Monday, 10 June 2013

The Ramayana: A Modern Translation. By Ramesh C. Menon

The Ramayana

A Modern Translation by Ramesh Menon.

First published 2003. Harper Collins India.

The epic was probably first formulated maybe 2500 or 3000 years ago by Valmiki, who may have put together pre-existing tales, histories and myths into a coherent, reasonably linear story that, millennia later, continues to exert such a profound influence on the psyche of so many people, and not just in India. This, of course, is not my first acquaintance with the epic. I have already read three complete translations into English (the only language in which it is fully accessible to me with any ease), some of them more than once - the translation of 'Kambar Ramayana' from Tamil by R.K. Narayanan; C. Rajagopachari's narration, largely based, I think, on the 'original' Valmiki Ramayana; and the somewhat scholarly translation of Valmiki's Ramayana by Arshia Sattar. I have also read the free verse version by R.C Dutt,  which treats only the core story. But apart from these, I, like most 'mainland' Indians, have been exposed to narrations of bits and pieces, or sometimes the complete epic in numerous media - films, TV, dance, song, essays, puppet shows, proverbs, oral narratives and so on, almost since my birth. In the following, I make no attempt therefore to limit my reactions and thoughts to just this version of  the epic.  

Though, I will first get that out of the way. Menon's translation is the best of the four I have read - most readable, sufficiently didactic, yet sufficiently poetic. The influence of some recently written epics is discernible - specifically, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Gandharvas are often translated as Elves, and the Rakshasa armies are described in a way that recalls the Orc armies of the Dark Lord. Menon writes in an open, respectful but 'secular' style. Unlike Rajaji, he does not let his religious beliefs, whatever they might be, come in the way of an apparently faithful translation. He pulls no punches when it comes to describing the rape and adultery that are frequently committed by the characters, both the Gods and the Rakshasas. Ravana is a frankly hyper-libidinous, powerful, scholarly, intelligent and handsome Rakshasa, over whom all women swoon, except Sita, of course. Lanka is described as a kind of Rome when it was declining and falling, and Hanuman on his first visit comes across a sexual orgy, described as such. But with all these ostensible vulgarities, the end result is a profound retelling of this timeless meta-history. Of course, the tale is so powerful, that the greatness of it will come through no matter who presents it and how. 

The core story of the Ramayana, divested of all the numerous digressions and retellings, has two clearly separable parts, each with a different moral thrust. The first part comprises the Bala Kaanda and the Ayodhya Kaanda (and a bit of Aaranya Kaanda), and in my opinion, is the truly great part of the epic, and the reason why it is considered a religious text. Human social organisation was at the very initial stages at the time the epic was composed in the Bronze age. Here was a clearly stated code of honour and behaviour. It taught that no matter what, a promise given must be kept - 'praan jaaye, par vachchan na jaaye'. Rama instantly sees the need for him to suffer banishment and help keep his father's promise, and undertakes to do so without the slightest demur. This is what makes him, and his story, so great, so long-lived, so beloved. The Ramayana, this portion of it, set standards of social interaction essential if a community is to survive. It also formulated guidelines on the respective obligations of the rulers and the ruled. The code of Hammurabi is another such statement of laws necessary to establish a stable state, as are the edicts of Asoka, the analects of Confucius, etc. Of course the Ramayana, is not a statement of principles, but more the statement and emphasis of one overriding principle - of integrity (the one principle to 'rule them all'). Later religious texts and teachings such as those of the Buddha or Christ, or Prophet Mohammed are similar dissertations, though each has its own emphasis - compassion in the case of Gautama Buddha, love in the case of Christ, and and an uncompromising egalitarianism in the case of Prophet Mohammed.

The second part of the Ramayana comprises the other Kaanda - the last half of Aaranya Kaanda, Kishkinda Kaanda and Yudha Kaanda. Again divested of all the accretions, this part talks about the physical (and not psychological or moral) heroism of Rama. Now it becomes a tale that could be thought of the as the ur-story of a quest, roughly mimicked several times in several cultures, even recently by Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. There are numerous, tediously described battles, with opponents who are somewhat unreasonably described, each one of them, as the most powerful ever. The weapons, astra, used by the combatants are described fantastically. Echoing recent scientific theories about the Universe ending in a 'Big Collapse', just like it began in a 'Big Bang', many of them are said to create a fire like the one at the  'end of time'. But the descriptions of their effects and consequences become boringly repetitive after the first few. (Some of Menon's descriptions remind me of the weapons used by the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter books. Also his description of the Pushpaka Vimana recalls the depiction of inter-galactic space craft, as for example in the Star Wars movies.) In every battle the hero, or the most powerful villain of the moment, kills thousands of opposing soldiers. Some of the over-the-top fight descriptions rival the violence in present day Telugu movies, and may have served as inspiration for the latter. This aspect of the Ramayana is no different from the descriptions in the Mahabharata and some of the other tales composed at about the same time (some of the Puranas, for example), that I have read. [It would interesting to know if linguists have compared the Mahabharata, especially, with the Ramayana, in terms of language, and principles of literary construction, and what their findings are.] But if we ignore these exaggerations, probably introduced as the 'special effects action sequences' of those days, this second part is interesting psychologically, and presents many ambiguous aspects of Rama, making him more interesting and believable, and thus making it possible to criticize the actions of the God-like being. Of course, apologies for his various transgressions are offered, both by the original composer (or composers) of the Ramayana, as well as later commentators, but these are unconvincing.

Apart from the core-story, there are many tales within tales, some illustrating some specific moral point, others serving as a back story for one of the characters. Many of these are unapologetically sexual or immoral or both. Some them reinforce presumably latter-day Hindu ideas of caste and its role in social organisation, gender discrimination and so on. Some, in fact, make one cringe at the thought of having to treat the epic as the literal truth. Many of these tales are gathered together in the last section of the book, the Uttara Kaanda, which is clearly an afterthought, since the previous book ends with Rama on the throne of Ayodhya, and together with Sita  and his brothers, ruling 'happily ever after'.

Rama is an ambiguous figure, particularly in the second half. He has three great darknesses: firstly his treatment of Surpanakha, secondly the killing of Vali, and thirdly his treatment of Sita, both immediately after her rescue and latter in Ayodhya, some time after his coronation. There is also some smugness and self-satisfaction about him which can be irritating. Menon's translation makes these last characteristics less apparent than Rajaji's rendering, thus making the former more readable, at least for me. His act of renunciation is probably a revolutionary one for those times (and in fact for these times as well), but all through the book Rama is shown as a conservative, even reactionary figure, respectful of tradition and authority, as represented by the Rishis and the Gods. He rarely gets angry, and even when does, his anger is directed at characters who have been set up specifically to draw his anger. When pressed for an explanation of some clearly unethical act performed either by him or by someone he supports, he gives various unconvincing arguments, falling back ultimately on a teleology of fate or Karma. He of course never questions the wisdom of the holy books (the vedas) or of traditions, even such that we would today find repellent. This last  criticism is unfair and the epic should be considered in its historical context. However, the Ramayana is often touted to serve up immensely powerful morality lessons, relevant for all times. There are of course many such lessons, but there are also many that inappropriate and positively harmful for modern times. 

With all its flaws, or because of them, the epic finds place as perhaps the central religious text in Hinduism. The story has warmth and many of the characters - Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Bharata - with their sweetness and selflessness, endear themselves to everybody, believers and non-believers alike. Rama himself is a little more remote, a God, maybe a personal God, but a superior being nonetheless, one who can be obeyed and petitioned and even loved and yearned for, but not emulated. The intellectualism of the Vedas (particularly of the Rig Veda) and of the Bhagavad Gita prevent them from being as widely loved and accepted on a personal level. However, the Ramayana does not and cannot bear the same relationship to Hinduism as the Bible and the Koran do to Christianity and Islam, respectively. It is not considered the 'Word of God', for it was written after all by a 'mere' man - a great sage, but a human being all the same. It was of course recited to him by a God, Narada, but a minor God. In any case it was only the story that was narrated by Narada, the actual verses of the epic are attributed to Valmiki.  

The history of the Ramayana can be considered from two angles - the history of the text, and the actual history of the events described in the epic. As far as the second aspect is considered, there is no independent evidence that any such events actually happened. Maybe they did, and were not considered important enough to be recorded by other commentators contemporaneous to Valmiki. But certainly it is only politico-cultural motives that lead to the present  day identification of the Babri Masjid as the birthplace of Rama, and the Adam's bridge as Ram Sethu. [Incidently, in Menon's translation Hanuman leaps to Lanka from the Western shore of India. If this is how Valmiki actually wrote it, maybe the Lanka of the Ramayana is the Maldives of today.] In any case, the Ramayana existed only in the oral form for several centuries, even millenia, before they were first written down maybe 1500 years ago. As famously catalogued by A.K. Ramanujan, there are at least a few hundred versions of the tale, and some of them may actually predate the first written version. The story is told with love and devotion, but not as a religious tale, beyond the borders of India, in particular in Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other South-East Asian lands.  I myself have seen a version of the story carved in wood in a niche in the Shwe Dagon pagoda, Yangon, the central shrine of Myanmarese Buddhism. In some of these versions even the essential relationships between Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Ravana and completely different. Menon himself briefly narrates in the epilogue a version in which Sita is Ravana's daughter, and his desire for her is incestuous.

The major role the Ramayana plays in contemporary militant political Hinduism is not reflected in the actual practices of Hinduism. Many Gods not related to the epic are loved and feared - Krishna, Siva, Durga, Murugan - with the same or even greater intensity than that which Rama inspires. There is however no denying that the Ramayana contributes in a major way to the core beliefs of the sub-continent, and occupies a large portion of the religious and cultural imagination of Indians. It has engendered immense repertoires of music and dance and painting, and even if one is unimpressed by all else connected with the Ramayana, the  kirtis it inspired Thiyagaraja to compose alone will earn it one's devotion and respect. 

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