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‘The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas’ review: India’s cultural inheritance

India’s relationship with Ram has become very complex. Lord Ram is a widely revered Hindu deity. In the realm of mass culture, as Jawaharlal Nehru himself noted in his Discovery of India, the influence of the Ramayana and Mahabharata has remained unparalleled. Furthermore, as a result of the long process of syncretism and Indianisation of Islam, many Muslims also respect Ram. For example, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, known as the ‘bhakti’ poet Rahim (1556-1627), who was one of Akbar’s ‘navaratnas’, wrote thus in praise of Ram: “Gahi sarnagati Ram ki, bhavsagar ki naav / Rahiman jagat udhar ko, aur na kachhu upaiy” (The only way to achieve salvation is through unconditional surrender to Ram).

Ominous trend

Yet, in recent times, Ram has been controversialised by two intellectual and political trends. A section of educated Hindus, influenced by atheistic Marxism, have a negative opinion about the Ramayana and many other patrimonies of Hinduism. Their propagation of secularism in anti-Hindu terms has now received a strong pushback from India’s majority community. On a convergent track, much of the Dalit movement inspired by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (in particular, by his book Riddle of Rama and Krishna) is fiercely critical of the two Hindu epics and their main characters. A far more consequential and ominous development has been the Ram Janmabhoomi movement launched by the RSS-led Hindutva Parivar. By politicising, communalising and, indeed, weaponising Ram, it has divided Indian society in a bid to consolidate a Hindu vote bank big enough for the BJP to remain in power indefinitely. It aims to use its political power to establish a Hindu supremacist nation that marginalises non-Hindus.

It is in this context that we should view the enormous usefulness of Pavan Varma’s new contribution to the Ramayana literature in English —The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. An eminent scholar, diplomat and politician, Varma has authored a book that challenges the anti-Hindu critics of Ram as well as the anti-Muslim Hindu right.

Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest and truest Ram bhakt in modern India, regarded Ramcharitmanas by Sant Tulsidas (1532-1623) “as the greatest book in all devotional literature”. He said, “My Ram, the Ram of our prayers, is not the historical Ram, the King of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn, the one without a second. Call him Ishwara, Allah, God, Ahura Mazda. His names are innumerable. He is timeless, formless, stainless. Him alone I worship.” The Ram that emerges from Tulsi’s classic is no different. His Ramayana is not an embellished mythological story; it is a profound elucidation of the spiritual, philosophical and ethical teachings that have in many ways defined our civilisation.

Four pillars

The most instructive chapter in the book, also the longest, is about the meaning of Ramrajya. “Was Tulsi’s vision of Ramrajya secular?” Varma poses this question, and answers it affirmatively.

“In Tulsi’s definition of Ramrajya, righteousness prevails, supported by the four pillars of truth, purity, compassion and charity,” which, we must note, are also the pillars of every religion. Ramrajya is “a kingdom in which there is no violence, there are equal rights for everyone... and all people are bound by mutual love — sab nara karahin paraspar priti”. Tulsi’s Ramrajya may sound utopian. It may even seem imperfect from some modern perspectives. Nevertheless, it is largely free from the taint of injustice. Such a kingdom would not be “an exclusively Hindu State”, Varma avers. “It would work to create a harmonious society, respecting people of all faiths.”

The book’s virtues, however, go far beyond contemporary controversies. One of the greatest strengths of Ramcharitmanas (which means ‘the splendid lake of Ram’s character’) is that it illuminates “the philosophical intricacies of Hinduism” in “a lyrical outpouring”.

Like all the great Bhakti poet-saints born in different parts of India, Tulsi synthesises the apparent “dichotomy between a ‘nirguna’ (attributeless Absolute) and ‘saguna’ (attribute-full) deity”. He harmonises another important dichotomy — the diversity of castes and social groups. Tulsi also “overarches the schism between the Shivaite and Vaishnavite schools, and projects a harmony where Hinduism is seen as a holistic unity.”

People outside north India cannot perhaps imagine the profound impact of Ramcharitmanas on common people. Tulsidas, who lived his early life in Ayodhya and died in Kashi, achieved this feat due mainly to three factors.

First, the masses were influenced by his message of bhakti or absolute devotion as the path to reach the lord, as against the ‘jnana marg’, the path of knowledge.

Second, he is unsparing in rebuking human follies, but does so in a way that is gentle and educative, not retributive. Third, and most important, his poetry in Awadhi (not in Sanskrit) is animated by a unique combination of beauty, simplicity and divinity, because of which it is chanted even today, both in individual prayers and mass devotional assemblies.

When an epic is thus treasured in the hearts, minds and on the lips of the multitudes, century after century, it must not be despised. Rather, it should be used to reform our state, society and citizens to bring them closer to the ideal of Ramrajya.

The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas; Pavan K. Varma, Westland Books, ₹699.

The reviewer, who served as an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the founder of Forum For A New South Asia — Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 4:24:28 AM |

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