Volume Six of Philip Lutgendorf’s translation of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas in the Murty Classical
Library Series of India has been released recently. This is a cause for celebration – one of India’s most influential texts has been translated into contemporary English by a pivotal scholar who has devoted much of his career to the text, and its afterlives. With the expected publication of the last and final Volume Seven in early 2023, one may have the good fortune of possessing the entire set of a series that began with the first volume of 2016.
It remains a pity nonetheless that too much of this scholarship is put together abroad, but the hope is
that such projects will shape a new generation of scholars in India too, generating richer and more
divergent concepts and formulations. Pre-modern texts – and thus the scholarship on them – do not always reside in the niche of the “pre”. Rather, as the text of the Ramcharitmanas demonstrates, Tulsidas (1543-1623) affords us new ways of asking literary, philosophical and religious questions – both of his experience of 16-century urbanised Benares, as well as for our time.
A 16th Century text for modern readers
Tulsidas does this by fusing the plot of well-known stories (such as the Rama-tale) with diverse techniques of probing questions regarding martial or marital or familial or devotional duty. And the answers are not always predictable for this maryada purushottam: at one point he explicitly prioritises his duty to his brother over that of his wife.
Tulsidas’s achievement may be that he proved that Indic tradition always poses fundamental
questions anew, with each era perhaps requiring differing answers. The tradition is not static or
essentialist, but temporal and open-ended, always repaying the poet/devotee with original meanings wrestled from ancient conundrums. To keep from being preachy, there are many digressions, including some that seem gratuitous.
These include, for example, the ambassadorship of Angad, pages upon pages of warriors merely insulting one another, and non-realist but elaborate military strategies of warfare involving monkeys and bears: “headless torsos racing wildly here and there”.
More typical imagery includes the following descriptions of warriors: “His black body streaming blood looked as awesome / as a mountain of lampblack gushing red ochre”; and “tiny drops of blood that adorned his form / were like countless ruddy birds, resting / in pure delight on the dark trunk of a tamal tree”.
Interspersed betwixt the macabre are delightful or comic images – Ravan laughing at his own joke with all of his ten heads! Or the image of arrogance / ego as one which inverts the world—“in his deluded arrogance, Ravan / was like the lapwing bird, which sleeps upside down”. Or how even the myriad mouthed serpent holding up the ends of the world cannot sufficiently hymn the lord’s beauty. These images allow one to pause, smile, reorient – and a mellower and more prayerful mood overtakes the reader amidst a volume primarily devoted to war, where even “charity [is a] battle axe”.
An accessible translation
As in the other texts of the Murty series, the pages have the Indic scripts on the left page and the
translation on the right. Thus, one can keep checking for words, and perhaps happily quarrel with
the translations. Such a layout reveals how the aural mellifluousness (repetitive, mesmeric) of
Tulsidas’s Avadhi cannot be captured – yet, all that can be asked for a translation is that it gives us a firm starting point for charting horizons and pathways into still-living traditions.
In our sceptical age, it is not easy to understand how the ethic of battle may be continuous with the ethic of meditation (“monkeys, inflamed by battle passion, /yet inwardly meditating on Ram’s majesty”).
This particular sixth volume, mirrors the sixth volume of Valmiki, and is primarily about the war.
However, what is prioritised even in this book (in line with the rest of the Ramcharitmanas) is less
the gore with its correlate of the angered warrior-god, and more the divinised, beauteous, assured
warrior yogi: “His ego is Shiva, his intelligence, unborn Brahma, / his mind the moon, his cognition,
It would be hard to make a stronger statement for second millennium bhakti than
this: “ every sort of yoga, mantra, repetition,/charity, austerity, sacrifice, fast, and discipline / does
not cause Ram to bestow his grace/so much as does sincere and unwavering love”. Ravan too is
given dignity, striding into his tragic fate. There is in Tulsidas a greater sense of resilient
predestination, an acceptance and endurance of the weight of destiny (“I watch my own skulls
Scholarly translations of premodern texts from various traditions deserve to be incorporated, with
critical notes, into Humanities syllabi from undergraduate years, and hopefully provoke productive
self-aware research. This view need not be parochial – and it is hardly a matter of dispute that Indian texts, especially non-Sanskrit pre-modern texts, remain distressingly under-researched. On a lighter note, these translations of the Ramayana perhaps ought to become gifting preferences in lieu of firecrackers or over-sugared sweets every Diwali.
Nikhil Govind is Professor and Head of the Manipal Centre for Humanities. His most recent book is The Moral Imagination of the Mahabharata.
The Epic of Ram, Tulsidas, translated from the Avadhi by Philip Lutgendorf, Murty Classical Library of India.