Writ Divine

Prefatory To Some Notes On The Ramayaṇa

Part of the series Ramayaṇa

L. Rhodes

I have in mind a few different points to take up as the topics of separate posts on the Ramayaṇa, but before I get to those, a little prefatory discussion may be in order. It strikes me that discussion of the text is fraught in a few different ways, and I'd like to note those hazards in advance, even if only to signal that I'm aware of them.

Cultural. As with most of the texts I'm likely to write about here, I'm an outsider to the culture that produced Ramayaṇa. I've visited (American) Hindu temples, attended a few holiday ceremonies, and read a great deal about Hinduism, but I'm still a relative novice when it comes to what is, after all, an enormous cluster of often heterogenous religious traditions. That leaves me with essentially two options: say nothing on the subject, or blunder through it as best I can. Well, reader, I have chosen to blunder. With any luck, I'll have the good sense to render my remarks with the proper amount of humility. Those of you who know the tradition better will, I hope, see me as an enterprising student, and grant me a certain amount of latitude. Those of you who know it less should take everything I write here with a grain of salt.

Textual. One of the difficulties of reading Ramayaṇa in English, is that there appears to be no standard for evaluating translations. Most of what's currently in print are popular editions. When they're reviewed at all, it's generally not with an eye toward fidelity or scholarly rigor. I could have gone to the library stacks for a more academic version, but my aim this go 'round was to get a firm grip on the narrative sweep and its major themes, and I didn't want to get bogged down in footnotes and textual disputes. I finally settled on a recent translation by Linda Egenes and Kumuda Reddy, though not without some misgivings. The publisher — Tarcher Cornerstone, an imprint of Penguin Random House — appears to specialize in primary texts for the New Age and various new religious movements, so there's some risk that the text may have been distorted to hybridize it in line with a more modern, Western tradition. Both authors appear to be health practitioners principally, and only linguistic or religious scholars secondarily, which also gave me pause. When it came time to commit to a translation, though, the deciding factors were (1) relative completeness — the Tarcher appeared to be less abridged than other widely available editions — and (2) style. In particular, it seemed to me an advantage that the verse had been rendered as prose. True, you lose the poetic effect, the rhyme and rhythm of the work, and that's no mean loss, but translation inevitably compromises poetry, and flattening verse into prose often better preserves the literal sense of a text, since the translator need not tinker with synonyms and substitutions in order to preserve their meter or rhyme scheme.

Political. When the British colonized India, one of the imports they brought with them was Western nationalism. As it played out in much of the colonized world, nationalism became a central ingredient in the Indian struggle for independence. Literature has long been one of the principle materials from which populations have forged national identities, and the literary epic, in particular, has been a favorite of nationalists. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Indian nationalists early on looked to the Ramayaṇa as a source of cultural identity — Mahatma Gandhi was said to have disputed with members of the London-based India House over whether the text could be used to justify armed struggle against the British. In recent years, India has, like much of the democratic world, transitioned to more insular forms of nationalism, particularly religious nationalism, as exemplified by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Elements of the Ramayaṇa form the background of much of the Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement. The 1992 massacres in Uttar Pradesh, for example, were ignited over the mob demolition of a 16th century mosque said to have been built on the site of Rama's birth. One of the poem's ritual refrains, "Jai shri Ram," has recently been taken up as a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists, who have gone so far as to chant it during lynchings. There is, then, ample opportunity to blunder into political matters I know entirely too little about. That's a hazard with all religious study — religions rarely last long without becoming fodder for politics — but here the terrain seems particularly hazardous.

Those three, it seems to me, are the principle hazards that arise from a project like this. I'll try to be cognizant of them as I present a few thoughts on my initial reading of Ramayaṇa. If I make a misstep, or you know of a supplementary text worth reading, or simply want to discuss some of what I've written, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Mastodon. Watch for the first note soon.