In the name of Rama
Saturday November 3 2007 20:45 IST (New Indian Express)
There was commotion in the grove on the banks of the river when a frog yelled, asking an elephant bathing to come out of the water immediately. The curious creatures of the grove, big and small, wondered what the matter was. The surprised elephant obliged the frog. But surveying the bare body of the pachyderm the frog was gracious enough to admit that his suspicion that the elephant might have used his swimming trunk that he had left under a bush was indeed unfounded!
It is not unusual for we little people to be oblivious of the truth that there are issues beyond the measurements and dimensions we perceive. But we always expect men who have assumed larger size, political or otherwise, to be aware of the basic complexities of life, the profound truth that politics or expediency of a certain decade or even a century should not come handy to harm the psyche of a nation.
There are planes of reality beyond and beneath the pragmatic plane. Our surface consciousness is flanked by a vast subconscious with its irresistible hold on us and a non-apparent superconscious spurring us on along the path of evolution. “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature,” wrote Henry James. Needless to say, he was speaking not of novels written with an eye on the silver screen or the current market or even with laudable social or political ideology, but of the timeless literature, a category that has luckily survived the illiteracy of the intellectuals and the assault of sectarian obsessions of later ages, the category comprised of works like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Kural.
Did Rama and Krishna ever live in space and time? Since unknown times these two epics are classified as Itihasa, meaning history. It is a well-accepted norm in all civilisations that if a tradition of immense antiquity prevailed unopposed for millennia, there is no justification in dismissing it. In India such traditions were more rock-solid than rock edicts, so that even in the fourth century BC Megasthenes could make a chronology of 153 monarchs covering a period of over 6,000 years. But that apart, how important is it for Rama to have been a mortal in blood and flesh? Billions of our ancestors were physically there. Are they more important than Rama by the virtue of their physical existence bracketed by a date of birth and one of death? What influence do they have on the lives of their succeeding generations?
Let us not go into the mystic experience of devotees and sages for whom Rama and Krishna are experiences more real than what can be obtained by senses, though we have no right to dismiss their experiences, for the creation existed long before our sensory faculties evolved and longer before our reasoning sagacity developed. But at least it is truism that India would be bereft of her manifold literatures (most of the modern Indian languages achieved maturity through recreations of the two epics), her dynamic tradition of dance, music and drama, her splendours of sculpture and later of art, as well as her innumerable streams of folk culture.
But, surprisingly indeed, the impact of the epics can be traced even far beyond these striking spheres. No anthropologist or scholar of history has so far been able to resolve an enigma of this author regarding the lifestyle of a tribe in the hilly Koraput region of the Dandakaranya, vis-à-vis the saga of Rama and Sita. The women of the tribe in question follow a strange practice, which they trace to the remote past when Sita, during her sojourn in the forest, was once found bathing in the river bare. Some women of the tribe giggled. Offended, Sita demanded of them how come being the denizens of that blessed environment they failed to appreciate her identification with Mother Nature?
Alas, such was the force of Sita’s exhortation that the women of the tribe resolved to remain ever bare, but for some intricate ornaments below their waist, to atone for their conduct — and centuries have passed!
Each version of the Ramayana that was created by gifted poets and seers like Kamban or Tulsidas after the original by Valmiki, included their own mystic experiences, regional legends and beliefs, but this example of innocence — there could be similar traditions elsewhere — remain outside even the epic’s wide range of variations.
It is not to justify a taboo that this instance was cited, but to highlight its other aspect, the enormity of the power the epic characters had exercised over a whole people, including even those of once-inaccessible regions. Their power did not emanate from any mundane authority or any law enacted by any monarch, but from the power of the consciousness they embody. The ethical ideals Rama personified must have been derived from a cultured milieu and once he had demonstrated their practicability, they had inspired the society to formulate for itself an ideal code of conduct. It is impossible to take stock of the Indian civilisation, to account for the ethical development of the collective life, without the vibrantly alive Rama.
Neither mythological characters nor myths should be taken lightly or glorified or debunked according to our changing needs. They exist by the authority of their autonomous truths. There are myths that could not have originated at the physical plane, but had exercised highly beneficent sway over the society. Take for example the myth of Sati. This youngest daughter of King Daksha married Siva against the will of her father — setting probably the first example of feminist self-assertion — and went away to live with her husband. But when she heard that her father was initiating a sacred ceremony where she could meet all her sisters, she at once decided to be there. Siva, however, strongly disapproved of her move, for she had not been invited. An agitated Sati then asserted that at no point of time, either at day or at night, a daughter’s entry into her parents’ abode could be forbidden. Her assertion became an unwritten law for the Indian civil life, so much so that while there is a word for a son disowned, Tyajyaputra, there is no word as Tyajyakanya.
Mystics will assert that our corporal world remains interspersed with occult worlds and many things happening in those invisible spheres have their effect on the physical plane. We may not agree, but we cannot ignore the splendid secrets some of the myths contain. Let us examine one from outside India. Atop a hill sat a bizarre creature, its face like a woman’s, its body like a lion’s with a serpent for its tail and with the paws of a dog. It challenged any traveller to answer its enigmatic question: Who is the being that walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs as the day grows and on three in the evening? It allowed time up to sundown. As the hapless traveller failed to answer, the dreadful creature, famous as Sphinx, pounced upon him and devoured him. At last when it confronted the hero Oedipus with its question, he spoke, “I am the answer!” To the stunned Sphinx he explained, “I stand for Man. In his infancy a man crawls on all fours; as he grows, he walks on two legs; in the evening of his life he takes recourse to a stick, that is the third leg.”
The moment the riddle had been solved, Sphinx jumped to its own death. The significance is profound. The day Man knows himself, he realises immortality; ending for himself the illusion that is death.
Can we think of an enlightened existence without such revelations sealed in myths?
The Indian epics are richer in such myths than any other work in the literature of the world. Let us not be ungrateful to the founding fathers of our most glorious heritage. Let us not still be guided by theories such as the Aryan invasion of the South — one of the silliest concepts for which there was not an iota of evidence, simply because Nehru accepted it like so many unsuspecting intellectuals of his generation subscribing to the views of colonial academicians who had their own divisive agenda. Nehru was a great man, not a great historian.
We live in a climate polluted by a plethora of phony values. Let people who matter for reasons right or wrong, not aggravate the national misfortune raising questions on Rama’s engineering qualification or equating him with any character in one’s own novels. (One could do this only five thousand years later, when one’s characters have proved as lasting and formidable as Rama.) Such exploits may earn some uncertain applause, but the psychological harm they can cause may be a far greater loss than the material gain for which such devices are employed.
Prof. Manoj Das is a recipient of the prestigious Saraswati Samman, Sahitya Akademi Award as well as the Akademi’s highest honour, Fellowship, a Padma Award and D.Ltt. from three universities