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Ramanujan, Ramayana and Rambhakti

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University of California Press has a web copy of A. K. Ramajunan’s scholarly work entitled "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation". An excerpt:

How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan—to say nothing of Western languages. Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story. Sanskrit alone contains some twenty-five or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres (epics, kavyas or ornate poetic compositions, puranas or old mythological stories, and so forth). If we add plays, dance-dramas, and other performances, in both the classical and folk traditions, the number of Ramayanas grows even larger. To these must be added sculpture and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays and shadow plays, in all the many South and Southeast Asian cultures Camille Bulcke, a student of the Ramayana , counted three hundred tellings. It’s no wonder that even as long ago as the fourteenth century, Kumaravyasa, a Kannada poet, chose to write a Mahabharata , because he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Ramayana poets ( tinikidanuphanirayaramayanadakavigalabharadali ). In this paper, indebted for its data to numerous previous translators and scholars, I would like to sort out for myself, and I hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted, transposed.

If you would rather download a PDF and read it, South Asia Citizen’s Web makes a file available.

It is important to read it fully in the context of the ugly controversy, which is very neatly summarized by an article in Mainstream:

In 2008, political activists of the Hindu Right vandalised the History Department in protest against this essay. The Supreme Court ordered the appointment of a four-member Academic Committee to look into the matter. Three of the members were of the opinion that the essay was germane to the course and that there was nothing wrong with it. A fourth member did not contest the academic worth of the essay but felt it should be dropped from the readings if it offended people’s sentiments. The DU authorities, it is alleged, decided on this issue in favour of the dissenting opinion without consulting the larger community, when in fact this item was not even on the agenda.

The Oxford University Press, which used to publish Ramanujan’s work till this year decided to stop, and was accused of censorship. The Hindu reports:

Replying to a letter from American Indologist Sheldon Pollock and several other leading academics, including Paula Richman in whose volume the essay appears, Mr. Portwood rejected allegations of censorship. He insisted that OUP took its “role as a disseminator of the best scholarship in India” seriously.

“The two Ramanujan books at the centre of the current debate — Many Ramayanas and The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan — have not been removed from the market in India through acts of censorship. Prior to 2008, both works had been showing minimal sales triggering the decision not to reprint either title. As I am sure you appreciate, commercial considerations are one of several factors in publishing decisions.”

The simmering outrage over this decision to censor yet another work of scholarship remained largely within academia until today, when TOI frontpaged the issue:

Coming back to Sunday’s academic council meeting, the notice for it was sent a week earlier, but that Ramanujan’s essay was part of a supplementary agenda was told over phone to academic council members on Saturday evening.

The actual article and comments of the four experts were circulated among the members only at the meeting – in other words, the whole thing was so brought up that there was hardly any scope for an informed deliberation on the essay.

Several spoke against the essay, among them the chemistry and other non-related departments. History department opposed its removal and was backed by the commerce department. Significantly, Sanskrit department head Mithilesh Chaturvedi spoke at length in favour of the essay.

Social sciences and humanities departments like political science, English and sociology, were taken unawares. (They, as well as the history department, have since passed resolutions against the essay’s removal.)

That Sunday, though, the motion against the essay won hands down, but left behind the lingering belief that political, rather than academic, reasons were behind its removal.

Abject surrender seems to become a normal process. India Today writes:

[Ramachandra] Guha, in turn, commented that “OUP is essentially resorting to legal equivocation” to salvege its fallen image in the academic fraternity. He added that “OUP today is run by people who do not know about books”.

One may say similarly that universities are governed by people who have no interest in academics. Abject surrender to unreasonable protests occur precisely because of this reason. Those in administrative power do not care about academics or learning, and are not willing to put their other interests on the block by taking a stand on these issues. In the days of Anna-led protests, it is not hard to guess what their main interests could be.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 3, 2011 at 5:19 am

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