Rethinking Rama — A Few Thoughts

Back in Chicago! I’m taking a break from unpacking to write this quick blog post on the occasion of Rama Navami, the Hindu festival dedicated to the god Rama. I’m working on a longer, more in-depth piece on Rama and the Ramayana, but I thought I’d just share a couple of thoughts today.

Rama today is a polarizing figure in South Asia and in the diaspora: deeply revered by many, but now also reviled by a growing number of people. On one level, he is essentially the “Eagle Scout of Hindu mythology,” as Philip Lugendorf wittily writes in his essay “The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya”: he is “courteous, kind, obedient, brave, clean, and reverent.” Especially in contrast to Krishna, the rule-breaker, love-maker, and fun-haver, Rama is generally seen as the “god of the status quo.” The ideal son, brother, husband, king, friend — for many devout Hindus, Rama encapsulates them all.

At the same time, Rama is seen by many as representing some of the most oppressive and violent aspects of Hindu society. Rama’s treatment of his wife Sita in many versions of the Ramayana — in particular, his repeated testing of her “purity” — has been widely criticized by both modern feminists and authors dating back many centuries. The mutilation of Shurpanakha has been critiqued by some Dalit-Bahujan feminists, who identify the asuras/rakshasas of the Ramayana as representing the lower castes and indigenous people of South Asia. For many Dalit-Bahujan thinkers, Rama is also an embodiment of caste violence and Brahminical supremacy, embodied in Rama’s killing of the shudra Shambuka. In contemporary Indian politics after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the very phrase “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”) has become a symbol for a violent Hindu nationalist movement. I can’t list all the objections to Rama and the Ramayana here, but you get the idea.

So, is Rama a figure to be worshiped, or an oppressive relic of India’s past, to be cast away? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, in the context of religion, politics, and culture. Simple good/evil binaries do not make sense in most cases, unless we ignore the complexities inherent in every culture. With this mind, I want to share a few examples of literature and scholarship on Rama and the Ramayana that complicate the good/evil binary that we, as humans, instinctively seem to prefer.

1. Rama’s Smile

First, I want to share a brief excerpt from the Ramavataram, the most well-known Tamil retelling of the Ramayana, composed by the 11th-century poet Kamban. I came across this charming stanza on Twitter, in which Sita describes seeing Rama for the first time:

இந்திர நீலம் ஒத்து இருண்ட குஞ்சியும்
சந்திர வதனமும் தாழ்ந்த கைகளும்
சுந்தர மணி வரைத் தோளுமே அல
முந்தி என் உயிரை அம் முறுவல் உண்டதே.

indra nīlam ottu iruṇḍa kuñjiyum
chandra vadaṉamum tāzhnda kaigaḷum
sundara maṇi varai-t tōḷumē ala
mundi en uyirai am muṟuval unḍadē

“His hair was dark, like a deep blue sapphire
His face radiant as the full moon, his arms long and lean
His shoulders, dark and strong, like massive gems, but—
it was his smile that captured my soul.”

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Artist: Sanjay Patel (source)

To me, this stanza highlights a Rama which is often neglected: a gentle, loving, compassionate Rama. Instead, the image of Rama we are so often confronted with today is an unsmiling, martial figure, with bow and arrow in hand, ready to slay his foes at any second. Sita’s description of Rama doesn’t shy away from describing his his strong shoulders and long arms, but she adds that what truly captivated her was his smile, nothing else. In my opinion, this image of Rama as a lover — as someone whose most captivating trait is his smile — is rarely, if ever, highlighted.

One reason for this, of course, is that Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups have made a concerted effort to make Rama the poster boy for violent, muscular, Hindu nationalism. This wasn’t always the case, though, as this anecdote narrated by Ashis Nandy illustrates:

Once, in course of his only visit to a RSS shakha (branch of a major Hindutva organization), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi looked around and found on the walls of the shakha portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi naturally asked, ‘Why have you not put up a portrait of Ram as well?’ Those were not the days of the Ramjanmabhumi movement and the RSS leader showing him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose’.

Perhaps what we need in order to counteract Hindutva’s Rama is this more “effeminate”, compassionate, loving Rama. This is the Rama who is loved by some hijras as a symbol of acceptance. This is the Rama who is worshiped by the Rasik Sampraday, a small esoteric sect which worships Rama and Sita as a symbol of ultimate love, just as Radha and Krishna are often worshiped today. This is the Rama who, according to a popular South Indian folktale, expresses his love and gratitude to even a small squirrel who helps build his bridge to Lanka.

Also, if you liked that stanza, you can read more ancient and medieval Tamil poetry here.

2. Three Hundred Ramayanas

I’ve also been revisiting A. K. Ramanujan’s seminal essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” which is now notorious for being banned from Delhi University’s history curriculum under pressure from conservative Hindus and Hindutva groups. Nevertheless, Ramanujan’s essay is definitely worth a look: it’s an eye-opening introduction to the sheer diversity of the Ramayana tradition. Today, when so many of us have grown up with the idea that there is just one, authoritative Ramayana story, whether it’s communicated through Amar Chitra Katha comics or through an anime film, Ramanujan’s essay is a reminder that there is so much more out there! This is one of my favorite anecdotes:

To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana.

“Three Hundred Ramayanas” shows us that the Ramayana tradition has always been evolving to answer new questions and remain relevant in new contexts. Today, when we ask so many questions of past Ramayanas, and when so many previous retellings of the Ramayana contain material we would rather not pass down to future generations, I think Ramanujan’s essay prompts us to ask: what is stopping us from recreating, reinterpreting, retelling a new Ramayana? If we have a retelling of the Ramayana story that emphasizes values of inclusivity, love, equality, empathy, and justice — does that make it any less of a Ramayana? I think Ramanujan’s answer would be “no.” Check out the essay here.

3. Arshia Sattar on the Ramayana vs. Mahabharata

Arshia Sattar is an Indian translator and author who has written prolifically, and almost exclusively, on the Valmiki Ramayana. I’ve been listening to a few of her lectures on YouTube, and something that struck me recently was her comparison of the Ramayana with South Asia’s other great epic, the Mahabharata:

“In the Mahabharata, you know there are problems. You know that dharma is sukshma (subtle), they tell you that right off the bat. The characters are always talking about dharma, endlessly, and… they’re always doing the wrong thing. Right? They think, think, think, think, think… and then they do the wrong thing. Right? And it’s like, “Well, why did you spend so much time thinking? You bored me!”

[People say] “The Mahabharata has so much moral ambiguity, it’s so difficult to know what is right…” Fair enough, but I think for me why the Ramayana is actually much harder to deal with, and [why] it’s also a much more profound text, is because everybody in the Ramayana does the “right thing,” and it still goes wrong. So what do you do then: when you act from the best part of yourself and you hurt the people you love most? That, to me, is really, really, the challenge of being human. That, to me, expresses the human condition far more poignantly than the idea of “I don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”

In the Ramayana, everybody knows what is right, everybody does the right thing, but it just doesn’t work out! And that, to me, is the life lesson. We can always say, “I did what I thought was right, but then why is the world such a bad place?” So, in that sense, I think the Ramayana is much more profound than the Mahabharata.

For Sattar, the Ramayana’s main dilemma is: what happens when you think you’re doing the right thing, but you end up hurting the people you love most? This, to me, is a very appealing way of viewing the Ramayana. I don’t have a whole lot more to say on this, and I haven’t read any of Sattar’s work yet, but I hope to do so soon.

Like I said, I hope to have a much more coherent piece on Rama and the Ramayana published soon — these are just a few semi-connected thoughts of mine. Let me know what you think!

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From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet

Edit 8/31/2017: I’m extremely excited to say that an abridged version of this article has been published in the online edition of Dawn, one of Pakistan’s largest and most-reputed newspapers! You can read the article here.

This year, Pakistan’s 70th Independence Day and Janmashtami (the Hindu festival celebrating Krishna’s birth) fell on the same day: August 14th. With that coincidence in mind, I want to share a very unique Urdu poem: “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

This nazm is by Hafeez Jalandhari (1900–1982), an Urdu poet who is most well-known for composing the lyrics to Pakistan’s national anthem, the Qaumi Taranah. Born in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar (now in India), he moved to Lahore (now in Pakistan) following India and Pakistan’s independence and Partition in 1947.

As its title suggests, “Krishn Kanhaiya” is a poem about the Hindu god Krishna. Today, the mere idea of a Muslim poet writing about a Hindu deity raises all sorts of emotions among different groups in South Asia: surprise, joy, curiosity, suspicion, anger. However, there is much more depth to “Krishn Kanhaiya” than meets the eye. This is no ordinary devotional poem. Jalandhari, ever a politically-minded thinker and writer, draws upon the mythology and persona of Krishna in order to produce a poem that is simultaneously devotional and political in nature. It is, in fact, a call to liberate India from British colonial rule. Moreover, this poem, especially when examined in comparison with Jalandhari’s more famous work, the Qaumi Taranah, can tell us a great deal about the cultural politics of South Asia in the 20th century and today.

Setting the scene

Let’s begin with a close reading of “Krishn Kanhaiya.”

In the very first line of the poem, Jalandhari addresses his readers as onlookers (dekhne wālo). Although this may seem trivial, I believe there is a deeper significance to this choice of words. Urdu poetry is usually meant to be heard, not read silently. One popular type of poetry, the ghazal, is sung, while nazms (of which “Krishn Kanhaiya” is one) are usually recited. Yet, Jalandhari chooses dekhne wālo, “those who look,” to characterize the consumer of this poem.

Could Jalandhari’s choice of words be referring to the importance Hinduism gives to seeing God? I don’t think it would be inaccurate to describe Hinduism as a religion which, among the fives senses, gives primacy to sight as a way of connecting to the Divine. The central act of devotion when one goes to a Hindu temple is darshan: gazing upon the decorated image of the deity. And, of course, the incredibly intricate and symbolic iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses suggests the importance of saguna brahman, God With a Form. By addressing the readers of the poem as “onlookers” instead of “listeners” or “readers,” Jalandhari might be encouraging them to engage in an act of darshan in their mind. As they read or hear the poem, he encourages them to also visualize Krishna in their minds.

darshan02_main
The moment of darshan, when the devotee makes eye contact with the deity.

Continue reading “From Gokul to Lahore: Krishna through the eyes of an Urdu poet”

Some thoughts on #NotInMyName

Note: This short piece was originally published on the website of Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a grassroots organization I’m part of. When I use “we,” I am referring to Sadhana. 

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Source: Al Jazeera

In the past few days, thousands of people across the world, both in India and abroad, have publicly taken a stand against the cow/beef-related mob violence, lynchings, and targeted killings of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India, under the slogan #NotInMyName. (If you want to read more about the protests and the violence that inspired them, you can Google “not in my name protests india”.) These protests have been widely praised, but also heavily critiqued by others.

Rajesh Rajamani argues that the #NotInMyName protests are “part of the problem,” and take focus away from “Brahmanism, which is at the core of the Hindu religion, and its scriptures that sanction social inequality and allow for violence to preserve its unequal structure.” He further states that any distinction made between Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is “imaginary and false”.

Mr. Rajamani is correct in pointing out that any discussion of the violence perpetrated against Dalits and Muslims is incomplete if we do not also address the systemic violence that takes place through the institution of caste. Brahmanism refers specifically to the system of caste hierarchy which leads to entrenched social inequity.

However, we simply cannot agree with Mr. Rajamani’s claims that Brahmanism lies at the heart of Hinduism, and that Hindutva is no different from Hinduism.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on #NotInMyName”

Carnatic music as a tool for social change: “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”

Happy New Year all! I’ve been quite busy with college in the last few months, which is why I haven’t been posting as much lately. However, I did want to share this incredible video with you all.

“Chennai Poromboke Paadal” is another boundary-pushing project featuring Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been working tirelessly in the past few years to break down the elitist culture of Indian classical music (I’ve written about him in many previous posts). It was directed by Rathindran Prasad, who rose to fame with his “Kodaikanal Won’t” rap video starring Sofia Ashraf, and also involved journalist and activist Nityanand Jayaram and songwriter Kaber Vasuki. This video highlights the environmental impact of unrestricted urban development in Chennai, through a Carnatic composition in the colloquial dialect of Chennai Tamil.

Krishna has often asked “why is Carnatic music only in Sanskrit or chaste Tamil or chaste Telugu, and why is it talking about only [Hindu gods], when it could be talking about anything?”

“It’s very easy to say that Carnatic music should have different subjects and be in different dialects. It’s only when you do it that you realise if it works or not. The greatest thing the project has gifted me is that it has shown me such an experiment is possible and has opened incredible doors for me and for so many others.”

I’ll be honest: it’s a little unsettling to hear phrases like “concrete kattadam” (concrete buildings) sung in Anandabhairavi raga, but it’s also a really exciting feeling. I truly hope to see more projects like this; utilizing the rich aesthetic framework of this elite art form, but redirecting its lyrical focus to promote social change and introspection. This is the beginning of a new janma for Carnatic music.

Read more here, and watch the video below:

“The Unforeseen Impacts of Activism”

Note: I wrote this blog post this summer, after participating in a youth program run by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a DC-based advocacy organization focused on issues facing South Asian American communities. I know I haven’t been active on this blog lately, but I have some new content coming soon, I promise — especially now that my final exams for this quarter are now over.

This post later led to me being interviewed for this article on The Caravan: “How South Asian Americans Are Asserting Their Political Voice This Election”!

Anyway, here’s the post (originally published here):


Sitting in my university’s library last spring, I was procrastinating on studying for finals by browsing Facebook—something any college student can relate to. In between the endless feed of news articles and photos, one event caught my eye: a three-part discussion series, “South Asians for Black Lives.” The Facebook event listed some incredible speakers and activists who would be talking about important issues such as the model minority myth and colorism in South Asian communities, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in solidarity with Black communities (or not).

Although we had really wanted to attend the discussion series, logistically it wasn’t very feasible to do so. Talking with my friends who expressed an interest in the event, we decided if we couldn’t go to “South Asians for Black Lives”, we would bring “South Asians for Black Lives” to us. That is, we would basically copy that event and hold it on UChicago’s campus instead.

There were some important differences, though. Our university’s South Asian Students Association was robust, but focused more on cultural and social events, like the annual spring show and chai socials. When it came to programming related to social and political issues, there wasn’t a whole lot. My friends and I weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get from our campus community—would anyone even show up?—so we decided to make our event a one-day affair, instead of Northwestern’s three-part series. We reached out to professors, activists, and fellow students from the UChicago community and the greater Chicago area as well, and invited some really incredible, passionate speakers.

Finally, it was the day of the event. Although there were some minor hiccups, everything went quite smoothly. After a panel discussion with two activists and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, we moved into small group discussions led by members of UChicago’s Organization of Black Students and other student activists. Although the theme of our event was geared towards South Asian students, quite a few students from different Asian backgrounds attended, as well as students of other ethnicities. Afterwards, my friends and I were frankly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response we got from those who attended! Many of them expressed that they would love to see more events focusing on social and political issues relating to Asian-American communities on campus.

The success of our “South Asians for Black Lives” event inspired me to find out whether other South Asian students across the country had also been trying to hold social justice-related events, and what kind of success they were having. While looking online, I stumbled on SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI) webpage. YLI seemed like exactly what I was looking for: a group of young South Asian Americans who were passionate about social change. By the time I found out about YLI, it was just a day before the application deadline, but I managed to send my application in anyway (a couple hours late). Thankfully, I got in!

The YLI training in DC was eye-opening in a variety of ways. It seemed like every member of the cohort felt like their colleges’ South Asian student groups also didn’t focus that much on social and political issues as much as cultural events. The theme of this year’s YLI was Immigrant Justice, and after hearing about the different projects we were hoping to execute on our campuses, I was honestly in awe of everyone else. We learned about the current immigrant right issues facing our communities, we heard from activists and organizers, and we had some very honest and important conversations.

For me, one of the most meaningful moments of the YLI training was finding out that the project that originally inspired my friends and I—the “South Asians for Black Lives” event at Northwestern—was actually organized by a member of the 2015 YLI cohort, Sanjana Lakshmi! One could say this was just a coincidence; Sanjana’s event just happened to show up on my Facebook feed one afternoon. However, I think it was more than just a coincidence. It was proof that our efforts to have these important conversations in our communities can have a much greater impact than we could ever imagine. I’m sure that in the coming years, as each YLI cohort works to tackle a variety of social and political issues in their campus communities, their work will serve as inspiration to many more young South Asian Americans, just as it did for me.

“Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS/terrorism?”

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I’ve encountered this question from family members, in passing conversations among strangers, and especially online. The answer, of course, is “THEY ARE!” (Google it if you don’t believe me.) One such effort just took place in Morocco, where Muslim scholars and intellectuals from more than 120 countries gathered to reaffirm the rights of non-Muslim minorities throughout the Muslim world. The following text is the Marrakesh Declaration:


In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate

Executive Summary of the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities

25th-27th January 2016


WHEREAS, conditions in various parts of the Muslim World have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view;

WHEREAS, this situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole;

WHEREAS, this year marks the 1,400th anniversary of the Charter of Medina, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the people of Medina, which guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith;

WHEREAS, hundreds of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from over 120 countries, along with representatives of Islamic and international organizations, as well as leaders from diverse religious groups and nationalities, gathered in Marrakesh on this date to reaffirm the principles of the Charter of Medina at a major conference;

WHEREAS, this conference was held under the auspices of His Majesty, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and organized jointly by the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs in the Kingdom of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies based in the United Arab Emirates;

AND NOTING the gravity of this situation afflicting Muslims as well as peoples of other faiths throughout the world, and after thorough deliberation and discussion, the convened Muslim scholars and intellectuals:


DECLARE HEREBY our firm commitment to the principles articulated in the Charter of Medina, whose provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law; and that,

The objectives of the Charter of Medina provide a suitable framework for national constitutions in countries with Muslim majorities, and the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina, including consideration for public order.

NOTING FURTHER that deep reflection upon the various crises afflicting humanity underscores the inevitable and urgent need for cooperation among all religious groups, we
AFFIRM HEREBY that such cooperation must be based on a “Common Word,” requiring that such cooperation must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.


BASED ON ALL OF THE ABOVE, we hereby:

Call upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of “citizenship” which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.

Urge Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addesses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies;

Call upon politicians and decision makers to take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World;

Call upon the educated, artistic, and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, to establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorites in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.

Call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression;

Call upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, villification, and denegration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promote hatred and bigotry; AND FINALLY,

AFFIRM that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

Marrakesh
27h January 2016