The recent controversy at Delhi University about removing Ramanujam’s scholarly paper on the many Ramayanas, reminds me of a heated dialogue I had with one young man in Delhi several years ago. I don’t want to share my views about the way Ramanujam’s paper was removed from the University syllabus here. My focus is on the controversial views on the Ramayana in particular and all scriptures in general.
The richness of Indian culture and civilization is in its pluralism. Any attempt to impose any kind of uniformity, for whatever ideological reason, will not only fail but also do great harm to our unity in all kinds of diversity. Having various recensions of the great Indian Epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) more of a blessing than a problem. I have read the original Tulsiramayana and also the Valmiki Ramayana in the English translation and I am presently reading the Kamba Ramayanam in Tamil. Apart from these, there is the Adhyaatma Ramayana in Sanskrit and Krttivasa’s version in Bengali. There are other oral traditions of various versions of the Rama story. Only those who have an opportunity to read various versions of the Ramayana can appreciate and enjoy the diversity we have in India.
Now coming back to my encounter with a young man in Delhi, I went to a book shop to buy A Sanskrit copy of Valmiki’s Ramayana with the Hindi translation. I specifically said that I didn’t want a Geeta Press (Gorakpur) one, as they have distorted several verses of Valmiki’s Ramayana by giving a different kind of translation.
One young man standing next to me become upset and began questioning what wrong I found in Geeta Press’ translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana. I said that wherever it is mentioned in Valmiki’s Ramayana that Rama ate non-veg food, they have omitted or translated it differently. He became very angry and began to challenge me to prove this. He invited me to go to his house where he has many different versions of the Ramayana. As time didn’t permit me to go to his house, I got his address and promised to send my response to him.
I sent the following letter to him, but I never received any response.
Don’t study too many things, it is nothing but mere strain of words Brh. Up. 4.4.21b.
October 1, 1996,
I hope you remember me. We met briefly at M\s Munshiram Manoharlal Pub. Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, on September 28, 1996, where we had a lively discussion on, what Swami Vivekananda calls ‘Text Torturing’.
Before I bring to your kind attention the wrong translation of a few Valmiki Ramayana slokas by M\s Gita Press, Ghorakpur, I whole heartedly appreciate the wonderful service they are rendering to our land by providing Scriptures at a subsided rate. I have high respect and regard for them. At the same time, as a student I am also interested in understanding the right meaning of the text, with correct translation and interpretation.
One problem with scholars is that they have the ability to mislead lay people like me, who have no easy access to various translations and interpretations along with the knowledge of the classic languages like Sanskrit. As a student of Scriptures, I uphold one strong conviction that we must remain honest to the text; however our doctrine may contradict with the right translation and interpretation.
Now coming to Valmiki’s Ramayana. Sri Valmiki presents Sri Rama as a Kshatriya, who upheld dharma all through his life. One interesting point in Valmiki’s Ramayana is the word ‘dharma’, which appears in almost every chapter. To some extent, we can safely say that the main purpose of the Valmiki Ramayana is to guide people to uphold their respective dharma in their lives. We can come across beautiful teachings on the dharma of Raja, Praja (citizen), Pita (father), Putra (son), Pati (husband), Patni (wife), Mitra (friend) etc. However one thing we should remember is that the word dharma in Sanskrit as well as in Pali is not ‘religion’ as is commonly translated.
Being a Kshatriya, Rama followed his dharma. As Kshatriyas ate non-veg food, I find no problem in reading that Rama also ate non-veg food. But in translating those slokas of the Valmiki Ramayana, where it clearly states that Sri Rama ate non-veg, Geeta Press wrongly translated them. As Gita Press promotes Vaishnavism, they may find it difficult to present Rama as a non-vegetarian to the common people. But this they could have very well explain by giving some foot notes, than wrongly translating the text to mislead common people. However I have to take my words back that The Gita Press completely omitted those slokas. I read a Hindi translation of the Valmiki Ramayana a few years before and I don’t exactly remember the Publishers. It may be from Mathuraor Lucknow Publishers and I regret for making such a statement. However, still my point on Gita Press on wrong translation stands and two examples are sufficed here:
“…The two (Rama and Lakshmana) then killed there four great beasts, including a boar, a white-footed antelope, a spotted antelope and a great deer- and taking the flesh with them, went with all speed, since they were hungry, to the foot of the forest tree, there to spend the night”. (N. Raghunathan, Srimad Valmiki Ramayanam,Madras, Vigneswara Publishing House, 1981, Vol. I, Ayoodhyaa Kanda, Canto LII, The Crossing of the Ganga, p. 291)
The following one from Sundara Kanda should be understood in its given context. When Sitaji asks Hanumanji about the welfare of Sri Rama, Hanuman tells Sitaji that since she had gone missing, Sri Rama had lost interest in everything like eating, sleeping, etc. In that context, Hanumanji says:
“Raghava eats no flesh, he drinks no mead; in the fifth watch of the day he partakes of the prescribed fare produced from forest produce.–with his mind wholly absorbed in thoughts of you,….Wholly given to brooding and grieving, and helpless in the grip of longing, he thinks of nothing else.” (Raghunathan, op. cit. Vol.II, Sundara Kaanda, Canto XXXVI, He gives her Rama’s signet ring. p.428)
As the texts and translations speak for themselves, I have nothing more to add. I am not forcing my view on you, and at the same time I am not going to bother whether you agree with me or not. As Sri Rama was a Kshatriya, I find no problem if he were a Non-vegetarian. Being a king he might have eaten non-veg foods as the Valmiki Ramayana clearly shows in a few places. This doesn’t disturb my respect for Sri Rama in any way. In our country, even Brahmins ate and still are eating non-veg food in some parts like Maitili Brahmins in Bihar and Bengali Brahmins. In our Vedas and Dharma Sastras there are plenty of references to prove this. According to Kane, even a Samnyasi is expected to eat meet in a sradha, where he is invited to take food where non-veg foods were offered. If you want to the references from the various Scriptures and Dharmasastras, I am willing to give them.
Here I close. The intention of writing all this is not to hurt your sentimental attachment towards a particular doctrine (sidhanta) or Institution (e.g. Gita Press) or acharya. But the truth is too precious and we can’t see it being misused for our vested interests.
There is an interesting story in Tiruvilayadal Puranam (The Lila of Siva) in Tamil. Once, in order to test the integrity and scholarship of Nakiirar a devotee of Siva, a great Tamil poet in the dharbar of Senbaga Pandiyan at Madurai, Siva confronted him by composing a Tamil song. When it was brought before the King in the presence of Tamil Sangam, Nakiirar as the head of that Sangam opposed it by pointing out the mistake in it. Then an interesting argument starts between Siva and Nakiirar and finally estranged by the argument put forward by Nakiirar, Siva threatens him by showing his third eye. At that time Nakiirar says, “Even if you open your third eye and burn me, I will proclaim that you are wrong.”
Finally Nakiirar was burnt down by Siva, but later restored to life as he was pleased by the integrity of Nakiirar as the latter come forward even to oppose his favorite deity in order to uphold the Truth. Let us be proud of such a rich heritage of our country.