Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Much ado about 'Three Hundred Ramayanas'


By Swapan Dasgupta

There is nothing like a good culture war to excite the intellectual imagination. The decade of the 1990s was dominated by the slugfest over the shrine in Ayodhya. It became obligatory for anyone with any pretension of being a ‘public intellectual’ to take sides on this controversy. Neutrality or, worse still, supreme indifference was automatically construed by the dominant intellectual group as tantamount to an endorsement of ‘fascism’.

Then came the kerfuffle over M.F. Hussain’s contentious depiction of Ram and Sita that had the defenders of the faith screaming ‘blasphemy’ and reaching for their trishuls. Here too, India’s cultural community were encouraged to link arms against the vandals.

Now comes a wonderfully contrived dispute over a Delhi University decision to omit an essay on the Ramayana from the prescribed readings for its undergraduate History course. The decision has particularly agitated those with a penchant for progressive pamphleteering: it has been denounced as “academic fascism”—a conceptually intriguing proposition.

The essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by Indologist A.K. Ramanujan was never intended as an iconoclastic exercise. It spelt out the interesting variations in the Ramayana story in India and South-east Asia with a great measure of quiet reverence. In fact, Ramanujan concluded his essay with a tale of the mental and social elevation of a village dolt after he actually listened to a recitation of the Ramayana.

Yet, because some philistines had objected to the essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition—which they otherwise debunk—while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.

That such a puerile debate has come to dominate a discussion over the curriculum in a university may seem odd but not surprising. Over the years, the history wars have become a feature of the larger battle over national identity. A feature of this clash has been the tendency of the opposing sides to repose faith in something called the ‘correct’ view of India’s past. With their dominance in the history faculties, the ‘progressives’ have tried to fashion the curriculum in a particular way, using prescribed texts as the instrument of their ideological hegemony. Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.

A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists—not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R.C. Majumdar,  and not A.L. Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.

The problem, it would seem, arises from the dubious practice of listing prescribed texts. In the past, a history curriculum would identify broad themes for study, leaving teachers the independence to recommend readings for further study. A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject. With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount. They are expected to imbibe and parrot prevailing orthodoxies—a process that can hardly be said to be conducive for the training of the mind.

What we are witnessing in India is not an assault on free speech but something far worse, an attack on the spirit of free inquiry. There is something fundamentally skewed with a system of higher education that posits two stark alternatives: a compulsory reading (and, by implication, acceptance) of a scholarly work or not reading it at all. The space for critical discernment is fast disappearing and we are turning into a nation of slogan shouters. 


Sunday Times of India, October 23, 2011

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

>. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition—which they otherwise debunk

No one debuks the interesting/fascinating aspect of existence of various ramayanas, including from folk lore, by shudras etc and different twists to the story. What many would debunk is the hindutvas use of Ram, in its sinister attempt of using bullying tactics to maintain terrible caste/religious ideology and hiding/cover up of deficiencies.

>> while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.

Ramanujan's article is not even a criticism. This shows the sheer inferiority complex, and an assumption that there 'must be something offensive' as a default norm.

>> Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.

This is a strawman. Which historian said that history is some set of certitudes? Any good historian (including those of international renown, but of your dislike) can only say that any scholarly analysis/hypothesis considering all known facts and using critically acclaimed historical methodology is always welcome (even if assessments/conclusions vary).

>> rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.

History undergrads are not ignorant kids. Everyone knows that study of history involves study of diverse credible authors. A recommended reading may be a set of historians, who are credibly peer reviewed. A dalit leader may say that dalit histrorians/perspective is not included. Someone may say that a feminist perspective not included. Well, a student of history is free (and it is a given) that they go thro various books, of various authors that are credible, from various perspectives.


>> A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject.

That is the case, even now, even if some prescribed/recommended texts are given offcially.

>> With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount.

But the, you are assuming that students are ignorant kids, who dont know that they should study a range of books.

>> What we are witnessing in India is not an assault on free speech but something far worse, an attack on the spirit of free inquiry.

You want to equate a mere listing of prescribed/recommended texts to what hindutva vandals do on alleged sentiments (when they suddenly remember that they have no other work to do).

vihang said...

just wonder, is satanic verses is also part of DU history? its also a scholarly book. I hope you know it.

Anonymous said...

>>What many would debunk is the hindutvas use of Ram, in its sinister attempt of using bullying tactics to maintain terrible caste/religious ideology and hiding/cover up of deficiencies.

If you replace hindutva with the left and Ram with Poor, marginalized and so on, perhaps your assertion will be true. For further elaboration read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"(Of course it will not be in the reading lists of DU or anywhere, You will find it on the net though).

>>History undergrads are not ignorant kids

That makes any debate on the 'inclusion/exclusion' of topics in curriculum irrelevant. Why did you raise the bogey of saffronization during M.M Joshi's tenure then?

>>Which historian said that history is some set of certitudes?

They are smart enough not to say so in cold print. However their actions reveal more than what they admit. Suggested reading "Eminent Historians" by Arun Shourie.

>>You want to equate a mere listing of prescribed/recommended texts to what hindutva vandals do on alleged sentiments (when they suddenly remember that they have no other work to do).

Well, I thought the whole issue of Ramanujan's article was related to "mere listing of prescribed/recommended readings".

v.vijayamohan said...

History is imagination to a great extent - filling the blanks with every Historian's own coloured views.This is true. Ramayana is not History in that sense. Valmeeki is not only the most ancient author of Ramayana but is also an important part of it.He was a contemporary witness to the incidents in Ramayana. That is reason enough to take his version as MORE AUTHENTIC than that of others. lET THERE BE 300 OTHER VERSIONS. Valmeeki's version happened in Ayodhya, Mithila, Dandakaranya and Lanka - and that is what India wants to read.If some versions place the story in Indonesia, Thailand etc - they may read that - but, frankly, no one is more interested in Ramayana than the Hundu Indians. Historians can't go back several thousands of years into the Past and claim they are more right than Valmeeki who wrote it as Rama's contemporary - and as an integral part of Ramayana.
As History, Valmeeki's Ramayana is, in my view, the only authentic version written in that time itself.
But, if some one thinks it is only a story - well, historians need not bother about it.

Anonymous said...

>> just wonder, is satanic verses is also part of DU history? its also a scholarly book

So a mere listing of content of Ramayanas is supposed to damaging? So that means you are ashamed of the Ramayanas. Secondly, how is satanic verses related to Indian history? Are you saying a book on Islam by Rushdie is as important to India as Ramayana?

Anonymous said...

>> If you replace hindutva with the left and Ram with Poor, marginalized ...

So you mean even the left is trying to cover the terrible deficiences in caste/religion? I dont think that is what they are known for.

>> Why did you raise the bogey of saffronization during M.M Joshi's tenure then?

Because it was trying to bring religious considerations in an academic subject.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong in comparative study of ramayana. would DU or any other university can dare to look at other religious scriptures with same fervent, debating all pro/con aspects of it? ramanujan's essay not based on reliable sources neither it gives mentions of his ref. Cleverly, he ref. to spoken folklare tradition of tribal, not elobarating as how well established that information is? jaina and buddhist interpretation of ramayan also sceptical as both sect dont belive in ramayan as authority of religion and might have constructed their deflected perspective. most east indian contries have witnessed considerable deviation in orginal story mainly because of influence of their own culture & lack of validating authority. Any deviation with wrong intention can not be termed as per with original written by valmiki, but can be part of ill propoganda spread by cult/people against Ramayana or hindu at large. Even today one can see opposition to ramayana as north hegemony against south or a higher class prince claiming superiority over dalit mass. such ill concieved idea/ version suit only to progressive adherents as it further help them to spread their agenda.

Ankush said...

Ramanujan's first few lines talk of Hanuman as Ram's henchman, a term which no one would dare to denote Bilal, who was actually a slave to Muhammad.

Anyways, leaving aside the point whether AKR was guided by piety or the lack of it while drafting this essay, one needs to analyse the reasons which prompted this as a mandatory text.

Granted that there are numerous versions of Ramayana but each of the adherents to these versions are most of the time blissfully unaware that there are different tellings and worship (if they do) Rama as the God of their book.

By introducing such as essay as a prescribed text, the progressive agenda seems to be to weaken the belief system in the personal God for like any other thing, the sacred text would again be relative. For us, the versions of Thailand and Bali matter as much as Valimiki Ramayana matter to them. So why should we start bothering and questioning our epic simply because AKR or some other person for that matter decided to compare, say, Neela Paley's 'work' with the Ramayana and claimed that it was the 301st Ramayana?

Anonymous said...

>> So you mean even the left is trying to cover the terrible deficiences in caste/religion? I dont think that is what they are known for

"Leninism is a combination of two things which Europeans have kept for some centuries in different compartments of the soul—religion and business."
John Maynard Keynes
"What is communist faith?"
From 'Essays in persuation'.

Anonymous said...

The 'Usual Suspect' has done it, once again -- tickled the excitement of the 'pamphleteers' of India. Most of those who are leading the 'progressive brigade' against the decision of DU AC have themselves no idea of the great contribution of A K Ramanujan and his 'quiet reverence' of India's cultural heritage. Until very recently, they would regard Ramanujan's work as a mere translation, and certainly nothing to do with their version of correct, progressive history; but they have now found a virtue in it, simply because the equally ignorant defenders of faith have missed the point completely. Swapan Dasgupta has hit the progressives where it hurts most, yet again. Congratulations, Mr Dasgupta; we are your avid readers. Jai Hind and Om Namah Shivaay!

seadog4227 said...

The no-holds-barred commentary on this one is http://www.sandeepweb.com/2011/10/26/return-of-the-academic-mullahs/.

Leftists are a curse on the nation.

Kamal Upadhyay said...

We don't enjoy freedom of free speech any more soon writing blog will be controlled by government.
http://k9kamal.blogspot.com/2011/11/word-sex.html

Ron said...

"...In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society."

Agreed. All the more reason to have AKR's essay in the reading list. Or is that contingent on Jadunath Sarkar / RC Majumdar's texts being part of the curriculum?
What is Swapan Dasgupta's position on the issue? Can we have an answer in less than 100 words please?

Amit said...

Its not necessary that we should deal every subject with liberalism , you have said that only “fundamentalist” can have problem with such an essay , but this is not true , i am afraid you will have to put 90 % of Hindus into fundamentalist category then ,
although there are many Ramayan , but Ramayana of Valmiki is considered most authentic and it is most ancient , even by the standards of the leftist historians , so as par historical accuracy none of the Ramayana written after Valmiki are worth considering many like Krittivasa Ramayan have been written as late as 1500 A.D. , so they are mostly alternations of original Ramayan stories + authors imagination ,

I will suggest a reading of “Rama his historicity , Temple and Setu ” by B.B.Lal (eminent archeologist and director of ASI ) ,
Lal clearly makes the point that Ramayan is a historical story and proofs are as much strong as in case of Buddha or Mahavira, and Valimiki may have composed his Kavya on the basis of an Ramayan which passed from generations to generation through Orally ,

offcourse from the viewpoint of AIT supporting leftist historians there is no ground for such a history , but AIt itself has been prooved to be wrong and it is only prevailing bias in support of the maxmuller history among academia that keeps AIT alive , otherwise there are proofs that our history is much older and even Mahabharata is historical event ,

Now the Buddhist and Jain Ramayan , it is clearly understandable that they are alterations of the Original Ramayan with a Bias to endorse the philosophy of sect (jaina , Buddha) , as you see in Jaina Ramayan , it is Laxamana who kills Ravana , and he is punished for this “Hinsa) (violence ) , while Rama becomes a jaina Muni , this is clearly to glorify Jaina philosophy and Ahimsa ,
similarly some Buddhist Ramayana present Ravana as a Buddhavatar , certainly because the Buddhism was the Arch rival of Brahmanism in those times, they could not neglect the Ramayana so they modified it and tried to popularize there version ,
None of These 300 Ramayana are of any historical value ,
As the new finding of Rama’s Bridge suggest that even if the Setu was not man made it was very much possible to go to Lanka through that , only recently sea level has grown otherwise till 1400 a.D. people have crossed this bridge (see LAL) , also the Historical sites related to Ramayana scattered all over india , are proved to be very ancient like bhardwaj ashram ,chitrakut , ayodhya (LAL) , and this only proves the details given by Valmiki ,

There may be many versions of any Historical story , but teaching a essay like this only adds to the prevailing bias against Hinduism always visible among the Academia ,