Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Indian epics - I

In one of his essays, A.K. Ramanujan says that Hindus don’t come across the Indian epics for the first time by reading and when they do finally read it, it won’t be in Sanskrit.They would be familiar with it from stories told by parents, elders, discourses, village plays, and other such oral traditions.

Ramanujan says that though it is generally thought that writing is fixed and speech is constantly changing, it is not necessarily so in the Indian context. A text like the Vedas is fixed but was not written down until 2000 years after its composition.They were considered magical texts that would devastate anyone who mispronounced them. They were transmitted using elaborate teaching systems by experts learned  in grammar, syntax, logic and poetics. So though they were in the oral tradition,  they retained high fidelity in transmission.

On the other hand, a text like the epic story in the written tradition of the Ramayana seems to allow endless variation. Hundreds of variations exist, written, sung, danced and sculpted in South  and Southeast Asian languages. The epics are texts that were originally oral traditions. Writing did not necessarily fix them, nor did it prevent their having other and parallel lives. Such fixed-phase and variable-phase forms exist in both written and oral traditions and cannot be generalized.

Classics like Mahabharata and Ramayana have multiple existences - in many regions, languages and versions, in oral and written media, in 'classical' and 'folk' modes, in ancient and current renditions. These epics are known widely - among literate and illiterate, among young and old - which is not the case with Western epics like the Illiad. The Indian epics are  in daily consciousness though proverbs, phrases, songs, movies, magazines and TV. In Europe, only the myriad uses to which the Bible is put can be compared to these epics.

In all traditions, especially Indian, the oral and written forms are deeply intermingled. Ramanujan says that many of the differences in the texts of Indian epics may be 'due to the way the texts do not simply go from one written form to another but get reworked through oral cycles that surround the written word'. This pattern means that Western analytical methods may not be suitable for reconstruction of these epics. These methods are aimed at making tree-diagrams that relate one text to another reaching back to an Ur-text which is deemed to be the original text from which the others descended.

There are around 300 Rama stories in different languages and countries of South and South East Asia. Ramanujan prefers to call these different stories tellings rather than variants or versions because the latter words imply that there is an original or Ur-text from which these stories have later been derived. This Ur-text is often assumed to be Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana but many tellings have significant variations from Valmiki’s Ramayana. (Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas had stirred up a controversy.) Indian epics may not have such a reconstructable Ur-text 'enmeshed as they were in oral traditions at various stages of their composition and transmission'.

More than 300 Ramayanas have been written and in the later Ramayanas, comparisons will sometimes be made with other Ramayanas. Ramanujan gives the example of the Adhyatma Ramayana, probably written in the 11th century. In it, like in other Ramayanas, the hero Rama is exiled. He tries to dissuade Sita from going into the dangerous forest with him. But Sita insists on sharing the exile and hardships with him. After the argument continues for some time, an exasperated Sita comes up with the knock-down argument, 'Countless Ramayanas have been composed. Do you know of one where Sita does not go into the forest with Rama? Ramanujan writes:
Such self-reference to other or prior examples of the narrative, often implicit, makes texts like the Ramayana not merely single, autonomous texts but also members of a series with a family resemblance. When we add Jain Ramayanas and folk Ramayanas, the Rama story becomes a language with which each text says many different things in different periods and regions - but they require each other because they refer to each other.

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