Allowed to Interpret the Ramayana – Amish Yes, AK Ramanujan No?

A columnist in Kerala can’t write about Ramayana but Amish Tripathi can – what makes them different?

3 min read
 Allowed to Interpret the Ramayana – Amish Yes, AK Ramanujan No?

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Amish Tripathi’s Scion of Ishvaku is selling like hot samosas. The author of the wildly popular Shiva Trilogy has now begun reimagining the Ramayana, but at least so far, has steered clear of any controversy.

But not everyone has been so lucky. According to a report in the Indian Express, MM Bashir, a literary critic who was writing a series of articles on the Ramayana in a Malayalam newspaper has decided to discontinue his column after being harassed by Hindu groups.

In fact, given how much the Ramayana and Ram have been politicised, it is surprising that Amish’s book hasn’t faced any controversy.

Amish, author of the Shiva Trilogy and Scion of Ishvaku

Amish’s Ram is naively ethical, follows the law no matter what, and is guided, even manipulated by various figures — from his gurus Vashishtha and Vishvamitra to his wife Sita.

The book is also intensely political. There is a long episode which is a thinly-veiled reference to the Nirbhaya case and deals with the idea of vigilante justice and death penalty for a minor convict.

Given how controversial and political the figure of Ram is, it is surprising that neither the Left nor the Right have had a problem with the book.


What Usually Happens

Salman Rushdie, depicted as Satan, during a protest in Mumbai in 1999. (Photo: Reuters)

Censorship happens so often in India that it is commonplace. Here are just a few of the most well-known examples:

  • In 2011, the Op-Ed pages of newspapers were filled with debates around an essay by AK Ramanujan from the BA History syllabus at Delhi University. The essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations, became controversial in 2008, when ABVP activists began protesting its inclusion in the syllabus.

  • In 1988, India gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

  • In 2011, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was withdrawn by Penguin after a lawsuit that invoked Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which penalises “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

Amish Tripathi’s book is likely to be one of the most popular versions of the Ramayana since Ramanand Sagar’s 1987 TV serial. It looks at Ram as a human character, often flawed.


Too Big to Fail?

The Scion of Ishvaku isn’t the first time Amish has humanised the divine. In the Shiva Trilogy he portrayed Shiva as pot-smoking, dancing warrior from Tibet and the books sold over 2.5 million copies.

The fact that such a portrayal did not invite the ire of the people that have called for the banning of books in the past is surprising enough in the case of Shiva.

Rama is an even more political figure. After all, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — the construction of a Ram Temple where the Babri Masjid stood — and the idea of Ram Rajya are a fairly prevalent part of our political discourse.

However, immensely popular renditions of the Ramayana have never been politicised. This is true for the Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial, Amar Chitra Katha comics and now Amish’s book.

That’s the key difference between Wendy Doniger’s book, MM Bashir’s articles or even Ramanujam’s essay and Scion of Ishvaku. The immense popularity of Amish’s book makes the cost of taking it on too high.

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Topics:  Free Speech   Ramayana   Amish 

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