Kerala’s Sanskrit Sangham, an organisation formed last year under the aegis of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has embarked on a mission to spread awareness about the various versions of the Ramayana. Its members say this is being done in order to prevent the Sangh Parivar from appropriating the ancient Indian epic for political gains.

The month-long initiative will begin on July 15 with a series of seminars titled Thoughts on Ramayana that will be held across all of the state’s 14 district headquarters.

The Sanskrit Sangham is collective of people who love the Sanskrit language, said its state convenor T Thilakaraj. “It is a platform of scholars, Sanskrit speakers and readers,” he said. “The majority of them are CPI(M) sympathisers. But we have people who do not subscribe to CPI(M)’s political views in our ranks.” Thilakaraj is a retired Sanskrit teacher and former state secretary of the teachers’ wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Dr V Sivadasan, the party’s state committee member and former national president of the Students’ Federation of India, is also a member of the Sangham. Sivadasan maintained that the outfit was not a feeder organisation for the communist party. “It is a collective of secular intellectuals who want to prevent the Sangh Parivar’s appropriation of epics for political gains,” he said. “It has representation from all walks of life.”

The organisation was possibly inspired to launch this exercise after seeing the huge success of a lecture series on the cultural history of the Mahabharata, the other major Indian epic, by Left-leaning intellectual Sunil P Ilayidom. Ilayidom’s lectures on the epic in several Kerala cities in 2016 drew thousands of people as audience members. It also attracted a huge online viewership. His speeches dwelled on the diversity and pluralistic essence of the Mahabharata. He held that the Sangh Parivar’s interpretation of the epic, seen purely through a religious lens, was blinkered.

Drawing parallels

But political observers say that there could be more pragmatic reasons behind the seminars on the Ramayana. They say that for the past two years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) party, which leads the ruling Left Democratic Front alliance in the state, has organised celebrations on the birthday of the Hindu deity Krishna. They say these were held to prevent communist party workers from attending celebratory pageants organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh where scores of children dressed up as little Krishnas used to march in processions. Since 2016, the party has also been promoting yoga under the banner of the Indian Martial Arts Academy and Yoga Study Centre.

The political observers say the seminars seemed to be part of the party’s efforts to push back against the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to appropriate Hinduism – and a conservative version of it at that – for itself.

Educating the public

For the seminars, the Sanskrit Sangham plans to put together a document that compares the different texts of the Ramayana. “The document will form the basis of discussions in the seminars,” said Thilakaraj. “Our aim is to educate public about the misinterpretations of Hindu epics.”

Thilakaraj said that there were many versions of the Ramayana – written by Valmiki, Kabir, Tulsidas and others. “There are many regional varieties too,” he said. “Keralites read the Adhyatma Ramayanam, translated by the father of Malayalam language Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan.”

He added: “Scholars will find out the similarities and differences in the texts and give the actual interpretations for the public.”

If the Ramayana seminars draw a good response, the Sangham plans to organise similar events on the Mahabharata, Vedas and Upanishads.

Ramayana month?

The seminars begin two days before the start of the month of Karkidakam, the last month of the Malayalam calendar. In Kerala, it is also known as Ramayana Masam or the month for reading the Ramayana. Some Hindus in the state read the Adhyatma Ramayanam during this 30-day period.

The fact that the Ramayana seminars will start so close to the start of Ramayana month has led to allegations that Communist Party of India (Marxist) was planning to celebrate “Ramayana month”.

Sangham member Sivadasan said that this “allegation was raised to tarnish the reputation” of the organisation.

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) denied that the party was celebrating Ramayana month. “CPI(M) is not organising any such event,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. Balakrishnan said that the Sanskrit Sangham was not a party organisation. “It is an independent outfit of Sanskrit scholars and teachers,” he said. “The organisation is organising programmes to expose the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that has been using Ramayana month to spread communal hatred for political gains.”

Thilakaraj said it is wrong to conclude that the seminars were a celebration of Ramayana month. “If we want to celebrate it, we would have begun the seminars on July 17,” he said. “We wanted to conduct the seminars either in April or in May. It was postponed as many of our members were busy campaigning for the the CPI(M) candidate in the Chengannur bye-election.”

‘Could backfire’

Reacting to news reports of the seminars, litterateur K Satchidanandan wrote on Facebook – in a post he deleted later – that he did not find fault with the decision. He, however, cautioned that the initiative could end up strengthening Hindutva ideology if the seminars treaded the traditional path.

“The decision to organise Ramayana month provides an opportunity to inform the public about the diversity of Ramayana culture and the anti-democratic idea of monolithic India perpetrated by the Hindutva forces,” Satchidanandan said in the deleted post. “As many as 29 Ramayana texts are read in different parts of Kerala. So it should be presented as a secular text rather than as a religious epic. Otherwise, the attempt will boomerang.”