same mystery and complexity as Krishna’s instruction to Arjun to kill the great Kaurava generals, in ways unacceptable to military ethics. But Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, the poet of Meghnad Badh Kavya, was, like his idol John Milton, “of the devil’s party without knowing it”, as the poet William Blake had said of the great English poet of Paradise Lost. For Milton, Satan was the most unforgettable character of the Bible. For Michael, Meghnad was a hero, Lakshman an ethical violator and a coward.

Can we admire Meghnad anymore? Can we mourn the sorrow of a Ram Rajya with Sita lost to the folds of earth from whence she had appeared at birth?

“Is it possible anymore to love and admire Indrajit, aka Meghnad, Ravana’s spirited younger brother, invincible behind the clouds?” Dussehra at the Ramlila Grounds on 19 October 1980. (SN Sinha/HT Archive)
“Is it possible anymore to love and admire Indrajit, aka Meghnad, Ravana’s spirited younger brother, invincible behind the clouds?” Dussehra at the Ramlila Grounds on 19 October 1980. (SN Sinha/HT Archive)

The beauty and greatness of our epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is that they exist in almost every nook and cranny of Indian life, in every local and vernacular version, far beyond the Brahminical Hinduism that has sought to clamp its muscle of purity on them. AK Ramanujan narrates a few of the endlessly innumerable ways in which the Ramayana has shaped our languages, our basic life lessons, and our rituals. When someone is talking endlessly about something, one says, “What’s this Ramayana about?” In Tamil, a narrow room is called a kishkindha, and a proverb about a dim-witted person says: “After hearing the Ramayana all night, he asks how Rama is related to Sita”. In a Bengali arithmetic textbook, children are asked to figure the dimensions of what is left of a wall that Hanuman built, after he had broken down parts of it in mischief. And to this, Ramanujan says, we must add an infinite number of marriage songs, place legends, temple myths, paintings, sculpture, and the many performing arts that echo bits and scraps of the Ramayana in every imaginable way.

A Hindu epic is such a pantheon of unforgettable characters and episodes that it is impossible for anyone touched by it to not create versions of it. My mind cries out for Apu, the child-protagonist of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali. With a makeshift bow and arrow crafted from castaway twigs, the poor village boy spends hours daydreaming, suddenly transformed into a hero from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. But he always chose to be Karna; his heart went out to the courageous hero who, he felt, got nothing but insult and injustice in his life. The hero who could have triumphed in the epic died broken, a dishonourable death, his prowess and generosity misremembered, cast into oblivion. Apu, the dreamy boy destined to be a suffering bohemian creative soul as an adult, cast his lot with Karna, spurning the nobility and triumphant glory of Arjun and Krishna. The Mahabharata, molten into a much beloved coming-of-age novel from the early twentieth century, became more magical for this unusual choice. And Apu was one of many; Karna, would be immortalized by the Marathi novelist Shivaji Sawant in his wildly popular novel, Mritunjaya, the death-conqueror. I remember my professor, the poet P Lal, who published the English translation of the novel, saying that Karna is the closest we have to a tragic hero.

“The Hindu epics, with their playfulness and plurality, are much like the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration. As long as they have been around, their fluidity has seeped into all crevices of Indian life far more than a single absolute version could ever have done”. The DCM Ramlila in the Bara Hindu Rao area of Delhi on 25 October 1982 (SN Sinha/HT Archive)
“The Hindu epics, with their playfulness and plurality, are much like the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration. As long as they have been around, their fluidity has seeped into all crevices of Indian life far more than a single absolute version could ever have done”. The DCM Ramlila in the Bara Hindu Rao area of Delhi on 25 October 1982 (SN Sinha/HT Archive)

The German critic Erich Auerbach told us the difference between Homeric and Biblical narration: Unlike the Homeric epics of Iliad and Odyssey, which lie and fabricate when necessary, biblical stories lay claim to the singularity of an absolute truth. “The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s,” Auerbach wrote, “it is tyrannical – it excludes all other claims.” 

The Hindu epics, with their playfulness and plurality, are much like the Hellenic pantheon and Homeric narration. As long as they have been around, their fluidity has seeped into all crevices of Indian life far more than a single absolute version could ever have done. Ramanujan tells the story of the foolish villager who went to a performance of the Ramayana on his wife’s insistence but fell asleep each night. Trying to lie desperately, he could only describe the epic in terms of the sensory experience that had touched him each night he had missed the story: “sweet” the night sweetmeats were stuffed into his sleeping mouth, “heavier and heavier” the night someone sat on his sleeping body, and “salty” the night a dog urinated into his sleeping mouth.

Is the Ramayana all of that? All these impossible flavours? Perhaps we’ll never know anymore, as now we have the authority of an official version enshrined in Ayodhya.

Saikat Majumdar is a novelist and critic. @_saikatmajumdar

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