For Hindus around the world, especially those with ancestral roots in north India, August 23, will have been celebrated as the 526th birth anniversary of Goswami Tulsidas. Tulsidas is famous as the author of the Ramcharitmanas (Lake filled with the actions of Rama), his retelling of the life story of Rama, honored as an avatar, or divine incarnation. In approximately 12,800 lines, arranged into seven books, Tulsidas traces the life of Ram from his birth and education in Ayodhya, to his return after completing a forest exile of 14 years and defeating Ravana.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this text across the centuries. Tulsidas composed his work in a north-Indian poetic meter (caupai) that is a rhyming two-line unit consisting of four equal parts. This facilitates memorisation and also easily lends itself to musical arrangement in various modes. Hindus do not read the Ramayana, they sing its verses.
Tulsidas broke literary ground in his retelling of the life story of Rama. Instead of Sanskrit, Tulsidas made his text accessible by writing in a local dialect Awadhi. He was deeply conscious of the ridicule that would come to him for his “rough speech”, but defended his work by citing its elevated subject matter, the story of the divine Rama.
In January 1987, the state-owned television network Doordarshan commenced broadcasting a serialised version of the life of Rama, based mainly on the text of Tulsidas. Produced and directed by Mumbai filmmaker Ramanand Sagar, the show ran for 78 episodes and turned out to be the most popular event on Indian television. It drew an estimated viewing audience of 100 million, resulting in empty streets and bazaars each Sunday morning.
Growing up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, the Ramcharitmanas was the first sacred text to which I was exposed. My grandfathers sung and explained the text in private and public gatherings. Rama was presented to us as a model of virtuous conduct and the characters and events of the Ramayana became deeply entrenched in my mind and heart. The text contributed significantly to the preservation of Hindu traditions in the Caribbean.
Divisive differences over the text
In more recent times, the Tulsidas text has become the focus of controversy for what is claimed to be its casteism and patriarchy. Lower caste leaders have called attention to verses that are offensive to them. Others have cited verses that are derogatory of women. Pages of the text were burnt in public gatherings and arrests for desecration soon followed. Differences about the text became divisive.
Examples of casteist and patriarchial verses are many, but two will suffice. In Aranyakanda (Book 3), brahmins are described by Rama as deserving of reverence even when they lack virtue and character and are verbally abusive and violent. “Shudras”, on the other hand, who are traditionally members of the fourth caste, do not deserve respect even though they are learned and virtuous.
In Sundarakanda (Book 5), Rama is on the verge of crossing the ocean to Lanka. He is advised to petition the ocean (Sagara), rather than drying it up with his fiery arrows. Three days pass and the ocean does not respond. Rama realises that a threat is necessary and prepares to discharge a fiery arrow into the ocean. Sagara immediately repents. He explains that the nature of everything is fixed by God, implying that he could only act when he is threatened. He then goes on to add a list of objects and beings that deserve to be beaten. These include a drum, the uncultured, the shudra, an animal and a woman. Some have suggested that the verb (tādnā) used in this description means “to understand” and not “to beat”. The context, however, does not allow for this interpretation.
Hindu society, at the time of Tulsidas, was socially structured by the varna system, a hierarchical and unequal ordering of human beings into four groups on the basis of purity and occupation. The system also led to the creation of a large group of outcastes or untouchables who were considered ritually impure and denied the privileges and rights belonging to members of the caste order.
Caste was regarded as divinely ordained, a natural ordering of existence that Tulsidas did not question. The same is true for patriarchy, and one finds numerous verses in the text that represent women in demeaning and negative stereotypes. These verses, like those affirming caste hierarchy, are too numerous to be explained away as interpolations or misinterpretations.
In the light of the ongoing debate about the text and especially its representation of women and those regarded as lower caste, how should we read Tulsidas today? What does his work offer us?
Tulsidas was a poet, not a historian
A good starting point for trying to answer this question is the intent of the author. Tulsidas was, first and foremost, a gifted poet and a devotee of god as Rama. He composed the Ramayana, as he tells us, for his own delight and enlightenment and to share the accounts of Rama’s activities with other devotees. It is important to acknowledge that Tulsidas is a religious poet and not a historian.
His declared aim in this work is to tell a story that dispels his own inner gloom and brings liberation to the listener. He does not set out to narrate the story of Rama with the intent, tools, and methods of a modern historian. I am not suggesting that Tulsidas believed Rama to be a non-historical figure. There is no evidence in his composition to support this view. He clearly believed in the historical reality of Rama as an incarnation of god and his work testifies to this faith.
In telling what he believed to be an event of history, Tulsidas is not concerned, as a historian is expected to be, with verifying the historical accuracy of events. Tulsidas’s criterion of truth is entirely different from that of the modern historian. His criterion of truth is what I would speak of as theological. For Tulsidas, god is, above all else, a god of love and he never fails, whenever an opportunity presents itself, to emphasise the loving nature of god.
Among the words and phrases most commonly used by Tulsidas to describe the nature of Rama are krpanidhanna (abode of compassion), dina dayala (merciful to the needy), saranagata hita kari (helper of those who seek refuge) and karunamaya (one whose nature is compassion).
Writing with a devotional intent and a conviction about the nature of god as love, Tulsidas crafts his account of the central events of Rama’s life. His intent is to narrate encounters that powerfully demonstrate the nature of god’s love and to reveal love as the way to human liberation. By this criterion, an event is true if it exemplifies Rama’s love and if it shows that the divine is responsive to human love.
His primary concern is not to record history, in the modern sense, but to reveal the nature of god. We would be misunderstanding the intent of the author if we read his work as a record of eyewitness accounts of Rama’s life. It is first and foremost a testimony of Tulsidas’s understanding of who god is and his faith in god as Rama. The text also reflects, of course, the faith of the community of devotees to which Tulsidas belonged.
For Tulsidas, the meaning of divinity, as revealed through Rama, is love. At the same time, he was not a social reformer when it came to caste and patriarchy. The love of god was not incompatible with or challenged deeply entrenched social structures. Caste and patriarchy were firmly rooted, considered as a part of the natural order of reality, and not open to his questioning. If there was equality in the spiritual realm, this did not require equality in the social realm. Even though Tulsidas’s understanding of god offered a powerful ground for challenging unequal structures, there was no critical distance that enabled him to do so.
Tulsidas is not unique in this respect and there are many historical examples. Christian teachers and reformers like John Calvin (1509-1564) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) understood divine love within the limits of a conservative feudal social hierarchy thought to be divinely ordained. They legitimised those enjoying power.
Luther expounded a theology of divine grace but his hostility and bitterness towards the Jews are well-known. He condoned violence against them. Adi Shankara, the foremost historical exponent of the Advaita tradition that teaches the equal existence of the divine in everyone, still affirmed the traditional rules and privileges of caste. With their gifts, they were also products of their historical times.
Our context today is different from the medieval social reality of Tulsidas. We are informed by proclamations of universal human rights, democracy, gender justice and equal dignity that enable us to see better the oppressive injustice of hierarchical structures such as race, caste, sex, and patriarchy that impede human flourishing.
Tulsidas broke down the barrier of an elite language to make the story of Rama accessible to those who did not read or understand Sanskrit. He did not, however, interrogate hierarchies based on birth and gender that were integrated into his worldview. We do not have to accept such hierarchies as divinely ordained. We must see these as socially constructed systems that legitimize inequality and sanction the power and control of one group over another.
Tulsidas’s understanding of the nature of divine love must become, for us, the theological ground for a radical re-envisioning of communities free from caste and patriarchy. BR Ambedkar, writer of the Indian Constitution and anti-caste leader, chastised Hindu society for failing to connect theology with life and for perpetuating a chasm between religious teaching and social reality. Overcoming this chasm is one of our major challenges, and Tulsidas’s understanding of the nature of the divine as love and our obligation to love each other is our bridge over this chasm.
Tulsidas does not directly challenge the hierarchies and social assumptions of caste but, in several encounters in the text, he has Rama contravening conventional caste barriers. One such example is Rama’s friendship with the Nishada leader, Guha who is named by Tulsidas as “the lowest of the low”.
In Ayodhyakanda (second chapter), Rama is described as inviting Guha to sit near to him and accepting food from his hands. Guha accompanies Rama on his journey to the hermitage of the eminent teacher Bharadvaja who welcomes them and serves food to Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Guha. Physical contact and sharing food are traditionally prohibited between higher and lower castes. The significance of Rama’s relationship with Guha is not lost to Tulsidas.
At the end of Lankakanda (sixth chapter), Rama is returning to Ayodhya and encounters Guha. Rama joyfully lifts and tightly embraces Guha. Tulsidas comments on Rama’s embrace and physically closeness to Guha. “Guha, the lowest of the low, Rama clasped to his heart, as if he were (his brother) Bharata. Yet, the ignorant and deluded Tulsidas forgets such a Lord!” Tulsidas also has Rama visiting Shabari, an ascetic woman who describes herself as even lower than the lowest of the low – “adham te adham adham ati nari”. Tulsidas has Rama assuring her that love alone matters in his relationship with human beings, not caste, family, wealth, or cleverness.
Those protesting against the Ramcharitmanas have called for the removal of offensive passages in the text that demean women and members of the lower caste. Their concerns are not new. The Ramnami Samaj, a group founded in the late 19th century in Chhattisgarh by members of the untouchable caste, were deeply devoted to the Tulsidas text. As their understanding of the contents of the text deepened through study, they became aware of the assumptions of Brahmin superiority and the inferiority of women and lower castes. Such teachings in the text were contrary to their deeply held values about human equality.
The Ramnamis made their own compilation of verses from the text. They included those verses that were consistent with their values and omitted verses that denigrated women and lower castes. They privileged those verses that spoke of Rama’s love and compassion.
The Ramnamis saw both the wisdom in the Tulsidas text and its problematic content on caste and patriarchy. They exercised the agency to excise offensive verses and to retain a selection that is harmonious with their convictions. They also added verses from other teachers, Kabir, for example, who resonated with their worldview. The Ramnami Ramayana, however, is no longer the historical text of Tulsidas.
My own view is that we should critically read Tulsidas and his text in historical context. The text and its author are not immune from historical influence and reflect the limits and social structures of a specific period. The Ramayana, as a sacred text, is not unique in this regard. Tulsidas writing the story of Rama in the 21st century would situate it in a different social reality.
We need a complex approach to the Ramcharitmanas that goes beyond rejection or uncritical approval. The Ramnamis understood and struggled with this dilemma. While it will be wrong to appeal to the text to justify contemporary social hierarchies of caste and patriarchy, we can learn from Tulsidas’s profound theology of divine love. We must extend the social implications of this love in ways that he did not. We must also reject the norms and assumptions of caste and patriarchy that were part of the fabric of his social reality and do so on the basis of an inclusive and unconditional divine love.
In embracing this critical approach to the Tulsidas text, we may not have to worry much about what the author would think of our work. He opens his text with verses of profound humility about the limits of his understanding of the divine and his inability to describe god’s nature. “I sing the virtues of Rama,” he writes, “constrained by my knowledge. His actions exceed the grasp of my world-entangled mind”. Tulsidas confesses what we all share – minds that are limited and circumscribed by the boundaries of time and place and that will always fall short in comprehending limitless divine love. We can learn from a religious poet, aware of his humanity and his ongoing pilgrimage to Rama.
Anantanand Rambachan is Emeritus Professor of Religion, Saint Olaf College.