Shiv Kumar Bharti was 27 years old when he burnt a copy of the Ramcharitmanas in Kanpur.

It was April 1978, and the Arjak Sangh, an anti-caste organisation in Uttar Pradesh of which he was a member, had called for a protest against Tulsidas’s 16th-century Awadhi retelling of the Ramayana.

“We had published a small pamphlet about the event, but news had spread,” said Bharti.

A counter-mobilisation followed. “Posters had come up, saying ‘Dharm ki raksha hetu Kanpur Dehaat chalo’.” Head to Kanpur Dehat to protect your faith.

“But we went ahead and burnt the book,” said Bharti.

At first, the authorities denied that such an event had taken place. “Then the Delhi reporters arrived, and photographs of burnt pages of the Ramcharitmanas and Manusmriti made national news,” said Bharti.

Among his possessions is a certificate from the Arjak Sangh that commends him for leading the protest against the texts, which are described as “bahusankhyak ke shoshan ke janak” and “Brahmanwad ke poshak” – the books that gave birth to exploitation of the majority, which nurture Brahminical exploitation.

The Arjak Sangh’s protest in the 1970s was one among many examples of how anti-caste groups have critiqued the tradition of Ramayana and Tulsidas’s text to mobilise subaltern groups against a Brahmanical social order.

More than four decades later, similar opinions about the text have sparked a debate in North India as politicians have called out portions of the Ramcharitmanas as being casteist.

In January, for instance, Bihar’s education minister Chandra Shekhar, claimed that the text “spreads hatred in the society”. Shortly after, Swami Prasad Maurya, an Other Backward Classes leader in Uttar Pradesh, wrote a letter to the prime minister and president asking them to “remove the objectionable comments, which are abusive and insulting towards women, tribals, Dalits and backwards”.

As Bharti noted, “This is not the first time that questions have been raised about Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas.”

However, not everyone believes that Ramcharitmanas – a literary text written in the 16th century by Goswami Tulsidas, a Brahmin poet from Banaras – can be seen exclusively through the lens of modern political contestations.

“Truly complex literary works cannot be reduced to a manifesto for one political movement or the other,” said writer Amitabha Bagchi, whose award-winning novel Half the Night Is Gone (2018) is a meditation on Tulsidas’s epic. “On the other hand, a literary work, even one written by the most progressive-minded person, is likely to reproduce some of the oppressive structures that are accepted in its time.”

Said Hindi novelist and playwright Asghar Wajahat, whose 2019 play Mahabali explores the life of Tulsidas, “Can you expect a 16th-century text to conform to the moral standards of the 20th century? It has to be seen in the context of the social values that existed 400 years ago. We have to instead understand what it achieved in its time.”

Critiquing the Manas

Ramcharitmanas – which means “the splendid lake of Ram’s exploits” – has a unique place in the literary and cultural consciousness of the Hindi public sphere.

“Very soon after its arrival, the Manas became the primary literary-devotional text in innumerable households of North India, especially in Hindu homes,” said writer-journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj.

The Ramcharitmanas carries forward the tale contained in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, believed to be written by Valmiki around 200 BCE.

“But Valmiki Ramayana was never part of our consciousness in the way Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas became,” said Bhardwaj. “His verses have become a part of the Hindi language and living memory, and are used by people who have not even read the Manas – just like Shakespeare.”

Tulsidas was writing at the tail-end of a revolutionary period in Indian literary life, where Bhakti poets, drawn from the subaltern classes, had challenged the exclusive ownership of knowledge and culture by the privileged castes.

Kashi, where Tulsidas wrote a big portion of his epic, was also home to Kabir, the weaver-poet whose work rejected the caste hierarchy and who worshipped a formless god.

A mural of Kabir from a Jammu temple. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In an essay in 1955, the great Hindi poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh had drawn a sharp contrast between the egalitarian impulse of the Bhakti poets of the 13th to the 16th centuries and Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas.

The challenge thrown by the Bhakti movement to the Hindu social order eventually was defeated, Muktibodh had argued. He saw Tulsidas as key to this outcome.

“Once the Brahmin influence over the Bhakti movement is established, it does not take too long to declare the victory of the caste system,” he wrote in the essay. “This declaration was made by Tulsidas.”

Literary critic Virendra Yadav points out that several members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the 1940s and ’50s went on to “problematise the epic”, even if the “largely upper caste” members of Hindi academia continued to see the text “in the spirit of eulogy”.

In 1970-’71, during the celebrations to mark 400 years of Tulsidas’s epic, the founder of the Arjak Sangh, Ramswaroop Verma, a legislator from Uttar Pradesh, had written to both the prime minister and president of India, asking that the state should not honour an epic that was “unconstitutional” and insulted both Shudras and women.

Shudras are considered to be on the lowest rung of Hinduism’s four-fold caste system or varnashram dharma.

Around the same time, Baba Nagarjun, the Hindi poet from Darbhanga, Bihar, had also written an essay pointing out the many chaupais or verses in the epic in which Shudras and women have been demeaned. “He had written that these portions should be deleted, that they are not acceptable to Shudras,” Yadav said.

Dalit-Bahujan writers have also debunked the sanctity of the poem. “It is not a religious text,” said the Uttar Pradesh-based poet Kanwal Bharti. “It has been turned into one by Brahmins because it is a poem that extols them, that says that even a Brahmin who has no redeeming qualities should be worshipped, but even a highly educated and moral Shudra is not worthy of worship.”

Bharti added: “It is only Bahujans and Dalits like us who have called out the derogatory language of Tulsidas’s poem.”

The home of Tulsidas in modern-day Varanasi. Credit: Nav102, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How to read a 16th-century poet

Many writers believe that while the Ramcharitmanas is not beyond criticism, its complexity and historical context should be considered.

“It is fairly clear that the struggle against Brahminism in the form we know it now was still in the future when the Ramcharitmanas was written,” said Bagchi. “That struggle is legitimate, and if someone uses the Ramcharitmanas to make a reactionary argument then it needs to be rebuffed by saying that the political imagination of those times was different.”

Asghar Wajahat argues that one of the greatest achievements of the poet is that he democratised the story of Ram.

“Ramkatha ke upar Sanskrit ka tala laga hua thha,” Wajahat said. There was a lock of Sanskrit hanging on the story of Ram. “He broke open that lock by writing in Awadhi.”

Said Bagchi, “The ring-fencing of the Sanskrit language made texts like the Valmiki Ramayana the exclusive preserve of Brahmins, and by writing the Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi and by regularly reciting it, Tulsidas made it available to generations of non-Brahmins.”

In this, Tulsidas was following in the footsteps of writers at least four centuries before him, from Kamban, the 12th-century Tamil poet, to Krittibas, the 15th-century Bengali poet.

It is not only in the choice of language that Tulsidas represented a break from an earlier order.

“The Ramcharitmanas does have several objectionable instances but it represents a huge moral and cultural dissent against the Valmiki Ramayana,” said Ashutosh Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj bases his argument on two choices by Tulsidas to depart from the Valmiki Ramayana.

In Valmiki Ramayana’s Uttara Kanda, a Brahmin comes weeping to Ram, alleging that his son had died because he had not ensured that his subjects are following the varnashram dharma. He is pointed to Shambhuka, a Shudra saint, who is meditating deep in a forest – a transgression of the caste order that ascribes him a lowly place. To right this “wrong”, Ram beheads Shambhuka, and the child is restored to life.

Writers sympathetic to the Ramayana have grappled with the moral implications of such an egregious act of violence – Kannada writer Kuvempu, who also belonged to the Shudra community, rewrites the episode in his play Shoodra Tapasvi (1944), where Ram refuses to kill Shambuka.

For other writers from marginalised communities, who reject the Ram story entirely, the Shambhuka episode becomes a take-off point for a larger condemnation of caste inequality.

In their plays The Justice of Ram Rajya and Shambuk Vadh, Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals from the Hindi heartland such as Swami Achutanand and “Periyar” Lalai Singh Yadav cast this episode as a parable of caste persecution and the hollow promise of justice in Ram Rajya.

Similarly, the banishment of Sita has inspired many feminist retellings of the epic.

But, Bhardwaj points out, the Ramcharitmanas leaves out both these episodes.

“If there are as many Rams as there are Ramayanas, Tulsidas chooses a Ram who does not banish his wife or kill a Shudra,” Bhardwaj pointed out. “It is a cultural dissent against older versions of the Ramayana.”

Artwork depicting Tulsidas composing the Ramcharitmanas. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tulsidas and Hindutva

The long tradition of critiquing the Ramcharitmanas spilled over into the Hindi sphere after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which is also the time Ram is being refashioned into a political icon.

In 2003, Hindi novelist Doodhnath Singh’s Aakhri Kalaam, connects the power and popularity of the Tulsidas epic with the social sanction for the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and the communal polarisation that it unlocked.

“Doodhnath Singh examines the disaster of the demolition and holds Manas responsible for this,” said Yadav.

It is a critique he agrees with. “Ramcharitmanas is an indispensable part of the Hindutva ecosystem and has a place in the upper-caste order,” Yadav said.

He added: “In the days leading up to the demolition, in the whole of Ayodhya and Faizabad, pandals were put up in various places to recite the Manas and build up a fervour.”

For writers like Bagchi and Wajahat, who have engaged creatively with the epic, the connection is not as black-and-white.

Bagchi said, “I know that Kabir’s heterodox thinking aligns well with some of our more contemporary imaginings of the secular nation-state, and Tulsidas’s love of Ram sounds dangerously close to the pronouncements of Hindutva votaries, but it is probably ahistorical to draw a straight line from those two historical figures and their ideas down to the present. A lot happened in between and it needs to be accounted for.”

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath worships artists dressed as Ram, Sita and Laxman during Diwali in Ayodhya in October 2017. Credit: Reuters.

Wajahat points out that the muscular, militant Ram of the Hindutva project has few similarities with the object of Tulsidas’s bhakti.

“If you read the Ramcharitmanas you will find a sense of humanity and brotherhood,” Wajahat said. “It says that someone who does not understand the sorrow of the other cannot follow dharma. Tulsi ke Ram ne sabko jora hai.” Tulsi’s Ram tries to unite everyone.

He also argues that the appropriation of Ramayana into a militant project of othering the Muslim community has been enabled, in some way, by the reluctance of the progressives to engage with it.

“Ram ki taaqat ko liberal aur democratic intellectuals ko pehchana nahi, sirf criticise hi karte rahi,” he said. Liberal intellectuals failed to recognise the power of Ram. “That allowed the fanatics to take over.”

Bagchi echoed that thought. “I agree the Ramcharitmanas is entwined with the Hindutva project. I feel that is because people didn’t do enough to disentangle it,” he said.

Mandal versus Mandir

The current debate over the Ramcharitmanas has been read as a way to break the mass appeal of Hindutva and restore the salience of caste politics in the Hindi heartland.

“The Ram temple movement arrived to break the solidarity of Dalit Bahujans that had resulted from the Mandal movement,” Yadav pointed out. “And so, just as the upper castes are using Mandir politics, subaltern leaders are using the Manas debate to puncture this upper caste solidarity, They are using it as an ideological tool.”

Will it succeed? From his experience of mobilising people, Shiv Kumar Bharti argues that its effects can be double-edged. “Those who are blind in their faith will be angered. But the numbers of those who are somewhat sceptical will increase.”

Writing in The Indian Express, scholar Badri Narayan argues that it may not be accurate to think of Ram only as an upper-caste deity.

“These ‘Ramayanic’ memories are quite popular among SCs, tribal populations, OBCs and other sections of Indian society. Those who are trying to conduct a politics of mobilisation around critiques of the Ramayana, need to understand that it may backfire on them.”

Kanwal Bharti is more categorical. “It may stop the polarisation [dhruvikaran] of the Bahujans somewhat, but this politics will not succeed,” he said. “It could have succeeded if there was genuine diversity in society. But power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of the Brahmanical classes. Police, judiciary ya government ho, sabme Brahmano ka varchasva hai.” It is Brahmin hegemony, whether it is in the police, judiciary or government.