Why Periyar was critical of the Ramayana (and Rama)

The social activist and politician believed the text was a key part of the ideology which keeps South Indians in an inferior position.

The motivating force behind EVR [Periyar EV Ramasamy]’s exegesis of the Ramayana remains the desire to see in it a struggle between North and South India. For EVR “northern” means brahmanical, caste-ridden, and Sanskritic, while “southern” means non-brahmanical, egalitarian, and Tamil value judgements that are embedded in his interpretation. In Characters in the Ramayana EVR vehemently attacks the respect with which Tamilians have traditionally viewed the Ramayana, arguing that the story is both an account of and a continuing vehicle for northern cultural domination. Reversing the conventional understandings of villain and hero, he also calls upon readers to abandon their “superstitious” beliefs and embrace a desacralised view of the world.

The structure of Characters in the Ramayana is tripartite. EVR begins with a brief rationale for writing the text, pointing to the pamphlet’s crucial role in enlightening Tamils about the “real” message of the Ramayana. The heart of the pamphlet is its long middle section, which enumerates and critically evaluates the deeds performed by most of the major characters in the epic. The text culminates with a short collection of quotes from arinar, “learned men,” whom EVR feels confirm and thus legitimate his understanding of the Ramayana.

In the opening section, EVR justifies his enterprise, claiming that his study of the Ramayana should reveal to Tamilians that they have been deluded by northern propaganda into believing that Rama was exemplary as well as divine, when in fact, EVR argues, he was neither. First and foremost, then, we see that EVR wants to “demythologise” (my term, not his) Rama for Tamilians. But he wants to go even further, to establish that, in addition to being an ordinary mortal, Rama was not a particularly admirable one.

EVR acknowledges that Tamilians will not find it easy to accept this view of Rama, attributing this reluctance to their illiteracy and the power of “superstition” among them. He notes with disappointment how most Tamilians (aside from Muslims and Christians) have long venerated the Ramayana. But for EVR, insofar as the commonly held understanding of the Ramayana is essentially North Indian, it is a key part of the ideology which keeps South Indians in an inferior position, and so must be discredited. He thus argues that the Ramayana lures Dravidians into the Aryan net, destroys their self-respect, and stymies their development. For EVR, this examination of the Ramayana is no mere intellectual exercise; on the contrary, he has taken on the absolutely crucial task of liberating Tamilians from their feelings of cultural and racial inferiority.

EVR censures a number of characters because they cannot bring their sensual passions and desires under control. He reads the Ramayana as portraying Dasaratha enslaved by passion, Sita overly fond of jewelled ornaments, Laksmana desirous of Sita, Kausalya as excessively ambitious for the success of her son, and Laksmana too hot-headed to control his flaring temper.

Again, EVR condemns these people in a way that echoes a central ideal of brahmanical Hinduism that one must cultivate detachment toward passions and desires. The virtue of detachment is a constant theme in the Upanisads and in Vedantic works, to say nothing of the Bhagavad Gita and yogic texts; even the dharmasastras uphold the benefits of self-restraint.

Although EVR vigorously criticises all of the above-mentioned characters, his greatest contempt is directed at Rama himself, whose actions are seen as the epitome of North Indian domination. In accordance with his enumerative style of discourse, EVR cites fifty incidents of seemingly improper behaviour on Rama’s part. Rather than explain each one, I will summarise his major criticisms and the patterns of reasoning which stand behind these accusations. One of EVR’s most elaborately mounted attacks concerns Rama’s supposed coveting of the throne of Ayodhya, which EVR interprets as a sign of Rama’s desire for domination. Ignoring the common understanding – that Rama merely responded to Dasaratha’s request that he be crowned and had all the qualities of a responsible king – EVR portrays Rama as scheming to grab the throne. He alleges that Rama craved royal power and acted in a virtuous and affectionate way towards his father, Kaikeyi, and Ayodhya’s citizens only to gain such power. Then, says EVR, Rama improperly conspired with his father to have himself installed on the throne before his brother Bharata returned from his stay with his uncle.

Rama’s alliance with Sugriva and the ensuing killing of his brother, Valin, come in for special denunciation, as one might expect, because Rama apparently unfairly murders the monarch of a southern kingdom. In focusing upon this always problematic incident, EVR expresses an ambivalence found in many diverse tellings of the Ramayana about whether Rama erred in killing Valin as he did from the back and without having announced his presence. With equal vehemence, however, EVR emphasises not only the stealthy killing but the fact that Brahmins praise such a man. That they do so is evidence of their attempt to foist an unheroic Rama upon South India as an exemplar of proper behaviour. Rama’s treatment of his wife, Sita, draws particular criticism from EVR because he takes it as emblematic of Rama’s oppression of those less powerful than himself. After her gruelling and terrifying captivity in Lanka, Rama subjects Sita to a despicable ordeal and then still refuses to accept her back.

As EVR comments, “Even though Valmiki proclaimed the chastity of Sita, Rama did not believe it, so she had to die”. For EVR, this hostile attitude toward women is part and parcel of the North Indian worldview.

The manner, glorified in North Indian texts, in which Rama drove his wife to submit to such ordeals helps to keep Indian women in a state of subjugation. EVR reserves his greatest outrage, however, for Rama’s treatment of Sudras, the lowest group in the four-part brahmanical caste ranking and one of the major audiences of his pamphlet. He notes that Rama killed a Sudra named Sambuka because he was performing asceticism, which Vedic tradition prohibits to those not twice-born (that is, Sudras and Untouchables). Rama murdered this Sudra in order to revive a Brahmin boy who had died – that such an untimely death could strike a Brahmin family signalled that somewhere someone (in this case Sambuka) was committing an offence against dharma. After summarising this incident, EVR extrapolates from it to present-day South India. “If there were kings like Rama now, what would be the fate of those people called Sudras?” he asks, implying that Sudras would never be safe from murder if such a king still ruled. Since over 60 percent of South Indians are regarded as Sudras, at least by Brahmins, EVR stirs the rage of a good number of his readers by emphasising this event.

Although EVR surveys many other incidents in the epic, castigating Rama for everything from meat-eating to killing females, the trend of his critique is already clear. For EVR, Rama personifies “North Indian values” and is accordingly identified with North Indian dominance of lower castes and women. Equally pernicious, according to EVR, is the attempt by Brahmins to put forth this vicious and immoral person as virtuous and even divine.

Just as EVR regards the traditional heroes as villains, he proposes more positive evaluations of characters who have long been condemned, such as Kaikeyi, the mother of Bharata.

Those seeking to portray King Dasaratha in a sympathetic light have conventionally held his youngest wife, Kaikeyi, to be the real villain of the epic, holding her responsible for the king’s decision to deprive Rama of the throne and exile him. In contrast, EVR points out that Kaikeyi was fully within her rights when she asked the king to fulfil the two boons he had granted her when she once saved his life.

In his analysis of the Valin episode, EVR makes another revisionist interpretation, an interpretation all the more significant because of the ambivalence with which tradition has viewed Rama’s killing of Valin. The words of the modern writer RK Narayan, who has produced his own telling of the Rama story, are instructive here:

Rama was an ideal man, all his faculties in control in any circumstances, one possessed of an unwavering sense of justice and fair play. Yet he once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed, from hiding, a creature who had done him no harm, not even seen him. This is one of the most controversial chapters in the Ramayana.

EVR points out that Valin could not be defeated in an open fight (implying that a desire to win lay behind Rama’s devious action) and that he assumed Rama to be an honest and fair person and died as a result although EVR overstates the matter when he claims that “Valin was blameless in every way”.

Valin figures only briefly in the analysis, however. Not surprisingly, Ravana receives more attention because for EVR – who identifies Ravana as a monarch of the ancient Dravidians – he exemplifies the South Indians, whose culture was unfairly suppressed by North Indians. Although EVR neglects to provide specific textual references, he begins his praise of Ravana by listing the virtues that Valmiki attributes to Ravana: Ravana has mastered the Vedas and sastras, he protects his family and kin, he acts courageously, he practices bhakti, he is the beloved son of a god, and he has received several boons. One wonders why EVR would consider knowledge of “Aryan” texts like Vedas a recommendation, but what follows is even more revealing. Focusing on the influence of other characters on Ravana’s actions, EVR gives us a new construct of Ravana.

Rather than seeing Rama as effectively vanquishing Ravana, EVR interprets Ravana’s death as the result of his brother’s betrayal. When Vibhisana, Ravana’s brother, approaches Rama and asks to join him, EVR harshly condemns his abandonment of his brother, viewing this action as motivated by Vibhisana’s desire to possess and rule Lanka.

The great Ravana was thus undone by his brother’s villainy; his death, argues EVR, should not be seen as evincing any lack of courage.

Nor should Ravana’s abduction of Sita be interpreted as the result of lust, according to EVR. He argues that Ravana takes Sita to Lanka as an honourable act of retaliation against Rama’s insult and Laksmana’s disfigurement of Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha. Surpanakha had fallen in love with Rama, openly offering herself to him in marriage; by way of punishment, Laksmana cut off her nose and ears. As a dutiful brother, Ravana had no choice but to avenge his sister’s cruel disfigurement – but, as EVR points out, Ravana would never stoop to something as low as mutilating Sita in the same horrible way. In fact, notes EVR, Ravana never forced himself upon the captive Sita. In such matters, he practiced proper self-restraint, never touching a woman without her consent. At the level of metadiscourse, EVR goes so far as to argue that one must not condemn Ravana for abducting Sita because she was left alone in the forest specifically so she could be abducted. In other words, by abducting Sita, Ravana is simply performing an action which be is destined to perform – an interpretation which assumes an inexorability about the events in the Ramayana.

Ravana’s sense of propriety also manifests itself in his unwillingness to kill animals, which EVR takes as evidence of his compassionate Dravidian nature.

He notes that Ravana hated devas (gods), risis (sages), and Brahmin priests because they performed sacrificial rituals and drank intoxicating liquor (soma). Ravana refused to participate in such rituals because they involved the torture of poor helpless animals. By portraying Ravana as rejecting the killing of animals, EVR plays on the vegetarian inclinations of many of his followers, arousing their sympathy for Ravana.

In a cryptic but intriguing comment near the end of his characterisation of Ravana, EVR even claims that Ravana was a responsible and responsive political leader, a benign ruler. Because the Ramayana records instances where Ravana consults with his ministers and debates ensue, EVR claims to see traces of an inclusive political process, which belie the conventional brahmanical claims that Ravana was a cruel despot.

Especially given that Ravana represents Dravidians, it is somewhat noteworthy that EVR does not devote much attention to any of the other characters in Ravana’s family, even though he dealt at length with Rama’s father, mothers, brothers, and wife. Although EVR says that so-called demons like Ravana are in fact admirable Dravidians, Surpanakha’s actions – her open expression of sexual desire, for example – are not praised, nor even mentioned, except as they relate to Ravana’s duty to revenge her honour. EVR is similarly silent about Mandodari, and about Khara, Marica, Dusana, and other of Ravana’s supporters. The fact that EVR spends so much time castigating Rama and his family and so little time praising the actions of Ravana and his family indicates that EVR aroused more ire by lambasting North Indians than by defining and defending precisely what constitutes South Indian culture and identity.

Excerpted with permission from “EV Ramasami’s Reading of the Ramayana”, by Paula Richman, from Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, edited by Paula Richman, Oxford University Press.

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