Ayodhyas of the heart
On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, RANJIT HOSKOTE reflects on the travels of the Ramayana through South-East Asia, as a text resonant with the themes of compassion, honour and human vulnerability. At home, sadly, this great epic has been reduced to the bludgeon of a sectarian ideology, he says.
Some of the narratives of the Ramayana have a Buddhist overtone, evident in this depiction of Hanuman.
THE Divine has neither beginning nor end in Hindu thought, but this did not stop the demagogues of Hindu majoritarianism from whipping up, in the late 1980s, a mass campaign aimed at recovering the supposed birthplace of Sri Rama in Ayodhya by demolishing the Babri Masjid, which, they claimed, had been built over it. The campaign culminated on December 6, 1992, when Hindu-majoritarian militants attacked and destroyed the mosque. As clashes between Hindus and Muslims erupted across the country, a conspiracy took shape in Mumbai: politicians and criminals came together; using a local incident as their pretext, organised gangs of marauders took charge of the streets.
Mayhem in Mumbai
For weeks after the Babri Masjid demolition, Mumbai was a scene of barbaric destruction, havoc and unrest. Muslims were attacked and killed; their homes and business premises were looted and set ablaze. Under cover of the riots, old scores were settled, turf wars fought over territory and trade, localities subjected to ethnic purges. Migrant labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were also driven from their settlements and forced to leave the city. The city's skyline was alight with fires rising from timber godowns and warehouses. The violence continued sporadically for months; and months after it had died down, anonymous avengers riposted with a cycle of bomb blasts, a horrific postscript to the slaughter. With Ayodhya and Mumbai 1992, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made its supreme contribution to postcolonial Indian history: a politics of hatred that would tear the Republic apart over the following decade.
A splintering of society
The Republic's foundational values of social inclusiveness, ecumenical acceptance of all religious traditions, and the rule of law, seemed to collapse with the Babri Masjid. For people of sensitivity committed to liberal ideals, the Ayodhya demolition and the Mumbai riots came to stand for the splintering of a composite society, the breakdown of the relationships of trust that had held India's communities together since Independence. But the BJP regrets nothing and learns nothing. Twelve years after Ayodhya, having held and lost power, having failed in governance and been ejected from office by the popular will, it has fallen back on the Ramjanambhoomi motif, re-affirming its nature as a dangerously illiberal and divisive political force.
If the Ramjanambhoomi campaign damaged the character of the Republic, it also violated the creative pluralism of the Hindu imagination, reducing the Transcendent to a question of real estate. There is a tragedy here, and an irony. Tragically, as bands of trident-waving agitators violated the greater good, the Ramayana became reduced to a sectarian weapon. The name of Rama's capital, once symbolic of ideal governance, became synonymous with an annihilationist politics intolerant of the slightest deviation, dissent or difference. And ironically, while Ayodhya is a name surrounded by an aura of violence at home, its original significance is preserved in distant locales: there are other Ayodhyas, re-imagined by people wherever Rama's story travelled, other Ramayanas that remain resonant with the themes of compassion, honour and human vulnerability.
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Rama is Vishnu's seventh and perhaps most migratory avatar. He travelled to South-East Asia with the Indian merchants, scholars and warriors who sailed out in several waves between the Second and the 15th Centuries A.D. Over the centuries, as these travellers built trading networks, founded empires and crafted religious systems in their new countries of domicile, and as they merged into the local populations, their stories became interwoven with Malay, Chinese and Arabic textures of experience. Travelling with Rama, we find his epic not simply replicated but transmuted through acts of re-telling: the stories of this heroic, fallible and most intensely human of Vishnu's avatars have themselves been issued and re-issued in a series of avatars.
The narratives change with the context, acquiring a Buddhist overtone here or an Islamic inflection there. In the Burmese 17th-Century Ramavastu and the late 18th-Century Maharama, as well as the Laotian Lam Sadok or Rama Jataka, the prince of Ayodhya is presented as a Bodhisattva, an ideal Buddhist ruler. In Malaysia, whose fusion of Malay, Sinic and Indic elements became formatted within an Islamic framework over the 13th and 15th Centuries, the extant Malay Ramayanas, generically titled the Hekayat Seri Rama, are preserved in the Arabic script. Occasional, and intriguing, Semitic-Indic fusions occur in some of these narratives, as when Rama is said to have descended from Adam.
In Indonesia, also an Indic-Malay-Sinic-Arabic formation that is now a largely Islamic society, the Ramayana is similarly an integral element of culture. If the Hindu dancers of Bali commemorate Ramayana material, the Muslim masters of the Wayang Kulit puppet theatre improvise with equal authority around themes from the Ramayana-kakawin, as the epic is known in Old Javanese. The contrast with the Ramayana's sectarianisation in mainland India could not have been starker.
The media of representation, the tastes of audiences and the ideological functions of the narrative may change with time and place, varying from the austere recitation of the Thai royal court to the flamboyant storytelling of the Indonesian puppet theatre, the regal legitimisation mythology elaborated by the former having little in common with the witty subaltern critique mounted by the latter. No original is privileged; the Ramayana, whether in Thailand or Laos, Myanmar or Indonesia, is a narrative embedded in local history, often intimately associated with a local sacred geography that threads together hills, lakes and rivers sanctified by the touch of the Divine.
In Thailand, the Ramayana called the Ramakirti, "The Glory of Rama", in high culture and popularly known as the Ramakien has long underwritten dynastic symbolism. One of the most culturally rich phases of Thai history was the Ayyuthaya period when, between 1351 and 1767, the country was ruled from a capital that took its name and style from Rama's capital; the Nang yai, a shadow play based on Ramayana episodes, became popular at this time. The rulers of the Chakri dynasty, who succeeded the kings of Ayyuthaya, assumed the throne name of Rama, a practice that continues to this day. In the late 18th Century, Rama I made a Buddhist adaptation of the epic: this Ramakien is regarded in Thai culture as the classical basis for theatre, dance and moral instruction. It was only in the 20th Century, when Rama VI (1910-1925) wrote a Valmiki-style Ramakien with a scholarly exegesis, that most Thais realised that the epic was an import. So complete was the popular identification with the epic that it was believed to be of indigenous Thai origin.
In parallel with India's folk traditions, where every region has its own Ramayana place-legends, Thailand too has a flourishing Ramayana sacred geography: Lopburi marks the city founded by Rama's son; Chayanat is where Hanuman looked for life-saving herbs; Chonburi is where the monkey-king Valin fought the demon Thorapi. It is no use translating the Thai variants into their Sanskrit originals. In the domain of versionality, there are no originals; and the pursuit of origins can be one of the most reductionist and brutal enterprises possible.
A travelling text
As in the folk Ramayanas of India which blend the mythic past with the historical present, injecting political satire, social comment and wry humour into the inherited stories these South-East Asian versions operate through a lively interplay between text and performance, between classical narratives and improvisational folk media. Different performances accentuate different levels of meaning. In this spirit of improvisation, the South-East Asian versions enact a variety of changes on the primary material of the epic. The celibate Hanuman of India vanishes; in his place, in the Thai and Indonesian Ramayanas, we see a high-spirited figure with well-developed carnal appetites, his consorts and children impartially distributed among the human, divine and demoniac realms. This centuries-old interplay, in which the Sanskrit texts of high Brahminism are translated, re-interpreted, and even subversively morphed by actors, singers and dancers working in the demotic regional languages, has been a key feature of Indic culture. Today, it is seen to advantage elsewhere, while having been eclipsed by the morality police at home.
As a travelling text, the Ramayana is a metaphor for Indic culture at its best: a culture that evolves through interface and improvisation, as a conversation among imagining selves. Incarnating a process of continuity through mutation as it does, it refutes the dogmas of narrow identitarian politics. The magnificent South-East Asian extension of Indic culture holds a significant lesson for us: No single grouping or geographical location can monopolise a dream. There are as many Ayodhyas as there are tellers and listeners who delight in the diversity of human experience rather than rally to the brutality of absolutist slogans. We must preserve these Ayodhyas of the heart, because they remind us of hope, of compassion, of ingenuity, of the reality of human experience. In Kant's vivid and memorable phrase, they celebrate the "crooked timber of humanity": in reminding us of our vulnerability and fallibility, they secure us against the glib assurances of a politicised religiosity that limits our imagination, diminishes our capacity for constructive action, and fosters the most destructive impulses of the self.
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