This Diwali, Bring Home a Ramayana Which Challenges Status Quo

Sabin, or Surpanakha takes centrestage in the Ramayana narrative of Karbis, an ethnic group from the Assam hills.

Published
India
4 min read
Nakhsikh dalits of the Ramnami Samaj in Chattuisgarh tatto the name of Ram on their bodies as an act of defiance and devotion. (Photo: Reuters)

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked. How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories to answer the question.”

In 2008, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) went on a rampage in Delhi University, attacking the Department of History for having an essay in their syllabus. In 2011, following a committee decision, the University pulled off the essay from the syllabus. AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation is about the syncretic nature of the Ramayana narrative and tradition. He elaborates on the countless nature of such narratives, not only in India, but also a large part of Southeast Asia.

Many of these are stories where the usual heroes do not occupy centrestage, and are often about marginal fringe characters, who the dominant form of the epic do not sing praises of. This Diwali, we tell you few such stories.

Sabin Alum: Surpanakha’s Song and a Different Sita

The Karbis, a hill tribe from Assam. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Karbis, a hill tribe from Assam. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Karbis, an ethnic hill tribe from Assam, often sing Sabin’s song. Sabin is Surpanakha, Ravana’s demon sister who Lakshman ‘punished’ by chopping off her nose. Surpanakha, in Sanskrit means she who has sharp nail. In pre-Vedic narratives and literature, it said that powerful women like Nishriti, Urvashi and Tulja ruled various regions in the sub-continent. One of these women was believed to be Surpanakha, she who sifted harvested grain through her bare hands. He sharp nails weaning the grain.The Saptashrungi Devi of Nasik, worshipped as Durga and considered one of the 51 shakti peeths of the mother goddess, is believed to be the farmer queen Surpanakha.

According to the Karbi myth, Sita or Sinta also stands out from the dominant narrative. The Karbis believe that Ram, Lakshman and Sita moved to the forest in order to establish agriculture. As cultivable land was unavailable, tress in the forests had to be felled. It was Sinta who single-handedly took upon this task.

The Ramnamis of Chattisgarh

Punai Bai, 75, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her entire body. (Photo: Reuters)
Punai Bai, 75, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her entire body. (Photo: Reuters)

The Ramnami Samaj is a religious movement founded by Scheduled Caste Ram devotees (bhaktas) in the late 19th century in what is now central and northern Chhattisgarh. Denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells, these low-caste Hindus in the Chhattisgarh first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago as an act of defiance and devotion. Ramnamis wrote Ram's name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god was everywhere, regardless of a person's caste or social standing.The Ramnamis' rebellion is written across their faces, in bold strides – lending them an alternate identity – fighting, as well as declaring, a history of caste-based discrimination. In 1910, the Ramnami Samaj won a court case after conflicts with several caste Hindu groups on the right to write the name of Ram on their clothing and on their bodies.Children born in the community are still required to be tattooed somewhere on their body, preferably on their chest, at least once by the age of two.According to their religious practices, Ramnamis do not drink or smoke, must chant the name ‘Ram’ daily, and are exhorted to treat everybody with equality and respect. Almost every Ramnami household owns a copy of the Ramayana epic – a book on Lord Rama's life and teachings – along with small statues of Indian deities. Most followers' homes in these villages have "Ram Ram" written in black on the outer and inner walls.

Ravana the Wise

Ravana is worshipped in a lot of southern Indian states. (Photo: iStockphoto, altered by The Quint)
Ravana is worshipped in a lot of southern Indian states. (Photo: iStockphoto, altered by The Quint)

Other than challenging the Maveli or Mahabali myth in Kerala, the social reformer and rationalist Sahodaran Ayappan also pointed out a few fascinating set os tales, mostly meditations in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition. A more or less fractal Sahajiya Buddhist tradition is believed to be have existed in the eastern part of the subcontinent, the vast region referred to as Banga. The earliest extant literature available from this region are the Bengali (though a derivative language of the Tibeto-Burmese family, completely different from modern Bengali) padas written by padakartas or spiritual gurus. Such early fractal Buddhist traditions predate the age of Sakyamuni Buddha, or Gautam Buddha.

In the Sri Lankan meditations on Ravana, he is a wise, learned figure, who accomplished for himself a just rule, and the faith of his people. Ravana becomes a Buddhist leader who is overpowered by an invading Aryan force. If one tracks the journey Rama undertakes, it is not difficult to draw a few parallels. As Rama begins his journey southwards, he first meets the shabars, the untouchables. Then comes the monkeys, the dravidians, in desperate need of colonisation. And once he crosses the sea, demons roam the land.

The plurality of myths should enrich them, not restrict them. From time immemorial, human beings have culled stories out of the world, only for some other to make them their own. We began by quoting an excerpt from Ramanujan’s essay. It seems fitting that we end with him too. “Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into and drinks out a unique crystallisation, a new text, with a unique texture and a fresh context. The great texts rework the small ones, for ‘lions are made of sheep’, as Valery said. And sheep are made of lions too. “

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